With the legalization of assisted suicide in California someone resurrected a 46-year-old article from the Western Journal of Medicine (at the time known as California Medicine). “A New Ethic for Medicine & Society” tells us how we got to where we are. 

The editorial by Malcolm Watts, MD, acknowledged the existence of an old ethic that “always placed great emphasis on the intrinsic worth and equal value of every human life regardless of its stage or condition,” and gave a nod to its Judeo-Christian underpinnings. 

But this ethic was on its way out at the time, and the author seemed to chafe under its remaining influence. He complained that its “reverence for each and every human life ... has caused physicians to try to preserve, protect, repair, prolong and enhance every human life which comes under their surveillance.” Each and every human life. How burdensome!

This, he said, was no longer tenable given “new facts and social realities” that called for the "Western tradition" to be undermined and transformed. 

What were these new facts and realities? Overpopulation, limited resources, and “something which is beginning to be called the quality of life.” Ah, yes. How quaint!

Dr. Watts warned that “hard choices” would have to be made which would “violate and ultimately destroy” the old ethic. “It will become necessary and acceptable to place relative rather than absolute values on such things as human lives.” Yes, we've heard about the old battle between relativism and absolutes. 

And then comes the most telling part of the essay:

“The process of eroding the old ethic and substituting the new has already begun. It may be seen most clearly in changing attitudes toward human abortion. In defiance of the long held Western ethic of intrinsic and equal value for every human life regardless of its stage, condition or status, abortion is becoming accepted by society as moral, right and even necessary. It is worth noting that this shift in public attitude has affected the churches, the laws and public policy rather than the reverse. Since the old ethic has not yet been fully displaced it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices. It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected.”

Did you notice he said it was public attitudes that shaped the churches of the day and not the other way around? Sad.

Dr. Watts went on to predict that “the new ethic of relative rather than of absolute and equal values will ultimately prevail” with the help of doctors. “Medicine's role with respect to changing attitudes toward abortion may well be a prototype of what is to occur....One may anticipate further development of these roles as the problems of birth control and birth selection are extended inevitably to death selection and death control.” And so they have been.

Once upon a time not that long ago “everyone” knew with scientific certainty that human life began at conception. A mere three years after this editorial was written, “semantic gymnastics” made abortion-on-demand the law of the land. Would that pro-death people today could be as honest and forthright about their tactics. 

In fact, with these kinds of word games and cognitive dissonance it's no wonder death advocates in California have gone so far as to force pro-life pregnancy care centers to refer women for abortion.

Of course, it's not just in California. We see it in the sad story that a Florida mother tells of her unborn daughter's diagnosis with Down syndrome. I'm sure her doctor was thinking about limited resources and not a disabled person's intrinsic worth when he urged her to abort. So were other ob/gyns who refused to take her on as a patient after she insisted upon giving life. 

Decades after the Western Journal of Medicine article was written, and after our laws and culture had turned toward relative values as it predicted, some (like the Florida mother) still cling to a pesky old ethic that says human life is sacred. It's not a "Western" idea, nor "traditional." It's a biblical ethic based on God's eternal word.

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