The Anti-Abortion Movement’s Man-Crush on Hippocrates

“I’m calling bullshit,” says Renee Bracey Sherman

March 3, 2023

The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, named for ancient Greek physician Hippocrates of “do no harm” fame, sounds like a benevolent organization. But the AHM is actually a virulently anti-abortion group, backed by lawyers who have passed many of the last decade’s strictest anti-trans laws—and they are currently fighting in an Amarillo, Texas courtroom to have mifepristone banned from its current use as an abortion pill.

But in addition to all the other ways in which they are wrong, writer and activist Renee Bracey Sherman says they’ve got Hippocrates wrong too.

OK, so what’s the myth about Hippocrates, and what’s the truth?

So there’s a line in the Hippocratic oath that basically says, “I will not give a woman an abortion pessary,” which was a suppository. Anti-abortion advocates have used this to claim that doctors should not provide abortions because it goes against the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.

However, Hippocrates didn’t even write the oath himself! And [my co-author Regina Mahone and I] found research showing that Hippocrates actually gave out many recipes about how to do an abortion, both as a suppository and as a tea (or a “potion,” as they were called). John M. Riddle’s book Eve’s Herbs argues that the Greek phrase meaning “abortive pessary” was changed later to mean all abortions rather than just one method.

In other words, Hippocrates’ writings have been mistranslated, misunderstood, misappropriated, and downright mangled.

And why does it matter?

Because the anti-abortion movement cannot just cherry-pick which parts of history they want to keep and which ones they don’t.

They want to hold on to someone like Hippocrates, because they believe in ancient Greek and Roman medicine—because they revere ancient white society. And they want to say that the original physician—for whatever that’s worth—said, “No abortions!” But that’s simply not true. [Meanwhile], they want to throw out Black and brown communities that have been teaching abortion for thousands of years.

This is not the first time that they’ve done this. They do this with Dr. Martin Luther King and other black civil rights revolutionaries—they say that they’re anti-abortion, but the evidence is to the contrary. MLK accepted an award from Planned Parenthood and literally wrote a note thanking them for it, saying, “This will be among my most cherished possessions.” Coretta Scott King went to the event to accept the award on his behalf.
They’re rewriting history.

It ties deeply into this moment where [conservatives] are trying to ban books in school and Black history lessons. They are trying to get rid of our history, because if we don’t know our history, we can’t sit here and say: That is simply not true. I’m calling bullshit. And abortion has always been our right historically.

This entire lawsuit is built on misinformation and a misreading of the historical facts.

And it starts with the name of the organization.

It’s all a hill of lies.