What Did the Early Christians Think About Abortion?

By Randy Ellis

Randy Ellis earned his Bachelor of Religious Education from Baptist Bible College in Clark Summit, Pennsylvania. He originally wrote this paper in 2000 while attending Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Randy was born and raised on Long Island and currently resides in Tega Cay, South Carolina, with his wife Christine. He has three daughters and two grandsons.


On January 22, 1997, the 24th anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, American Vice President Al Gore gave a speech in Chicago, Illinois, to the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). In the speech Gore, a long-standing member of the Southern Baptist Church, stated that advocates and opponents of abortion could find common goals in working to prevent unwanted pregnancies but then added that people who oppose abortion are hindering those efforts.1 Gore went on to say, “If they are willing to abandon that aspect of their common front, then there would be much that we could all do together to make abortions rare.”2 During the course of that speech, Gore, on several occasions, invoked the name of Chicago’s late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin who, during his life, was a staunch defender of the Roman Catholic Church’s stance against legalized abortion. Several days after Gore’s speech, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony issued a letter sharply criticizing the Vice President for “…inappropriately mentioning the name of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin in the same speech. I am deeply disturbed that you would invoke his name repeatedly in a pro-abortion speech, while ignoring the cardinal’s clear, strong and consistent defense of unborn life and his unrelenting opposition to abortion.”3 What had quite appropriately piqued the anger of Cardinal Mahony was Gore’s not-so-subtle attempt to justify his own position in favor of abortion by stamping his speech with the implied imprimatur of a very popular Roman Catholic official. Cardinal Mahony was confident that had he been alive, Cardinal Bernadin would not only have denounced Gore’s speech but NARAL as well.

During the 1984 U. S. presidential campaign, Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York and a life-long member of the Roman Catholic Church, delivered a well-remembered speech at the University of Notre Dame. In his speech Cuomo said that he accepted his Church’s position on abortion, just as he accepted its position on birth control and divorce. But, he asked rhetorically, “must I insist you do?”4 George McKenna, in an article that appeared in Atlantic Monthly wrote that “By linking abortion with divorce and birth control, Cuomo put it in the category of Church doctrines that are meant to apply only to Catholics. Everyone agrees that it would be highly presumptuous for a Catholic politician to seek to prevent non-Catholics from practicing birth control or getting a divorce. But the pro-life argument has always been that abortion is different from birth control and divorce, because it involves a non-consenting party—the unborn child.”5 While Cuomo alleged adherence to what he understood to be his church’s historical position opposing abortion, he steadfastly refused to use that knowledge as a moral guidepost for his own political philosophy. More importantly, he ignored his church’s historic challenge to its members that they influence the world around them through their faith.

In the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church – 1996, the United Methodist Church renewed its decade-old stance in favor of legalized abortion. The church justified its position by stating, “In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.”6 By including the phrase “In continuity with past Christian teaching,” the United Methodist Church is clearly seeking to establish its position on abortion to be one that is consistent with historic Christianity rather than one that is new and perhaps even radical.

The aforementioned examples are only three out of many. They are intended to demonstrate a growing, popular trend whereby politicians and even religious officials within mainstream Christian denominations are advocating support for legalized abortion while at the same time attempting to reconcile their position with historic, orthodox Christianity. Pro-abortion advocates evidently assume their affirmations will be more widely accepted if they are cloaked in the veil of Christian tradition, and their intent is clear: to justify abortion as an acceptable, historically consistent option for contemporary Christians. At the same time, many contemporary Christians, struggling to reach their own conclusion on the subject, consider the debate over abortion to be a phenomenon of the 20th and now 21st centuries. They are actually surprised to discover that the historic church had anything to say on the subject at all.

Where does the truth lie? Has the historic church ever taken an official position on the subject of abortion? If not, then perhaps contemporary Christians are correct to claim the right to formulate an independent, contemporary position with no linkage to the past, but if the historic church has spoken, then its statements cannot be easily disregarded. What if the historic church took a strong stand against abortion? Can contemporary Christians then legitimately claim their support of legalized abortion to be consistent with historic Christianity, or rather, should they admit that their position is a radical departure from the orthodox past?

This article will attempt to answer some of the aforementioned questions. First, and in order to understand the philosophical, social, political, and religious backdrop against which the early church articulated its position on abortion, the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish positions on abortion will be summarized. Next, the early church’s response to the practice of abortion will be discussed. Lastly, the New Testament’s “voice” (sometimes referred to pejoratively as its “silence”) on abortion will be addressed. For scope, only writings from the first four centuries of the Christian era will be included—those of the Apostles, Church Fathers, Apologists, ante-Nicene Fathers, and post-Nicene Fathers. For the sake of brevity, only exemplary passages will be examined; dozens of other writings from early Fathers have been intentionally and regretfully excluded. Also, while it is true that the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a variety of Protestant denominations have had much to say on the subject of abortion, their writings and opinions will not be included in this study.

Ancient Greece

First, it is essential to understand the position of the ancient Greeks on abortion since it was they that provided the philosophical underpinnings of first-century Roman society. The ancient Greeks based the development of their social, political, and ethical theory on two basic underlying principles: (1) they were constantly in pursuit of absolute perfection in all areas of life and society, and (2) the rights of the state and the society as a whole always took precedence over the rights of the individual citizen.

In The Republic, Plato (427 – 347 BC) advanced the theory that all adults, as well as the children they bore, were ultimately, and in the final analysis, the property of the state. He went on to establish the following guidelines for proper birthing and parenting:

A woman, I said, at twenty years of age may begin to bear children to the state, and continue to bear them until forty. …And we grant all this, accompanying the permission with strict orders to prevent any subsequent embryo which may come into being from seeing the light… the parents must understand that the offspring of such a union can not be maintained, and arrange accordingly.7

Plato’s admonition was clear: a parenting couple who conceived a child before the woman had reached the age of twenty or after she had turned forty, and who wanted to be considered responsible, were to make “arrangements” to ensure that the embryo never saw the light of day. The “arrangements” were to include either abortion or its companion tragedy, infanticide—the killing of an infant after its birth. Plato did not elaborate on why the ages of twenty and forty were established as birthing boundaries. Possibly his selection of these particular ages was based on the aforementioned, and ever-present, Greek quest for absolute perfection, along with contemporary, empirical evidence indicating that children born outside these chronological boundaries had a greater likelihood of deformity, disease, and even retardation.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) took a more philosophical approach in justifying abortion and, at the same time, was more definitive in establishing parameters for its application and acceptance. In The History of Animals he attempted to define the point at which terminated pregnancies, both natural miscarriages and abortions, equated to the loss of real human life. He concluded that the loss of human life only occurred after the point at which a fetus became animated with a human soul. He further concluded that this animation or “ensoulment” could only occur after a fetus took on the physical attributes of humanity—for males on the fortieth day of fetal development, for females on the ninetieth day. “About this period the embryo begins to resolve into distinct parts, it having hitherto consisted of a flesh like substance without distinction of parts.”8 For Aristotle, abortions that occurred early in the pregnancy, prior to “ensoulment,” were acceptable.

Ever the utilitarian, Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, was also on his own quest to find absolute perfection in all areas of life and society. He was genuinely worried that two disturbing realities could ultimately prevent society from achieving the perfection he craved: human deformity and population growth. He wrote the following in his work On Politics:

As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live, but that on the ground of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation.9

His statements were unambiguous. Infanticide was not to be practiced unless a child was born with a deformity, but if a deformity was detected, infanticide ceased to be optional—it became a requirement. Additionally, abortion was an effective and acceptable method for controlling population growth, but it had to be procured early in the development of a fetus, hopefully prior to its “ensoulment.”

Most scholars agree that Plato and Aristotle did not defend the practice of abortion for personal convenience or without proper limitations. “Rather, each held a utilitarian view of the individual, born or unborn, seeing that individual as existing for the state. No rights granted to the individual were absolute. All rights—even the right to life—were subordinate to the welfare of the state….”10 Summarily then, in ancient Greece abortion was acceptable in order to control population growth and was seen by some as a way to preserve the integrity of the human race as long as it was procured early in the pregnancy. Infanticide was only acceptable in order to eradicate human deformity.

It is important to note that the practice of abortion was not without it detractors in ancient Greece. It was evidently debated and was certainly condemned by at least some within the medical community. For example, there was the Hippocratic Oath written by Hippocrates of Cos approximately six centuries before the birth of Christ. In its original form it contains the clause, “To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug, nor give advice which may cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion. But I will preserve the purity of my life and my art.”11

Rome in the First Century

Second, it is important to understand the practice of abortion in first-century Roman society since it was this culture that provided the social and political backdrop for the early church. By the first century AD, abortion was widely accepted and practiced throughout the Roman Empire. Unlike the ancient Greeks, however, who practiced abortion for utilitarian purposes and defended it philosophically, the Romans practiced abortion for selfish reasons and defended it largely as a matter of personal preference and convenience. Alfred Edersheim, in his famous work Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, wrote that, during the time of Christ, Roman society exhibited the deepest possible corruption evidenced by the fact that “The sanctity of marriage had ceased. Female dissipation and the general dissoluteness led at last to an almost entire cessation of marriage. Abortion, and the exposure and murder of new born children, were common and tolerated….”12

In his book Abortion and the Early Church, Michael J. Gorman provided a list of motives for obtaining abortions two thousand years ago that reads eerily modern. Gorman stated that abortions were performed most frequently to conceal illicit sexual activity, especially when liaisons between upper and lower class people resulted in a pregnancy.13 Women often obtained abortions in order to preserve their “sex appeal,” on occasions when pregnancies were inconvenient, and in the event of failed birth control.14 Abortions were also performed to reduce the size of families, to prevent the dissolution of inheritances, to prevent illegitimate children from obtaining inheritances, and in some cases for therapeutic reasons. Lastly, prostitutes who saw pregnancy as a detriment to their professional viability often obtained abortions.15

While Gorman stated that abortion was most often practiced by the upper class,16 Robert M. Grant, in his book Augustus to Constantine, stated that those who practiced infanticide most often came from the lower class of society.17 It also appears that infanticide was performed more often on girls than on boys. A higher value was evidently placed on boys in Roman society since boys at least provided the possibility of future economic return. “In 1 B. C. a husband at Alexandria wrote his pregnant wife at Oxyrhynchus that if she bore a boy she should let the infant live; if a girl, she should ‘put it out.’”18 Lower-class parents, it seems, were more willing to wait until an infant was born and its sex determined before its life was terminated.

Surprisingly, a woman wishing to obtain an abortion in the Roman world had a wide variety of methods from which to choose. Gorman grouped the various methods of abortion into three categories: chemical, mechanical, and surgical. The most common chemical method was the utilization of pessaries—the introduction of poison to the uterus by means of vaginal suppositories. Poisons were also swallowed and in some cases inhaled. In each case the intent was that the poison would kill the fetus, causing it to be aborted immediately or stillborn at a later date. The mechanical method was much more crude, painful, and dangerous for the woman. The woman’s belly would be tightly wrapped with cloth or rope. The wrapping would be tightened and the woman’s stomach struck repeatedly until the fetus was expelled. The surgical method of two thousand years ago was similar to the way third-trimester abortions are performed even today. Surgical instruments were inserted into the womb and the fetus was dissected in the uterus before being removed in pieces.19

The Jews

Third, it is important to understand the Jewish position on abortion since it was the Jews who provided the religious context for the early church and its writings. While the Jewish position on abortion was based squarely on its interpretation of Mosaic Law, most scholars identify two distinctive schools of thought in Jewish antiquity with respect to a variety of social, cultural, and theological issues—the Palestinian and the Alexandrian. Gorman noted that, while first-century Jews did not actively practice abortion, they did “discuss the death of the fetus in a variety of contexts,” and that is where the greatest difference between the Palestinian and Alexandrian perspectives can be seen.

Flavius Josephus (c. AD 37 – 100), a Pharisee born in Palestine, noted Jewish historian, and first-century contemporary of the New Testament writers, is often cited as the most consistent representative of Palestinian Judaism. Philo Judaeus (c. 25 BC – c. AD 41), a devout, Hellenistic Jew born in Alexandria and a dedicated student of Greek philosophy, is considered the best representative of the Alexandrian form of Judaism. Their comments are illustrative of the two aforementioned schools of thought.

Josephus wrote in The Antiquities of the Jews:

He that kicketh a woman with child, if the woman miscarry, shall be fined by the judges for having, by the destruction of the fruit of her womb, diminished the population, and a further sum shall be presented by him to the woman’s husband. If she die of the blow, he also shall die, the law claiming as its due the sacrifice of life for life.20

Josephus is not herein referring to intentional abortion but rather to accidental feticide precipitated by the reckless treatment of a pregnant woman. He indicated that the severity of the punishment meted out upon the perpetrator should vary depending on who was injured by the violence. If the fetus died, a fine was to be paid to the woman’s husband. If the woman herself died, then the perpetrator was to be executed for his crime. Josephus ceded no legal status to the fetus—only to the woman. This is a position similar to that of the Romans, who maintained that, in the legal sense, a fetus was merely an extension of the woman’s body. For Josephus, the crime, while heinous if the fetus died, was only considered murderous if the woman died. It is interesting to note the contrast between the perspectives of Aristotle and Josephus with respect to the feticide itself. For Josephus, when a fetus died, a tragedy occurred because the population was diminished whereas for Aristotle the killing of a fetus was actually encouraged as an effective method for diminishing the population—the very thing that Josephus found most objectionable.

Some might conclude then, based on the statement above, that Josephus placed little significance on the life of a fetus and was therefore ambivalent toward abortion. After all, hadn’t he seemingly placed a higher value on the life of a woman than he did on her fetus? That conclusion, however, would be incorrect. In his apology Against Apion Josephus wrote:

The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing human kind.21

With this statement Josephus makes his position on intentional abortion crystal clear. While accidental feticide is a civil infraction that must be dealt with civilly, intentional abortion is a moral infraction equivalent to murder, wholly unacceptable for Jews. His position is unambiguous: Jewish women must not “cause” abortions lest they be considered “murderers.”

Philo Judaeus, a representative of the more strict Alexandrian position, wrote the following:

If a man comes to blows with a pregnant woman and strikes her on the belly and she miscarries, then if the result of the miscarriage is unshaped and undeveloped, he must be fined both for the outrage and for obstructing the artist Nature in her creative work of bringing into life the fairest of living creature, man. But, if the offspring is already shaped and all the limbs have their proper qualities and places in the system, he must die, for that which answers to this description is a human being….22

Like Josephus, Philo is herein referring to accidental feticide rather than intentional abortion, and like Josephus he required the perpetrator to pay a fine in some cases while in other cases the perpetrator’s life could be forfeited. Unlike Josephus, however, Philo made the severity of the crime and its corresponding punishment contingent on the condition of the fetus at the time of its destruction, whereas Josephus adjudged severity contingent only on the condition of the woman. For Philo, if the fetus died and emerged from the womb “unshaped,” it was not considered human, and thus a fine was exacted as punishment, but if the fetus emerged “shaped” and distinguishable, it was considered human, and execution was required as punishment. The Aristotelian influence is impossible to miss.

In summary, neither Palestinian nor Alexandrian Jews saw intentional abortion as an acceptable practice and therefore wrote little or nothing about it. Meredith Kline, in “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” wrote, “It was so unthinkable that an Israelite woman should desire an abortion that there was no need to mention this offense in the criminal code.”23 Intentional abortion as a matter of convenience was abhorrent to all Jews so that it was simply not debated morally; however, the accidental death of a fetus did occur and had to be debated from a legal perspective. The Palestinian Jews weighed in closer to the Roman perspective, and the Alexandrian Jews closer to the Greeks.

The Early Church’s Response

Now the early church’s response to the practice of abortion will be fully examined. During the first four centuries of its development, the Christian church often found itself at odds with the prevailing culture around it. Christian people were often repulsed by what they saw as the coldly dispassionate utilitarianism of Greek philosophy along with the self-gratifying cruelty of Roman society. Additionally, many early Christians saw Judaism as isolationistic; Jews were viewed as devout and committed to their own belief system but unwilling to speak out forcefully against the surrounding culture. The early Christians, on the other hand, especially the apologists of the second century, were not afraid to explain how their faith should reflect itself in life and practice. The practice of abortion was merely one out of a number of societal issues upon which the early church was unafraid to voice its opinion.

The earliest known Christian writing that explicitly mentioned abortion is the Epistle of Barnabas (c. AD 125). The unknown author of this letter wrote: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thine own soul. Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again shalt thou destroy it after it is born.”24 By placing these two sentences so close to one another, the writer accomplished two things. First, he associated the procurement of abortion with the slaying of a child, and second, by placing the prohibition against abortion immediately after the admonishment of love toward one’s neighbor, he personalized and humanized the fetus. The writer must have wanted his readers to draw the simple inference that neighborliness, in all its manifestations, must be extended to include even the unborn child.

The Didache, an early second-century catechism from the region of Syria, perhaps from the apostolic church at Antioch, contained the following warning: “…do not practice magic, do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.”25 Here again, an unknown Christian writer, with one sentence, provided a great deal of early Christian perspective on abortion. First, he employed the term “child” rather than fetus; second, he called abortion “murder”; and third, he equated abortion with the killing of a “newborn infant.” Equating abortion with infanticide was a rhetorical tactic commonly used by early Christians arguing against abortion. Even in second-century Roman society, there were pagans who were willing to defend the practice of abortion but who struggled greatly with the unfathomable cruelty of infanticide. It is also interesting to note that the writer of the Didache prohibited “magic” and “sorcery” in the same list of prohibitions that included abortion. There was evidently a discernible connection between the practitioners of abortion and those who practiced magic and sorcery. More than likely, women who wished to terminate their pregnancies sought out local magicians and sorcerers who were adept at mixing poisons, drugs, and potions for a variety of uses. For that reason it is not uncommon to find that whenever the early Christians condemned abortion, they also condemned magic and sorcery. In their minds the practices were linked.

Athenagoras (AD 100 – 200), a rigorous Christian apologist of the second century, addressed his apology entitled A Plea for All Christians, to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In this apologetic work he attempted to defend Christianity against a variety of baseless charges leveled against it by many of its pagan neighbors. One of those charges was that Christians engaged in the despicable taboo of cannibalism. In presenting his argument against the charge, Athenagoras wrote that Christians hated all forms of cruelty including cannibalism and even gladiatorial contests. He then included the following statement in his argument:

And 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.26

As ludicrous as it seems today, the common perception amongst pagans in first-century Roman society was that Christians killed their children and consumed them in secret ceremonies, eating their bodies and drinking their blood. This perception was based solely on a misunderstanding of the Christian’s celebration of the Eucharist. Athenagoras, in arguing against this ridiculous notion, made a strong statement against abortion, not only linking it to infanticide but also labeling the women who obtained them as “murderers” who “will have to give an account to God.” He rhetorically asked the emperor to consider whether or not it made sense that Christians would, on one hand, oppose both abortion and infanticide and then, on the other hand, kill the very same children they had originally protected in order to perform religious ceremonies? For Athenagoras, to believe this incongruity would be sheer lunacy!

Minucius Felix (c. AD 160 – c. AD 300, exact dates unknown) also argued against the charge of cannibalism leveled at Christians. He wrote: “The story about Christians drinking the blood of an infant that they have murdered, is a barefaced calumny. But the gentiles, both cruelly expose their children newly born, and before they are born destroy them by a cruel abortion. Christians are neither allowed to see nor to hear of manslaughter.”27 He added: “There are some 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 gods.”28 Felix herein escalated the attack against abortion by associating its genesis with the “teaching” of the gods of pagan society. Furthermore, his implication is antithetically clear—his God, the God of the Christians, would never “teach” such a thing.

While Athenagoras vaguely warned that women who aborted their children would eventually “give an account to God,” other early Christian writers were not so vague in their attempt to describe what that accounting might be like. For example, consider the Apocalypse of Peter, an anonymous product of the early Christian community, probably from the second century. The unknown author attempted to provide his readers with a frightening insight into what hell might possibly be like. It contained the following apocalyptic prose:

…the filth of those being punished ran down and became there as it were a lake: and there sat women having the gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born to them out of due time, crying; and there came forth from them sparks of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion.29

This writing, while obviously apocryphal, nonetheless clearly communicated the early Christian abhorrence for abortion and demonstrated what the Christian community thought of women who obtained them. The early church was not afraid to use vivid, horrific, and startling imagery to communicate its angst over this cruel practice. There is little doubt that they also hoped by painting such a frightening picture of hell and then linking it to abortion, they would frighten their young women away from it altogether.

St. Basil the Great (AD 329 – 379) was also quick to accuse women who obtained abortions of being murderers, although he was less severe in prescribing a punishment. In Canon 188 he wrote:

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.30

St. Basil’s argument is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, he dismissed any attempt to assign a severity to the crime based on the development of the fetus. It was of little concern to him whether or not a fetus was “formed” or “unformed.” Second, while arguing against abortion, he claimed to be “vindicating” not only the fetus but also the woman. St. Basil indicated that many women died as a result of their “attempt” to abort an unborn child, and this tragedy resulted in what he termed a “second murder.” St. Jerome (AD 342 – 420) sounded a similar tone in a letter he wrote to an individual named Eustochium wherein he decried the degeneracy of Roman society. He wrote: “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.”31 St. Jerome corroborated what St. Basil identified as a stark reality of the era, that women who sought abortions often died during the procedure. St. Jerome likened the deaths of these women to “suicides.”

Tertullian (AD 145 – 220), another second-century apologist, argued against the Greek and Roman notion that a fetus was merely an extension of a woman’s body and as such was not fully human. In his Apology he wrote:

In our case, 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 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 the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.32

With this statement Tertullian even went beyond the Jewish argument advanced by Philo, that a fetus could, in fact, be considered human but only after it had developed long enough in the womb to take on human form. Tertullian clearly stated that the fetus was “human” even during the time of its development when it “derives” its “sustenance” and “blood” from its mother. Like St. Basil who came after him, Tertullian was unconcerned with the form of the fetus at the time it was destroyed.

Probably the strongest argument that the early church raised in its fight against abortion was its claim that in many cases abortion was nothing more than one terrible sin employed to cover up yet another sin. The early church did not hesitate to identify and condemn the motives for abortions that they termed “selfish.” St. Hippolytus (AD 170 – 236), a presbyter of the church of Rome, articulated that approach when he wrote the following in The Refutation of All Heresies:

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!33

St. Hippolytus clearly laid out the progression of sin that culminated in “great impiety.” It all began with an adulterous liaison that produced an unwanted pregnancy. Next came the selfishly derived motivation to terminate the pregnancy based on a desire to avoid the dissolution of family inheritance. Finally came the abortion, which he called murder. For St. Hippolytus it was simple: adultery could lead to murder.

A final tactic used by the early church in order to influence its society against the practice of abortion was the simple, plainly worded description of its horror. In A Treatise on the Soul Tertullian documented the surgical method of abortion in a way than can only be described as disturbing. He wrote:

But sometimes by a cruel necessity, whilst yet in the womb, an infant is put to death, when lying awry in the orifice of the womb…. Accordingly, 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 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 ἐμβρυοσφάκτης, the slayer of the infant, which was of course alive. Such apparatus was possessed both by Hippocrates, and Asclepiades, and Erasistratus, and Herophilus, that dissector of even adults, and the milder Soranus himself, who all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive. Of the necessity of such harsh treatment I have no doubt even Hicesius was convinced….34

Tertullian’s vivid description of this medical procedure speaks for itself. The apologist wrote in contemptuous tones, and his intent is inescapable. By painting such a startling picture of surgical abortion, he hoped to instill in his fellow Christians a revulsion of the practice, while at the same time strengthening their resolve to fight against its acceptance in their society.

The early church’s stance on abortion can be easily summarized. The church attacked the practice early, consistently, strongly, and from several different fronts. The early church condemned abortion as nothing short of murder, equated it directly to infanticide, and charged both its practitioners and procurers as murders worthy of divine punishment. The early church wrote apocalyptic accounts depicting the punishment they believed God is preparing for those who procure abortions. Additionally, the early church condemned both the motives and methods of abortion, and finally it did not hesitate to describe in detail the immense cruelty of abortion.

Is the New Testament Silent?

A common argument posed by those advocating legalized abortion is that the New Testament is strangely and significantly silent on the issue of abortion. They argue that this silence effectively amounts to tacit approval of the practice or, at the very least, means that the New Testament writers did not ardently oppose the practice. In an article entitled “Why is the New Testament Silent About Abortion?” Michael J. Gorman summarized the question posed by abortion advocates as follows: “Could it be that when it comes to abortion, the New Testament’s silence implies neutrality, ambiguity, or even acceptance? Doesn’t this historical silence also logically lead to the theological conclusion that God is neutral about or even accepting of abortion? And if God is, at most, neutral, how can anyone be dogmatically opposed?”35 Since the very first Christian writings are those penned by the inspired writers of the New Testament, and since only the New Testament is normative, and since the non-canonical writers of the early church devoted so many pages to the argument against abortion, it does seem fair to ask the following: is the New Testament silent about abortion—and if so why?

In an article entitled “Is the Fetus a Person?” Roy Bowen Ward correctly stated, “One thing the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort.’”36 It is quite true that nowhere in the New Testament do the words “abortion” or “infanticide” appear, but the New Testament is steeped in Hebrew tradition. All but one of its writers were Jews who had been born and raised in the land of Israel/Palestine. Each of these men were familiar with the writings of Moses, and one thing the Torah does say is “Thou shalt not murder.”37 It is also true that in several places the New Testament writers reiterated the Torah’s commandment that Christians, like their Jewish neighbors, should not commit murder.38 “The Jewish abhorrence of deliberate bloodshed and its respect for life, including that of the unborn, formed a natural foundation for the Christian writings on abortion.”39 It does seem reasonable to conclude that the New Testament writers included abortion by implication in their reiteration of the Mosaic code “thou shalt not murder.”

The New Testament’s prohibition against abortion, however, need not be limited to its implied inclusion in the prohibition against murder. Since the practice of abortion in the first century was so tightly linked to the taking of drugs, chemicals, poisons, and potions, many contemporary Biblical scholars have concluded that there is also an implied prohibition against abortion in the list of vices provided by the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Galatians. In the fifth chapter of this epistle, Paul lists a number of vices that he identifies as “the works of the flesh… which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery… murders….”40 The word translated “sorcery” comes from the Greek φαρμακεία. The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament defines φαρμακεία as “the employment of drugs for any purpose.”41 A φαρμακ was a “mixer of poisons,” a “sorcerer,” or “magician.”42 It is from the Greek root φαρμακ that the English words “pharmacology,” “pharmacy,” and “pharmacist” are derived. The purveyors of abortion in the first century included those who dispensed poisonous potions. These very same people may have also practiced a variety of forms of sorcery and witchcraft. In his commentary on Galatians, John Calvin noted that it was not without significance that Paul placed “murder” and “sorcery” in the same list of vices.43 In the fourth century, while commenting on Galatians 5:20, St. Jerome stated, “So that poisoning and sorcery might not appear to be condoned in the New Testament, they are included in the works of the flesh.”44

In the final analysis, while it is true that the New Testament never explicitly forbids or even mentions abortion, it cannot be said that the New Testament and its writers were neutral about it or without an opinion on the subject. “On the contrary, the silence simply tells us that abortion was not an issue in need of resolution. The silence indicates that there was little or no deviation from the norm inherited from Judaism.”45 Gorman summarized the entire argument this way: “When the New Testament is understood in its historical, developmental context as a fourth-century Christian collection of first-century Jewish-Christian documents, its silence on abortion testifies to the antiabortion stance of its original Jewish-Christian writers, its later compilers, and its earliest hearers and readers. In a very real sense, then, the New Testament canon did indeed speak, and still does speak, against abortion.”46


Surely the debate over abortion will continue for years to come. Hopefully, it is now clear that abortion is not a phenomenon of the 20th and now 21st centuries; it has been around for at least two and a half millennia and probably much longer. More than likely, people learned how to successfully terminate pregnancies not long after they discovered that some pregnancies can be inconvenient and unwanted. Additionally, Christians will continue to be involved in the debate over abortion; they cannot avoid that reality. Contemporary Christians who oppose abortion should feel encouraged to continue their battle against this social blight based on the simple fact that, in doing so, they remain completely consistent with historic Christianity. Conversely, contemporary Christians who advocate for legalized abortion, either vocally or through silent assent, need to understand that their position is diametrically opposed to the one advanced by the early church and is completely at odds with historic Christianity.


[1] Christian Century. Vol. 114, no. 11, pg. 334.

[2] Christian Century. Vol. 114, no. 11, pg. 334.

[3] Christian Century. Vol. 114, no. 11, pg. 334

[4] George Mckenna. “On Abortion: a Lincolnian Position.” The Atlantic Monthly, September 1995. Volume 276, no. 3.

[5] George Mckenna. “On Abortion: a Lincolnian Position.” The Atlantic Monthly, September 1995. Volume 276, no. 3.

[6] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church – 1996. Paragraph 65 J.

[7] Daniel C. Stevenson, editor, The Internet Classics Archive, The Republic, Plato, Book V, Part 9.

[8] Daniel C. Stevenson, editor, The Internet Classics Archive, The History of Animals, Aristotle, Book VII, Part 3.

[9] Daniel C. Stevenson, editor, The Internet Classics Archive, On Politics, Aristotle, Book VII, Part 16.

[10] Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1982), 23.

[11] The Encyclopedia Americana, (Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1998), 218.

[12] Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc.), 222.

[13] Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1982), 14-15.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Robert M. Grant, Augustus to Constantine, (San Francisco, California: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990), 12.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1982), 15-16.

[20] Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus, Translated and edited by William Whiston, Antiquities of the Jews (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 122.

[21] Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus, Translated and edited by William Whiston, Antiquities of the Jews (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 806.

[22] Philo. Special Laws, 108-109.

[23] Meredith Kline, “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 20 (1977), 193-202.

[24] Cleveland A. Coxe, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), vol. 1, Epistle of Barnabas, author unknown, 148.

[25] Cyril C. Richardson, editor, Early Christian Fathers, (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) Didache, 172.

[26] Cleveland A. Coxe, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), vol. 2, A Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras, 148.

[27] Cleveland A. Coxe, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), vol. 4, The Octavius, Minucius Felix, 191-192.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Cleveland A. Coxe, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), vol. 9, The Apocalypse of Peter, author unknown, 146.

[30] Phillip Schaff, editor, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers – Second Series, (Albany, Oregon: Ages Software, 1997), vol. 8, Canon 188, St. Basil the Great, 529.

[31] Phillip Schaff, editor, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers – Second Series, (Albany, Oregon: Ages Software, 1997), vol. 6, Letter 22, St. Jerome, 118.

[32] Cleveland A. Coxe, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), vol. 3, Apology, Tertullian, 25.

[33] Cleveland A. Coxe, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), vol. 4, Refutation of All Heresies, Hyppolytus.

[34] Phillip Schaff, editor, Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Albany, Oregon: Ages Software, 1997), vol. 3, A Treatise on the Soul, Tertullian, 371-372.

[35] Michael J. Gorman, “Why is the New Testament Silent About Abortion?” Christianity Today. January 11, 1993.

[36] Roy Bowen Ward, “Is the Fetus a Person?”

[37] Exodus 20:13.

[38] Romans 13:9, James 2:11.

[39] Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1982), 45.

[40] Galatians 5:19-20.

[41] William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 469.

[42] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 854.

[43] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XXI, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1996), 165.

[44] Mark J. Edwards, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1982), 87-88.

[45] Michael J. Gorman, “Why is the New Testament Silent About Abortion?” Good News. May/June 1993.

[46] Michael J. Gorman, “Why is the New Testament Silent About Abortion?” Good News. May/June 1993.


Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XXI. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1996.

Coxe, Cleveland A. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1, Epistle of Barnabas, author unknown. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.

________. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1, The First Apology of Justin, by Justin Martyr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.

________. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 2, A Plea For the Christians, by Athenagoras. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.

________. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 3, Apology, by Tertullian. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.

________. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 4, The Octavius, by Minucius Felix. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.

________. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 9, The Apocalypse of Peter. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc.

Edwards, Mark J. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1999.

Gorman, Michael J. Abortion and the Early Church. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1982.

Grant, Robert M. Augustus to Constantine. San Francisco, California: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1990.

Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus: Against Apion. Translated and edited by William Whiston. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.

Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus: The Antiquities of the Jews. Translated and edited by William Whiston. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.

Kohlenberger, John R. III, editor. The Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.

Mounce, William D. The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.

Richardson, Cyril C. Early Christian Fathers. The Didache. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1996.

Schaff, Phillip, editor. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers – Second Series. Vol. 6. Letter 22. St. Jerome. Albany, Oregon: Ages Software, 1997.

________. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers – Second Series. Vol. 8, Canon 188. St. Basil the Great. Albany, Oregon: Ages Software, 1997.

________. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers – Second Series. Vol. 8, Treatise on the Soul. Tertullian. Albany, Oregon: Ages Software, 1997.

Sproul, R. C., editor. New Geneva Study Bible, New King James Version (NKJV). London: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

Stevenson, Daniel C., editor. The Internet Classics Archive, 2000. On Politics, Aristotle.

________. The Internet Classics Archive, 2000. The History of Animals, Aristotle.

________. The Internet Classics Archive, 2000. The Republic, Plato.

Convincing Proof