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Aristotle on Abortion and Infanticide

Mathew Lu

ABSTRACT: Some recent commentators have thought that, if updated with the findings of
modern embryology, Aristotles views on abortion would yield a pro-life conclusion. On the
basis of a careful reading of the relevant passage from Politics VII, I argue that the matter
is more complicated than simply replacing his defective empirical embryological claims
with our more accurate ones. Since Aristotles view on abortion was shaped not only by a
defective embryology but also by an acceptance of the classical Greek practice of exposure/
infanticide, substituting a more accurate embryology will not straightforwardly generate a
strongly pro-life conclusion. In the end, this analysis reveals how different Aristotles ethical
thought on this matter really is from the contemporary discussion of abortion.

G iven his importance to ethicsin general, and the virtues tradition


in particular, there is surprisingly little discussion of Aristotles views on abor-
tion in the secondary literature.1 Aristotle himself discusses the normative issue in
passing in Book VII of the Politics, but what he has to say there hardly takes the
form of a complete argument.2 He seems to say there that only early abortions are
permissible and to offer a relatively straightforward criterion for determining when
they are not. Indeed, using this criterion some recent commentators have suggested
that were Aristotle aware of the contemporary findings on embryology, he would
modify his view and conclude that abortion is generally impermissible.
Given the importance of a broadly Aristotle-inspired ethical framework to much
of the contemporary pro-life side in the abortion debate, it makes sense that such
commentators would seek to claim the Aristotelian mantel for their position. This is
particularly true given their need to fend off the suggestion, especially in the public
square, that their arguments against abortion are somehow inevitably infected with
religion. If Aristotle could be amended in such a way as to bring him onto the pro-
life side, it would offer at least some defense against these sorts of accusations.
It turns out, however, that the question is much more complicated than it
appears on the surface. Aristotles actual position on abortion implicates not
only a seemingly straightforward normative principle against some abortions but
also a variety of empirical as well as metaphysical principles about the nature

1
See especially Peter Drum, Hylomorphism and Abortion, Australian Journal of Professional and Ap-
plied Ethics 2 (2000): 7174 and Certain Errors Regarding Aristotle and Abortion, Ethics Education 14
(2008): 3839, as well as Peter L. Phillips Simpson, A Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle
(Chapel Hill NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1998). Perhaps unsurprisingly there is much more discus-
sion of Thomass views, see especially John Haldane and Patrick Lee, Aquinas on Human Ensoulment,
Abortion and the Value of Life, Philosophy 78 (2003): 25578.
2
As we will see below there is also a discussion in the History of Animals that we should classify as part
of his philosophy of biology rather than a normative discussion.

International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 1, Issue 209 (March 2013) pp. 4762
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5840/ipq20135315
48 Mathew Lu

of the human individual. I think the commentators mistake arises from an


overly hasty assumption that we can simply preserve the apparent normative
principle articulated in Politics VII and replace his flawed empirical beliefs about
human embryology.
As we shall see, Aristotles putative normative principle against abortion is not
nearly as strong as some have thought. In fact, we will discover that we cannot
consider Aristotles position on abortion apart from his views on infanticide, and
once we do so we are only entitled to a much weaker conclusion than these pro-life
commentators would like. That said, there may be resources within Aristotle to
develop a strongly pro-life position, but much more work would need to be done
to generate a full argument.

THE NORMATIVE ARGUMENT ON ABORTION

Aristotle discusses the question of abortion in Book VII of the Politics, where he
seems to allow it for the purposes of population control:

As for the exposure and nurture of infants, let there be a law against nourishing those
that are deformed, but if exposing offspring because the number of children one has is
prohibited by the customary rule, then a numerical limit must be set upon procreation.
But if children are conceived by some of those who have intercourse in violation of this,
an abortion must be induced before the onset of sensation and life. For what is holy will
be distinguished from what is not by means of sensation and life.3

A number of commentators have fastened onto the last sentence to suggest that if
Aristotle had known what we now know about embryology he would have been
opposed to abortion altogether.4 However, I think that a fuller examination of issue
will reveal that only a much weaker conclusion is warranted.
The rationale for this supposition is straightforward. I suspect that these commen-
tators are taking Aristotles position on abortion to be characterized by an argument
something like this:
(1) (N) Aristotle holds that the only permissible (i.e., holy [hosios]) abortions
are those performed before the onset of life and sensation.
3
Aristotle, Politics Books VII and VIII, translated with commentary by Richard Kraut (Oxford UK: Oxford
Univ. Press, 1997), 1335b1926.
4
Simpson, A Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle, p. 247n82. Consider as well Darrell
Dobbs, We may well expect, for example, that newly discovered evidence of sensitivity in the human fetus
prior to quickening would move Aristotle today toward a more nearly absolute condemnation of abortion.
But this movement on what is perhaps the most controversial of contemporary political issues would not
require the slightest alteration in his teleological principle that in this question what is holy and what is
not is determined by the presence of sensation and, thus, of life. Darrell Dobbs, Natural Right and the
Problem of Aristotles Defense of Slavery, The Journal of Politics 56 (1994): 7071n2. I am also guilty
of a similar mistake: Contemporary research shows beyond a doubt that the zygote-embryo-fetus is an
independent, living organism (i.e., a creature possessed of an animal soul). Faced with the results of modern
embryology, I think Aristotle would be compelled by his own (implicit) principle to extend the unlawfulness
abortion to the moment of conception. Mathew Lu, Abortion and Virtue Ethics, in Persons, Moral Worth,
and Embryos, ed. Stephen Napier. (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2011), p. 122n23.
Aristotle on Abortion and Infanticide 49

(2) (EA) Aristotle holds that the onset of life and sensation in a human fetation5
is at some point at least forty days subsequent to conception.6
(3) Therefore, Aristotle holds that early abortions before approximately forty
days are permitted, but abortions after that point are not.
Notice that the argument involves a normative premise (N) that picks out the per-
missible cases of abortion (before the onset of life and sensation) together with
an empirical premise (EA) that determines when that is. Together they allow us to
conclude that Aristotle held that pre-forty day abortions are permissible but that
later post-forty day abortions are not.
To understand the rationale for (N) we need to see why Aristotle draws a distinc-
tion between abortions before and after the onset of sensation and life. Why does
this represent an important dividing line? To answer this question we will need to
understand something of the underlying developmental embryology driving it.
Aristotle famously holds a hylomorphic conception of substances, including
biological individuals, whereby an organism is understood as a composite of
form and matter, with the form being the animating soul of the living creature.
He distinguishes between three different kinds of souls, characteristic of three
different kinds of living beings. Plants possess what he calls a nutritive and
generative soul, whose characteristic powers are primarily nutrition, growth,
and reproduction. Animals possess a sensitive or sentient soul, whose most
characteristic powers include movement and sensation. Finally, human beings
possess a rational soul.
It is important to understand that the souls of ontologically higher creatures also
have the characteristic powers of ontologically lower beings. So the powers of animal
souls include nutrition and growth (i.e., the characteristic powers of the nutritive
soul) as well as sensation and movement. Similarly, the human soul encompasses
all of these powers: nutrition, growth, and reproduction, as well as sensation and
movement, and, finally, rationality. However, the ontogenesis of a given individual
(normal) human being involves a succession of all three types of souls.7

5
There is a real difficulty in choosing what terms to use in referring to the new creature formed when
the ovum is fertilized, as terms such as zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and fetus all have technical
meanings in biology and only refer to individual stages of the developmental process. Thus, I have elected
to follow some of the secondary literature on Aristotles embryology and use the term fetation to refer to
the zygote-blastocyst-embryo-fetus from conception until birth.
6
We will see where this forty-day criterion comes from below.
7
This is a somewhat contested point. For instance, in his traditional reading of Aristotle Thomas is clear
that he thinks that there is a succession of souls, one replacing another: the more noble a form is and the
further removed it is from the elemental form, the more numerous must be the intermediate forms, through
which the ultimate form is reached step by step, and, consequently, the intervening generative processes
will be multiplied too. That is why, in the generation of an animal and a man, wherein the most perfect type
of form exists, there are many intermediate forms and generationsand, hence, corruptions, because the
generation of one thing is the corruption of another. Thus, the vegetative soul, which is present first (when
the embryo lives the life of a plant), perishes, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, both nutritive and
sensitive in character, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this passes away it is succeeded by
the rational soul introduced from without, while the preceding souls existed in virtue of the semen Summa
Contra Gentiles, II.89.11 (emphasis added). Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Two: Creation,
50 Mathew Lu

In the Generation of Animals II, Aristotle notes that an animal does not become
at the same time an animal or a man or a horse or any other particular animal. For
the end is developed last, and the peculiar character of the species is the end of the
generation in each individual.8 In other words, Aristotle holds that no individual
animal begins its existence as a full member of its species. Rather, the ontologi-
cally distinct animal embryo begins essentially as a plant-like creature (possessed
of a nutritive soul) before later manifesting a sensitive soul (and thus becoming
animal-like). For human beings there is yet a third stage of development in which
the powers of the rational soul are acquired, and it is only at that point that it can
properly be called a human being.
In light of this brief summary9 we are now in a position to understand the dis-
tinction Aristotle draws at the point of onset of sensation and life. In Politics VII
Aristotle is basically saying that abortion should be induced while the embryo has
only a nutritive (plant-like) soul and before it acquires a sensitive soul.
Peter Drum has contested this reading of the passage. He claims that Aristotle
concludes that early abortions are permissible as sensation and life have not yet
begun. (Even embryos have nutritive lives, and sensation clearly belongs to animals,
so the reference to life here must be to the life of a rational animal).10 A few
years later Drum asserts the same thing: This is why Aristotle accepts the practice
of abortion up until sensation and life begin. His reference to life here cannot
be to biological life because the embryo already has it, and since he distinguishes
between sensation and life Aristotle must be referring to the embryos achieving the

trans. James F. Anderson (Notre Dame IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1975), cited by Stephen J. Heaney,
Aquinas and the Presence of the Human Rational Soul in the Early Embryo, The Thomist 56 (1992): 1948.
Others, such as Anthony Preus and perhaps Alan Code in Soul as Efficient Cause in Aristotles
Embryology, Philosophical Topics 15 (1987): 5159, seem to hold that a new creature has only a single
soul, in which the higher powers are at first merely in potential and are progressively actualized over the
course of the creatures development. For our purposes here it is not absolutely necessary for us to deter-
mine which is the correct reading of Aristotle in the Generation of Animals. It is sufficient to see that the
developing fetation goes through a series of stages in which different powers are actualized; whether those
different stages represent the coming to be and passing away of different souls or merely the progressive ac-
tualization of potentialities already latent in a single soul is not dispositive for understanding the normative
criterion in Politics VII. All we really need to understand is that the different powers are chronologically
actualized over the course of the fetations development, and that this is (apparently) morally significant
for Aristotle. In everything that follows I will refer to the fetation acquiring a particular type of soul, but
this should be understood in light of this proviso to mean acquiring the powers typical of that type of soul
whether or not that means an ontological change (as in Thomass reading) or merely the progressive actu-
alization of latent potentialities.
8
Aristotle, Generation of Animals, trans. A. Platt in Aristotle, The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised
Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), 736b24; hereafter GA.
9
For a much more detailed exploration of Aristotles account of embryological development in the
Generation of Animals and the History of Animals, see Alan Code, Soul as Efficient Cause in Aristotles
Embryology; John Cooper, Metaphysics in Aristotles Embryology, in Knowledge, Nature, and the
Good: Essays on Ancient Philosophy (Princeton NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 174203; Johannes
Morsink, Aristotle on the Generation of Animals: A Philosophical Study (Washington, DC: Univ. Press of
America, 1982); Jane Oppenheimer, When Sense and Life Begin: Background for a Remark in Aristotles
Politics (1335b24), Arethusa 8 (1975): 33142; and Anthony Preus, Science and Philosophy in Aristotles
Generation of Animals, Journal of the History Biology 3 (1970): 152.
10
Drum, Hylomorphism and Abortion, p. 71.
Aristotle on Abortion and Infanticide 51

life of a rational animal, sleeping and growing in the womb.11 However, Drums
reading of life (zon) here is mistaken; the passage is not referring to the life of
a rational animal, which the embryo will only acquire at a rather later point, but
merely nutritive (biological) life.
Drum seems to think that it would be otiose for Aristotle to use the word life to
refer to the nutritive soul because the embryo already has it. Thus, he assumes the
reference must be to some kind of rational life. However, we should note that the
same concern holds for the specification of sensation if life here refers to the life
of a rational animal. For the life of a rational animal, according to Aristotle, obvi-
ously includes sensation as well (insofar as it is an animal, ipso facto it possesses
a sensitive faculty). In other words, there would be no point is specifying both life
and sensation, if life here meant rational animal life.12
Furthermore, there is no explicit mention of rationality in the passage, and
indeed given the fact that Aristotle repeatedly makes this three-fold distinction of
soul types (not only in the Generation of Animals, but also De Anima, and even the
Nicomachean Ethics) it seems likely that if Aristotle meant to be referring to the life
of a rational animal, he would have said so. Thus, it is more reasonable to conclude
that Aristotle, in fact, is merely being highly specific in saying sensation and life
and that life in the passage does simply refer to nutritive life.
Pace Drum, it seems that Aristotle is just saying that abortion must be induced
before the embryo acquires the powers of sentient soul; however, we still are left
with the question of when that is as a matter of empirical, biological fact. We need
the second, empirical premise (EA). Fortunately, Aristotle explicitly treats this
empirical issue in Book VII of his History of Animals:

In the case of male children the first movement usually occurs on the right-hand side of
the womb and about the fortieth day, but if the child be a female then on the left-hand
side and about the ninetieth day. ... About this period the embryo begins to resolve into
distinct parts, it having hitherto consisted of a flesh-like substance without distinction of
parts. What is called effluxion is a destruction of the embryo within the first week, while
abortion occurs up to the fortieth day; and the greater number of such embryos as perish
do so within the space of these forty days. In the case of a male embryo aborted at the
fortieth day, if it be placed in cold water it holds together in a sort of membrane, but if
it be placed in any other fluid it dissolves and disappears. If the membrane be pulled to
bits the embryo is revealed, as big as one of the large kind of ants; and all the limbs are
plain to see, including the penis, and the eyes also, which as in other animals are of great
size. But the female embryo, if it suffers abortion during the first three months, is as a
rule found to be undifferentiated; if, however, it reaches the fourth month it comes to be
subdivided and quickly attains further differentiation. In short, while within the womb,
the female infant accomplishes the whole development of its parts more slowly than the
male, and more frequently than the man-child takes ten months to come to perfection.13
11
Drum, Certain Errors Regarding Aristotle and Abortion, p. 39.
12
Richard Kraut agrees with the more straightforward reading of life as referring to nutritive life when
he points out: Aristotles phrase and life is doing no work here since where there is sensation there is
life (Kraut, Politics Books VII and VIII, p. 156).
13
Aristotle, History of Animals, trans. dA. W. Thompson in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The
Revised Oxford Translation, 583b326. Perhaps it is needless to point out that the estimates for both fetal
52 Mathew Lu

So, we see here that abortion occurs up to the fortieth day for male embryos, with
abortion (ektrsis) seemingly being a medical term of art for the destruction of the
male embryo between ten and forty days and the female embryo between ten and
ninety days.14 These distinctions are apparently drawn from empirical observations,
and if we leave aside the supposed differential developmental intervals between the
sexes, we note that the two key markers for development are movement and the
presence of a distinction of parts. The reason for this is that Aristotle holds that
the sensitive soul, whose powers are movement and sensation, can only be present
when there are organs for it to animate.15
What we have then are clear physical signs of the development of the organs as-
sociated with the sensitive souls that allows us to give a clear answer to the question
of when the onset of sensation and life occurs. One might wonder why possess-
ing a sentient as opposed to a rational soul would be relevant here since after all
Aristotle has no general restriction against killing animals. Kraut suspects that the
answer lies not in the particular fact of the sentient soul itself, but rather

since reasoning (unlike perceiving) does not have a physical organ ... there is no further
physical development to look for, if we wish to wait for the onset of the rational faculty.
Reason enters the embryo, but the only thing we can say about when it enters is that this
occurs at some point after the sense organs have formed. ... That is why abortions should
be induced before the embryo has the capacity for sensation: it is not because sensation is
in itself morally significant, but because something morally significant happens at some
unspecifiable time after the sense organs have formed.16

Perhaps what we have here is a kind of cautionary principle; since reason has no
direct physical organ, there is no clear physical marker we can look for to assure
ourselves that reason has entered the fetation.17 Therefore, if we want to be absolutely
sure we are not killing a rational being, we need only kill it before it even develops
the sense organs (together with the sentient soul18) at which point we can be sure it
is not rational. In the end this is conjectural as Aristotle himself simply does not say.

movement (perceptible to the mother) and distinction of parts are inaccurate (the first is much too early
and the second too late).
14
This is not the same term that Aristotle used in the passage from Politics VII where he uses amblsis.
Both terms do refer to abortion, however. Johannes Morsink argues that in his works on embryology Aristotle
is engaged with a certain Hippocratic author in a dialectical dispute about the archai of biology (Morsink,
Aristotle on the Generation of Animals, p. 37). So, I think that this should be read as a technical discussion
of philosophical biology, as opposed to the passage in Politics VII, in which amblsis is presumably being
used in a more colloquial manner.
15
Plainly those principles whose activity is bodily cannot exist without a body, e.g., walking cannot
exist without feet (GA II, 736b234).
16
Kraut, Politics Books VII and VIII, p. 156.
17
Aristotle is clear that, unlike the nutritive and sentient powers, it remains, then, for reason alone so to
enter [from outside] and alone to be divine, for no bodily activity has any connection with the activity of
reason (GA II, 736b278). Thus, not even the brain is a characteristic organ of thought the way that feet
are a characteristic organ of walking.
18
The nutritive and sentient powers cannot enter [the fetation] from outside. For neither is it possible
for them to enter by themselves, being inseparable from a body, nor yet in a body (emphasis added, GA
II, 736b256).
Aristotle on Abortion and Infanticide 53

In any case, we should now be in a position to see where we get the actual num-
ber of forty days embodied in (EA). Of course, it is precisely this premise based on
Aristotles mistaken empirical observations that we are now in a position to reject
in the light of contemporary embryology. It is interesting to note that this forty-day
criterion was actually enforced in law during the middle ages, obviously being
derived from this very passage.19
Now that we see the origin of (EA), let us return to the original argument. It
should be clear why the contemporary commentators wish to reject (EA). However,
they generally retain (N), and simply substitute a new empirical premise (EC) that
embodies our more accurate understanding of early embryology. This would yield
a modified argument like this:
(1) (N) Aristotle holds that the only permissible (i.e., holy [hosios]) abortions
are those performed before the onset of life and sensation.
(2') (EC) Contemporary embryology shows that even very young fetations have
life and sensation.
(3') Therefore, with the benefit of contemporary embryology Aristotle would
today hold that no (or very few) abortions would be permissible.
Thus, suitably updated with the contemporary scientific understanding, they confi-
dently say that Aristotle would fall largely within the pro-life camp.
Unfortunately, I think this fails to capture how Aristotle would actually approach
the question, even with access to our contemporary understanding of embryology.
This is not, of course, because (3) does not follow; rather, the problem is that the
original argument is simply not Aristotles. If we pay sufficient attention to the
original passage from the Politics, I think we will discover that Aristotle does not
hold (N) as presented here. The problem is a result of taking the sentence about
what is holy out of context.

WHAT IS HOSIOS?

Overall, Politics VII.16 is concerned with the proper regulation of marriage and
children, and the brief statement quoted above is his entire treatment of abortion.
The preceding passages concern prenatal treatment for women and the succeeding
passage concerns the timing of marriage and childbearing.
We should begin by noting that his discussion of abortion is tied to infanticide in
the context of population control. It is clear that Aristotle is endorsing the legitimacy
of the traditional Greek practice of exposure. In fact, he insists that there be a
19
The early medieval church continued the ancient distinction, as stated by Aristotle, that there was a
difference when an anti-fertility measure was administered. An old Allemanian sacramentarium around the
year 1000 used the word homicide and applied it the mother who aborted a child whose members (that
is, appendages) had formed. A woman who has fornicated and neglected her fetus... and cuts off her
fetus... should be given a penance of ten years. But a woman who kills her child ... in her uterus before
forty days... should receive only one year of penance. For one who kills her child forty days after con-
ception..., this was homicide, and she was given a three-year penance. John Riddle, Contraception and
Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 11112.
54 Mathew Lu

law against nourishing those that are deformed. Even if parents (presumably out
of soft-hearted sentimentality) wanted to care for their deformed offspring, he
requires that they not be allowed to do so.20
It is the next clause, however, that must give us pause: if exposing offspring
because the number of children one has is prohibited by the customary rule, then
a numerical limit must be set upon procreation. Notice the prohibition on expo-
sure is essentially dependent on local custom.21 Further, this is applied not just to
deformed infants but also to normal, healthy ones. Thus, if local custom allows
exposure as a means of population control, Aristotle does not insist on a universal
prohibition against it (as he does on caring for the deformed). At the same time, he
does seem to think that it is at least reasonable for some communities to outlaw it
(i.e., a law against exposure is not inherently unjust), and in those cases there must
be limits on procreation, enforced by means including abortion before the onset
of sensation and life.22
Aristotles position is captured by Kraut:
(1) Defective infants must be killed.
(2) If a community is opposed to infanticide as a way of limiting the size of
families, then a limit should be set to the number of pregnancies allowed.
(3) If pregnancies exceed this limit, an abortion must be induced before the
onset of sensation and life.23
Thus, the restrictions on abortion in (3) only apply to those communities that are
opposed to infanticide as a means of population control. This means that the onset
of sensation and life criterion also needs to be read as falling under the antecedent
of the conditional in (2). In other words, the criterion only applies in those places
where there is already a customary rule against exposure.
This is obviously very important because it means that the limitation on abortion
is not a universal limitation as (N) suggests; rather it is only applicable in those
places where infanticide is (already) rejected. Though not stated explicitly there is
an implicature here: in places where infanticide is accepted the restriction would

20
As Kraut notes the presumptive rationale is that those who have various physical defects cannot make
the contributions to the community that are expected of all citizens. He continues, we have here a strik-
ing illustration of Aristotles inception of the relation between the individual and the political community
(Kraut, Politics Books VII and VIII, p. 154) with the individual fundamentally ethically subsidiary to the polis.
21
As Kraut also notes, different Greek communities had different customs on the matter of exposure:
the exposure (i.e., abandonment) of defective children was widely accepted, although it was outlawed
in Thebes and Ephesus (ibid.). However, Richard Harrow Feen points out that in general, during the
Classical period, only rarely would the Greek father be compelled by the state not to expose his child. He
also remarks that our evidence for the Theban law against exposure comes from Claudius Aelianuss Varia
Historia, likely written in the third century AD, and this law was exceptional even for its day. Richard
Harrow Feen, Abortion and Exposure in Ancient Greece, in Abortion and the Status of the Fetus, ed.
William B. Bondeson, H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., Stuart F. Spicker, and Daniel H. Winship (Dordrecht,
Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1983), p. 289.
22
Presumably, contraception or other means of birth regulation could be practiced as well, with early
abortion as the means of last resort.
23
Kraut, Politics Books VII and VIII, p. 154.
Aristotle on Abortion and Infanticide 55

not apply. Indeed, this makes sense: if one did not think it was wrong to practice
infanticide on a newborn infant, what reason would there be to reject abortion?24
Since Aristotle seems to be allowing for the common Greek practice of exposure/
infanticide, it is very unlikely that he has the normative resources for anything like
a near prohibition on abortion, however his views on embryological development
are modified.
Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, I think Aristotles use of the word holy
(hosios) actually supports this reading. Simpson makes a great deal of Aristotles
saying, what is holy will be distinguished from what is not by means of sensation
and life. He points out

This word holy appears in only two other places in the Politics, when Aristotle says
outrages, murders, and so on are not holy between close relatives (2.3.1262a2532), and
when he says that humans are the most unholy without virtue (1.2.1253a3536). A child
is of course a close relative, so Aristotle is evidently of the view that to kill the child in
the womb (when it is a child and alive, which Aristotle evidently, though mistakenly,
thought was true only after quickening) is unholy, and an offense against virtue and the
gods. He would therefore rather the city have too many children than that it do something
unholy and vicious.25

It is clear that Simpson here is taking holy as an intensifier. He is assuming that for
Aristotle to declare abortion an issue on which what is holy will be distinguished
from what is not is for him to be insisting that post-onset abortion is particularly
bad, an offense against virtue and the gods. However, if we keep in mind that
this distinction falls under the antecedent of the prior conditional, then I think that
we are actually in a position to recognize that holy is not being used here as a
intensifier (i.e., unholy = very bad), but instead to mark out the kind of wrongness
that abortion represents; viz., it is a violation against religious laws.26
Indeed if we consider Aristotles use of hosios at 1262a2532 we see something
similar.27 Aristotle there notes that none of these [assault, homicide..., fights,
and abuse] are holy when they are committed against father or mother or not far

24
It is possible that one might draw a distinction between active killing (abortion) and letting die (expo-
sure). In this particular case (though not in general) I find this to be a distinction without much difference.
Indeed, it is difficult to believe that a serious person would consider neglect resulting in the death of the
infant to be anything less than infanticide. That, of course, does not mean the distinction would not apply
in other cases. I discuss this distinction further below.
25
Simpson, A Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle, p. 247.
26
Contrast this with Aristotles absolute prohibition on the care of deformed children. In that case, he
has no reservation of simply prohibiting it, even though it seems obvious that at least some parents would
be attached to their deformed offspring and very much willing to care for them. At the same time, Aristotle
does seem willing to concede that these customary laws are at least worthy of respect. I am indebted to
Jacob Klein for this point about hosios.
27
The use of unholy (anhosios) at 1253a36 does not shed much light on the issue: For as man is the best
of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and
justice. ... without virtue he is the most savage, the most unrighteous (anhosios), and the worst in respect
of sex and food. Politics I, 1253a3136, Aristotle, Politics Books I and II, translated with commentary by
Trevor J. Saunders (Oxford UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995).
56 Mathew Lu

distant kin (as they are when they are committed against those outside this range).28
He goes on to say that only when people know that their victims are family then
the customary expiations can take place. Obviously he is not saying that assault,
homicide, etc. are good (= holy) as long as they are committed against non-familial
victims. Rather, he is saying that crimes against ones family involve an extra
dimension of evil, viz., a religious one, which requires a separate expiation. As
Saunders points out, how far Aristotle himself took such procedures seriously
(they were matters of religious scruple rather than law) is unclear (cf. 1335b2526
on the holy).29 This seems to show that Aristotle is using hosios to mark out the
peculiar kind of wrongness involved in victimizing a family member, which (unlike
similar crimes committed against strangers) also required religious expiation of the
pollution thereby incurred.30
Since the abortion restriction only applies in those places where the custom-
ary law forbids exposure, I think that Aristotle is simply using holy to mark
out that fact. What possible grounds are there for these customary laws in the
first place? It seems reasonable to think that the local custom against exposure in
places like Thebes or Ephesus31 might be based on local religious cult. So, when
Aristotle says what is holy will be distinguished from what is not by the timing
of the abortion, he is not saying: what is just (holy) simpliciter will be distinguished
from what is unjust (unholy) simpliciter; rather, he is saying that in those places
with a customary religious prohibition on exposure, what kinds of abortion are
in line with those customary religious beliefs will be determined by the timing of
the abortion.
On this reading, Aristotle is simply applying his own scientific understanding of
human embryological development to local religious beliefs about the wrongness
of exposure. I think that he is taking those customary laws against exposure to
embody something like the following principle: it is against the law to kill a human
being to control population. Then, he is applying his own scientific understand-
ing of when, in the course of embryological development, a fetation becomes an
animal, i.e., the onset of sensation and life (= forty days).32 So, the last sentence
of the passage from Politics VII really comes to: if you do not want to violate the
28
Politics II, 1226a289.
29
Saunders, Politics Books I and II, p. 114. While Saunders seems here to be reading hosios at 1335b26
in the same way in which I am (as representing a matter of religious scruple rather than law), Kraut seems
to read it with Simpson. Kraut writes, the issue is a moral one, as [Aristotle] indicates when we says, what
is holy will be distinguished from what is not by means of sensation and life. Kraut, Politics Books VII
and VIII, p. 155. Again, however, it looks to me that the passage from 1262a2532 supports the Saunders
reading over the Kraut/Simpson reading.
30
See the discussion from Richard Harrow Feen below on pollution (miasma). This entire passage is
somewhat strange because the context is Aristotles criticism of an aspect of Platos Republic, particularly
that in the Callipolis one cannot know who ones real relatives are. Kraut, Politics Books I and II, p. 114.
Thus, the customary expiations would not be performed as it would not be possible to know if the victim
had been a family member. Needless to say, all of this is rather unimportant for our discussion.
31
See note 22 above.
32
As we noted above, it is unlikely that the fetation would possess a rational soul at forty days, but the
cautionary principle requires setting that as the marker as the presence of a sentient soul is marked by vis-
ible organs.
Aristotle on Abortion and Infanticide 57

customary laws against killing a human being for population control purposes,
then you should procure the abortion before the fetation becomes animal; other-
wise, you will possibly be doing something unholy, i.e., violating those customary
(religious) laws.
We must recognize that Aristotles entire discussion of abortion is taking place
in a world where exposure/infanticide was widely practiced and that he seems to
more or less take this for granted. This alone should lead us to realize that he is
in no position to generate a strong prohibition against abortion. The majority of
Greek cities accepted the practice, and it seems that Aristotle is content with that
(though not with protecting deformed infants). Even so, we should note that on
the conventional Greek understanding exposure did

not equal child-murder in either language or practice. Greek writers used forms of
ektithmi (expose, set out) and related words (apotithmi, ekball) for the disposal of
the newborn and distinguished this from paidoktone (kill a child) and the like. The
essential difference between ektithmi and paidoktone lies not so much in the nature
of the action taken as in the status or position of the victim. Killing or causing the death
of a new-born child (very often called a brephos, a term also used to refer to the fetus
in the womb) in the first days of life was something quite differentlegally, morally,
and terminologically it seemsfrom killing a child who was a recognized and named
member of a family.33

The reason for this is that newborn children were not automatically entered into a
Greek household simply in virtue of their birth. Rather, the child had to be named
and accepted into the family in the ceremony of the amphidromia (the walking
around the hearth)34 in which the childs father would formally acknowledge its
membership in his family.35 As Richard Harrow Feen notes, the killing of a child
would only count as homicide if a father exposed his child after the amphidromia,
for only once considered a member of the oikos, and thus the polis, [did] the child
[become] the subject of rights.36
In short, for the vast majority of the Greek world in the Classical period an infant
would only gain civil rights of any kind once it had been formally accepted by its
father a few days after birth. The exposure of a non-accepted child not only did
not count as homicide; it was socially acceptable. However, at least to some degree
exposure was distinguished from intentional killing. Feen considers

the implications of a father actively killing his child before he acknowledged it as his
own, which can be distinguished from exposure in that the latter is an act of omission
rather than commission. To be sure, the child is a human being. Thus, should the father
take its life by strangulation or stabbing, he could then trigger the states involvement

33
Cynthia Patterson, Not Worth Rearing: The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece, Transac-
tions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985): 10405.
34
Ibid., 105.
35
Mothers, on their own, had no rights to their children. Feen concludes that exposure was employed at
the fathers discretion (Feen, Abortion and Exposure in Ancient Greece, p. 287).
36
Ibid.
58 Mathew Lu

under the crime of hybris (abuse of personal power) or miasma (pollution). Homicide in
this case could not be invoked unless the childs relations brought suit. Seeing that the
father had not officially recognized the child previous to his bloody deed, the child was
without a family to prosecute its claim in the magistrates in the first place.37 However,
any citizen within the community could prosecute the father on a variety of lesser of-
fenses. For instance, the crime of pollution could be leveled against the childs father if
he did not seek purification rites, as it was considered customary (nomos) for a citizen
to take religious action to purify himself (and hereby avoid infecting the polis) after the
killing of a human being. In addition, there was the crime of hybris in which one did
harm to another through the abuse of personal power. In short, it involved any kind of
misbehavior whatsoever towards another, regardless of the status of the person harmed.
... Overall, it seems that the laws of hybris and pollution would offer little protection
to the unrecognized child, as the father had only to be concerned with a minor civil
breach by his action.38

This actually provides even more useful context for analyzing Aristotles use of
hosios, since an act of this sort (deliberately killing a newborn before acceptance
into the household) would be very similar to an abortion. The victim in this case
would count as a brephos (fetus/newborn) and not as a pais (child) because the
amphidromia had not taken place, more or less the same status possessed by the
victim of an abortion (at least a post-onset one).39 In both cases, the killer would
essentially be breaking a religious norm and be guilty of pollution. In neither case
would he be guilty of homicide because the victim would have no standing within
the polis, and accordingly no civil rights.
With all of these considerations in mind, we can now reformulate (N) to capture
the fact that it really only applies conditionally. Thus we can render the argument
of Politics VII:
(1') (N') Aristotle holds that if the customary laws forbid exposure, then the only
holy (hosios) abortions are those performed before the onset of life and
sensation.
(2) (EA) Aristotle holds that the onset of life and sensation is at some point sub-
sequent to conception (approximately forty days).
(3'') Therefore, Aristotle holds that if the customary laws forbid exposure, then
early abortions before approximately forty days are within those laws (i.e.,
holy), but abortions subsequent to that point are not.

37
Feen (Abortion and Exposure in Ancient Greece, p. 287) had previously noted: though homicide
was the most serious offense that could be committed in the polis, public officials could not initiate pros-
ecution, as this duty was laid solely upon the victims family. In short, the childs relatives would have to
bring action in the court.
38
Feen, Abortion and Exposure in Ancient Greece, pp. 28788.
39
When considering the difference between exposure and the direct killing of the infant, Cynthia Pat-
terson claims that the critical distinction is not that between killing and letting die but between pais and
brephos. Patterson, Not Worth Rearing, p. 105n6. However, as we saw above with Feen, there does seem
to be some distinction between killing and letting die, just not one that underwrites a distinction between
exposure and murder.
Aristotle on Abortion and Infanticide 59

Obviously, even if we substitute (EC) for (EA), all we would be entitled to conclude is:
(3''') With the benefit of contemporary embryology Aristotle would today hold
that if the customary laws forbid exposure, then most (if not all) abortions
violate those laws (i.e., are unholy).
Furthermore, assuming that Aristotle accepted the brephos/pais distinction noted
above,40 he would also be committed to:
(4) With the benefit of contemporary embryology Aristotle would today hold that
if the customary laws do not forbid exposure, then most (if not all) abor-
tions would be comparable to the execution of a brephos, and thus at worst
(presumably) subject to the penalties for pollution and hybris.

INFANTICIDE AND ABORTION

Taken together, we have here a powerful set of reasons to reject the supposition that
Aristotle would have been opposed to abortion altogether if only he were made
aware of modern embryology, at least in any straightforward way. Ultimately, this
follows simply because he is not really opposed to infanticide. This should give
pause to the pro-life commentators who wish to enlist Aristotle on their side.
I take it that most pro-life commentators think that they would have more or less
established their case if they could show a moral equivalency between abortion and
infanticide. That is, most of us think that the following argument is sound:
(5) Abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent acts.
(6) Infanticide is homicide.
(7) Therefore, abortion is morally equivalent to homicide.
I take it that even the majority on the pro-abortion side would consider (6) to border
on self-evidently true.41 Therefore, nearly the entire weight of the argument rests on
establishing (5).42 That is, I would have to imagine that even most abortion advocates
would grant both that the argument is valid and (6) is true. Thus, the disagreement
really turns on the truth of (5), with the pro-abortion advocates denying the moral
equivalency of the two acts in a variety of ways.43

40
It seems to me plausible to attribute this to Aristotle even though there is no direct evidence in the text
of the Politics because he does seem to accept the general Greek cultural practice of exposure (the explicitly
allowed exception for local customary laws is the exception that proves the rule). So it also seems likely
that he would also accept the Greek cultural brephos/pais distinction. There is a gap here, but in the absence
of contrary evidence it seems a reasonable assumption given the context.
41
Though, of course, some utilitarians like Peter Singer might reject this. The irony is that Aristotles
position comes out to be reasonably close to Singers in that they both allow for infanticide.
42
There are, of course, a number of strategies for accomplishing this, but most of them turn on attempting
to show the moral equivalency of the fetation and the newborn infant (generally by showing the diachronic
ontological identity of the child from conception forwards).
43
The two chief strategies are (1) denying the moral equivalency by denying the ontological equivalency
of the fetation and the infant (i.e., denying that the fetation is a person), and (2) arguing that the mothers
rights over her own body trump the rights of the fetation (whether or not it has any).
60 Mathew Lu

As we have seen, however, it appears that Aristotle would reject (6). Given that
he seems to accept the Greek customary practices regarding exposure, it also seems
likely that he also accepts the brephos/pais distinction and the consequent moral
importance of the amphidromia.44 As such, he would presumably only consider post-
amphidromia killing to constitute homicide in the technical, legal sense. Since all
modern abortions (even of the partial-birth variety) would occur pre-amphidromia,
none would qualify as a case of homicide.
In the absence of other evidence, it seems very plausible to conclude that Aris-
totles views on the Greek practice of exposure as population control were highly
culturally conditioned. While we cannot directly attribute all of these Greek cultural
attitudes to Aristotles considered philosophical positions, the fact that he does not
repudiate exposure gives us good reason to think that he is content to accept them,
especially in light of his willingness to repudiate other possible practices like caring
for deformed infants.
This means that in the Politics Aristotle lacks the normative principles to rule out
abortion, whatever his empirical beliefs are regarding human embryology. There-
fore, simply substituting (EC) for (EA) does not allow us to conclude that Aristotle
would be opposed to abortion altogether. Of course, this does not completely
settle the matter.
Precisely because Aristotle seems to accept the Greek cultural practices on expo-
sure uncritically, determining the Aristotelian position on abortion today requires
much more than simply substituting a more accurate set of empirical findings (EC)
for his set of inaccurate empirical findings (EA). Rather we would need to inquire
much more deeply into how the additional empirical knowledge we have on human
developmental embryology might lead to an even more comprehensive overhaul of
Aristotles positions, including and especially the applicable normative principles.
However, to do this we would need to consider how these empirical findings would
interact with Aristotles various metaphysical commitments, particularly his hylo-
morphic account of both sexual reproduction and the corresponding hylomorphism of
individual biological substances. With the benefits of modern embryological science
he would presumably have to give up large parts of his hylomorphic conception of
reproduction (e.g., the father as the exclusive source of form) and the attendant ac-
count of development. However, suitably understood, I do not think contemporary
biological evidence provokes anything like so great a challenge for his hylomorphic
account of individual biological substances (i.e., the soul as the form of the body).45
In the end, I suspect Aristotle would be content to give up his view of embryologi-
cal development as consisting of a succession of different types of souls. Rather, he
would likely conclude that with nuclear fusion of the parental gametes the zygote

44
Of course, the moral significance of the amphidromia is itself consequent on an acceptance of the Greek
cultural practices. To grant that moral significance requires us to allow the possibility that a right not to
be killed has to be granted by the state, rather than following directly from aspect of human nature. Again
this reflects the vast difference between the Greek and modern conception of the relationship between the
individual and the state.
45
Of course I do not mean by this that contemporary biologists would simply accept the hylomorphic ac-
count of individual biological substances. This is, ultimately, not a biological question, but a philosophical one.
Aristotle on Abortion and Infanticide 61

becomes an ontologically distinct biological human individual, with latent sensitive


and rational potentialities. As such, the developmental process would be one of the
progressive actualization of these potentialities, including beyond birth.46 In light
of this, if we were to preserve the hylomorphic understanding of the soul as the
form of the body, I think we would be required to conclude that the rational human
soul is present from the beginning, i.e., at conception, though with its rational (and
sensitive) powers very much in latent potentiality.
In and of itself, this would not determine the matter against abortion. We would
still need to generate stronger normative principles against the killing of immature
human beings than Aristotle seems to accept. Again, I think this might very well
be possible, but that would require something of a revolution in Aristotles moral
thought.
In some ways, what this really ought to get us to see is just how distant our moral
universe really is from Aristotles. As Kraut points out, both our concern for the
dignity of individuals (however that is understood) and the relative position of the
individual and the state are very much at odds with Aristotles primary emphasis
on the polis. That does not mean, of course, that the entire apparatus of Aristotles
moral thought (i.e., his virtue ethics) is inapplicable. Far from it, with Alasdair
MacIntyre I believe that our moral vocabulary and conceptual universe are deeply
indebted to Aristotle. However, to attempt to construct a contemporary Aristotelian
position on abortion would require us not simply to cherry pick a normative principle
from his works and apply it in light of contemporary empirical evidence. Rather, in
the best spirit of Aristotelian inquiry itself, it would require us to do the hard work
of rethinking large parts of normative structure of his thought in light of his deeper
metaphysical commitments. Of course, that is far beyond the scope of the present
project, but I do think there are reasons for thinking it could be done and, in the
end, we might draw some useful conclusions.47
In any case, even if we cannot straightforwardly conclude that in the light of the
contemporary evidence Aristotle would embrace the pro-life position, we ought to
recognize as well that his support for (early) abortions offers little support to the
contemporary pro-choice side either. As I have already noted, even most supporters
of abortion would likely balk at Aristotles embrace of the legitimacy of exposure.
Further, it is almost certainly the case that they would balk at his subordination of
reproductive choice to the interests of the state. Thus, the grounds of his support
for abortion would be of little to no interest for most contemporary supporters of
the grisly practice.
46
After all the full actualization of the rational potentialities of immature humans occurs long after birth,
which itself marks no truly important intrinsic change in the child.
47
Stephen J. Heaney in Aquinas and the Presence of the Human Rational Soul in the Early Embryo and
John Haldane and Patrick Lee in Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion and the Value of Life have
provided a model for how this project might be pursued in considering how the contemporary embryological
evidence would change Thomass views on abortion. Since Thomas largely depends on Aristotle for both his
metaphysical convictions and his empirical beliefs on embryology, the key changes necessary for a proper
reworking of Aristotles views would be similar. At the same time, Thomas of course has access to normative
principles unavailable to Aristotle, and it is precisely those resources that encompass some of our distance
from Aristotle. That is to say, in my view, our moral universe is much closer to Thomass than Aristotles.
62 Mathew Lu

CONCLUSION

As we have seen, Aristotles views on abortion do not fit nicely within the modern
dialectic on the question precisely because they implicate empirical, normative,
and metaphysical commitments that most contemporary commentators simply do
not share. That being the case, we cannot neatly slot Aristotle into a contemporary
position by simply modifying the empirical aspects of his views on embryological
development as some have sought to do.
I have argued that we need to recognize that Aristotles actual discussion of
abortion more or less presupposes the moral legitimacy of infanticide, and as such
this must make us very cautious in attributing an any kind of essentially pro-life
normative principle to him. It may be the case that a more extensive reworking of
a basically Aristotelian metaphysical position would generate such a result, but
this would require much more work than simply substituting his flawed empirical
assumptions for our (presumably) more accurate ones. Indeed, it would require an
even more extensive consideration of Aristotles views on the wrongness of homi-
cide more generally and the capacity of Aristotles ethical positions to encompass
absolute prohibitions.48 Of course, these are also very fascinating questions for
anyone broadly interested in a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics.49 On the abortion
question itself our actual conclusions about Aristotle should get us to recognize that
as much as our moral thought it indebted to him, the contemporary world has also
been shaped by a revolution50 in the understanding of the human person that has
transformed the very foundations of our moral worldview.51

48
This is, of course, a major problem in its own right. It is far from clear exactly how Aristotle understands
the wrongness of homicide, and how he can generate absolute prohibitions within the normative structure
of his virtue ethics. For instance, he tells us in the Nicomachean Ethics that the certain acts (like adultery,
stealing, and murder) are intrinsically base and so cannot ever be done in the right way (1107a8ff.), but he
regrettably does not explain exactly how we are to determine which acts fall under that description. It is for
reasons like these, perhaps, that later commentators sought to supplement his eudaemonist framework with
the precepts of the Natural Law.
49
I have attempted to articulate a more comprehensive virtue-ethics based argument against abortion in
my Abortion and Virtue Ethics, which largely draws on a kind of neo-Aristotelian metaphysics of the
human person.
50
That revolution, of course, was the rise of Christianity whose transformative effects on Western moral-
ity can be recognized wholly independently from the question of the truth of its religious claims. David
Bentley Hart has an excellent discussion of this transformation in Atheist Delusions (New Haven CT: Yale
Univ. Press, 2009).
51
My thinking on these matters has greatly benefitted from private communication with Rachel Lu,
Stephen Heaney, Jacob Klein, Anthony Preus, and Joseph Yarbrough. Needless to say, any remaining errors
are mine alone.