Early Church Fathers on Abortion

It’s an interesting twist. The Bible never directly addresses the issue of abortion, for whatever the reason; however, it turns out that the early church did.

And not just a little, but fairly clearly and consistently over a period of years. While the Bible leaves us to infer and imply, the early church doesn’t. It has a very strong voice articulating a very clear interpretation of Scripture on this matter.

I didn’t know that, though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Abortion was a very widespread practice throughout the Greco-Roman world. And it makes sense that the early church fathers would have to address the subject regularly and in the clearest of terms.

Here is a bit of what I’ve found:

The Didache (ca. 125 AD):

And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. (2.1-2)

Here’s the Greek text of the pertinent line:

οὐ φονεύσεις τέκνον ἐν φθορᾷ, οὐδὲ γεννηθὲν ἀποκτενεῖς. (2.2)

Likewise, the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 130 AD) has a similar admonition:

Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born. (ch. 19.5)

Again, the Greek is almost identical to that of the Didache:

οὐ φονεύσεῖς τέκνον ἐν φθορᾷ, οὐδὲ πάλιν γεννηθὲν ἀποκτενεῖς. (19.5)

Not too many years later we find these comments from Athenagoras (ca. 175), the Athenian philosopher turned Christian apologist, as he attempts to defend the church against the charge of cannibalism during the Eucharist:

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 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. (A Plea for the Christians, ch. 35)

Then, around 200 AD, Tertullian writes:

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. (A Treatise on the Soul, ch. 37)

Later, in another work Tertullian expands on this thought:

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 the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed. (Apologia 9.6)

Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea and one of the Cappadocian Fathers, writes on the subject in 374 AD, concluding:

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. (Letter 188, to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, sec. 2.1)

Women also who administer drugs to cause abortion, as well as those who take poisons to destroy unborn children, are murderesses. (Letter 188, to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, sec. 8)

Jerome, author of the Latin Vulgate, comments on the matter in a letter written around 396 AD, as he notes:

Some go so far as to take potions, that they may 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 child murder. (Letters 22.13, To Eustochium)

Then, John Chrysostom, the great orator of the eastern church, mentions it during a sermon delivered around 390 AD:

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 thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest 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 prevent its being born. Why then dost thou 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 childbearing unto slaughter? (Homily 24 on Romans)

And there are several others whose citations I haven’t yet been able to track down. Follow the links and check out these quotes in context. It’s a fascinating read.

Clearly, the early church fathers didn’t hesitate to speak on the subject. And there is no confusion as to where they came down.

It cannot help but make you wonder about the modern church. If it was so clear to the early church that abortion was a form of murder, why are we so hesitant to affirm the same? In fact, why do portions of the church support abortion in all instances? I wonder …

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2 responses to “Early Church Fathers on Abortion

  • Andrew C. Thompson

    This is a very insightful post on the view of the church fathers on abortion. It is a helpful reminder to contemporary Christians that abortion is not an issue that only arose in recent times – indeed, it has existed for longer that most people would imagine. I appreciate you presenting these views, which are grounded in the hisotirc church’s valuation of life as a gift from God.

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