Church History and Abortion
Historic writings demonstrate the church's longstanding opposition to abortion.
In writings from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation, Christians have stood uniformly against abortion, believing it to be an act of murder and deserving of God’s judgment. Because they viewed life in the womb as the object of God’s care, they believed it should therefore be the object of neighborly love.
Abortion, in various forms, has existed since the dawn of Christianity, and most Christians throughout history have found the practice deplorable. Here you will find a broad collection of extra-biblical statements about abortion from various Christian writings, writers, and decrees, from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation.
Christianity Under the Roman Empire (A.D. 30-476)
EARLY WRITINGS: Three of the earliest extra-biblical writings mention abortion as a practice on par with murder and deserving of God's judgment.
- Didache/Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (a manual for Christian morality, written between A.D. 70-120) says in chapters 1 & 2: “The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself…You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery…you shall not steal…you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”
- Epistle of Barnabas (a letter about the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, written between A.D. 80-120) says in chapter 19: “The way of light, then is as follows . . . You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shall you destroy it after it is born."
- Apocalypse of Peter (an apocalyptic writing for which there is no complete manuscript, written between A.D. 100-150) symbolically describes the future vengeance of aborted children on their mothers: “And near that place I saw another straight place into which the gore and filth of those who were being punished and ran down and became there as it were a lake; and there sat women having gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born out of due time, crying; and there came forth from them sparks of fire and smote the women in the eyes; and these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion” (vs. 25).
SECOND AND THIRD CENTURY FATHERS: Within the first three centuries, Christians were often persecuted, criticized, and marginalized within Roman society. This required Christians to justify and explain their beliefs and practices to those in power and those in wider society. Additionally, as Christianity grew, it became increasingly necessary for Christians to be instructed in doctrine and ethics. Several Christian leaders and writers took up these tasks, and, in the process, put forth the standard Christian attitude toward the practice of abortion – an attitude that vastly differed from the surrounding culture. Abortion continued to be regarded as an act of murder.
- Clement of Alexandria (a scholar from Alexandria; A.D. 150-216) mentions the practice of abortion in chapter X of Book II of his work The Instructor: “Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings.”
- Athenagoras of Athens (a philosopher from Athens; late 2nd century), in a work entitled A Plea for Christians addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius Anoninus and his son Lucius Aurelius Commodus, responds to the charge that Christians practice cannibalism: “How, then, when we do not even look on [a gladiatorial contest], lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and we 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 very fetus 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” (ch. XXXV).
- Tertullian (a presbyter from Carthage; A.D.
160-240), in three of his writings, mentions his beliefs about abortion and fetal life. In chapter IX of his Apology, written around A.D. 200 to the rulers of the
Roman Empire, he responds to the charge that
Christians kill their children and eat them: “In our case, murder
being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus 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 birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in
In A Treatise on the Soul, written after A.D. 203, he speculates about the origin, nature, and destiny of the human soul, subsequently mentioning his view on life in the womb:
“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 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, since he is disturbed at the novel sound; and you would crave for injurious diet, or would even loathe your food – all on his account; and then you and he, (in the closeness of your sympathy,) would share together your common ailments – so far that with your contusions and bruises would he actually become marked, – whilst within you, and even on the selfsame parts of the body, taking to himself thus peremptorily the injuries of his mother! Now, whenever a livid hue and redness are incidents of the blood, the blood will not be without the vital principle, or soul; or when disease attacks soul or vitality, (it becomes as proof of its real existence, since) there is no disease where there is no soul or principle of life. Again, inasmuch as sustenance by food, and the want thereof, growth and decay, fear and motion, are conditions of the soul or life, he who experiences them must be alive. And, so, he at least ceases to live, who ceases to experience them. 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? But sometimes by a cruel necessity, whilst yet in the womb, an infant is put to death, when lying awry in the orifice of the womb he impedes parturition, and kills his mother, if he is not to die himself. Accordingly, 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 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 fetus is extracted by violent delivery. There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a copper needle or spike, by which the actually death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: they give it, from its infanticide function the name of embruosphaktes, the slayer of the infant, which was of course alive” (chapter XXV).
“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…However, even these have life, each of them in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth exults with joy, (for) John had leaped in her womb; Mary magnifies the Lord, (for) Christ had instigated her within. The mothers recognized 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 you in the belly, I knew you.’ 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 you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you.’ 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’” (chapter XXVI).
“How, then, is a living being conceived? Is the substance of both body and soul formed together at one and the same time? Or does one of them precede the other in natural formation? We indeed maintain that both are conceived, and formed, and perfectly simultaneously, as well as born together; and that not a moment’s interval occurs in their conception, so that a prior place can be assigned to either. Judge, in fact, of the incidents of man’s earliest existence by those which occur to him at the very last. As death is defined to be nothing else than the separation of the body and soul, life, which is the opposite of death, is susceptible of no other definition than the conjunction of body and soul. If the severance happens at one and the same time to both substances by means of death, so the law of their combination ought to assure us that it occurs simultaneously to the two substances by means of life. Now we allow that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul also begins with conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does. Thus, then, the processes which act together to produce separation by death, also combine in simultaneous action to produce life” (chapter XXVII).
“We, on our part, believe the angels to officiate herein for God. 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 penalty 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” (chapter XXXVII).
In To His Wife (Book I, chapter V), written around A.D. 207, he briefly mentions the common Roman practice of abortion: “Burdens [a reference to child-rearing] must be sought by us for ourselves which are avoided even by the majority of the Gentiles, who are compelled by laws, who are decimated by abortions; burdens which, finally are to us most of all unsuitable, as being perilous to faith."
- Minucius Felix (3rd century), in his The Octavius of Minucius Felix written around A.D. 205, records a dialogue about the legitimacy of Christianity between Octavius, a defender of Christianity, and Caecilius, a defender of Roman paganism: “Think you that it can be possible for so tender, so little a body to receive those fatal wounds; for anyone to shed, pour forth, and drain that new blood of a youngling, and of a man scarcely come into existence? No one can believe this, except one who can dare to do it. And I see that you at one time expose your begotten children to wild beast and to birds; at another, that you crush them when strangled with a miserable kind of death. 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…To us it is not lawful either to see or to hear of homicide; and so much do we shrink from human blood, that we do not use the blood even of eatable animals in our food” (chapter XXX).
- Hippolytus (A.D. 170-236), in his The Refutation of All Heresies, written after A.D. 222, condemns abortion: “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 great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church!” (Book IX, chapter VI).
- Cyprian (a bishop of Carthage; A.D. 200-258), in a letter written to a certain Cornelius around A.D. 251, describes the crimes of Novatus: “Orphans despoiled by him, widows defrauded, moneys moreover of the Church withheld, exact from him those penalties which we behold inflicted in his madness. His father also died of hunger in the street, and afterwards even in death was not buried by him. The womb of his wife was smitten by a blow of his heel; and in the miscarriage that soon followed the offspring was brought forth, the fruit of a father’s murder. And now does he dare to condemn the hands of those who sacrifice, when he himself is more guilty in his feet, by which the son, who was about to born, was slain?” (Letter 48).
- Methodius of Olympus (a bishop of Olympus and Patara in Lycia; A.D. 260-312), in his The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, discusses the artistry of God in fetal development and the judgment on parents who put their children to death: “Whence, also, we have received from the inspired writings [he probably refers to the Apocalypse of Peter above], that those who are begotten, even though it be in adultery, are committed to guardian angels. But if they came into being in opposition to the will and the decree of the blessed nature of God, how should they be delivered over to angels, to be nourished with much gentleness and indulgence? and how, if they had to accuse their own parents, could they confidently, before the judgment seat of Christ, invoke Him and say, ‘Thou didst not, O Lord, grudge us this common light; but these appointed us to death, despising Thy command?’ ‘For,’ He says, ‘children begotten of unlawful beds are witnesses of wickedness against their parents at their trial’” (chapter VI).
FOURTH CENTURY COUNCILS AND DOCUMENTS: With the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, granting tolerance to all religions including Christianity, Emperor Constantine officially began the “Christianization” of the Roman Empire. This led to many changes within Christianity. Christians would no longer have to worry about institutional persecution, but Christianity itself would become more “institutional.” Also, since more people would now be considered “Christian,” it led to increased immorality within the church, including increased abortions. Consequently, church leaders gathered at various times and places to determine appropriate courses of action for various sins and heresies, and to make “official decrees.” Because the practice was so common, the issue of abortion could not be avoided. In official ecclesiastical councils and official documents, it continued to be considered a practice that was contrary to Christian morality and one that deserved specific punishment (both at the hands of the church and from God in the future judgment). However, it was also decreed that by taking appropriate action one who took part in abortive practices could eventually be restored to fellowship and forgiven.
Council of Elvira (A.D. 306):
Canon 63: If a woman becomes pregnant by committing adultery, while her husband is absent, and after the act she destroys [the child], it is proper to keep her from communion until death,because she has doubled her crime.
Canon 68: If a catechumen should conceive by an adulterer, and should procure the death of the child, she can be baptized only at the end of her life.
Council of Ancyra (A.D. 314):
Canon 21: Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death [probably a reference to Elvira], and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed decrees.
- Apostolic Constitutions (a "manual of Christian belief and practices, probably completed before A.D. 325 but at least by the end of the 4th century) lists several immoral practices to be avoided: “You shall not slay the child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for ‘everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed’” (Book VII, section I, part III).
FOURTH AND FIFTH CENTURY FATHERS: Several important Christian leaders in the fourth and fifth centuries commented on the practice of abortion in their various writings, maintaining the standard Christian stance that the practice was murderous, yet forgivable.
- Basil of Caesarea, a.k.a. Basil the Great (on of the three "Cappadocian Fathers" and bishop in Caesarea; A.D. 330-379); in a letter to Amphilochius in A.D. 374; wrote: “The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events if we regard it as done with intent. The punishment, however, of these women should not be for life, but for the term of ten years. And let their treatment depend not on mere lapse of time, but on the character of their repentance... Women also who administer drugs to cause abortion, as well as those who take poisons to destroy unborn children, are murderesses” (Letter CLXXXVIII). Also, Basil’s words became canonized. Canon II states: “Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not."
- Ambrose of Milan (bishop of Milan; A.D. 339-397), in his Hexaëmeron, criticizes the wealthy for procuring abortions: “The wealthy, in order that their inheritance may not be divided among several, deny in the very womb their own progeny. By use of parricidal mixtures they snuff out the fruit of their wombs in the genital organs themselves. In this way life is taken away before it is given…Who except man himself has taught us ways of repudiating children?"
- Jerome (known for his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate; A.D. 343-420), in a letter written at Rome to Lady Eustochium in A.D. 384, wrote: “You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so far as to take potions, that they insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and murder” (Letter XXII).
Augustine of Hippo (one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity; A.D. 354-430) in three of his works discusses both his stance against abortion and his hunch that those who died before birth in the womb would indeed take part in the final resurrection:
In On Marriage and Concupiscence, Book I, chapter 17, written for Count Valerius in A.D. 419 and 420, he speaks about those who have sex for pleasure only and have unwanted pregnancies: “Having also proceeded thus far, they are betrayed into exposing their children, which are born against their will. They hate to nourish and retain those whom they were afraid they would beget. This infliction of cruelty on their offspring so reluctantly begotten, unmasks the sin which they had practiced in darkness, and drags it clearly into the light of day. The open cruelty reproves the concealed sin. Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or, if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born. Well, if both parties are so flagitious, they are not husband and wife; and if such were their character from the beginning, they have to come together by wedlock but by debauchery."
In The Enchiridion, written to Laurentius (a young pupil) in A.D. 421, in a large discussion on faith, hope, and love, he mentions his hunch that those who died in the womb would take part in the future resurrection: “Hence in the first place arises a question about abortive conceptions, which have indeed been born in the mother’s womb, but not so born that they could be born again. For if we shall decide that these are to rise again, we cannot object to any conclusion that may be drawn in regard to those which are fully formed. Now who is there that is not rather disposed to think that unformed abortions perish, like seeds that have never fructified? But who will dare to deny, though he may not dare affirm, that at the resurrection every defect in form shall be supplied, and that thus the perfection which time would have brought shall not be wanting, any more than the blemishes which time did bring shall be present: so that the nature shall neither want anything suitable and in harmony with it that length of days would have added, nor be debased by the presence of anything of an opposite kind that length of days has added; but that what is not yet complete shall be completed, just as what has been injured shall be renewed. And therefore the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men, though I do not know whether it is in man’s power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb: whether life exists in a latent from before it manifests itself in the motions of the living being. To deny that the young who are cut out limb by limb from the womb, lest if they were left there dead the mother should die to, have never been alive, seems too audacious. Now, from the time that a man begins to live, from that time it is possible for him to die. And if he die, wheresoever death may overtake him, I cannot discover on what principle he can be denied an interest in the resurrection of the dead” (chapters 85 and 86).
In Book XXII of City of God, his masterpiece, written between A.D. 413-426, he responds to those who question the resurrection as it relates to aborted fetuses: “But their way is to feign a scrupulous anxiety in investigating this question, and to cast ridicule on our faith in the resurrection of the body, by asking, Whether abortions shall rise? And as the Lord says, ‘Verily I say unto you, not a hair of your head shall perish,’ shall all bodies have an equal stature and strength, or shall there be differences in size? For if there is to be equality, where shall those abortions, supposing that they rise again, get that bulk which they had not here? Of if they shall not rise because they were not born but cast out, they raise the same question about children who have died in childhood, asking us whence they get the stature which we see they had not here…To respond to these objections, then, of our adversaries which I have thus detailed, I will now reply, trusting that God will mercifully assist my endeavors. That abortions, which, even supposing they were alive in the womb, did also die there, shall rise again, I make bold neither to affirm or to deny, although I fail to see why, if they are not excluded from the number of the dead, they should not attain to the resurrection of the dead. For either all the dead shall not rise, and there will be to all eternity some souls without bodies though they once had them, – only in their mother’s womb, indeed; or, if all human souls shall receive again the bodies which they had wherever they lived, and which they left when the died, the I do not see how I can say that even those who died in their mother’s womb shall have no resurrection. But whichever of these opinions any one may adopt concerning them, we must at least apply to them, if they rise again, all that we have to say of infants who have been born” (chapters 12 and 13).
John Chrysostom (nicknamed "Golden Mouth" for his eloquent preaching; A.D. 347-407) in a sermon on Romans 13:11-14, speaks boldly against various indulgences, including abortion: “Wherefore I beseech you flee fornication, and the mother of it, drunkenness. Why sow where reaping is impossible, or rather even if you reap, the fruit brings you great shame? For even if a child be born, it at once disgraces yourself, and has itself had injustice done it in being born through you as illegitimate and base. And if you leave it never so much money, both the son of a harlot, and that of a servant-maid, is disreputable at home, disreputable in the city, disreputable in a court of law; disreputable it will be to you also, both in your lifetime, and when dead. For if you have departed even, the memorials of your unseemliness abide. Why then bring disgrace upon all these? Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? where there are many efforts at abortion? where there is murder before the birth? for even the harlot you do not let continue as a mere harlot, but you make her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then do you abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for child-bearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon your head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is yours. Hence too come idolatries, since many, with a view to become acceptable, devise incantations, and libations, and love-potions, and countless other plans. Yet still after such great unseemliness, after slaughters, after idolatries, the thing seems to many to belong to things indifferent, aye, and to many that have wives too. Whence the mingle of mischief is the greater. For sorceries are applied no to the womb that is prostituted, but to the injured wife, and there are plottings without number, and invocations of devils, and necromancies, and daily wars, and truceless fightings, and home-cherished jealousies. Wherefore also Paul, after saying, ‘not in chamberings and wantonness,’ proceeds, ‘not in strife and envying,’ as knowing the wars that result therefrom; the upsetting of families, the wrongs done to legitimate children, the other ills unnumbered. That we may escape from all these, let us put on Christ, and be with Him continually” (Homily XXIV).
Sulpitius Severus (A.D. 363-420) in his history of the church from creation to A.D. 400, The Sacred History of Sulpitius Severus, records events from his own day and comments on a woman who procured an abortion: “They then pursued the journey on which they had entered, attended by a base and shameful company, among whom were their wives and even strange women. In the number of these was Euchrotia and her daughter Procula, of the latter of whom there was a common report that, when pregnant through adultery with Priscillian, she procured abortion by the use of certain plants. When they reached Rome with the wish of clearing themselves before Damasus, they were not even admitted to his presence” (chapter XLVIII).
Jerome and Gennadius: Lives of Illustrious Men (5th century), a combined work of Jerome, Gennadius, and later editors, contains a list of Christian writers (with some brief remarks about their lives and writings) from time of Christ to the end of the 5th century. Two of the authors in the list, Augustine and Tichonius, have mentioned their views on the resurrection as it pertains to aborted fetuses.
Augustine of Hippo: “In his work On the incarnation of the Lord also he manifested a peculiar piety. On the resurrection of the dead he wrote with equal sincerity, and left it to the less able to raise doubts respecting abortions” (chapter XXXIX).
Tichonius the African: In his exposition of the Apocalypse of John, he “maintains that there will be one simultaneous resurrection of all, at which shall arise even the aborted and the deformed lest any living human being, however deformed, should be lost” (XVIII).
CHRISTIANITY IN THE REFORMATION (A.D. 1517-1648)
Two of the most prominent reformers continued to maintain a strong stance against abortion:
- Martin Luther (A.D. 1483-1546), commenting on Genesis 25:1-4, wrote: "How great, therefore, the wickedness of human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent concpetion 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" (Luther's Works).
- John Calvin (A.D. 1509-1564), commenting on Exodus 21:22, wrote: "This passage at first sight is ambiguous, for if the word death only applies to the pregnant woman, it would not have been a capital crime to put an end to the fetus, which would be a great absurdity; for the fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, (homo,) 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 most atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light. On these grounds I am led to conclude without hesitation, that the words, 'if death should follow,' must be applies to the fetus as well as to the mother (Calvin's Commentaries, 3:3, 41-42).
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