Abortion and the Early Church
By Dr. David W. T. Brattston
What was the early church's stance on abortion? An examination of several historical texts that date prior to the first ecumenical council (AD 325) reveals the answer.
The New Testament does not comment on the morality of abortion, so we instead consider the writings of the first generations of Christians after the apostles, for they indicate that opposition to abortion (1) was shared at a time when the writers—or Christians not many generations earlier—personally knew the apostles or their first disciples and thus benefited from their unwritten teachings and interpretations of Scripture, (2) comes from a date so early that there was no likelihood for the original gospel to have been altered, and (3) is not based on only one interpretation of the Bible among many but was the interpretation of Christians who were personally familiar with the New Testament writers or their early followers.
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.
Early Christian writings do not discuss abortion in depth, but merely state in a few words or phrases that it was forbidden to Christians.
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."
The Epistle of Barnabas contains a similar guide to Christian morality. It was composed sometime between AD 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." 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 AD 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 sins. 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. 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). In Paedagogus, he 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 AD 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 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.
To Athenagoras, abortion was the same as abandoning a newborn and other murder.
The Octavius of Minucius Felix was composed sometime between AD 166 and 210, in part to prove that Christians had a higher morality than pagans. In condemning pagan practices, the Octavius 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 (AD 197), An Exhortation to Chastity (around AD 204), and On the Soul (between AD 210 and 213). The Apologeticum was an introduction to Christianity for inquirers who wished to learn about it, and acquaints readers with the Christian position on abortion:
Murder being once for all forbidden, we [Christians] may not destroy even the fetus 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 mankilling; 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 this text, "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, Tertullian mentioned that there were many difficulties in raising children but he asked: "Are you to dissolve the conception by aid of drugs?" And he answered his own question: "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 third alternative because, after a child is conceived, it is forbidden to kill it.
Tertullian recommended that life-long celibacy makes life freer because it relieves a Christian from the burdens of raising children; there is no third 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, who also claimed to be bishop of the city. 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." Whatever the truth in these allegations against Hippolytus' opponents, this passage indicates common disapproval of abortion, sexual promiscuity, and placing material considerations above the lives of unborn children.
A generation after Tertullian, Cyprian, the bishop of his city, wrote a letter in which he listed abortion among the sins of a Christian who was causing a deep rift in the universal Church. By including the reference, he indicated that it was impermissible among Christians.
The Apostolic Church Order (or Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostles) was composed around AD 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 is a prohibition that Christians shall not kill a child, at birth or afterward.
In AD 314, the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. This was the year Lactantius completed his decade of labor on The Divine Institutes. In it, he stated that when God forbids homicide, God 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, Lactantius wrote, "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. Lactantius' Epitome 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 churches. One objective was to standardize the practices of excommunication and penance. About the time of Constantine's conversion, or perhaps a few years earlier, the Council of Elvira in Spain decreed that anyone who committed abortion was to be given Holy Communion only when in danger of death, which could be years or decades in the future. This was the same penalty as for repeated adultery and child molesting. The more lenient Council of Ancyra in Turkey (AD 314) enacted a ten-year suspension for women who caused abortion and for makers of drugs that induced miscarriage. The first ecumenical council, held at Nicaea in AD 325, did not itself condemn abortion but the third ecumenical council (Chalcedon, AD 451) adopted the decrees of Ancyra, including those against abortion.
No Christian author in the three hundred years after Christ condoned abortion.
In short, in the first three centuries after Jesus walked this earth, all Christian authors who mentioned abortion considered it a grave sin. Although the outstanding Christian teacher Origen mentioned it around AD 240 without discussing its sinfulness (Homilies on Exodus), 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.
Dr. David W. T. Brattston is a retired lawyer and judge. Hundreds of his articles on early and modern Christianity have appeared in various denominational publications in every major English-speaking country. He lives in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. This article first appeared in Canadian Messenger of the Sacred Heart, June 1991.