In light of the back-to-back March for Life and “Women’s March,” we need a reminder of the ancient Christian position on abortion. It’s one of the signs of our age that what our Christian ancestors deemed a given for 2,000 years has, since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s, suddenly become matters of “debate” among self-proclaimed Christians. They seem to believe that Christian teaching on abortion was unclear throughout the ages.
It was not.
The ancient Church Fathers all condemned abortion as murder. There is no debate. God is the author of life. Human beings cannot hinder His creation of a human being. The Church Fathers did not allow a “right” to abortion, under any circumstance.
For example, perhaps the oldest Christian document outside the Bible condemns abortion. The first century Didache says; “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill what is begotten.”
Likewise, the first-century Letter of Barnabas (which was probably not written by Barnabas himself) condemns it as well: “You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor shall you destroy it after it is born.”
Tertullian, one of the most important of the Fathers in the development of western Christianity, likewise condemned abortion. “Murder being forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb,” he wrote in his Apology about AD 197. It doesn’t matter “whether you take a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.” Because, he says, “That is a man that is going to be one. You have the fruit already in its seed.”
Hippolytus of Rome condemned it as well. Writing about AD 227 in his Refutation of All Heresies, this early Christian theologian and prominent priest said that some women tried to kill their child to avoid embarrassment. “Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by committing adultery and murder at the same time.”
Murdering Human Beings
A local synod — a small church council — in what’s now Turkey did not just condemn abortion. It prescribed a full decade of penance as punishment. The synod of Ankara in AD 314 ruled that women who “destroy what they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion” must fulfill ten years of penance before they could receive communion.
The greatest biblical scholar of his age, Jerome, condemned abortion in crystal clear terms: “I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who fall every day and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother,” he says in a letter in 384:
… Some go so far as to take potions, that they may ensure 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.
A few years later, perhaps the greatest of the Greek Fathers, John Chrysostom, likewise condemned abortion as murder: “You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder, or rather to something even worse than murder,” he says in one of his sermons on Romans.
For I have no name to give it, since it does not take away 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 it were a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing into slaughter?
Condemnations of abortion abound from the first and second centuries through the end of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. (All Christian churches did the same, until the mid-20th century.)
What make these condemnations timely is the sexual immorality of the Roman world. It was much like ours. No one can claim that we live in a different culture so we don’t have to follow the early Christian teaching.
The “Sexual Revolution” is hardly new, hardly “progressive.” It’s regressive, a return to an outdated, degrading pagan sexual hedonism. And one of its main fruits, universally condemned by the Church Fathers, was abortion.