Ancient Insight on the Abortion Debate

Douglas C. Bates
3 min readJul 10, 2022

And a Heaping Helping of Wisdom

Ancient Greek logicians identified many flaws in how people commonly reasoned. One flaw often discussed in ancient logic was the “sorites paradox,” also known as the “paradox of the heap.” An example makes the idea clear. Everyone knows what a heap of sand is. If a grain of sand is removed, is there still a heap of sand? What if more grains of sand are removed? Eventually, there will be only one grain of sand. One grain of sand is not a heap. At what point in this process of removing grains of sand did the heap disappear?

There’s no good answer.

And the problem afflicts far more than just heaps of sand. It applies to a variety of other terms that people use all of the time, but which share the same kind of fuzziness of definition, such as the distinction between bald and not bald, or middle-aged and old.

Or, most importantly for contemporary debates about abortion, it applies to the concept of what is and is not a living person entitled to rights.

Lots of definitions have been proposed. Several of these definitions have been used as legal standards, such as the moment of conception, presence of a heartbeat, when pain can be felt, quickening, viability, and the moment of birth. In antiquity, what we might consider “abortion” was practiced after birth. Infanticide was a widely used option. Other options included leaving infants at churches and temples, or leaving the infant “exposed” — which meant that some of these children were picked up by others to be raised, usually as slaves, or the child succumbed to not being cared for. In ancient Roman law, a father had the legal right to kill his children at any time — including when they were adults. This right was seldom exercised, but it differed little from what we see in the modern era in some societies in which families engage in honor killings of their children. Although these killings may be against local law, the killers commonly are never charged with murder, nor will anyone testify against them.

Some people argue, “my body; my choice.” We know that’s not true. For thousands of years young men have been conscripted to fight in wars. You must take your body to court if you get called for jury duty. Then there are those vaccine mandates…. Societies…



Douglas C. Bates

Ancient Greek philosophies of life. Author of “Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.”