Early Christian Views on the Life of Unborn Children

For Christians today, the conclusion is forgone that life is precious. Regarding most pro-life movements is the emphasis on the lives of the unborn. The struggle to obliterate the barbaric custom of aborting the unborn is as much a reality now as it was in the first century to the earliest Christians. Nevertheless, the battle wages on and Christians continue to advocate that unborn lives be regarded as worthy of the same rights and privileges as those already born.

Political rhetoric attempts to sway the conversation to the side of choice. Attempting to be sympathetic to those who make the decision to abort a life, many hold that the decision is itself agonizing and that women must be in control of their bodies and decisions about their “health.”[1] While the rhetoric often frames the conversation and vilifies those of us who are pro-life, it must be stated that this author is as pro-life for the unborn as he is for the living. I would want to appeal to those who contemplate such a decision to end a life to not do so on the grounds of our religion and the esteem that God our Father has for life.

A Theology for Life

When God created humanity, He created them in His own image (Genesis 1:26–27). Having been made in God’s image, anyone who took life was to lose their own for the reason that they destroyed the image of God: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). In the ancient East, appearing in God’s image implied a “representation of identity relating to the office/role and the value connected to the image …  The image of god did the god’s work on the earth. The biblical view is similar as people are in the image of God, embodying his qualities and doing his work.”[2] Because each human bears God’s image, this is the source of human worth and personhood.

The language used of those unborn gives us a greater understanding of God’s esteem for those in the womb. These pre-born image bearers of our Father have as much worth and personhood as those outside the womb.

For You formed my inward parts;

You covered me in my mother’s womb.

I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Marvelous are Your works,

And that my soul knows very well.

My frame was not hidden from You,

When I was made in secret,

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.

And in Your book they all were written,

The days fashioned for me,

When as yet there were none of them.

Psalm 139:13-16

This particular Psalm gives us an idea of the great care with which God acts during the gestation period of the unborn. While science gives us a technical explanation, the Psalm enlightens us with a poetical explanation of God’s workings. Therefore, we read in another Psalm that “the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). It was the fruit of Mary’s womb that Elizabeth blessed (Luke 1:42). A child is not a burden, but God’s gift.

God reveals that He knows the unborn even before they form in the womb (Jeremiah 1:4–5). Yet, while in the womb, they are regarded as living beings and the discussion about when life begins is unnecessary (cf. Luke 1:41). In the Mosaic Law, if the unborn were harmed, retribution was necessary (Exodus 21:22–25). We also see this reflected in our own laws when a pregnant woman suffers harm along with her unborn child. The treatment of such matters is as if harm were done to two people, but were the vessel to decide that the unborn were unwanted or a burden, they would need only to “chose” and the treatment of the unborn as a person is neglected for the idol of choice.

Abortion in Greco-Roman Society

Hippocrates (c. 460–375 BC) was a pioneer of medical theory as well as the oath that all physicians swore by upon beginning their practice of medicine, and still do today from my understanding. A part of the Hippocratic Oath states, “I will not give to a woman [an abortifacient].” Abortion was rather common in antiquity, but Greco-Roman society wasn’t entirely careless regarding the unborn. In some cases, abortion appears as wrong as we believe it to be today. For example, in Athens, if a man died while his wife was pregnant and she aborted the pregnancy upon his death, she was charged to have committed a crime against her husband. The legal theory was that her abortion was criminal since the unborn child could have claimed the late father’s estate, so it was more a matter of property rights than a moral statute. Fast-forwarding closer to the advent of Christ, we see that not much had changed in this regard.

Ovid’s work Amores was first published in 16 BC. In this work of poetry, Ovid mentions abortion in the early Roman Empire and the unborn child as a “burden” (Am. 2.13). However, in the next elegy, he refers to the fetus as “tender” and the destruction of it as by a “warlike method.” This particular elegy is against abortion because it robs society of her Caesars and other heroes. Furthermore, were this a common practice, Ovid suggests, there would be no humanity. He asked why women would “thrust and pierce with the instrument and give dire poisons” to unborn children, which explains how abortions were performed then (Am. 2.14). The methods of abortion were sometimes as risky for the mother as they were for the unborn baby and many women died from having attempted to terminate their pregnancy.

The Roman statesman, Cicero mentions a disdain for abortion similar to the Athenian law mentioned above. A mother had been bribed by alternative heirs to terminate her pregnancy, which she did. The mother, in turn, was condemned to death because she cheated the father of his posterity and the Republic of a potential citizen (In Defense of Cluentius 32).

The philosophical school of Stoicism held that life began once a child was born. The breathing of a person outside the womb was the moment life began. This thinking allowed abortion to be acceptable, and Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC–AD 65), a Roman statesman and philosopher, was able to use this belief in the legal system. Seneca wrote that “unnatural progeny” were destroyed, which was likely a reference to an incestuous conception. He also wrote about drowning children that were born abnormal and weak (On Anger 1.15.2–3), but I’ll talk more about infanticide in the next chapter. The Stoic idea that unborn babies were not humans came to influence Roman law and only further justified the practice of abortion.[3]

Not all Stoics, however, consented to abortion being a good thing. Musonius Rufus (c. AD 30?–102) saw abortion as inhuman. He saw its purpose as solely of enhancing the firstborn’s inheritance more than anything, which amounted to greedy motives. The lawgivers, he contended, functioned to discern what was lawful and good for the state, as well as what was bad and detrimental to it. The lawgivers, he recalled, urged the increase of the homes as something fortunate. So fortunate was the increase of the homes “that they forbade women to suffer abortions and imposed a penalty upon those who disobeyed” (Discourse 15). His discourse on this matter is likely a referendum against the common practice of abortions in the first century.[4]

Juvenal wrote that wealthy women would not endure labor, but would dull the pain with drugs or obtain an abortion (Satire 6.593–96). He also wrote how Emperor Domitian (c. AD 81–96) impregnated his niece and then gave her abortive drugs. The niece in question, Julia, died in AD 91 as a result of the abortion (Satire 2.20–24). Here we see another example of why abortions were performed (incest). Wealthy people may not have just wanted to deal with it, so they selfishly terminated the pregnancy. However, there was another reason for terminating a pregnancy. Slave women might terminate a pregnancy to avoid bring up a child in slavery.[5] The slave women would have had to have done this in secrecy because a slave’s child was the property of her master and not her own.   

In the second century, the Greek gynecologist, obstetrician, and pediatrician, Soranus of Ephesus, wrote his work Gynecology which explains how medical knowledge at the time treated various related matters. In this work, he distinguished between an involuntary abortion—what we’d call “miscarriage”—and the willful termination of pregnancy. He also distinguished between a contraceptive and abortive. The former was to prevent conception from taking place while the latter was intended to expel the unborn from the woman’s body (Gyn. 1.59–60).

In discussing when an abortive was given, he noted that some would not give an abortive if a woman wanted to terminate the pregnancy due to adultery or because she wanted to preserve her youthful beauty—again, two reasons why abortions took place then. An abortive would be given if it were discovered that the woman’s body, according to the science then, were determined to be unable of birthing a child and thus risk the mother’s wellbeing. However, Soranus preferred contraceptives to an abortive as a preventative risk, because “it is safer to prevent conception from taking place than to destroy the fetus” (Gyn. 1.60). He then went on to list various concoctions that could be used as a contraceptive or abortifacient, but if used to terminate a pregnancy, serious side effects followed that posed significant risks (Gyn. 1.61–63). Yet, this didn’t prevent him from explicitly naming how one might terminate a pregnancy (Gyn. 1.64–65).

While more citations could be supplied to the ends of showing how common abortion was, we also noted a couple of pagans who were against it, but not for the same moral reasons early Christians stood opposed to the practice. Additionally, there were others who opposed abortion in antiquity, but Christians gave a clearer understanding of why it was wrong that distinguished them from others. It’s now to this focus that we turn.

Early Christians as Pro-Life

What we must admit is that there are no clearly stated prohibitions against abortion in the New Testament. However, early Christianity borrowed their moral understanding of various issues from Judaism, so we, first, look the Jewish historian, Josephus (c. AD 37–100). He wrote about the Jewish prohibition against abortion on the basis that it was a matter of Jewish law.

The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind: if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean.

(Against Apion 2.202)

The Ten Commandments were used by early Christians just as they were by Jews—as teachings that pertained to moral living. Notably, the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” was given a greater exposition in Christian thinking. When in the late first, early second century, a document known as Didache was written, attention turned to the sixth commandment and stated, “You shall not murder … you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (2.2). This document understood the sixth commandment as extending to the unborn. The reason I included “sorcery” as a part of this understanding is that the Greek term translated “sorcery” is the word from which we get “pharmacy.” Therefore, “sorcery” here likely included taking abortifacients—drugs that induced abortion. Our modern understanding of the sixth commandment was clearly understood as extending to the life of the unborn.

Also in keeping with the Mosaic Law, the paths of life and death (Deuteronomy 27–28) are recast as darkness and light in another early Christian writing.

But the path of darkness is crooked and full of cursing, for it is the path of eternal death and punishment, in which way are the things that destroy the soul …  Here are they who are persecutors of the good, haters of truth, lovers of lies; they who know not the reward of righteousness, who cleave not to what is good nor unto just judgment … murderers of children.

(Barnabas 20.1–2)

Christian writers believed that life began at conception. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 160–215) inferred from Luke 1:41 when John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb that very belief (Instructor 2.10.96). Athenagoras, in the late-second-century, pointed to Christianity’s rejection of abortion as proof that Christians were moral when he wrote that the Christians “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” (Leg. 35).

Later church councils forbade abortion and actually levied punishments against any who murdered their unborn. The Council of Elvira (c. 4th century) reflects such beliefs.

If a woman conceives in adultery and then has an abortion, she may not commune again, even as death approaches, because she has sinned twice. (Canon 63)

A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches. (Canon 68)

Even some of the most notable early church theologians supported this stance. Both Augustine (c. AD 354–430) and John Chrysostom (c. AD 347–407) viewed abortion as murder.

What are we to make of this information? Life is precious and worthy of being protected. Moreover, even without the testament of church history, the Scriptures give sufficient enough evidence for us to believe this once one examines the passages that speak about the life of the unborn. However, for those who desire greater proof, early Christian history is without apology in holding that life begins at conception, so the unborn ought not to be aborted. These two beliefs led to another moral issue. The problem that arose as a result of unwanted children led to the abandonment of children throughout the Roman Empire, so what did Christianity do? They practiced pure and undefiled religion and cared for the orphans.

[1] Perhaps the best source that I’ve read about pro-life principles from a philosophical and practical standpoint is by an obstetrician and former politician, Ron Paul, Abortion and Liberty (Lake Jackson, Texas: The Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, 1983). For a complete classical evaluation of abortion, I’d urge a reading of Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1982). 

[2] John H. Walton, ed., Genesis, in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 21.

[3] Cf. Justinian, Digest

[4] Caesar Augustus issued edicts in 18 BC and AD 9 promoting childbearing, but he did not explicitly outlaw abortion (Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, 27). 

[5] Dio Chrysostom (c. AD 40/50–110/120), Discourses 15.8.

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