How Early Christians Viewed the Lives of the Unborn
Abortions are nothing new. They’ve existed since antiquity as a method to limit the number of children a household had. However, the oath attributed to Hippocrates that doctors take to this day prohibited abortion in ancient Greece—“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly, I will not give a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness, I will guard my life and my art.” Cicero argued that anyone who intentionally aborted a child deserved capital punishment (In Defense of Cluentius 32). In the Old Testament, we see the care God gives over the individual in His fashioning of them in 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)
Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:4–5)
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, “Thou shall not kill,” was given a greater expansion in Christian thinking. Those familiar with biblical Hebrew might better render the sixth commandment as, “You shall do no murder.” “Murder” is a term that we understand differently than “kill.” “Murder” carries the weight of malicious intent. “Kill” doesn’t always carry that same weight. I might be driving my car and lose control and run over a person and “kill” them. However, I didn’t maliciously intend to do them any harm. The early Christians, likewise, valued life—including that of the unborn.
And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder … you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. (Didache 2.2)
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. One early Christian inferred from Luke 1:41 when John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb that very belief (Instructor 2.10.96). Athenagoras 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 s for the abortion” (Leg. 35). Later church councils forbade abortion and actually levied punishments against those Christians who murdered their unborn. The Council of Elvira (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. (can. 63)
A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches. (can. 68)
Even some of the most notable early church theologians/bishops supported this stance. Both Augustine and John Chrysostom viewed abortion as murder.
Despite the rationale of those who advocate such today, there is always a scenario of mitigating circumstances that people rely on to justify the action. Those who favor abortion see the argument as a discussion of the woman’s body while those who oppose abortion view the matter relevant to the body of the unborn. How one considers the debate depends on their conclusion. However, I believe that even those who make the decision are deserving of compassion and mercy, because we may not know what led to their decision. All we can do as supporters of life is to listen, learn, and try to help.