Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World.

Book Summary – Author: Michael J. Gorman. Wipf & Stock, 1998. [101 pages]

This short book details the stance of early Christianity towards abortion as presented in the surviving literature of that era. It does this by presenting and analysing Christian writings as they raise the subject, and against the backdrop of ancient abortion practises and the range of opinions given by non-Christian writers.

The scope of the book includes the first five centuries of Christian history. There is more material about abortion than one might expect, from medical writers, Greco-Roman moralists, philosophers, and poets, several strands of Jewish thought, and then a range of Christian voices from the first half-millennium.

The first chapter of the book provides the grim details of the chemical and mechanical options available to the desperate or coerced would-be mother-to-be. It is not light reading, but it is brief. I was surprised at the ability and sophistication of abortion procedures in the ancient Mediterranean world. However, the desire to end or conceal unwanted pregnancies is not new and so one should not be surprised that ways and means were developed for doing so in a developed civilization. The frequent and widespread remarks on the practice are suggestive of its prevalence.

The second chapter outlines the attitudes of writers first from ancient Greece and then from the later phases of the Roman world. A surprising feature of this chapter were the variety of reasons for opposing or supporting abortion. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are used to framing the issue with concerns around defining personhood, the beginnings of life, and the contested balance of the rights of the mother to self-determination and the rights of the unborn to the continuation of life.

In the contexts of ancient Greece and Rome, however, different concerns motivated support or opposition to the practice. Some saw it as selfish immorality, both unnatural and offensive the gods. In other cases, concern for the welfare of the state frowned upon abortions as it deprived the community of future workers and soldiers.

Conversely, fears of overcrowding city-states prompted political theorists like Plato and Aristotle to idealise the abortion of pregnancies outside of prescribed limits. The welfare of the family unit, the city-state, or the empire was more the issue than the right or life of the unborn – utilitarian concerns for the collective trumped the concerns of the individual mother or unborn.

Concern for the welfare of the mother or the rights of the husband over his family were other reasons some pagan writers opposed abortion. Concern for the unborn was only rarely noted as a reason for opposition.

It is worth remembering that in many cases abortions would not have been voluntary – at a time long before woman’s rights were recognised many abortions were due to coercion or fear for safety as much as for convenience or for avoiding shame. Furthermore, distinctions were made between non-therapeutic abortions for convenience and those that were therapeutic – those that aimed to protect the life of the mother from a pregnancy gone wrong.

The third chapter outlines the views of the Jews, who are noted as “an exception to the frequent practice of abortion in antiquity” (p. 33). Gorman carefully surveys the sources and provides an analysis and summary of Jewish thought regarding abortion.

The Jewish sources include Philo, the Talmud, the Septuagint, the Sibylline Oracles, the Mishnah, and Josephus. Their positions are classified as ‘Alexandrian’ and ‘Palestinian’, the latter further subdivided into a majority and minority position.

Interestingly, it was not normally held that the foetus was a person prior to birth. Nevertheless, and perhaps unsurprisingly, in these sources there is little to nothing said on deliberate non-therapeutic abortions – presumably such an act was sufficiently unthinkable to need no discussion among Jews. The author puts this down to their affirmation of having families, respect for life as given by God, and an aversion to bloodshed by murder. Where abortion is discussed, it is in terms of accidental incidents and for the purposes of saving the life of the mother.

Chapter four covers Christian beginnings in the first three hundred years. A possible oblique reference is found in the NT use of the Greek word pharmakos (usually translated with reference to magic, Gal. 5:20; Rev. 9:21; 18:23; 21:8; 22:15), which without difficulty can refer to the drugs prescribed for inducing a chemical abortion.

The earliest post-NT references are found in the early second-century documents known as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas. Both proscribe abortion explicitly, and in terms of the Mosaic commandment not to murder as well as Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour (see Did. 2.2; possibly 5.2, and Ep. Barn. 19.5), thereby likening abortion to “an evil no less severe and social in scope than oppression of the poor and needy, and no less dishonourable than the use of poisons.” (p. 50).

Other references include a vision from what is known as the Apocalypse of Peter, where aborted infants pronounce judgement on their mothers; Clement of Alexandria’s affirmations from NT texts and philosophic thought that the unborn have souls and are living persons, and that their termination equates to their murder; as well as later apologists such as Athenagoras and Tertullian who affirm the same ideas in various contexts.

The fifth chapter covers the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity had become an (and increasingly, ‘the’) established faith within the Roman Empire. In this period, abortion practises were discussed in Christian councils, and had laws passed against them as Christianity became further organised as a social force within Roman civilization.

The church theologians Basil, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom, and a document known as the Apostolic Constitutions all weigh in, generally affirming the received position that the unborn were human persons, and that their termination was an act of murder, but not an act that is unforgivable by the grace of God.

Augustine, who wrote much on the subject and progressed in his thinking on the matter throughout his life, considered the destruction of an ‘unformed’ foetus to be an immoral and punishable act, but not one to be equated with murder (his writings display an uncertainty over at which stage the unborn pass from ‘unformed’ to ‘formed’, but errs on the side of caution).

Chrysostom, the renowned orator and bishop of the new imperial capital, is much less deliberative. His stance is in keeping with his characteristic condemnation of the sin of his city, particularly as it is found among the wealthy upper classes, together with the invitation leave evil behind and ‘put on Christ’.

Gorman’s penultimate chapter places these early Christian responses in context, looking for distinctively Christian features within the anti-abortion agreement that they shared with Jews and many pagans. It also situates these responses to abortion within broader Christian ethics, particularly their opposition to violence and participation in military service.

The final chapter discusses the relevance of early Christianity on this issue for today. It begins by proposing some evaluative questions for applying Christian beliefs and practises from the past within contemporary Christianity, and then goes on to consider the treatment of abortion by early Christians. Having done this, Gorman proposes some starting points for the development of an ethic on behalf of the unborn for today, working from a series of themes derived from the Bible and from modern ethical concerns.

Early Christian voices affirmed the life and value of the unborn and condemned acts which in their view equated to murder. Their concern was for justice and care for the vulnerable, and consistent with their ethic towards other helpless members of society – namely women, children, the poor, and slaves.

The contest of rights between women and their unborn is one of modern society’s fraught issues for which a Christian ethic that embraces both justice and care is needed. Gorman’s Abortion and the Early Church is an informative and worthwhile read for anyone wishing to survey the sources and contexts for Christianity’s first voices on the subject.

Abortion and the Early Church is available at Book Depository, and was priced at NZ$30.14 on May 21, 2021.

Need help? Unexpected pregnancy and parenting support providers in NZ can be contacted here: www.voiceforlife.org.nz.