In light of the recent Planned Parenthood videos, abortion and the practices benefiting from it have been re-launched into another public debate. This is, yet again, another debate in the long history of abortion that spans from the ancient Near East (the Code of Hammurabi, the Assyrian Code of Assura, and the Old Testament) to our (post)modern present. Many Christian traditions are “returning to the Fathers” (to borrow Orthodox priest and theologian Georges Florovsky’s phrase) to see how Christianity was discussed and practiced beyond the New Testament and then applying these insights to modern issues. So what did the early Christians say about abortion?
There was no consensus in ancient Rome regarding the morality of abortion. The famous Oath of Hippocrates (fifth to fourth century B.C.) negatively discussed abortion in its pledge:
“I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a coarse. Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion.” (Mackay, 118)
However, both Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics recommended abortion in certain situations. Such situations include controlling overpopulation and stopping older women from giving birth to children. The “state’s ideals and needs [took] precedence over the life and rights of the unborn,” which meant that “rights – even the right to life – were subordinate to the welfare of the state (or the family, the religion or the race) and had to be sacrificed if the best interests of the state demanded it” (Gorman, 21-23). Aristotle qualified his recommendation on abortion, stating that it should be done “before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation” (Politics, 7.16).
The Stoics “believed that the fetus is part of the mother and that life begins only with the fully developed infant taking its first breath,” but a number of Stoics “supported large families” and opposed abortion “even though they believed the fetus is not a person” (Gorman, 23). In and around the first century B.C., abortion was widespread throughout the Roman empire, among prostitutes, regular citizens, and even royalty:
“Despite certain legal attempts by Augustus to restrain it, abortion flourished. Growing sensitivity to infanticide and exposure led to an increase in the less visible and therefore less offensive practice of abortion… Indeed, abortion was to be found even in the highest places; both Suetonius and Juvenal refer to the emperor Domitian’s affair with his niece Julia and one resultant pregnancy which Doitian ordered terminated; the abortion caused the niece’s death.” (Gorman, 27-28)
When Christianity began growing in the Roman empire, abortion was one subject the early Christians were not afraid to critique.
In the late first and second centuries, abortion and infanticide was, not surprisingly, prohibited by the Early Church. Our first passage comes from The Didache, which was written between A.D. 50 to 180 and was widely read in the early churches (O’Loughlin, 25-27; Ehrman, 405-413). It explicitly stated that “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor commit infanticide” (Didache 2.2). The same command appears in The Epistle of Barnabas, which appeared around the same time as The Didache. The second century Saint Athenagoras stated that the fetus is “an object of God’s care,” and it is inconsistent to “kill it” if one regards it as a “created being” (A Plea for the Christians, 35). Tertullian, a Christian writer at turn of the second to third century, criticizes abortion as murder, since “hinder[ing] a birth is merely a speedier killing of a human being” (Apology, 9). Probably the most graphic (and horrendous) criticism of abortion comes from the Apocalypse of Peter,a second century apocalyptic work:
“And near this flame there is a great and very deep pit and into it there flow all kinds of… horrifying things and excretions. And the women are swallowed up by this up to their necks and are punished with great pain. These are they who have procured abortions and have ruined the work of God which he was created. Opposite them is another place where the children sit, but both alive, and they cry to God… They sigh and cry to God because of their parents, ‘These are they who neglected and cursed and transgressed thy commandment. They killed us and cursed the angel who created us and hung us up. And they withheld from us the light which thou has appointed for all.’” (Schneemelcher and Wilson, 629-630)
There were two other first-to-second century Christian critics not mentioned: St Clement of Alexandria and Minucius Felix. Both Clement and aforementioned Tertullian believed “the unborn child has a soul from the moment of conception” (Sider, 166). This belief has biblical roots: the prophet Jeremiah and St John the Baptist are two explicit examples of God caring for and identifying the fetus as a person.
We currently have eleven different texts from the late first to early second century that explicitly reject abortion, and several of them were read in early church communities (Sider, 165). It is easy, from here, to apply these texts from these early Christians in the same way many Christians use the Bible: to critique those “not like us” as depraved human beings, using words to tear down and destroy others, and to flex our moral superiority. But responsible application of the text to our world means understanding the context of our world as well. There are multiple reasons why women choose to have abortions, and cultivating a culture where we judge and condemn others closes our hearts to their stories.
The women of Rome were bound to state laws, social pressure, and, oftentimes, their husbands’ decision when it came to the life of their child. In our own culture, we have created a culture where people are turning to Planned Parenthood, and not Christianity, for support. Approximately 73% of women that had abortions stated that “can’t afford a baby now,” reflecting the expensive conditions of having children and the lack of financial opportunities and support among many young mothers. Of course, many will critique this as an elaborate (and selfish) excuse, stating that giving the child over for adoption is a choice. But this skips the deeper question: who will support, emotionally and financially, women who cannot afford to have children? There is also the difficulty of agreeing on presuppositions: the rights women have regarding their bodies, the rights of an unborn person, and the difficulty of legislating morality. Who has authority in a world where the only recognised authority is the ever-ambiguous term “human rights”?
We have, on a whole in our global economy, created a culture of death: poverty, capital punishment, mass imprisonment, and retribution reign in our world. A culture of (pro-)life seeks to holistically promote the value of life and communal responsibility for the lives of others, something the early Christians were known to do. While critiquing abortion, early Christians were also saving the lives of children who were abandoned, and then they “baptized them, and brought them up with the aid of community funds” (Durant, 751). Here is where you find the secret of early Christianity: while critiquing the culture around it, it was a movement of grace. Perhaps this is what true Christianity looks like.
by Alvin Rapien
Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Downers Grove, Ill: Wipf & Stock Pub, 1998).
Thomas O’Loughlin, The Didache: A Window On the Earliest Christians (Wheaton, IL: Baker Academic, 2010).
Bart Ehrman, ed. And trans., The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. 1: I Clement, II Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache (Loeb Classical Library) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
Wilhelm Schneemelcher and R. Mcl. Wilson, eds., New Testament Apocrypha,Revised ed., Vol. 2, Writings Relating to the Apostles Apocalypses and Related Subjects (Cambridge, England.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).
Ronald J. Sider, ed., The Early Church On Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook On War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012).
Alan L. Mackay, ed., A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (Bristol: CRC Press, 1991).
Will Durant, Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their Beginnings to A.D. 325, Vol. 3 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944).