Over the weekend, The New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof penned an ode to a Christian abortionist, Dr. Willie Parker. In explaining how a Christian could favor abortion, Kristof (who once asked Tim Keller if he was a Christian) argued that the Christian opposition to abortion is “relatively new in historical terms.” He could not be more wrong.
“[L]et’s remember that conservative Christianity’s ferocious opposition to abortion is relatively new in historical terms,” Kristof argued. He cited various events in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions to legalize abortion and Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say abortion was a private matter.
More insidiously, Kristof argued that the Bible does not explicitly discuss abortion, “and there’s no evidence that Christians traditionally believed that life begins at conception.” He also cited St. Thomas Aquinas, who considered abortion murder only after God imbues a fetus with a soul, and mentioned the common view that life begins at quickening, when a mother can feel the baby’s kicks.
Kristof is right to say that Christians did not traditionally believe life begins at conception — only with modern genetic advances did science reveal that at conception a distinct individual with the full complement of human DNA comes into existence. Nevertheless, once this was discovered, it was a natural application of Christian teaching to forbid abortion post conception.
Indeed, the Bible arguably does condemn abortion — and not just abortion, but chemically induced abortion, which was the central issue in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. “Medications” to induce abortion, commonly referred to as “abortifacients,” either in the form of pills or various herbs or potions, have been with humanity for thousands of years — and are arguably condemned in the Bible.
In his letter to the Galatians (penned in approximately 55 A.D.), St. Paul issued a catalogue of sins (Galatians 5:20). Among other sins, he condemned pharmakeia, the making and administering of potions. In Revelation 21:8, St. John the Evangelist condemned “sexual immorality,” and then he immediately went on to condemn pharmakois, the plural form of the same word Paul used in Galatians 5:20.
While the word is often translated “sorcery” or “witchcraft,” Alvin J. Schmidt, in his book How Christianity Changed the World, noted that “it is quite likely that when Paul used the word pharmakeia in Galatians, he meant the practice of abortion, because administering medicinal potions was a common way of inducing abortions among the Greco-Romans.”
The pagan Plutarch used the word pharmakeia to refer to contraception and abortion potions, and the early Christian document the Didache (or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, written between 85 and 110 A.D.) argues that abortion is forbidden, using the words ou pharmakeuseis, “you shall not use potions,” immediately followed by “ou phoneuseis teknon en phthora,” “you shall not kill a child by abortion.”
Other early Christians, including Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix, Bishop Ambrose, and St. Jerome, mentioned and condemned the common practice of women using potions (pharmakeia) to commit abortion. Even if the word pharmakeia in Galatians and Revelation does not refer to abortion, early Christians almost unanimously condemned the practice.
Perhaps one of the clearest statements came from Tertullian, a north African church father who died around 220 A.D. In his Apology, Tertullian wrote, “We may not destroy even the foetus in the womb,” and added, “Nor does it matter whether you take away the life that is born or destroy the one that is coming to birth.”
Athenagoras, a Christian philosopher writing to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in about 177 A.D., defended his fellow Christians against the charge of cannibalism (a Roman misunderstanding of the Christian belief that believers receive the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper). “What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderesses?” Athenagoras asked.
Indeed, the pro-life approach of the early church extended beyond opposition to abortion and stood in stark contrast to Roman culture’s low view of human life.
Both the Greeks and the Romans practiced child abandonment — as any reader of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex well knows. Indeed, the founding myth of the Roman Republic centers around Romulus and Remus, two boys abandoned as infants who were raised by a she-wolf. The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta was particularly notorious for abandoning children unfit to be raised as warriors.
Early Christians condemned this practice. Indeed, the church father Clement of Alexandria attacked Romans for saving young birds and other creatures while lacking moral compunctions about abandoning their own children. Lactantius wrote, “It is as wicked to expose as it is to kill.”
But early Christians did more than just condemn this barbarity. They frequently adopted these abandoned babies. Benignus of Dijon (late 100s A.D.) provided protection and nourishment for abandoned children. The former prostitute Afra of Augsburg launched a ministry to care for abandoned children — in the 200s A.D. Finally, the Christian Emperor Valentinian (who was influenced by Bishop Basil of Caesarea) criminalized child abandonment in 374.
The story of infanticide is eerily similar. Like child abandonment and abortion, infanticide was common in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. The historian Polybius even blamed the population decline of ancient Greece on this practice. Nor was it restricted to the West — infanticide was also common in India, China, Japan, the Brazilian jungle, the Eskimos, and in many parts of pagan Africa.
Early Christians condemned infanticide, as they had abortion and infant exposure. The Didache explicitly declared, “[T]hou shalt not … commit infanticide,” and Bishop Callistus of Rome (died around 222 A.D.), a onetime slave, was appalled at this common method of killing babies.
When St. Paul wrote, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2), early Christians took this advice to heart. Not only did they condemn abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment, but they also condemned Roman gladiatorial shows, human sacrifices, and suicide.
Christian rulers eventually codified this emphasis on the dignity of human life into law, and while it was never fully lived out (many pagans and Christians still engaged in these practices, even though they were condemned by Christian teaching and law), the influence of this momentous change in human thought cannot be ignored.
Kristoff is correct that most Christians throughout history did not consider conception to be the beginning of life — they had no understanding of fertilization or DNA! But given the advances of modern biology, it is arguably more in keeping with the Christian tradition of sanctity of life to protect fetuses from the moment of conception, since that is the time when a unique individual with full human DNA comes into the world.
Furthermore, it is indeed shameful that many American Protestants (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) embraced abortion — because opposition to it was seen as a Catholic issue, and Catholics were considered a malign influence. This is a sad aberration from the Christian norm, however. Even the notorious Protestant reformer John Calvin declared that “the unborn, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.”
Christian opposition to abortion is anything but “new in historical terms,” and America’s newspaper of record should know this. Opposition to abortion arguably traces directly back to the Bible itself, but the pro-life perspective of the early Church is indisputable.
Liberal Christians like the abortionist Willie Parker today argue that it is charitable to perform abortions for women in dire circumstances, but in doing so they fall outside the mainstream of Christian teaching and the historical emphasis on human life, as informed by modern science.