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Maternal–fetal conflict, Moses Maimonides, and the Christian Church
  1. Department of Paediatrics
  2. University of Ioannina
  3. POB 1186
  4. 45110 Ioannina
  5. Greece

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    Editor—In his elucidative series Perinatal Lessons from the Past, Professor Peter Dunn concludes that, according to Moses Maimonides, in the case of the conflict between the life of a woman and her fetus, the life of the mother should take precedence and that this advice was in contrast to the teaching of the Christian Church.1

    No doubt, Christianity firmly opposed the rather loose Roman ethics concerning induced abortion. Quite revolutionary for these times, the fetus was valued as an animate creature, an imago Dei, and abortion or embryotomy equated to homicide. However, some differentiation evolved between the Eastern and the Western Christian world attitudes. In the Eastern Christian world abortion was stigmatised by both early church fathers such as Saint Basil the Great (4th century AD) and secular historians such as Procopius (5th century).2 3 However, if the mother’s life was endangered, abortion or embryotomy might be performed. Meticulous instructions were given by Aetius of Amida (6th century) and Paul of Aegina (7th century). The latter emphasised that embryotomy should be undertaken only if the physician was fairly sure that the mother would survive; if not, he should decline the operation.4

    Paul of Aegina’s instructions were reproduced by Rhazes, Haly Abbas, Albucasis and Avicenna (9th to 11th centuries) and it was with Averroës (12th century) that Moses Maimonides studied philosophy and medicine. Despite their very different cultural background, all these eminent physicians seemed to share a similar understanding of the maternal vs fetal rights and to favour the mother’s interests. The opposite view, on which Professor Peter Dunn comments,1 was more dominant in the Western Christian world and was based on the belief that the priority was for the unborn child to be brought to life and baptised.5 Accordingly, all pregnancies had to go to term; if the mother died in labour, the child’s life could be saved by a postmortem caesarean section.