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  • History of Christian Beliefs Regarding Abortion

    ARTICLE INDEX     
    Arguments Against Abortion from Bible



    Exodus 20:13 - "Thou shalt not kill."

    Exodus 20:13 - לא3808 תרצח׃7523

    Exodus 21:22 - "If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart [from her], and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges [determine]. 21:23 And if [any] mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life"

    For me, the topic of abortion is made clear simply by reading the above passages. As we can see, God requires life for life. When it says "Thou shalt not kill", it means without appropriate sanction from God's Law. In other words, "you shall not murder".

    Regarding the topic of an unborn baby, we have only this scripture within Exodus 21:22 to explain God's viewpoint on abortion. And we can see, there is no mention of how far into the pregnancy the woman is. So to God, at all stages of the pregnancy, the baby is considered a human being and a life. This is what I see in the passage above. Regarding whether there would ever be sanction from God to have the legal right to kill an unborn baby, I think it is entirely clear, in that, no scripture ever authorizes someone to take the life of an unborn baby.

    However, we do see throughout Church history a blend of viewpoints on the topic of abortion. Often, the only disagreement comes down to either:

    1. What stage of pregnancy does the fetus become a human baby? At its fertilization or 30-90 days later?
    2. Is it permissible to perform abortions if the woman's life is in jeopardy.

    Other than these two variances on the topic, you will not find much else in dissention for most of church history. Only within the last century, do you find abortion within the church to take on an added viewpoint of the mother's right to freedom of choice.

    Which of these viewpoints is valid? I believe, woman's choice to perform an abortion for freedom reasons, is not valid. As there is no sanction from God in such a situation (which would be required, seeing it is a life and you are not allowed to murder). Further, I believe that the Greek based idea of the fetus evolving from an animal like stage to a human stage within the first 30 to 90 days is not valid either, as the scripture above seems to contradict this idea. I would say only, perhaps the situation where the mother's life truly is in jeopardy from pregnancy would it seem a potentially valid situation. However, I wonder if such a scenerio would be permitted by God, as we do not see any scripture that would permit it. In the end, I believe the point is, all abortion is evil in God's sight and the church should not make room for it. Consider this video testimony of a former director of a Texas based Planned Parenthood.

    History of Christian Thought on Abortion:

    4th Century BCE TO 1st Century CE (Various beliefs):

    In ancient times, the "delayed ensoulment" belief of Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was widely accepted in Pagan Greece and Rome. He taught that a fetus originally has a vegetable soul. This evolves into an animal soul later in gestation. Finally the fetus is "animated" with a human soul. This latter event, called "ensoulment," was believed to occur at 40 days after conception for male fetuses, and 90 days after conception for female fetuses. 1 The difference was of little consequence, because in those days, the gender of a fetus could not be determined visually until about 90 days from conception, and no genetic tests existed to determine gender. Ultrasound devices were millennia in the future. Thus contraception and abortion were not condemned if performed early in gestation. It is only if the abortion is done later in pregnancy that a human soul is destroyed.

    The Jewish faith was generally opposed to both infanticide and abortion. An exception occurred if the continuation of a pregnancy posed a risk to the life of the pregnant woman or to her other children. In such cases, the pregnant woman is actually obligated to abort the fetus; the fetus is then considered "radef" -- a pursuer.

    Early in the 1st century CE, a well-known Jewish philosopher -- Philo of Alexandria -- (20 BCE - circa 47 CE) wrote on infanticide and abortion, 2 condemning non-Jews of other cultures and religions for the widespread, unjustified practices.

    MY COMMENTS: - As we can see here, there was a philosophy which gave the idea of a life not being a full life until 30 to 90 days transpired. Such a belief is not from scripture, but rather Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. Scripture does not give any such idea, but rather at any stage of pregnancy views the baby as a life.


    2nd Century CE TO 4th Century CE (Abortion = Murder):

    There were three main movements within early Christianity. Two, of which, did not succeed: Jewish Christianity and Gnostic Christianity. The third, Pauline Christianity, flourished.

    Various Statements within the Christian Church:

  • Barnabas: "You shall not kill either the fetus by abortion or the new born" (Letter of Barnabas, circa 125)
  • Anon: An unknown author writing circa 135 CE in The Apocalypse of Peter:
    • "I saw a gorge in which the discharge and excrement of the tortured ran down and became like a lake. There sat women, and the discharge came up to their throats; and opposite them sat many children, who were born prematurely, weeping. And from them went forth rays of fire and smote the women on the eyes. These were those who produced children outside of marriage, and who procured abortions."
    • "Those who slew the unborn children will be tortured forever, for God wills it to so."
  • Athenagoras: "We say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God. For the same person, would not regard the child in the womb as a living being and therefore an object of God's care and then kill it.... But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it." Petition to Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), circa 150 CE
  • Clement of Alexandria: (circa 150 - 215 CE)  "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, if order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the child completely dead, abort at the same time their own human feelings." Paedagogus 2
  • Tertullian (circa 155 - 225 CE): "...we are not permitted, since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy ...the fetus in the womb. It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth." 4
  • St. Hippolytus (circa 170-236 CE): "Reputed believes began to resort to drugs for producing Sterility and to gird themselves round, so as to expel what was conceived on account of their not wanting 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." From "Refutation of all Heresies" 9:7
  • Minicius Felix (a Christian lawyer; circa 180 - 225 CE): "Some women take medicines to destroy the germ of future life in their own bodies. They commit infanticide before they have given birth to the infant" 5
  • St. Basil the Great (circa 330 - 379 CE): "She who has deliberately destroyed a fetus has to pay the penalty of murder...here it is not only the child to be born that is vindicated, but also the woman herself who made an attempt against her own life, because usually the women die in such attempts. Furthermore, added to this is the destruction of the child, another murder... Moreover, those, too, who give drugs causing abortion are deliberate murderers themselves, as well as those receiving the poison which kills the fetus."  Letter 188:2
  • St. Ambrose: (339 to 397 CE) "The poor expose their children, the rich kill the fruit of their own bodies in the womb, lest their property be divided up, and they destroy their own children in the womb with murderous poisons. and before life has been passed on, it is annihilated." 6
  • St. John Chrysostom (circa 340 - 407 CE): "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 you do not even let the harlot remain a mere harlot, but make her a murderer also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather something even worse than murder. For I have no real name to give it, since it does not destroy 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 a blessing, and make the place of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?" Homily 24 on Romans
  • St. Jerome (circa 342-420 CE): "They drink potions to ensure sterility and are guilty of murdering a human being not yet conceived. Some, when they learn that they are with child through sin, practice abortion by the use of drugs. Frequently they die themselves and are brought before the rulers of the lower world guilty of three crimes: suicide, adultery against Christ, and murder of an unborn child." Letter 22:13
  • Tertullian circa 160-240 CE:
    • "For us [Christians] 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 when 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 the seed." Apology 9:6
    • "They [John and Jesus] were both alive while still in the womb. Elizabeth rejoiced as the infant leaped in her womb; Mary glorifies the Lord because Christ within inspired her. Each mother recognizes her child and is known by her child who is alive, being not merely souls but also spirits." De A ninta 26:4
  • Statements by groups:

  • The Didache (also known as "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles") dates from the first half of the second century CE. It states: "Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion." (2:2) It also says that "The Way of Death is filled with people who are...murderers of children and abortionists of God's creatures." (5:1-2)
  • The Synod of Elvira, held in Spain in 306 CE: "If a woman becomes pregnant by committing adultery, while her husband is absent, and after the act she destroys the child, it is proper to keep her from communion until death, because she has doubled her crime." Canon 63.
  • The Synod of Ancyra, held in 314 CE, condemned abortion. The penalty was 10 years of penance
  • The Apostolic Constitutions (circa 380 CE) allowed abortion if it was done early enough in pregnancy. But it condemned abortion if the fetus was of human shape. "Thou shalt not slay the child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. For everything that is shaped, and his received a soul from God, if slain, it shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed." 7:3:15 This document claimed to have been written by the apostles. However, it was actually written late in the 4th century CE at about the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and serious oppression of Paganism started.

  • 5th TO 16th Century CE (Various beliefs on whether abortion is murder):

    St. Augustine (354-430 CE) reversed centuries of Christian teaching in Western Europe, and returned the church to the Aristotelian Pagan concept of "delayed ensoulment." He wrote 7 that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body. So, an abortion is not murder because no soul is destroyed (or, more accurately, only a vegetable or animal soul is terminated). He wrote extensively on sexual matters, teaching that the original sin of Adam and Eve are passed to each successive generation through the pleasure generated during sexual intercourse. This passed into the church's canon law. Only abortion of a more fully developed "fetus animatus" (animated fetus) was punished as murder.

    Augustine had little influence over the beliefs of Orthodox Christianity. They retained their original anti-abortion stance.

    MY COMMENTS: - For some reason, it seems St. Augustine more often than not, has some odd opinion that does not reflect scripture. And, once again, I find myself writing against what he says. As with the sex topic, St. Augustine seems to have picked up another vain philosophy claiming that early stage abortions are permissible, because the physical life does not have a soul. First, the Bible never says murder is defined by the soul. This is just an assumption on the part of St. Augustine. Second, there is nothing in scripture that says there is no soul for 30 to 90 days. This was something he picked up from Aristotle. Sounds to me like Augustine just has a problem with trying to make the Bible say what he wants it to say. Even with sex, he attempts to say that Adam and Eve's sin is sex (directly contradicting scripture) and then makes up some silly concept that sin is propagated via sexual pleasure. How this man is considered one of the great minds of Christianity is beyond me.

    St. Jerome (circa 340 - 420) wrote in a letter to Aglasia:

    "The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs" 8

    MY COMMENTS: - This would not be my first time disagreeing with Jerome either. He also had some odd ideas regarding virginity, saying that virgins are twenty times more holy than married women, because of their vow (assuming sex or marriage makes one less holy). Could it just be me or is there a pattern among certain early latin fathers within the church?

    Starting in the 7th century CE, a series of penitentials were written in the West. These listed an array of sins, with the penance that a person must observe as punishment for the sin. Certain "sins" which prevented conception had particularly heavy penalties. These included:

  • practicing a particularly ineffective form of birth control, coitus interruptus (withdrawal of the penis prior to ejaculation)
  • engaging in oral sex or anal sex
  • becoming sterile by artificial means, such as by consuming sterilizing poisons.
  • Abortion, on the other hand, required a less serious penance. Theodore, who organized the English church, assembled a penitential about 700 CE. Oral intercourse required from 7 years to a lifetime of penance; an abortion required only 120 days.

    Pope Stephen V (served 885-891) wrote in 887 CE: "If he who destroys what is conceived in the womb by abortion is a murderer, how much more is he unable to excuse himself of murder who kills a child even one day old." "Epistle to Archbishop of Mainz."

    Pope Innocent III (circa 1161-1216):

  • He wrote a letter which ruled on a case of a Carthusian monk who had arranged for his female lover to obtain an abortion. The Pope decided that the monk was not guilty of homicide if the fetus was not "animated."
  • Early in the 13th century he stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of "quickening" - when the woman first feels movement of the fetus. After ensoulment, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human life, not human life.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also considered only the abortion of an "animated" fetus as murder.

    Pope Sixtus V (1471-1484) issued a Papal bull "Effraenatam" in 1588 which threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the death penalty.

    Pope Gregory XIV (1535-1591) revoked the Papal bull shortly after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the "quickening" test, which he determined happened 116 days into pregnancy (16 weeks).

    MY COMMENTS: - I am a little disappointed to see St. Thomas Aquinas believing this gestation idea. It seems we have Pope Innocent III righting wrongs with more wrongs, using this gestation idea to put away other sins (a monk getting a female lover pregnant). Could this illude to the first sin of forbidding priests to marry? Scripture would require this priest to marry, if the woman was a virgin within her father's house (to make an honorable marriage). If the woman was on her own, it is not a requirement, but would be God's ideal, considering he got her pregnant.


    17th TO 19th Century CE (Abortion becomes murder again):

    In the 17th century, the concept of "simultaneous animation" gained acceptance within the medical and church communities in Western Europe. 9 This is the belief that an embryo has a soul at conception, not at 40, 80. or 116 days into gestation as the church was teaching.

    Hieronymus Florentinius, a Franciscan monk, asserted In 1658 that all embryos or fetuses, regardless of their gestational age, which were in danger of death must be baptized. However, his opinion did not change the status of abortion as seen by the church.

    Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) reversed the stance of the Roman Catholic church once more. He dropped the distinction between the "fetus animatus" and "fetus inanimatus" in 1869.

    Leo XIII (1878-1903):

  • He issued a decree in 1884 that prohibited craniotomies. This is an unusual form of abortion used late in pregnancy and is occasionally needed to save the life of the pregnant woman.
  • He issued a second degree in 1886 that prohibited all procedures that directly killed the fetus, even if done to save the woman's life. The tolerant approach to abortion which had prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church for previous centuries ended. The church required excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy. This position has continued to the present time.
  • Canon law was revised in 1917 and 1983 and to refer simply to "the fetus."

    MY COMMENTS: - In the end, I think it is clear, from a scriptural standpoint, that a fetus is a life even at the moment of fertilization, as God does not make a declaration in scripture regarding time of pregnancy when requiring a life for a life. Regarding the life of the mother being in jeopardy in pregnancy, I believe it is wise to attempt to save the life of both the mother and the unborn baby, if possible. If the baby is born prematurely as a result, we should do everything in our power to keep the baby alive. This would seem like the best and most biblical approach.


    References used:

    1. Aristotle "History of Animals, Book VII, Chapter 3, 583b.
    2. Philo of Alexandria, "On the Individual Laws", 3, 20, 110.
    3. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church", Doubleday, New York NY, (1990). Pages 68-70
    4. Tertullian, "Apology" (9:7-8)
    5. Minucius Felix, "Octavious (30, 2)
    6. Ambrose, "Hexaemeron", (5, 18, 58)
    7. St. Augustine, "On Exodus", (21, 80)
    8. St Jerome, "Epistle" (121, 4)
    9. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, op cit., Page 298-311
    10. Rosemary Stasek, "A Brief History of Abortion in the Catholic Church", 1991 speech. Available at: http://www.stasek.com/
    11. "What Does the Bible Say about Abortion?," at: http://www.infidels.org/
    12. "The Apostolic Constitutions," Priests for Life, at: http://www.priestsforlife.org/
    13. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church", Doubleday, New York NY, (1990). Pages 298-311
    14. John Cardinal O'Connor, "Abortion: Questions and Answers," (1990), Page 23.
    15. Patrick Reardon, "Abortion & the mother's life," Touchstone Magazine. Online at:  http://www.catholic.net/
    16. "Touchstone: A journal of mere Christianity" has a home page at http://www.touchstonemag.com/
    17. "Abortion," New Advent. Translated from the Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (1907). Online at: http://www.newadvent.org/
    18. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae. Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the regulation of birth," 1968-JUL-25, at: http://www.vatican.va/
    19. "Apostolic Consitutions - Didache Book VII," at: http://www.piney.com/
    20. "Excerpt from The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles; The Didache; (1st Century AD)," Priests for Life, at: http://www.priestsforlife.org/




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