Sunday, August 24, 2008

Christianity's History Of Opposition To Abortion

Kathryn Lopez just posted about some comments Nancy Pelosi made on this morning's "Meet The Press" on the issue of abortion. From the transcript:

MR. BROKAW: Senator Obama saying the question of when life begins is above his pay grade, whether you're looking at it scientifically or theologically. If he were to come to you and say, "Help me out here, Madame Speaker. When does life begin?" what would you tell him?

REP. PELOSI: I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. And Senator--St. Augustine said at three months. We don't know. The point is, is that it shouldn't have an impact on the woman's right to choose. Roe v. Wade talks about very clear definitions of when the child--first trimester, certain considerations; second trimester; not so third trimester. There's very clear distinctions. This isn't about abortion on demand, it's about a careful, careful consideration of all factors and--to--that a woman has to make with her doctor and her god. And so I don't think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this, and there are those who've decided...

MR. BROKAW: The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it...

REP. PELOSI: I understand that.

MR. BROKAW: ...begins at the point of conception.

REP. PELOSI: I understand. And this is like maybe 50 years or something like that. So again, over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy. But it is, it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And we want abortions to be safe, rare, and reduce the number of abortions. That's why we have this fight in Congress over contraception. My Republican colleagues do not support contraception. If you want to reduce the number of abortions, and we all do, we must--it would behoove you to support family planning and, and contraception, you would think. But that is not the case. So we have to take--you know, we have to handle this as respectfully--this is sacred ground. We have to handle it very respectfully and not politicize it, as it has been--and I'm not saying Rick Warren did, because I don't think he did, but others will try to.

If Pelosi thinks we don't know when life begins, then why doesn't she err on the side of life? Life is more important than a legal freedom to choose abortion.

Despite some exceptions in ancient times and many more exceptions in recent history, Jewish tradition and Christian tradition have generally been opposed to abortion:

"Jews found deliberate abortion unacceptable; they also rejected exposure of children. Yet their opinions differed widely as to the penalty for accidental or therapeutic abortions. Christians viewed the fetus as God’s creation. They insisted that the destruction of the fetus was murder and that the perpetrators should be punished as murderers. Didache 2.2 and Barnabas 20.1-2 prohibited abortion as murder. The earliest information in the New Testament seems to occur in the vice lists, where pharmakeia may refer to the drug used in abortions. Clement of Alexandria quotes an earlier Christian writer who inferred from Luke 1:41 that life begins at conception (Ecl. 41; 48-49; cf. his own words in Paed. 2.10.96). The apologists defended Christians against charges of immorality by noting the community’s rejection of abortion (Athenagoras, Leg. 35). Some Christians practiced abortion, however, as Hippolytus (Haer. 9.7) and Cyprian (Ep. 52.2) indicate. The Council of Elvira, ca. 305 (can. 63; 68), enacted punishments against infanticide, perhaps abortion. The Council of Ancyra, 314 (can. 21), prohibited abortion. Basil (Ep. 188.2), Ambrose (Hex. 5.18.58), and Jerome (Ep. 22.13) supported that stance. Augustine (Quest. Exodus 9.80 and Quest. Hept. 2) differed as to when life began, but he found intentional abortion of the formed fetus to be murder. John Chrysostom (Hom. 32 in Rom.) viewed deliberate abortion as murder." (Frederick Norris, in Everett Ferguson, ed., Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], p. 7)

It should be noted that when Hippolytus and Cyprian refer to professing Christians committing abortion, they do so disapprovingly. Hippolytus is criticizing the low standards of the Roman bishop Callistus and the people influenced by Callistus when he comments:

“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!” (The Refutation Of All Heresies, 9:7)

The passage Frederick Norris cites from Cyprian contains a description of various sins committed by a man named Novatus. Cyprian writes (this Letter 48 I’m citing is the same as Letter 52 cited by Norris, since different editions of Cyprian have different numbering):

“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 be born, was slain?” (Letter 48:2)

Thus, Hippolytus and Cyprian can be added to the list of early Christians who condemned abortion. When they refer to some professing Christians committing abortion, they do so with disapproval.

And Norris’ list of fathers isn’t exhaustive. Other names could be added. Tertullian, for example, repeatedly condemns abortion in multiple contexts (Apology, 9; On The Soul, 25; etc.), Minucius Felix condemns it (The Octavius, 30), etc.

In scripture, life begins at conception (Numbers 11:12, Job 3:3, Psalm 51:5, Song of Solomon 3:4, Luke 1:36, 2:21). Advocates of legalized abortion sometimes cite some passages of scripture to argue for life beginning after conception, but every passage they cite requires reading unreasonable assumptions into the text.

Concerning the early Christians' opposition to infanticide and their care for abandoned children, see here.


  1. Even among those Christians who said "life begins at some time after conception", is there indication that they treated abortion before this time as being of absolutely no moral significance? Or, conversely, that they treated it as having moral significance, but less than e.g. infanticide?

    A few other observations.

    - It seems as though Mrs Pelosi's position on the authority of the RC church can be summed up as, "They haven't been able to make up their minds in the past, so why should I listen to their latest 'authoritative position'?" In general terms, so much for the practical ability of that church to bring forth uniformity of doctrine among its members (cf. other posts on this blog).

    - It seems to me that asking a question such as "when does life begin" of a politician will not elicit a response to that question. It will instead get a response to a different, and much more political, question: "How many months pregnant does a woman have to be, before her unborn child [or foetus - I'm aware about the word games people play with these phrases] should be protected by law?" An attempt to answer that question based on a religious authority is problematical, hence her avoiding making a pronouncement (whether or not she personally believes the answer is anywhere less than 9 months).

    Just my two cents' worth...

  2. The Author of "Freakonomics", Steven D. Levitt came up with the theory that the crime drop that started in the 1990's was directly related to abortion being legalized in 1973. It was said to have been an "unintended benefit". If this is true, it shows that God can even make good out of an evil such as abortion.