Dan Popp
The early church and abortion
A layman reads The Ante Nicene Fathers
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By Dan Popp
October 20, 2009

You shall not murder. Exodus 20:13

The unborn child is a human life. Is that a new idea? Consider this assertion from a "Gender Studies" professor (and note the title of her work):

    The tendency of the public and medical institutions to perceive fetuses as human is a problematic development because it has the potential to privilege fetuses over women. ... Whereas personhood was once gained through the social world, in Western contemporary society both mothers and fetuses establish identities through reproductive technology and technoscience. Merideth Nash, The fetishised fetus: creating "life" with ultrasound.

I think it would surprise Ms. Nash to learn that the "perception" of fetuses as human is not a recent "development" brought about by breakthroughs in diagnostic imaging. Certainly current science has provided stunning visual evidence for the biblical view of life, but Christians and Jews have held this view for thousands of years.

The early church leaders, for example, had a great deal to say on the subject of life in the womb.

In The Epistle of Barnabas, AD 100, the author is outlining "The way of light," or acceptable conduct for Christians, when he writes in Chapter 19: "Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born." Chapter 20 contrasts the way of darkness: "In this way, too, are those ...who are murderers of children, destroyers of the workmanship of God...."

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, AD 130, asserts that the customs of Christians are unremarkable with some exceptions. "They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring." A marginal note here in Chapter 5 tells us that "destroy their offspring" is literally, "cast away foetuses."

From Tertullian's Apology, about AD 200, we read:

    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. (Chapter 9)

The 25th chapter of Tertullian's Treatise on the Soul, AD 203, endeavors to prove that the body is endowed with a soul from conception. The author describes some gruesome methods of abortion, then argues, "And thus by and by infants are still-born; but how so, unless they had had life? For how could any die, who had not previously lived?" He says that even abortionists "all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived." He brings forth other witnesses as well: "Why, too, used the old astrologers to cast a man's nativity from his first conception, if his soul also draws not its origin from that moment? To this (nativity) likewise belongs the inbreathing of the soul, whatever that is."

In Chapter 27 of this same work we find: "Now we contend that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does."

And in Chapter 37:

    The embryo therefore becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that its form is completed. The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion, inasmuch as there exists already the rudiment of a human being, which has imputed to it even now the condition of life and death, since it is already liable to the issues of both, although, by living still in the mother, it for the most part shares its own state with the mother.

In his work entitled, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, dated around AD 208, Tertullian teaches:

    And from that time, ever since the blessing which was pronounced upon man's generation, the flesh and the soul have had a simultaneous birth, without any calculable difference in time; so that the two have been even generated together in the womb.... (Chapter 45)

He adds later, in Chapter 57, "Even if we become injured in the womb, this is loss suffered by what is already a human being."

Tertullian's On the Veiling of Virgins, circa AD 204, includes this passage about a woman pretending to be a virgin:

    What audacities, again, will (such an one) venture on with regard to her womb, for fear of being detected in being a mother as well! God knows how many infants He has helped to perfection and through gestation till they were born sound and whole, after being long fought against by their mothers! Such virgins ever conceive with the readiest facility, and have the happiest deliveries, and children indeed most like to their fathers! These crimes does a forced and unwilling virginity incur. (Chapter 14)

The Octavius of Minucius Felix, AD 210 expresses his opinion on the source of the abortion culture:

    There are some women 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 assuredly come down from the teaching of your gods. (Chapter 30)

Origen, in Against Celsus, Book 8, circa AD 250, teaches, "And God would have us to bring up all our children, and not to destroy any of the offspring given us by His providence." (Chapter 55)

Hippolytus wrote the ambitiously-titled Refutation of All Heresies around AD 235. In Book 9, Chapter 7 he documents a scandalous practice:

    Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how much impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time!

There are also some passages in The Ante Nicene Fathers dealing with the ancient Roman practice of "exposure." An unwanted infant was simply abandoned. It was either picked up by another family and raised as a slave, or died by the various means you can imagine. Ms. Nash, whom I quoted at first, was right when she said, "Personhood was once gained through the social world;" but that was a very ancient world, and a brutal one.

The "New Atheists" who seem to be suffering from a mental defect that prevents them from remembering any of the positive contributions of Christianity hospitals, orphanages, modern science miss this one as well: the eradication of barbaric practices like exposure.

Justin, martyred in AD 165, wrote in Chapter 27 of his First Apology, "But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men...." "And again [we fear to expose children] lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers." (Chapter 29)

Athenagoras mentions both exposure and abortion in his work dated AD 177, called A Plea For the Christians:

    And when we 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, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God's care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. (Chapter 35)

As you've seen, Christians of the first, second and third centuries respected life from its initial moment. I didn't find any passages expressing a contrary view. The exact words, "life begins with conception" may not appear in the Bible; but, like the concept of the Trinity, they appear in the earliest writings by Christians.

Far from being an unfortunate side effect of today's "technoscience," the view of the fetus as a protected human life is as old as the Mosaic Law (Exodus 21:22ff). The difference in views is not one of digital vs. analog, new vs. old; but of believing vs. pagan.

© Dan Popp

 

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