The Witness of Church History

As Protestants, we hold that only the testimony of Scripture is infallible. Yet not all areas of Scripture are equally clear, so there has been significant variation in many areas of doctrine across the history of the church. But on the matter of abortion, this has not been so. For over two thousand years, there has been unanimity in declaring abortion a grave evil and crime.

Long before God became flesh and dwelt among us, God’s people abominated abortion.149 Among the Jews, it was offensive, and indeed the Jews were famous for their hostility to both exposure150 and abortion.151 As was true with the later church fathers, there was debate and discussion on matters related to ensoulment and quickening, but deliberate abortion was considered a violation of the law of God, and an affront to the sanctity of life.152 Former chief justice of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of America, Rabbi Marvin S. Antelman, offers this summary:

All major religions have their parochial and their universal aspects, and the problem of abortion is not a parochial one. It is of universal morality, and it is neither a Catholic problem, nor a Jewish problem, nor a Protestant problem. It involves the killing of a human being, an act forbidden by universal commandment.153

Similarly, Chief Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits of the United Kingdom explains Jewish thinking on the value of human life:

Jewish law sees every human life as having the sanctity of intrinsic and infinite worth. One life has as much value as one hundred or one thousand; you cannot multiply infinity and you cannot divide it. So every human being has an identical worth and is identically worth saving.154

This care for the life of the unborn is precisely what we witness in the Jewish world recorded by the gospels. We see the affirmation of the agency of John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth, and her reaction thereto testifying to her son’s personhood (Luke 1:41–45). We see the great care taken by Joseph and Mary for our Lord, which perfectly accords with a culture that affirmed the preciousness of life. We see the revulsion of the Apostle Matthew who, through the Holy Spirit, exposes Herod’s murder of the innocents with no hint that it could ever be excusable (Matt. 2:16–18). And we see in our Lord’s words the care for the unborn and the recognition of their personhood (John 16:21).155

With the development of the New Testament church, some of the defining features that had marked God’s people began to change. With the abrogation of Old Testament ceremonial law and the expansion of faith and the covenant people to the Gentiles, many of the old distinguishing marks between God’s chosen people and the rest of the world became obsolete. In such an environment, one might anticipate the stringency of earlier Judaic condemnations of abortion would be softened, or fall by the wayside.

What happened was just the opposite. Christian condemnations of abortion intensified beyond earlier Jewish ones. The Jews had focused on abortion as a crime against man, but Christians came to speak of abortion as a crime against God. Where Jewish rabbis had refrained from according status to the unborn, even carving out exceptions where abortion might be permitted,156 Christians were adamant, speaking in absolute terms concerning its evil.

Opposition to abortion had previously been a feature of close-knit Jewish communities, but with the new Christian church crossing national boundaries, the rejection of abortion no longer remained an ethnic distinctive. It was now a fundamental moral commitment of the new, burgeoning, multiethnic Christian church. Jewish opprobrium towards abortion and the exposure of infants was common across the Roman Empire, but this opprobrium focused on their own communities. It was not so with the Christians. It was no longer enough for God’s people to condemn abortion and exposure as unworthy of the covenant community, but now the Christian church opposed these murders even among the pagans—in rhetoric, in policy, and eventually in law. Most importantly, Christians rescued these little ones exposed by their pagan parents, taking them from the hillsides into their homes and adopting them as their own children. This act of Christian compassion was well-known across the Empire. It was a defining mark of these first Christians.

It is not surprising, then, that during the Apostolic Age and immediately thereafter, we find clear prohibitions of abortion in the writings of church fathers:

You shalt not murder a child by abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. (Didache 2.2, AD 50–100)

You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor in turn shall you kill him after it is born. (Letter of Barnabas 19, AD 80–130)

All of life could proceed according to nature for us if we exert power over our desires from the beginning and do not by evil devices and schemes kill the human offspring, designed by divine forethought and intention. For those women who, to cover their immorality, use abortifacient drugs [phthoriois pharmakois] that expel the matter entirely dead, abort along with the embryo their own affection for mankind. (Clement, The Tutor, c. AD 198)

But for us [Christians], since homicide has once for all been forbidden, it is not permitted to pull apart even what has been conceived in the womb. . . . Prevention of birth is hastened homicide; nor does it matter whether one tears away a life that has been born or pulls apart one in the midst of birth. He who will be a man is a man already: for indeed the entire fruit exists already in the seed. (Tertullian, Defense of the Christians Against the Heathen 9, c. AD 197)

Therefore the fetus is a human being in the womb from the time that its form is complete. For also the law of Moses judges abortion worthy of penalties, given there exist already the rudiments of a man, since to him is already allotted the condition of life and death when he is assigned to his fate—even though, by still living within the mother, he shares his fate for the most part with her. (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul 37, AD 208–212)

When a woman has with intentionality destroyed (phtheirasa) a fetus, she is held to be guilty of murder. No fastidious distinction (akribologia) between “completely formed” and “unformed” exists with us. For in this case not only the child about to be born will be vindicated, but also the woman herself who plotted against herself: inasmuch in most cases women perish from such attempts. And there is added to this also a second murder, the destruction (phthora) of the embryo—at least as far as the purpose of those who dare these things. (Basil, Letter to Amphilocus on the Canons 188.2, fourth century AD)

Also, the rich themselves, lest their inheritance be divided among many, kill their own offspring in the womb, and by parricidal liquids they snuff out the children of the womb in the genital organs themselves—and life is taken away before it be imparted. Who except man has taught us how to renounce our own sons? (Ambrose, Hexameron 5.18.58, AD 386–390)157

You shall not use magic. You shall not use potions; for He says, You shall not permit witches [lit., potionists] to live. You shall not slay your child by abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for everything that has been formed and has received a soul from God shall be avenged if slain, as unjustly destroyed. (Apostolic Constitutions 7.1.3, AD 375–380)

Some, when they know they have conceived through wickedness, turn to abortive drugs; often, when they too have themselves perished, they are brought to the lower world guilty of three crimes: suicide, adultery against Christ, and parricide of their unborn child (Jerome, Letters 22.13, c. AD 384)

Indeed, sometimes this lustful cruelty or cruel lust [libidinosa crudelitas vel libido crudelis] extends so far that it obtains poisons of sterility [sterilitatis venena]; and, if nothing else works, [it] snuffs out and breaks up by some means the offspring conceived in the womb, preferring its own offspring to perish before it lives [prius interire quam vivere]; or, if it was already living in the womb, to be killed before being born [occidi antequam nasci]. (Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.17 [15], AD 419–420)158

Over a millennium later, the Protestant reformers repeated this condemnation of abortion—always a distinctive mark of Christian morality and charity:

How great, therefore, the wickedness of human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God! Indeed, some spouses who marry and live together in a respectable manner have various ends in mind, but rarely children. The God who declares that we are to be fruitful and multiply regards it as a great evil when human beings destroy their offspring. (Martin Luther, comments on Gen. 25:1–4)159

The foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light. (John Calvin, comments on Exod. 21:22ff.)160

From ancient times down to the present day, the position of the church across all its branches—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—has been adamant and unchanging: abortion in all its manifestations is a grave, unspeakable evil:

Throughout Christianity’s two thousand year history, this same doctrine of condemning all direct abortions has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and by her Pastors and Doctors. Even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion.161

  1. For one of the best summaries of historical Jewish teaching on abortion, see J. David Bleich, “Abortion and Jewish Law,” New Perspectives on Human Abortion, ed. Thomas Hilgers, Dennis Horan, and David Mall (Aletheia Books, 1981), 405–419.↩︎

  2. As noted earlier, it was a common practice for Roman fathers to abandon their infant children to die of exposure.↩︎

  3. Tacitus, Histories 5.5: “Yet they [the Jews] take care that their multitude grows; for indeed to kill any of their children is unspeakable, and they hold that the souls of those killed in battle or by penalty of death are immortal: hence their love of reproducing and their disregard for dying. They bury rather than burn their dead.”↩︎

  4. Thus Josephus, Against Appion 2.202: “[The Law] mandates that they raise all the children, and forbids women either from aborting the seed or from destroying it; but if any [woman] should appear [to have done this], she would be a child murderer, having destroyed a soul and diminished the race.”↩︎

  5. “Why Jews Oppose Abortion,” The Review of the News, May 1, 1974, 1–6. Emphasis in the original.↩︎

  6. As quoted in Bill Moloney, “Jewish View,” National Right to Life News, June 1979, 6.↩︎

  7. Jesus speaks of “joy that a human being has been born into the world,” indicating that the human being exists prior to birth. For more on the biblical teaching of personhood prior to birth, see the next section of this paper, “The Testimony of Scripture.”↩︎

  8. For more on this, see Daniel Schiff, “Evaluating Life,” in Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 27–57.↩︎

  9. “Ipsae quoque divites, ne per plures suum patrimonium dividatur, in utero proprios necant fetus, et parricidalibus succis in ipso genitali alvo pignora sui ventris exstinguunt, priusque aufertur vita quam tradatur. Quis docuit nisi homo filios abdicari?”↩︎

  10. “Aliquando eo usque pervenit haec libidinosa crudelitas vel libido crudelis, ut etiam sterilitatis venena procuret et si nihil valuerit, conceptos fetus aliquo modo intra viscera exstinguat ac fundat, volendo suam prolem prius interire quam vivere, aut si in utero iam vivebat, occidi ante quam nasci. Prorsus si ambo tales sunt, coniuges non sunt; et si ab initio tales fuerunt, non sibi per connubium, sed per stuprum potius convenerunt.”↩︎

  11. Lectures on Genesis Chapters 21–25, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vol. 4 in Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–1986), 304.↩︎

  12. Trans. Charles William Bingham (1852), in Harmony of the Law, vol. 3, The Ages Digital Library Commentary (Books for the Ages, 1998), 32.↩︎

  13. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, § 61.↩︎