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Thou Shall Not Kill II: The Early Church on Abortion

Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born — Letter of Barnabas (A.D. 74)

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A quote from Abortion and the Early Church by Michael J. Gorman will begin our journey through the beliefs of the first Christians:

“Athenagoras (mid to late second century), the ablest of the Greek apologists for Christianity, addressed the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Lucius Aurelius Commodus in 177. Athenagoras was concerned to answer three frequent charges made against Christianity-atheism, incest, and cannibalism-and thus to uphold Christian belief and moral standards. To the charge of cannibalism, stemming from a misunderstanding of the Eucharist, Athenagoras responded that cannibalism implied murder and that Christians would not even watch a murder, for example, a gladiator fight, much less perform one.”

What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers? . . . 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 . . . But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it St. Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for the Christians (A.D. 177)

The Didache, an early Christian manual written during or very soon after the time of the Eleven Apostles, possibly around a hundred years before St. Athenagoras, states:

The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child.” Didache 2:1–2 (A.D. 70)

The Didache, besides the Bible, is one of our closest sources detailing the beliefs of the first Christians.

Another early letter from the first Christians, perhaps from Barnabas, also shows a serious condemnation of abortion.

Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born Letter of Barnabas (A.D. 74)
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 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 Apocalypse of Peter (Circa A.D. 100–150)

As previously shown earlier in this article, with the detailing of Jewish, Roman, and Greek beliefs, an absolute stance on abortion was perhaps one of Christianity’s most radical tenets, one that separated the early Christians from the Pagans, not only before it was adopted as the official religion of Rome in 380 A.D. by Emperor Theodosius I, but immediately in the time of Christ and when a few of the Apostles walked the earth.

The teaching of the church on abortion remained the same for the next few hundred years, the Early Church period.

Tertullian, the great polemicist against the early heresy of Gnosticism, also addressed abortion:

In our case, a 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 the 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 its seed.
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 of which the limbs [of the child] 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 a violent delivery.
There is also [another instrument in the shape of] a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of embruosphaktes, [meaning] “the slayer of the infant,” which of course was alive . . . Tertullian, Apologeticum (A.D. 197)
[The doctors who performed abortions] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and [they] pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive.
Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does.
The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion [Ex. 21:22–24]
Brother (in Christ), on your own foundation build up your faith. 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…Elizabeth exults with joy, (for) John had leaped in her womb; Mary magnifies the Lord, (for) Christ had instigated her within. The mothers recognise each their own offspring, being moreover each recognised 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 thee in the belly, I knew thee.” 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 thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee.” 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 [Mark 12:29]. Tertullian, De Anima (The Soul) (A.D. 210)

The Early Church also spoke out against denial of life, commonly seen today with the use of contraception.

Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children (A.D. 191)

In the Paedagogus (The Tutor), Clement of Alexandria details the immoral lifestyle of those in the Greek City and warns Christians to overcome this hedonistic behavior by rising in virtue.

Abortion was a common practice in Alexandria during this time.

And hard by that place I saw another strait place wherein the discharge and the stench of them that were in torment ran down, and there was as it were a lake there. And there sat women up to their necks in that liquor, and over against them many children which were born out of due time sat crying: and from them went forth rays of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were they that conceived out of wedlock and caused abortion. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus (A.D. 198)

In Abortion and the Early Church, Michael J. Gorman gives a brief but excellent commentary on Clement.

“Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-ca 215), in his Prophetic Eclogues, quotes an anonymous writer of the mid-second century, perhaps a Christian Platonist, who argues that the fetus has a soul and is a living person. His argument is based on the idea that angels place the soul in the womb at the time of conception and the new embryo has a soul immediately.


In the context of Christian marriage, the goal of which in Clement’s opinion is procreation, he writes”:

“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.” Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2 (Circa A.D. 210)

St. Cyprian wrote a letter about abortion soon after the theologian Clement’s time.

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? St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, Letter 48 (Circa A.D. 210–258)

The two vices of abortion and contraceptives are very similar. The result of both is the denial of life.

There are some [pagan] 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 [false] gods. . . . To us [Christians] it is not lawful either to see or hear of homicide. Minucius Felix, Octavius (A.D. 226)
Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!
those who conceal sexual wantonness by taking stimulating drugs to bring on an abortion wholly lose their own humanity along with the fetus. St. Hippolytus of Rome, Refutation of All Heresies (A.D. 228)

The Era of Emperor Constantine

In Abortion and the Early Church, Michael J. Gorman wrote:

“In AD 314, the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. This was the year Lactantius completed his decade of labor on The Divine Institutes. In it, he stated that when God forbids homicide, God prohibits not only illegal violence but even causing death in a manner allowed by secular laws. It is a very grave sin to kill newborns, Lactantius wrote, “for God breathes into their souls for life, and not for death.” It is a crime to “deprive souls as yet innocent and simple of the light” which God has given. Lactantius’ Epitome similarly states that exposing or killing an infant is included in the Lord’s prohibition of murder.”

Lactantius, an advisor to Emperor Constantine wrote in 307 A.D.:

God gave us eyes not to see and desire pleasure, but to see acts to be performed for the needs of life; so too, the genital [’generating’] part of the body, as the name itself teaches, has been received by us for no other purpose than the generation of offspring Lactantius, Divine Institutes (A.D. 307)

Now, we will look at some of the early Canon laws from this time. The severity of abortion is made clear, the doctrine defined in law by these early councils.

if a woman conceives in adultery and then has an abortion, she may not commune again, even as death approaches, because she has sinned twice Council of Elvira (A.D. 305–6), Canon 63
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, 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 degrees. Council of Ancyra, Canon 21 (A.D. 314)
If anyone in sound health has castrated himself, it behooves that such a one, if enrolled among the clergy, should cease [from his ministry], and that from henceforth no such person should be promoted. But, as it is evident that this is said of those who willfully do the thing and presume to castrate themselves, so if any have been made eunuchs by barbarians, or by their masters, and should otherwise be found worthy, such men this canon admits to the clergy. Council of Nicaea I, Canon 1 (A.D. 325)
Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not St. Basil the Great, First Canonical Letter, Canon 2 (A.D. 374)
The man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it dies upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway, and rapparees. St. Basil the Great, First Canonical Letter, Canon 8 (A.D. 374)

Christians for Social Action summarizes the stance on abortion during this period of Christianity becoming the state religion of Rome:

“After Christianity was legalized, congregations in various regions held conferences to regulate the affairs of the churches. One objective was to standardize the practices of excommunication and penance. About the time of Constantine’s conversion, or perhaps a few years earlier, the Council of Elvira in Spain decreed that anyone who committed abortion was to be given Holy Communion only when in danger of death, which could be years or decades in the future. This was the same penalty as for repeated adultery and child molesting. The more lenient Council of Ancyra in Turkey (AD 314) enacted a ten-year suspension for women who caused abortion and for makers of drugs that induced miscarriage. The first ecumenical council, held at Nicaea in AD 325, did not itself condemn abortion but the third ecumenical council (Chalcedon, AD 451) adopted the decrees of Ancyra, including those against abortion.”

At the Start Of Christendom

Christendom began when Christianity was declared the official religion of Rome. The following quote is from a decree by a pope of the Early Church during this time.

Thou shalt not use magic. Thou shalt not use witchcraft; for he says, ‘You shall not suffer a witch to live’ [Ex. 22:18]. Thou shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. . . . if it be slain, [it] shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed” A decree issued by Pope St. Anastasius I, Apostolic Constitutions 7:3 (A.D. 400)

Numerous other saints of the time spoke out against abortion.

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. St. Basil of Caesarea, Letter 188 (Circa A.D. 330–379)
They [certain Egyptian heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption St. Epiphanius of Salamis, Medicine Chest Against Heresies 26:5:2 (A.D. 375)

The next Church Father we will listen to is St. Ambrose.

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 born. . . . Who except man himself has taught us ways of repudiating children? St. Ambrose of Milan, Hexameron 5.18 (Circa A.D. 389)

Now, we shall move on to another one of the Fathers of the Church, St. Jerome.

“I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother. . . . 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” St. Jerome, Letter to Eustochim 22:13 (A.D. 396)

Lastly, we shall end this journey through the Early Church with St. John Chrysostom, an archbishop of Constantinople.

“Wherefore I beseech you, flee fornication. . . .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? 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 thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on Romans (circa 347–407 A.D)

Justin Buzzard, in his essay Abortion and the Early Church, summarizes Chrysostom’s important sermon:

“Here at the close of the early church era John Chrysostom’s sermon proclaims again the early church’s collective four-fold opposition to abortion: 1) the fetus is a beloved creation of God, 2) to abort is to murder, 3) complicity in abortion makes one guilty before God, and 4) God extends grace to the guilty. Such a comprehensive and consistent pro-life ethic had never before been articulated. The early Christians placed ethical, life valuing footprints into the abortion-laden Greco-Roman land, footprints that had never before run so deep. Such was the witness of the early church and her first five centuries.”

Augustine on Contraception and the Act of Preventing Procreation

This proves that you [Manicheans] approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore, whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage and makes the woman not a wife but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion. St. Augustine of Hippo, The Morals of the Manichees 18:65 (A.D. 388)
You [Manicheans] make your auditors adulterers of their wives when they take care lest the women with whom they copulate conceive. They take wives according to the laws of matrimony by tablets announcing that the marriage is contracted to procreate children; and then, fearing because of your law [against childbearing] . . . they copulate in a shameful union only to satisfy lust for their wives. They are unwilling to have children, on whose account alone marriages are made. How is it, then, that you are not those prohibiting marriage, as the apostle predicted of you so long ago [1 Tim. 4:1–4], when you try to take from marriage what marriage is? When this is taken away, husbands are shameful lovers, wives are harlots, bridal chambers are brothels, fathers-in-law are pimps
For thus the eternal law, that is, the will of God creator of all creatures, taking counsel for the conservation of natural order, not to serve lust, but to see to the preservation of the race, permits the delight of mortal flesh to be released from the control of reason in copulation only to propagate progeny St. Augustine of Hippo, Against Faustus 15:7, 22:30 (A.D. 400)
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 alike are so flagitious, they are not husband and wife; and if such were their character from the beginning, they have not come together by wedlock but by debauchery. But if the two are not alike in such sin, I boldly declare either that the woman is, so to say, the husband’s harlot; or the man the wife’s adulterer. St. Augustine of Hippo, Marriage and Concupiscence 1:15:17 (A.D. 419)

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