Christian Attitudes on Abortion: The Testimony of Early and Recent History
Abortion seems to be a modern problem. Not surprisingly, however, it is a practice which is thousands of years old. And Christians of all ages have had to develop an appropriate response to their culture's practice of abortion.
Biblical and Jewish Foundations
Although abortion was practiced by ancient Israel's neighbors, there is absolutely no evidence that the ancient Hebrews ever practiced it. Several fundamental Hebrew beliefs contributed to this avoidance of abortion. Chief among these were the beliefs that God alone is Lord of the womb and that God forms and communes with the developing life in the womb (see especially Psalm 139). In other words, the womb is an inviolable place. The Hebrews also shunned abortion because God revealed himself as Creator and owner of each life and intolerant of innocent bloodshed. The Old Testament taught an ethic of justice defined as mercy toward the defenseless, and gave them a desire and duty to populate the earth.
This implicit anti-abortion perspective of the Old Testament became explicit in early Judaism. The biblical themes already mentioned led to specific condemnations of induced abortion. Philo, the philosopher, and Josephus, the historian and apologist, equated abortion with murder and infanticide. Popular Jewish writings condemned abortion, as well as exposure of newborns, as forms of immorality and social injustice.
The New Testament does not discuss abortion, or exposure, even though both were practiced at the time. First-century Christians took over Jewish opinion of abortion and exposure, and at first had no need to write about something which everyone took for granted. This is evidenced by the fact that the earliest Christian documents to mention (and condemn) abortion are revisions of Jewish documents.
The Early Church
Beginning about A.D. 100 we find a striking and unanimous voice from the early church on abortion. More than twenty Christian documents from the second to the fifth centuries A.D. discuss abortion, and every one--without exception--condemns the practice. These Christians did not hesitate to call abortion "infanticide," or "murder," or "something even worse than murder." Examples of this condemnation include:
- "Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion." (Didache and Epistle of Barnabas, both early 2nd century), a prohibition directed at all Christians in these two guides to Christian life and worship.
- "The fetus in the womb is . . . an object of God's care," and, "We say that women who induce abortions are murders, and will have to give account of it to God." (Athenagoras, late 2nd century)
- "In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb." (Tertullian, late 2nd century)
- "There are women who . . . [are] committing infanticide before they give birth to the infant" (Minucious Felix, early 3rd century)
- "Those . . . who give drugs causing abortion are [deliberate murderers] themselves, as well as those receiving the poison which kills the fetus" (Basil, 4th century)
We find themes coming up again and again in these and other texts on abortion.
First, Christians viewed the unborn as the creation of God to be protected, not killed. Christians emphasized that each unborn was a distinct life.
The second theme arose from the first: abortion is murder. As the examples above illustrate, early Christianity condemned abortion as an act of violence which was nothing less than murder.
This theme led to a third, that those who obtain, and those who perform, abortions are guilty before God and will suffer the consequences of their sin.
Christian opposition to abortion first developed in Jewish-Christian communities where human sexuality was highly valued but immorality and innocent bloodshed abhorred. Respect for the womb was deepened because of the incarnation and the gospel stories of Jesus' birth; concern for mercy and justice toward the defenseless was heightened because of Jesus' ministry of compassion; and abhorrence of bloodshed was enlarged by Jesus' teachings.
Early Christian opposition to abortion arose from a belief in mercy and justice which permeated early Christian teaching. Christians were characterized by their inclusion of the "least" of their brothers and sisters as members of the human community. Abortion was a sin against the most vulnerable of innocents created in God's image.
To care for the unborn was but one manifestation of Christian concern for the poor and weak, mandated by the Scriptures and the incarnation. To follow Jesus, therefore, was to forsake bloodshed. This goal was most succinctly expressed by Athenagoras who claimed that Christians have given up performing or watching any act of violence: "We are altogether consistent in our conduct."
Some Recent Developments
Before the 1960s, few Christians supported abortion. It is virtually impossible to find any Christian theologian of note who endorsed abortion except where the life of the mother was in immediate danger. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.
Karl Barth, writing a the time of Hitler's holocaust, said,
The unborn child is from the very first a child. It is still developing and has no independent life. But it is a man and not a thing, nor a mere part of the mother's body . . . He who destroys germinating life kills a man . . . The fact that a definite NO must be the presupposition of further discussion cannot be contested, least of all today.
Helmut Thielecke, Otto Piper, Paul Ramsey and George Williams have all written to the same effect: abortion is the taking of a human life. Harold O. J. Brown writes, "There is no Protestant of remotely similar distinction who endorses abortion."
In the last decade some mainline denominations have modified the stands they took in support of abortion during the sixties and seventies.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1992 retreated from calling abortion "an act of stewardship before God," to recognizing that "The strong Christian presumption is that since all life is precious to God, we are to preserve and protect it. Abortion ought to be an option of last resort. The large number of abortions in this society is a grave concern to the church." Nevertheless, our General Assembly asks us to approve whatever decision a woman makes in a problem pregnancy.
Crisis pregnancy centers exist in numbers greater than abortion providers today as witness of Christians who have put their faith to work. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) suggested in 1986 that each presbytery designate at least one church to serve as a "resource center for alternatives to abortion."
Material for this pamphlet draws from the book Abortion and the Early Church, by Michael Gorman, (IV Press, 1982).