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The Early Church on Abortion

T.L. Frazier

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T.L. Frazier discusses the position of the Early Church on abortion.  Christian moral tradition has always considered abortion a grave sin from the earliest days of Christianity.

There are no biblical passages that specifically and explicitly treat on the subject of abortion as such. Perhaps the only passage that really comes close is Exodus 21:22-25, which reads: “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:22-25).

“Serious injury” (ason in Hebrew) in the above verse likely includes injury both the mother and child, the Hebrew word ason meaning anything from simple harm to death (compare Genesis 42:38). The punishment for the miscarriage is based on the lex talionis: life for life, eye for eye, and so forth. The passage states the death of the unborn child is the accidental result of a quarrel between two men, not a willful killing of the child in the womb of the mother. Consequently, this law is found in a section dealing with quarrels and injuries, and not in a section dealing with homicide.

Interestingly, there is enough ambiguity in the passage to allow both sides in the abortion debate to cite it as “proof” for or against abortion. Is the unborn child seen as a real person in Exodus 21:22-25? If so, why is the party responsible for the miscarriage only sentenced to a monetary fine? On the other hand, the application of the lex talionis requiring a “life for a life” suggests the life of the unborn child is equal to any other human life—provided, of course, the lex talionis is being applied in the passage to both the mother and the child.

The fact is, abortion is never directly addressed in the Old Testament because instances of abortion rarely occurred in ancient Israel; neither is abortion mentioned in the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Abortion was becoming something of an issue, though, in the pagan Greco-Roman world Christianity entered. The Hippocratic Oath, formulated during the 4th century B.C. according to the doctrines of Pythagorean philosophy, had physicians swear not to give women the poisonous drinks then in common use to induce an abortion. Aristotle, on the other hand, had no qualms about abortion due to his speculative understanding of fetal development: the child possesses only vegetable life at conception, which is replaced by an animal soul several days later, and only receives a rational mind after a long period of development. Unlike Hippocrates, Aristotle was obviously no doctor.

Abortion was illegal in the Roman empire, and a woman who aborted her child could face exile. The one providing the potion for the abortion might even be sentenced to slave labor. Nevertheless, since abortions were usually the result of a poison that induced miscarriage, the crime could be difficult to prove.

Confronted with the issue of abortion in the Greco-Roman world, the early Church was forced to respond. The early Christian view was that the unborn child is a full person, and that aborting the unborn child is a form of infanticide. This view was likely based upon biblical passages where the unborn child is described as a full person that can respond to God’s grace (e.g., Isaiah 49:1, 5; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:41, 44; Galatians 1:14). Luke 1:41-44, for example, speaks of John the Forerunner as a “babe” (Greek: brephos) leaping in the womb of Elizabeth for gladness at the coming of Mary, the Mother of God. The Greek word “babe,” brephos, is used equally of an unborn child and an infant (see Luke 2:12, 16; Acts 7:19), just as the word “babe” does in English. The overall picture of the unborn child presented by Scripture is not, as Aristotle would have it, of gestating vegetable life waiting for an animal soul. Instead, the Bible portrays the unborn child the same as it does a developed infant: as a full person created in the divine image, and as such fully capable of responding to the grace of God.

Such biblical passages recognizing the personhood of the unborn child would eventually inspire the Church to include in its liturgical calendar feasts celebrating the conception of John the Forerunner (September 23) and the Virgin Mary (December 9). Also, Christians read Old Testament accounts of invading soldiers ripping open the wombs of pregnant women, an atrocity characterized as begging for God’s judgement (cf. 2 Kings 15:16). Therefore, when specifically addressing the issue of abortion, the early Church unhesitatingly condemned it as the killing of an innocent person. It is in this light that Tertullian in north Africa, writing between A.D. 210-213, comments on Exodus 21:22-25 cited above:

The embryo therefore becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that its form is completed. The law of Moses (cf. Ex 21:22-25), indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion, inasmuch as there exists already the rudiment of a human being, which has imputed to it even now the condition of life and death, since it is already liable to the issues of both, although, by living still in the mother, it for the most part shares its own state with the mother. (Treatise on the Soul, 37.)

Gregory of Nyssa around A.D. 379 was another who argued the unborn child was a human being from the moment of conception. In his On the Soul and Resurrection, Gregory refuted any notion that the fetus doesn’t possess a human soul, for “soulless beings” (Greek: apsuchos)—which is to say, lifeless and inanimate objects—do not possess “the power of movement and growth.” Insofar as the unborn child exhibits movement and growth in the womb, the child possesses a soul. Gregory writes: “But there is no disagreement or doubt that those which are being nourished in the womb have growth and spatial movement. So the remaining alternative is to suppose that soul and body have one and the same beginning.” In other words, human life begins at conception. Moreover, Gregory argues, as a seed grows to become a mature tree because it possesses vegetative life, so a human embryo grows in the womb of its mother into a human child because it possesses human life derived from a human soul—and not the soul of a plant or an animal, as Aristotle believed. (See Catharine Roth’s English translation published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press [Crestwood, New York, 1993], pp. 99-100.)

Given the Christian understanding of the unborn child, it is hardly surprising that condemnations of abortion appeared early in Church history. Possibly the earliest is the pseudonymous Epistle of Barnabas, written in Alexandria, Egypt between A.D. 117-132. It states quite unambiguously: “Do not murder (Greek: phoneuseis) a child (Greek: teknon) by abortion (Greek: phthora), nor commit infanticide.” (19:5). Similarly, a Syrian Church manual known as the Didache (literally, “The Teaching”), written sometime before A.D. 140, gives the same stricture in the very same words: “Do not murder a child by abortion, nor commit infanticide.” (2:2:2). In both these early sources, abortion is condemned as the murder (phoneuseis) of a child (teknon), not a vegetative “fetus.”

Another interesting second-century condemnation of abortion comes in the form of a popular vision of hell known as The Apocalypse of Peter, written between A.D. 125-150. Many early Christians, like Clement of Alexandria, actually thought it was written by the apostle Peter, and so regarded it as canonical scripture. The Muratorian Fragment, written in Rome in the second century, even lists it among the canonical books, though with the proviso, “Some will not have it read in church.” Though certainly not written by Peter, the document does give a valuable insight into the belief of second-century Christians regarding abortion. The Apocalypse of Peter first gives us a vision of the torment of murderers being consumed by beasts and covered by worms (25), then immediately turns to those women responsible for aborting their unborn children:

And near that place [in hell] I saw another strait place into which the gore and the filth of those who were being punished ran down and became there as it were a lake: and there sat women having the gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born to them out of due time, crying; and there came forth from them sparks of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion. (The Apocalypse of Peter, 26.)

So, according to the Apocalypse of Peter, those guilty of abortion suffer next to common murders in hell. While this account is not inspired Scripture (and shouldn’t be taken literally), it does give us an important insight into common attitudes about abortion among second-century Christians.

Also condemning abortion in the second century was Athenagoras of Athens. Little is known about Athenagoras except that he was one of the great defenders of the Christian Faith known as the “apologists,” and in the title of his A Plea for the Christians he is called, “the Christian philosopher of Athens.” Writing around A.D. 177, Athenagoras states:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. (A Plea for the Christians, 35:6.)

What is interesting here is that Athenagoras is writing to the enemies of the Christian Faith, and he assumes they already know that Christians are universally opposed to abortion. On this basis, Athenagoras builds an argument debunking the pagan charge that Christians kill infants during their worship services in order to eat their flesh and drink their blood.

Tertullian in north Africa makes a similar argument debunking the same pagan accusation. In his Apology written around A.D. 197, he writes:

For us murder is once for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the mother’s blood is still being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder. It makes no difference whether one take away the life once born or destroy it as it comes to birth. He is a man who is to be a man; the fruit is always present in the seed.” (Apology, 9:8.)

Hippolytus of Rome, writing between A.D. 199-217, is absolutely scathing in his condemnation of those who procure abortion in order to avoid “embarrassment” or social liability:

Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family or excessive wealth. Behold into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time!” (Refutation of All Heresies, 9:17.)

Abortion and infanticide are linked in a Latin a defense of the Faith called Octavius, authored by a third-century Roman lawyer named Municius Felix between A.D. 218-235. Municius Felix draws a stark contrast between the pagan and the Christian treatment of children, comparing the practice of abortion to infanticide: “Among you [the pagans] I do see newly-born sons at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or violently strangled to a painful death; and there are women who, by medicinal droughts, extinguish in the womb and commit infanticide upon the offspring yet unborn” (Octavius, 30:2).

Clement of Alexandria argues in his The Tutor (A.D. 200-202) that abortion overthrows the natural procreative order intended by the Creator, and that in the death of an unborn child the whole human race is threatened insofar as we are all consubstantial with each other in our common humanity:

But men are not always willing to let marriage serve its purpose. For marriage is the desire for the procreation of children, and not disorderly sexual conduct, which is as much outside the laws as it is foreign to reason. Universal life would proceed according to nature if we would practice continence from the beginning instead of destroying, through immoral and pernicious acts, human beings who are given birth by Divine Providence. Those who use abortifacient medicines to hide their fornication are causing the outright destruction, together with the fetus, of the whole human race. (The Tutor, 2:10.)

Because abortion was seen as such a great evil in the early Church, women guilty of the sin were given penances that excluded them from communion for the rest of their lives. The intent was not to “exclude” the repentant woman from the Church; rather, the desire was to have the woman experience sufficient penance so as to include her in the kingdom of heaven at her death. However, this practice changed in the fourth century, and a ten-year period of penance came to be generally accepted throughout the Church. The Council of Ancyra in A.D. 315 decreed: “Concerning women who commit fornication and destroy that which they have conceived or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them [from Communion] until the hour of death and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees.” (Canon 21). According to Basil the Great (330-379), what was important in determining penance for the repentant woman was not so much the amount “of time, but the manner of repentance” (Letter 188), and so a period of ten years became the canonical norm in the Church. If a woman had demonstrated sufficient repentance, she could then be re-admitted into communion.

This change in penitential practice must not be misunderstood as a “liberalization” of attitudes, however. Abortion was still considered murder, as Basil the Great makes clear:

The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events if we regard it as done with intent. The punishment, however, of these women should not be for life, but for the term of ten years. . . . Women also who administer drugs to cause abortion, as well as those who take poisons to destroy unborn children, are murderesses. So much on this subject. (Letter to Amphilochius, 188:2, 8.)

Similarly, the great Latin biblical scholar, Jerome (A.D. 347-419), does not even disguise his contempt for Christians who rationalize abortion as a matter of “choice” or “conscience”:

Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. Yet it is these who say: “‘Unto the pure all things are pure’ (Titus 1:15); my conscience is sufficient guide for me. A pure heart is what God looks for. . . .” I blush to speak of it, it is so shocking; yet though sad, it is true. (Letter to Eustochium, 22:13-14.)

If the Church Fathers saw abortion in any way as a “choice,” they saw it as the culmination of a series of bad choices. John Chrysostom, for one, places abortion at the pinnacle of “choices” that begin with self-indulgence (“drunkenness”), promiscuity, adultery, and finally the abortion of an unwanted child. Preaching in Antioch between 381-397, Chrysostom is careful to condemn the role of the abortionist in this sordid process of “choices,” providing as they do both the “love potions” and the abortifacient drugs:

Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? where there are many efforts at abortion? where there is murder before the birth? for even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine. Hence too come idolatries, since many, with a view to become acceptable, devise incantations, and libations, and love-potions, and countless other plans. Yet still after such great unseemliness, after slaughters, after idolatries, the thing seems to many to belong to things indifferent, aye, and to many that have wives too. Whence the mingle of mischief is the greater.” (Homily 24 on Romans.)

The Church’s attitude toward abortion finally found its most definitive expression at the Sixth Ecumenical Council (in Trullo) in 680: “Those who give drugs procuring abortion and those who receive poisons to kill the foetus are subjected to the penalty of murder” (Canon 91). This canon, along with all previous canons condemning abortion, were finally collected in 883 as part of the nomocanon (official collection of canon law) of Patriarch Photius the Great of Constantinople. They continue to be included in the canonical collection most widely used today in the Orthodox Church, the Pedalion (the “Rudder”) published in 1800.

Many modern Christians will find the attitudes expressed by the early Church Fathers somewhat harsh. For example, John Chrysostom’s comments cited above leave the impression that only women who get drunk at a party and conceive a child through an adulterous union seek to have abortions. Yet what about the so-called “hard cases” where a woman is impregnated through rape or incest? What about cases where the life of the mother might be at stake, like a young girl impregnated just after entering puberty? Is there no compassion from the Fathers for these unfortunate women?

Certainly the Fathers were aware of the hard cases involving abortion. Indeed, the so-called “hard cases” were actually far harder in the ancient world. Back then, rape and incest were, if anything, more prevalent than they are today. Also, women then were far more likely to die in childbirth, especially if the mother were underage. On top of all this, the temptation to procure an abortion was greater for the simple reason that having children out of wedlock carried with it a greater stigma in the ancient world than it does today in most Western societies.

So the question might be asked why the Fathers didn’t focus more on these factors in their comments on abortion. The reason is likely that the Fathers were more interested in expressing general principles than theorizing on specific “hard cases.” They were more concerned to convey to Christians living in a largely pagan world that abortion is the killing of an innocent life; speculating about the possible circumstances surrounding the mother was secondary.

This focus on the “big picture” was hardly unusual with the Fathers. When the Fathers preached on the evils of theft, for example, they didn’t normally digress on the “hard cases” of the poor stealing bread to feed their families. In those cases where they did, however, they did not declare thievery a legitimate “choice” for the needy, but called upon Christians to be more active in providing alms for the indigent. Charity, not theft, is the answer to the various social ills that drive the indigent to steal.

In the same vein, whatever problems may drive a woman to seek an abortion, the Fathers did not view killing the unborn child as the answer. Death is never a viable solution to problems. Abortion, like suicide and euthanasia, is at best a deceptive “solution” that resolves nothing. As the Fathers repeatedly stressed, abortion is the choice of death over life, of non-existence over existence. As such, the Church rejected abortion in favor of life, declaring that the ultimate answer to the hard cases lies not with the abortionist who destroys life, but with Christ who has “come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

As a result of this historic “pro-life” stance, the early Church provided places of refuge for pregnant women in desperate situations (usually convents), places where women would find acceptance and medical care. Not only did the Church try to provide for the physical needs of mothers, it also provided for their psychological and spiritual needs—needs that abortion completely overlooks. The early Church also ran orphanages for the children born of unwanted pregnancies, and it is perhaps no co-incidence that many of the Church’s greatest saints started life as such orphans. As pagan antiquity became a thing of the past with the triumph of Christianity, so in large part did abortifacient poisons and infanticide.

The early Church was certainly concerned with the welfare of women experiencing unwanted pregnancies, and the Church Fathers frequently expressed alarm about the dangerous abortifacient drugs many women took to induce the miscarriage. Even after an abortion had taken place, the Church was there to offer the woman healing and reconciliation with God. In an ancient prayer for a woman who has had an abortion, we find a beautiful expression of this desire to heal and reconcile:

Master, Lord our God, who wast born of the holy God-bearing and ever-virgin Mary, and as a babe laid in a manger; do thou thyself, according to thy great mercy, have mercy upon thy handmaid, who today is in sin, having fallen into voluntary or involuntary murder, and hath aborted that conceived in her; and be gracious unto her willing and unwilling iniquities, and preserve her from every diabolical wile, cleanse her defilement and heal her suffering, and grant unto her, O lover of mankind, health and strength of body and soul; guard her by shining angels from sickness and weakness; and cleanse her from bodily defilement and from the diverse inward travail befalling her; and by thine abundant mercy rouse her from the bed whereon she lieth. For we were conceived in sin and in sin and transgression are all defiled before thee, O Lord (cf. Psalm 51:5); and with fear we cry and say, Look down from heaven and see the helplessness of us accursed, and be gracious unto this thine handmaid, (name), who is in sin, having fallen even unto voluntary or involuntary murder, and hath aborted that conceived in her; and according to thy great mercy, as the good and man-loving God, have mercy on her and be gracious unto her in all things that have surrounded her and have come in contact with her; for thou alone hast power to forgive sins and transgressions, through the prayers of thy most pure Mother, and all thy saints. Amen. (Cited by Rev. Fr. John Kowalczyk, An Orthodox View of Abortion, pp. 36-37).

The above prayer, which is still used by the Orthodox Church, offers a good summary of the ancient Church’s attitude toward abortion. While the prayer is uncompromising in declaring abortion as nothing less than the sin of murder, it is also full of expressions of compassion: “have mercy on thy handmaid,” “preserve her,” “be gracious unto her,” “cleanse her,” “heal her suffering,” “grant . . . health and strength,” “guard her by shining angels,” “look down from heaven and see the helplessness,” and so forth. Even the declaration of abortion as murder is tempered by an acknowledgment of the possible existence of mitigating circumstances, thus making the woman’s choice of an abortion somewhat “involuntary.”

We as Christians value the lives of both the unborn child and the mother, and so reject any false opposition that would pit the child’s life against the mother’s. In this sense, Christians will always be “anti-choice.” Indeed, abortion itself is an “anti-choice” because it is by nature anti-existence. Where we are definitely pro-choice is in offering faith, hope, and love as the alternative to the sin, corruption, and death of abortion.

Yet even in the worst of circumstances when an abortion has taken place, we pray for life, peace, health, and salvation for the repentant woman. Without judgment or condemnation, the Church offers support, compassion, reconciliation, and serenity from above to those wounded by sin; for in Christ Jesus faith conquers sin, hope overwhelms corruption—and in the midst of death, love ultimately prevails.

Read this article on the St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral website.

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Copyright © 2001-2019 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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