Early Church Teaching on Abortion

Abortion has been a hot political topic in the United States for many years.

Especially in Western culture, where Christianity historically has had influence, it can appear at first glance to be a purely modern, politicized debate. Those arguing for the “right” of a woman to abort her child, frame the issue as one of progress. They argue that our society should be unshackled of old-fashioned morals and brought into a more enlightened future.

This, of course, is utter nonsense.

When we study history, it becomes quickly clear that abortion and infanticide (essentially abandoning babies) were both common practices during the first couple centuries. Abortion is not some progressive ideal unknown to ancient society. The Roman Empire was thoroughly secular, although not in the modern atheistic sense. Living conditions for the average citizen was quite poor and degrading. The cultural sexual mores were not yet positively influenced by Christian teaching. Consequently, it is little surprise that abortion was quite commonly practiced, just as it is today.

Everett Ferguson expounds upon this in Backgrounds of Early Christianity:

The Hellenistic world lived under the shadow of too many mouths to feed. This fact meant that many children were abandoned, exposed to die. W. W. Tarn has presented evidence that from 230 B.C. onward, the one-child family was commonest in Greece. Families of four or five children were very rare.  […] The answer to overpopulation was infanticide. Abortions were often attempted, but not infrequently were fatal to the mother; they were made illegal under Septimius Severus. More frequent was the exposure of the newborn child. The unwanted child was simply left to die on a the trash heap or in some isolated place.  (Ferguson, 80-81)

He goes on to explain that Greek and Roman society did not consider a newborn as a legitimate family member until the father accepted the baby into the family. “Thus,” Ferguson writes, “they did not consider exposure murder but the refusal to admit to society.”

These secular attitudes towards newborn children stood in stark contrast with Jewish and Christian teachings. The early church, in agreement with Judaism, strongly prohibited aborting or abandoning children.

The early Christian document known as the Didache (50-70 AD), listing the basic rules of Christian practice, includes both acts as completely impermissible:

The second commandment of the teaching is: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children; you shall not be sexually immoral; you shall not steal; you shall not practice magic; you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide. (Didache 2. 1,2; Holmes, 3rd Ed.; bold mine)

History is not on a continuum from ignorance to progressive “wisdom.” Just like today, abortion was commonly practiced in Greek and Roman society. It was only later, influenced by Christian teachings which truly valued children, that Western practices and views gradually shifted.

Formerly Christian societies have seen a resurgence in these ancient sins while Christian faith has simultaneously declined. This, of course, is no surprise. Jesus told us that in the last days “most people’s love will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) Even a parent’s heart for their child.

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