Abortion in Light of the Historic Christian Tradition

There is perhaps no more volatile moral issue today than abortion. Roe v. Wade, the consequential Supreme Court decision to allow abortion in 1973, has not moved the United States toward a moral consensus. Roe seems to have divided the country further on this subject. In recent years there has been an increase in the public discussion of abortion. The trial and imprisonment of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell coupled with the recent furor over fetal organ harvesting at Planned Parenthood clinics has emboldened those in the pro-life community.

It has yet to be seen how much pro-life advocates will be able to accomplish in today’s more favorable political climate, but the Christian witness in favor of protecting unborn life is clear. Christians have recognized the unborn as fully human, and they have spoken out against the intentional destruction of these young lives.  Below we will briefly explore the historic Christian position on abortion.

In The Early Church

Christianity was birthed in a place and time where young human life was disposable. Abortion and infanticide were common and largely legal in the Greco-Roman world. If not terminated before birth through abortion, babies were often abandoned to die of exposure. Baby girls were frequently the victims of such treatment. So prevalent were these life ending practices that Roman emperors instituted new policies in order to encourage child rearing and prop up the plummeting population.

Against this backdrop the early church provided a stunning contrast. “From the start, Christian doctrine absolutely prohibited abortion and infanticide, classifying both as murder.”[1] The Didache, an early manual for Christian living states: You shall not murder a child, whether it be born or unborn.”[2] Early Christians also stood against culture in a prophetic role, decrying the needless death of babies in the pagan world. Minucius Felix serves as an example:

“And I see that you at one time expose your begotten children to wild beast and to birds; at another, that you crush when strangled with a miserable kind of death. There are some women [among you] who by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. And these things surely come down from your gods…”[3]

As Christianity spread, a new appreciation for children and family came about. The condemnation of sexual immorality along with the elevated status of women within the faith contributed to a higher marriage rate among Christians. In general Christians were more likely to be married and raise children than the Roman elite. Early Christians were even known to save and care for infants abandoned by others.

“Abortion and infanticide, which were decimating pagan society, were forbidden to Christians as the equivalents of murder; In many instances, Christians rescued exposed infants, baptized them, and brought them up with the aid of the community fund.”[4]

Reasons for a Prolife Ethic

But why was this pro-life, pro-child ethic fundamental to early Christianity? Two factors contributed to Christianity’s rejection of abortion:  Jewish influence and Holy Scripture. As Gorman notes, “It was a given in Jewish thought and life that abortion, like exposure, was unacceptable, and this was well known in the ancient world.”[5] Jewish thought on abortion did vary, and abortion was sometimes allowed under extreme circumstances, but the command to be fruitful and multiply was personally felt by Jews in antiquity. Since having children was seen both as a blessing and a religious duty, abortion just wasn’t an option for Jews.

While intentional abortion is not directly discussed in Scripture, Christians have long understood the Bible to prohibit it. Children are portrayed as a gift (Psalm 127:3-5), and infertility was seen as a curse. The way in which unborn children are described in Scripture humanizes them.  King David reflects on his own creation and says to God “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 137:13b). In the New Testament when Elizabeth, then pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary, then pregnant with Jesus, meet we read that John “leaped in her [Elizabeth’s] womb” (Luke 1:41). Children were given honor by Jesus who blessed them (Mark 10:13-16), and by Paul who urged fathers to “…not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4 NIV). Early Christians also believed that intentionally taking the life of an unborn child amounted to murder and thus violated the principal found in Exodus 20:13.

Constantine’s ascension to the throne had complicated effects on the growing faith, but as Christianity’s influence spread, laws about the treatment of young humans also began to change. Christians were not the only ones in favor of these changes. Pagans realized that population stagnation was a problem in Rome, and they sometimes condemned abortion as an offense against the father of the child.[6] Christian moral perspectives did, however, play a significant role. The Christian position differed from secular and pagan attitudes in one key respect: it emphasized the humanity and worth of the unborn child.  From its infancy, Christianity has defended the value of all human life, and by doing so it has contributed to an elevated sense of human dignity. Christians helped positively change the Roman culture’s attitude toward children.

This heritage has been passed down through the centuries, and today Christians from many different theological camps continue to stand for unborn lives. While Catholics and Protestants frequently disagree on the use of contraception, there is broad agreement that abortion is morally wrong.

But Christian opposition to abortion cannot be reduced to the claim that human life should be protected. The Christian position is also rooted in a holistic understanding of God’s plan for sexuality.  A current pop tune describes a popular attitude in saying “Our baby making bodies we just use for fun”[7], but Christians reject this one dimensional distortion of human sexuality. It is not an accident that procreation and sexual pleasure are united in the same act. As Fletcher and Smith suggest:

“We recognize sexuality as a gift from God for mutual delight and expression of love as well as for childbearing, and we regard children as a blessing that God may add to sexual intimacy…we insist that sexuality, family, community and procreation are concepts naturally connected in God’s created intention for humanity.”[8] 

Challenges to the Christian Position

There are, however, many who challenge the Christian position on abortion. One of the most prevalent critiques centers on a woman’s right over her own body. Even if the baby is in some sense human, goes the argument, a woman should not be forced to sustain the developing fetus inside her. In her frequently cited essay, Judith Jarvis Thompson compares unwanted pregnancy to being forcibly hooked up to another person for the purpose of dialysis.[9] Surely we would agree that no one should be forced to provide such a medical “service”, but this doesn’t end the discussion.

Thompson’s illustration characterizes the developing fetus as a parasite. A value judgment has already been made. A woman’s body is not nurturing a baby, instead an alien party is leeching sustenance from an unwilling host. Christians may respond that in the vast majority of cases, the participants chose to have intercourse when they were aware that pregnancy was possible. While intercourse requires two participants, the burden for carrying the child falls fully on the female party. The physical consequences for the man are nothing compared with the physical consequences for the woman, but still, consensual sex brings with it an awareness that pregnancy may result.

Early Christians recognized the reality of fetal dependence on the female body. The Church Father Tertullian spoke to this question: “In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we 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.”[10] For him, the physical dependence of the unborn child was not the determinative factor. While the fetus was indeed connected to its mother, it was a distinct human person. As Gorman notes, “For Tertullian, dependence on the mother did not mean, as it did for pagan thought and for Jewish and Roman law, that the fetus is merely a part of the mother.”[11] This in no way denies the myriad of ways pregnancy permanently changes a woman’s life. Pregnancy is a life altering physical imposition, but it is more than that. It is also a stewardship, a gift, and a privilege.  Christians maintain that fetal life is worth protecting even though it is life altering.

Great compassion is required when ministering to women who face unexpected pregnancies. Christians have and will continue to provide support in such situations. We must come alongside these women, show them they are not alone, and help them see the blessing of bringing forth new life – even when they decide not to raise the child themselves.

Women stand to lose the most from premarital and extramarital sex. I believe this is one of the key reasons why Christianity has always affirmed that sex outside marriage is wrong. In the Christian moral system, a man must permanently commit to a woman before pregnancy is possible in their relationship. Pregnancy brings with it vulnerability. Christian marriage recognizes this vulnerability and helps guard and support both mother and child.

Another frequent critique of the pro-life position is that those who oppose abortion cease to care about babies after they are born. Christians have historically proved this claim false. Early Christians were known to rescue infants, many of them girls, and care for them within their communities. Their legacy continues today. Surveys have found that Christians are twice as likely to adopt as the average population[12], and frequently they do so at great cost.

A Heritage to Celebrate and Continue

Most moderns gaze with horror at the way baby girls were discarded in ancient Rome, but we must remember that gender selective abortion takes female lives today just as gender selective abandonment did in eras past. The Christian position on abortion protects fetuses, both female and male from discriminatory attitudes that would eliminate one sex. Where the Christian life ethic prevails, more baby girls are given the chance to live.

Christians are often chided for participating in the crusades and approving of imperialist policies. Though some of these criticisms are under-informed, wrongs must surely be acknowledged and repented of. But it is just as important to recognize the ways in which Christianity has contributed to a more humane society. From the very beginning Christians have stood against abortion and infanticide. They have publicly advocated for policies that protect human life, and they have privately acted to care for mothers and their babies. Christians, even where they are in the minority, have positively shaped the way their culture treats human life. This tradition continues today through the efforts of Christian activists, journalists, legislators, and adoptive parents who defend the dignity of the unborn in the public square.



[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. 124

[2] “The Didache Online.” The Didache. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

[3] Rodney Stark, 125

[4] Will Durant, Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to A.D. 325. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944. 698.

[5] Michael J. Gorman, Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, Jewish & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982. Print. 33-34

[6] Ibid. 26

[7] Tove Lo. “”Talking Body” Lyrics.” TOVE LO LYRICS. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

[8] Fletcher, David B., and Albert J. Smith. Ed. James Karl Hoffmeier. Abortion: A Christian Understanding and Response. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987. Print. 125

[9] Degrazia and Mappes 472

[10] Gorman 55

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Christians More Than Twice As Likely to Adopt a Child.” EthicsDaily.com. N.p., 08 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

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