The Early Christians and Abortion

This article presents the Christian attitude toward abortion before the first ecumenical council, that is, until A.D. 325. Because the New Testament does not comment on the morality of abortion, this article considers the writings of the first generations of Christians after the apostles in order to find teachings that were handed on outside the Bible.

With the exception of one author who wrote at length on the subject, early Christian writings do not discuss abortion in depth but merely state in a few words or phrases that it was forbidden to Christians. Most of the authors of the period do not touch on the subject but those who did considered it among the worst of sins.

The earliest source is an anonymous church manual of the late first century called The Didache. It commands "thou shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten." (at 2.2)

The Epistle of Barnabas contains a similar guide to Christian morality. It was composed sometime between A.D. 70 and 132 and was included in some early versions of the New Testament. In the midst of several chapters of instructions on ethics, it states: "Thou shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born." (19.5) The latter phrase refers to the ancient Greek and Roman practice of abandoning newborns to die in unpopulated areas if the baby was the "wrong" sex or suspected of health problems. To the author of Barnabas, this practice and abortion were equal in sinfulness.

Dating from just before A.D. 150, the Revelation of Peter was still read in church services in fifth-century Palestine. It describes in detail the various punishments in hell according to different types of sin. The punishment for women who induced miscarriage was to sit up to their necks in blood and dirt while the aborted children shot sparks of fire into their eyes (Chapter 25). Clement of Alexandria, the principal of Christendom's foremost Christian educational institution at the end of the second century, accepted these statements as an accurate exposition of the Faith (Extracts from the Prophets 41; 48; 49).

In Paedagogus 2.10.96 Clement spoke negatively of women who "apply lethal drugs which directly lead to death, destroying all humane feeling simultaneously with the fetus".

Clement and other early Christian writers often quoted from the Sibylline Oracles as the work of a pagan prophet who had predicted the coming Christ like the Jewish ones. Later, the Sibyllines were rewritten to increase the proportion of Christian ethical teaching. Oracle 2 describes abortion as contrary to God's law, while Oracle 3 commands people to raise their children instead of angering God by killing them.

A Plea for the Christians was written around A.D. 177 by "Athenagoras the Athenian, Philosopher and Christian", partly to convince the Roman Emperor that there was no truth in the rumor that Christians ritually murdered and ate babies. In declaring that such a practice was contrary to Christian ethics, Athenagoras emphasized the sacredness of unborn life:

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 foetus 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. (Chapter 35) To Athenagoras, abortion was the same as abandoning a newborn and other murder.

The Octavius of Minucius Felix was composed sometime between A.D. 166 and 210, in part to prove that Christians had a higher morality than pagans. In condemning pagan practices, Chapter 30 deplores the fact that "There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit [murder] before they bring forth."

Our next author is Tertullian, a lawyer who became a Christian and a theological writer. He wrote a large number of books on Christianity, three of which mention abortion: Apologeticum (A.D. 197), An Exhortation to Chastity (around A.D. 204) and On the Soul (between A.D. 210 and 213). The Apologeticum was an introduction to Christianity for inquirers who wished to learn about it. Chapter 9 acquaints readers with the Christian position on abortion:

...murder being once for all forbidden, we [Christians] may not destroy even the foetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.

On the Soul was the longest work related to abortion in the first three centuries of Christianity. According to Chapter 37, "The embryo therefore becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that its form is completed. The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion, inasmuch as there exists already the rudiment of a human being."

In An Exhortation to Chastity 12 Tertullian mentioned that there were many difficulties in raising children but he asked: "Are you to dissolve the conception by aid of drugs?" and answers his own question with "I think to us [Christians] it is no more lawful to hurt a child in the process of birth, than one already born." He recommended that life-long celibacy makes life freer because it relieves a Christian from the burdens of raising children; there is no alternative because, after a child is conceived, it is forbidden to kill it.

In the early decades of the third century, Hippolytus was a bishop in central Italy. Later, his followers purported to elect him bishop of Rome in opposition to another candidate, thus becoming the first "antipope". For a few years Hippolytus and his rival operated competing church organizations. In his Refutation of All Heresies he made many accusations of lax morality against the opposing side in an attempt to maintain that it had departed from the standard of behavior commanded by the gospel. Among other practices, he charged that in the opposite camp,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 and excessive wealth. (9.7)

Whatever the truth in these allegations against Hippolytus' opponents, this passage indicates common disapproval of abortion, sexual promiscuity and placing material considerations above the life of unborn children.

A generation after Tertullian, Cyprian, the bishop of his city, listed abortion among the sins of a Christian who was causing a deep rift in the universal Church (Letter 52.2). By including the reference, he indicated that it was impermissible among Christians.

The Apostolic Church Order or Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostles were composed around A.D. 300 as a short law-book for Christians, ostensibly by eleven apostles. Its wide popularity is evidenced by the fact that it was translated into several languages. Included in Chapter 6 is a prohibition that Christians shall not kill a child, at birth or afterward.

The Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in A.D. 314. This was the year Lactantius completed his decade of labor on the Divine Institutes. In it, he stated that when God forbids homicide, He prohibits not only illegal violence but even causing death in a manner allowed by secular laws. It is a very grave sin to kill newborns "for God breathes into their souls for life, and not for death." It is a crime to "deprive souls as yet innocent and simple of the light" which God has given (6.2). Lactantius' Epitome 64 similarly states that exposing or killing an infant is included in the Lord's prohibition of murder.

After Christianity was legalized, congregations in various regions held conferences to regulate the affairs of the Church. One objective was to standardize the practices of excommunication and penances. About time of Constantine's conversion, or perhaps a few years before, the Council of Elvira in Spain decreed that anyone who committed abortion was to be given the Eucharist only when in danger of death (Canon 63). This was the same penalty as for repeated adultery and child-molesting (Canons 47 and 71). The more lenient Council of Ancyra in Turkey (A.D. 314) enacted a ten-year suspension for women who caused abortion and for makers of drugs that induced miscarriage (Canon 21). The first ecumenical council, held at Nicaea in A.D. 325, did not itself condemn abortion but the third ecumenical council (Chalcedon, A.D. 451) adopted the decrees of Ancyra, including those against abortion.

The Scriptures contain only one passage on abortion: Exodus 21.22-25. The only early Christian commentary on it was by a preacher and Bible scholar named Origen. He had succeeded Clement as president of the famous seminary at Alexandria and later established his own in Palestine. Around A.D. 240 he preached a series of sermons on Exodus, including Exodus 21. As was his custom, he did not comment on the obvious meaning of the passage but treated its contents as a series of symbols about higher spiritual truths and about other aspects of the Christian life (Homilies on Exodus 10.2).

In short, in the first three centuries after Jesus all Christian authors who mentioned abortion considered it a grave sin. Although Origen mentioned it without discussing its sinfulness, no Christian author in the three hundred years after Christ condoned it. This opposition was not merely local: Christian sources in Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Syria recognized abortion as forbidden by God and in the same category as any other murder. The condemnation was universal and unanimous.

David W. T. Brattston is a retired lawyer and judge on minor tribunals who began writing in Christian periodicals around 17 years ago on early and contemporary Christianity. His specialty is Christian teachings on ethics prior to the Decian Persecution of A.D. 249-251. His articles have been published in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Copyright © 2001 David W. T. Brattston. All rights reserved. To reproduce in whole or in part, please contact David. W. T. Brattson at dwtbrattston@hotmail.com.

Date posted: Aust 2, 2008