Science goes wrong. Br. Guy and I have written a book about this (it should be available late in the year). We make the point that biology students, for example, do not learn their biology from the textbooks of the 1920s. Those textbooks are obsolete! Much of what is in them is wrong.
Not all subjects are like this. Textbooks from the 1920s about, say, algebra and trigonometry could be used in math classes today. The Pythagorean Theorem does not become obsolete. Neither does the Quadratic Formula.
Br. Guy and I approved a final draft of our book just before Christmas. Then, in the January 2023 issue of the magazine America: The Jesuit Review of Faith and Culture, there was this, on the subject of abortion (page 21):
In any book of embryology it is said….
Who said this? Who referenced a doomed-to-obsolescence textbook (at least in some ways) when talking about abortion? Pope Francis.
This was in an interview. Pope Francis was answering a question from America’s Gloria Purvis. It is common to cite science books when the topic is abortion. Similar books are referenced on the USCCB’s website regarding “When Does Life Begin?” But what if the embryology books of 2123 say something different from what Pope Francis was citing? What if, by the year 2123, science has revealed as wrong something that today we think is of importance and that can be found in any embryology book?
Reckoning with science is difficult. We think science yields truth. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both looked at some solid information yielded by the science of the great ancient astronomer Ptolemy regarding the sizes of stars. They both urged that the words of Genesis 1, concerning the moon being one of the sky’s two great luminaries, be interpreted in light of the truth science revealed. Science said, contrary to Genesis, that the stars are greater than the moon. Go with that, Augustine and Aquinas said, and interpret Genesis as describing appearances.
But Ptolemy’s science was wrong. It was based on the measured sizes of stars as they appear in the night sky. More than 1500 years later, science would reveal those sizes to be spurious — a product of the wave nature of light. (Were the stars as luminous as they are, but a mere tenth the size of the moon, they would appear in the sky exactly as they do now.)
True, modern science now happens to tell us (for reasons unrelated to Ptolemy’s ideas) that stars are indeed much greater in size than the moon. This bit of happenstance clouds over the fact that Augustine and Aquinas counselled interpreting Genesis in light of wrong science that seemed rock-solid. But they did indeed counsel that, and the science was indeed seemingly solid, and indeed wrong. And contrary to tales of churchmen refusing to so much as look through a telescope while they lubed up the thumbscrews for Galileo, much of the “Galileo Affair” was rooted in church figures relying on what seemed like solid science against Galileo’s modern ideas.
Remember, nothing in modern science has withstood the test of time for as long as Ptolemy’s ideas about star sizes. Modern science is not 500 years old, let alone 1500. Abortion is much more weighty, much more consequential to the lives of individual human beings, than the size of the stars. Science when applied to human beings has a particularly bad track record (see S. J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man). Perhaps arguments regarding abortion should not be supported, even partially, by something as prone to going wrong, and to needing new textbooks, as science.
Opposition to abortion does not rest on embryology or on any details of modern science. It rests on something more enduring, and in that regard more like the Pythagorean Theorem. The Hippocratic Oath puts doctors performing abortion alongside doctors administering poison, and insists that doctors do neither:
I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.
The oath, which begins with “I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses”, predates Christianity by several centuries. (The image at the top of this post is a fragment containing the oath from the third-century Papyrus Oxyrhynchus.) There were no modern embryology books at that time. No one knew about DNA and all the rest that might be found in an embryology book of today.
No one even knew about things like sperm and eggs. Monty Python in their 1983 movie, “The Meaning of Life” included an elaborate song-and-dance number, “Every Sperm is Sacred”, that lampoons Catholic thought on embryology (speaking broadly here) in humorous, if spectacularly offensive (it is hard to imagine such a thing appearing in a movie today) fashion. Sperm were a scientific discovery, however. They were unknown prior to the development of microscopes in the late seventeenth century, and thus unknown for most of church history.
In the fourth century when St. Basil prescribed penance for a woman who procured abortion, whether an embryo was visible or not, sperm had not been discovered, and modern embryology books did not exist. Likewise in 1720, when Joseph Bingham mentioned St. Basil in a discussion of abortion “condemned and punished as Murder” in his Origines ecclestiasticæ: or, The antiquities of the Christian Church (below). The bottom line here is that the idea that abortion is akin to poisoning or murder is far older than our science. It is far older than what is in those embryology books of today that might well be utterly obsolete in 2123.