“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1:41)
While we’re all thinking about the Gosnell Infanticide and Murder Trial I think it’s wise to take a look at history and remember two things:
1. The Greco-Roman world in which the first Christians lived was a culture that widely practiced infanticide and abortion.
2. The earliest Christians significantly impacted and changed this culture by being a counter-cultural community that sacrificially cared for unwanted babies and presenting a winsome four-fold message of opposition to abortion and infanticide: 1) the fetus is a beloved creation of God, 2) to abort is to murder, 3) complicity in abortion makes one guilty before God, and 4) God extends grace to the guilty.
Below is a very brief overview of these two points. At the bottom of this post is a link to a paper that unpacks these two points in much greater detail.
Abortion in the Ancient World: Motives & Methods
Several centuries before the first Christians appeared on the scene, Plato (427-347 B.C.) in his Republic discusses the role of women in the ideal republic and encourages, even commands, women to abort once they reach a certain age:
A woman, I said, at twenty years of age may begin to bear children to the State, and continue to bear them until forty…and we grant all this, accompanying the permission with strict orders to prevent any embryo which may come into being from seeing the light; and if any force a way to the birth, the parents must understand that the offspring of such an union cannot be maintained, and arrange accordingly.
Ancient motives for abortion were as manifold as the persons who pursued them: rich and poor, married and unmarried, promiscuous and monogamous. Abortions were sought in order to conceal illegitimate sexual activity, to limit family size, conserve wealth, correct ineffective contraception, to save an endangered mother, and to preserve beauty and avoid the physical effects of pregnancy on ones’ figure. Commenting on this last motivation, the great Roman satirist Juvenal, writing in the early 1st century, suggests that such women preferred not to, “get big and trouble the womb with bouncing babes.”
Methods of abortion also varied. Both chemical and mechanical procurements were available to the pregnant of antiquity. It was not difficult for a woman to purchase either oral drugs or compounds induced directly into the birth canal aimed at destroying the fetus. More precise (and gruesome) are antiquity’s mechanical methods. Writing in the second century, Tertullian of Carthage, the great Christian apologist, describes one of these rather involved mechanical procedures:
among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all, and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire foetus is extracted by a violent delivery.
In a lengthy 1st century medical treatsie Celsus the physician vividly describes a much more dangerous procedure of aborting the fetus in the third trimester:
An operation must be done, which may be counted among the most difficult; for it requires both extreme caution and neatness, and entails very great risk…The surgeon…should first insert the index finger of his greased hand, and keep it there until the mouth is opened again, and then he should insert a second finger, and the other fingers on the like opportunity, until the whole hand can be put in…But when the hand has reached the dead foetus its position is immediately felt…If the head is nearest, a hook must be inserted which is completely smooth, with a short point, and this it is right to fix into an eye or ear or the mouth, even at times into the forehead, then this is pulled on and extracts the foetus. …Now the right hand should pull the hook whilst the left is inserted within and pulls the foetus, and at the same time guides it…But if the foetus is lying crosswise and cannot be turned straight, the hook is to be inserted into an armpit and traction slowly made; during this the neck is usually bent back and the head turned backwards towards the rest of the foetus. The remedy then is to cut through the neck, in order that the two parts may be extracted separately. This is done with a hook which resembles the one mentioned above, but has all its inner edge sharp. Then we must proceed to extract the head first, then the rest, for if the larger portion be extracted first, the head slips back into the cavity of the womb, and cannot be extracted without the greatest risk…There are also other difficulties, which make it necessary to cut up and extract a foetus which does not come out whole.
A shocking letter from a pagan husband to his wife exposes the horribly casual nature of this practice in the ancient world:
Know that I am still in Alexandria…. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it. (Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, page 54).
The Early Church and Abortion
The first Christians engaged extensively with the abortion culture of their day.
One of the earliest Christian references to abortion is found in the Didache. It represents the first Christian statement opposing abortion. A late 1st century or early 2nd century document, the Didache is essentially a code of Christian community life complete with instructions on morality, worship, ritual, and politics. In a section expounding the commandment,“Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Didache lists a series of “thou shalt not” statements, including prohibitions against murder, adultery, illicit sex, theft, and practicing magic.
From the middle of this list comes the prohibition, “you will not murder offspring by means of abortion.” Further along comes a list of those who are a part of the “way of death.” Alongside “those persecutors of the good” and “those not showing mercy to the poor,” stands the condemnation of “those murders of children, those corrupters of God’s workmanship.” Here, the Didache links abortion with murder and presumes the humanity of the fetus. With this first of many Christian statements against abortion, “thou shalt not abort” becomes aligned with the ancient Hebrew commandment against murder, presenting the abortion-frequent Greco-Roman world with a vital countercultural path.
Tertullian (160-240 A.D.) offers, perhaps, the early church’s strongest polemic against abortion. In his most acclaimed work, Apology, addressed to both the Roman emperor and a series of Roman governors, bold Tertullian proclaims:
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. 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. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.
As other early Christians had proclaimed, Tertullian reiterates the most basic Christian reason for opposing abortion: that it is murder, the destruction of God’s creation. Tertullian recognized life in the womb. In a later work, De Anima (On the Soul), the great apologist urges mothers to attest to this general Christian conclusion:
Now, in such a question as this, no one can be so useful a teacher, judge, or witness, as the sex itself which is so intimately concerned. Give us your testimony, then, ye mothers, whether yet pregnant, or after delivery (let barren women and men keep silence),–the truth of your own nature is in question, the reality of your own suffering is the point to be decided. (Tell us, then,) whether you feel in the embryo within you any vital force other than your own, with which your bowels tremble, your sides shake, your entire womb throbs, and the burden which oppresses you constantly changes its position? Are these movements a joy to you, and a positive removal of anxiety, as making you confident that your infant both possesses vitality and enjoys it? Or, should his restlessness cease, your first fear would be for him; and he would be aware of it within you…[these]are conditions of the soul or life, he who experiences them must be alive.
Again, arguing that the soul, and thus life, comes into being at conception, Tertullian appeals directly to Scripture:
Brother (in Christ), on your own foundation build up your faith. Consider the wombs of the most sainted women instinct with the life within them, and their babes which not only breathed therein, but were even endowed with prophetic intuition…Elizabeth exults with joy, (for) John had leaped in her womb; Mary magnifies the Lord, (for) Christ had instigated her within. The mothers recognise each their own offspring, being moreover each recognised by their infants, which were therefore of course alive, and were not souls merely, but spirits also. Accordingly you read the word of God which was spoken to Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee.” Since God forms us in the womb, He also breathes upon us, as He also did at the first creation, when “the Lord God formed man, and breathed into him the breath of life.” Nor could God have known man in the womb, except in his entire nature: “And before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee.” Well, was it then a dead body at that early stage? Certainly not. For “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
No other Christian writers had yet made this exacting connection between Scripture, the Incarnation, and the practice of abortion. Like a trump card, Tertullian made known to his audience (he is no longer addressing Roman officials) that the very word of God, the very incarnation of the Son of God, testifies to the humanity of the fetus and the horror of abortion. Unto a Greco-Roman world that did not recognize the life of the fetus, nor grant the unborn any legal protection, Tertullian’s writings present a life-preserving alternative.
The early Christians did more than speak out against abortion. They also modeled a life of caring for life in the womb. In 140 A.D. a letter was written to a Roman government official telling him that Christians were not a threat to the city, but that Xians are the heart and soul of a city. It gives a snapshot of the earliest Christians. This “Letter to Diognetus” reads (emphasis added):
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
Instead of “exposing” (aborting or committing infanticide) their children, the early church raised and loved the life that grew in their wombs. And many (see especially the research of sociologist Rodney Stark) attribute the rapid growth of Christianity in the first centuries to, in part, how Christians took in, cared for, and raised the unwanted children of their neighbors.
The early Christians were not perfect in their witness. At times the church disciplined much too severely those who were guilty of committing an abortion. But as the church was reminded of her central message–grace, the undeserved love of God–the surrounding culture took notice of a life-changing and life-giving community.
I want the church today to be like the early church. They wanted what we want: the abortion of abortion. But until that day comes, until babies quit being aborted, let’s be relentless in doing what they did: speaking the truth in love, caring for the unborn, seeking justice, extending grace.
If you’d like more information, most of what I’ve posted here is drawn from a research paper I wrote about ten years ago in seminary titled Abortion and The Early Church (click to view).