The Early Church Fathers and Abortion
Wednesday, October 5, 2005 - By Larry V. Crutchfield, Ph.D.
You [God] created every part of me; you put me together in my Mothers womb. I praise you because you are to be feared; all you do is strange and wonderful. I know it with all my heart. When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother's womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there-you saw me before I was born. (Psalm 139:13-16a, Good News Bible)



What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-l0)[1]

If the fathers of the early church were resurrected today to take part in the struggle against abortion, they would no doubt have a sense of deja vu. It could hardly be otherwise for they would have already encountered and addressed most of the issues and arguments centuries before. Perhaps the one thing that would surprise (better yet, horrify) them-aside from the fact that mankind's inhumanity to its preborn progeny had not changed in so many hundreds of years of human "progress"-would be the staggering numbers of preborn babies killed each year, each month, each day. After all, franchise feticide factories did not exist in their day. The abortion clinic is a modern invention.

Yet, while aborticide has found a speedier form of transportation and has attempted to assume a more respectable identity in modern times, the fathers would easily recognize the well-worn baggage that it still carries. In nearly two millennia, the methods, motives, morality and metaphysical questions attached to this pernicious practice, have remained virtually unchanged. What has changed, unfortunately, is the apathetic posture assumed by some segments of the church toward the maleficence of aborters and abortionists.

Is abortion murder or is it an acceptable form of birth control and family planning? What about the sanctity of human life-no matter how elementary and new that life may be-as a creation in the very image of God? Is abortion an amoral matter of individual choice or is it a moral perversion, a sin, a crime against God and humanity and thus worthy of judgment? When does life begin? Is the baby an individual person separate from its mother, or just a blob of tissue, an extension of the host organism? In varying degrees, these are questions with which the early church fathers wrestled. While it may surprise modern readers to learn that abortion is not a distinctly twentieth-century phenomenon, they may be surprised even further to learn that the church leaders who dealt with this issue came to virtually the same conclusions that biblically based Christianity has arrived at today.

The methods of abortion

My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes. (Jeremiah 16:l7)[2]

In the pagan Graeco-Roman world, abortion and infanticide (exposure of newborns to the elements and wild animals) were two commonly accepted methods of birth control and family planning. With regard to abortion, the fathers of the early church reveal three methods that were in vogue in their day: abortifacient drugs, womb binding, and surgical procedure.

Abortifacient drugs

Easily the most common method of terminating an unwanted pregnancy in the first half of the first millennium A.D. was by means of abortion-inducing chemical compounds (drugs were also used to produce sterility). More than ten separate pieces of patristic literature mention abortifacient drugs,[3] while using a variety of terms to classify them. Several sources call them simply "drugs" or "potions."[4] And twice they are termed "medicines."[5] But some fathers purposely give them the more sinister labels "poisons" and "parricidal mixtures."[7] Whatever the term used, the practice was unanimously condemned by the fathers who addressed it.

The church fathers themselves do not describe the procedures involved in drug-aided abortions, but it is known from classical sources that certain types of abortifacients (called pessaries) were administered vaginally while others were taken orally. The purpose in some cases was merely to expel the dead fetus; in others, it was to kill the still-living child.[8]

Galen, a second-century physician and writer from Pergamum, states bluntly that some drugs could "destroy the embryo or rupture certain of its membranes."[9] Yet while such drugs were used, the whole practice of administering poisons and pessaries by physicians was expressly forbidden by the Hippocratic oath. It calls upon the physician to affirm, "I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion."[10]

In their effect, the poisonous potion and pessary methods of antiquity and the salt poisoning and prostaglandin procedures used today are not markedly dissimilar. All four techniques are essentially forms of chemical warfare against the preborn.

Womb binding

A second method of abortion current in the patristic period was womb binding. Hippolytus (died c.A.D. 236),[11] Christian apologist and bishop of Pontus, tells us that some women "began...to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived."[12] The Alexandrian theologian Origen (c.A.D. 185-254) seems to suggest that this procedure was employed as a backup birth control measure. If sterilizing drugs taken previously failed to prevent pregnancy, womb binding could be counted on to achieve the desired result.[13] Apparently the expectant mother bound her midsection so tightly that the fetus was denied necessary space for development. Since the child could not grow laterally, it was forced toward the point of least resistance, the birth canal.

This method may have been the early counterpart to the pro Roe v. Wade do-it-yourself coat hanger technique of recent times. One can speculate that the practice was popular among the desperate poor for whom the services of a physician were either not available or too costly. However, in their references to it, both Hippolytus and Origen present it as a practice among the wealthy.

Surgical procedure

The most detailed description of abortion in the fathers, and in certain respects the most gruesome to consider (like the Dilatation/Curettage and Dilatation/Evacuation techniques used today), concerns the surgical removal of a fetus. The African apologist and theologian Tertullian (A.D. 15O225), describes two instruments that were used in this procedure. He writes:

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 embruosphaktes, the slayer of the infant, which was of course alive.[14]

Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, is the only other father of the church to mention this method of abortion and he does so without elaboration. In his treatment of the subject, the preborn has died and so is "cut out limb by limb from the womb, lest if [it] were left there dead the mother should die too."[15]

The Motives for Abortion

But each one is tempted when be is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)[16]

While reading the literature of the early church it becomes apparent that the motives for procuring abortion then, were almost identical to those cited now. Three main motives stand out. First, abortion was procured in an effort to mitigate the consequences of sexual immorality. Second, it was employed as a means of birth control and family planning. And third, under certain circumstances it was performed for therapeutic reasons. What might be considered a subsidiary motive, selfishness and greed, is mentioned by two fathers.

Sexual immorality

Without question, the most commonly cited reason for procuring abortion in the first few centuries of the church's existence was to terminate pregnancies resulting from sexual immorality. For example, in his scathing indictment of Callistus (bishop of Rome from 217), Hippolytus asserts that he,

...permitted females, if they were unwedded, and burned with passion at an age at all events unbecoming, or if they were not disposed to overturn their own dignity through a legal marriage, that they might have whomsoever they would choose as a bedfellow, whether a slave or free, and that a woman, though not legally married, might consider such a companion as a husband.[l7]

Hippolytus goes on to say that such women resorted to contraceptive drugs and womb binding to insure that no offspring would issue from these illicit liaisons.

Clement of Alexandria (c.A.D. 15O-22O), maintains that "If we should but control our lusts at the start and if we would not kill off the human race born and developing according to the divine plan, then our whole lives would be lived according to nature."[18] The Alexandrian theologian goes on to make the very perceptive statement that "women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug kill not only the embryo but, along with it, all human kindness."[19]

Sadly, one does not have to look far today to find corroboration for Clement's observation. Carol Everett, who herself was pressured into having an abortion by her husband and doctor, became involved in the abortion business in Texas in the 197O's. There she worked her way "up" from a partnership in four abortion clinics, to the directorship of several clinics of her own where some 55O babies died each month. Everett, whose aborticide activity was ended by her Christian conversion, paints a disturbing picture of what goes on behind the scenes in an abortion clinic. She says of the typical young woman waiting in the abortion chamber:

She's on the table scared to death, so tense she can't stand it. The doctor comes in, sometimes says hello sometimes says nothing. The people in the room laugh and joke because you've got to remember these people are having trouble with what they're doing too. If you kill babies for a living, you have to deal with it some way. And they deal with it in different ways-by laughing, joking, turning the radio up so loud in the room so that no one can hear them or think about what's going on. The nurses dance, the doctors joke-"Here's looking at you!" when an eye goes through the tube.[20]

The abortion business is not only about killing human beings. As Clement points out, it has much to do with killing human emotions as well.

After Clement, the Council of Elvira (c.A.D. 305) pronounced judgment upon women who aborted their children conceived in adulterous affairs.[21] And the Council of Ancyra (convened in A.D. 314) did the same with regard to "Women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived."[22] Then in a powerful sermon on Romans 24, the great fourth-century preacher and bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, speaks of "the harlot" whose "whoredom" leads to adultery and then "murder." He expresses shock at the thought that in an effort to make herself physically appealing to her "lovers," she will resort even to killing her preborn child.[23]

Chrysostom 's contemporary, the great Latin father Jerome (c.A.D. 34O-42O), laments the daily fall of so many virgins which results in loss to the church. He writes:

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...Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness ...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...Yet it is these who say: "...my conscience is sufficient guide for me..."[24]

Family planning

It is Augustine who most fully addresses the issue of abortion as a means of birth control and family planning. Like many Christian leaders in the early church, he believed that marriage and sex were gifts of God, the singular aim of which was procreation. Starting from this basic belief, he rebuked married couples who "lustfully" engaged in sex merely for the pleasure of it, and then conspired to destroy that which was conceived.[25]

Augustine makes reference to the use of contraceptive drugs to prevent pregnancy, "or else, if unsuccessful in this, [the destruction of] the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that [the] offspring should rather perish than receive vitality." Either way, in Augustine's view, the "infliction of cruelty on...offspring so reluctantly begotten" is "criminal" conduct, "sin...practised in darkness."[26]

Therapeutic reasons

The fathers also discuss abortions performed for therapeutic reasons. Under circumstances in which a pregnant woman's life was in danger, abortion was sometimes seen as a "cruel necessity." This conclusion by Tertullian prefaced his description of the surgical abortion technique. He explains that,

...sometimes by a cruel necessity, whilst yet in the womb, an infant is put to death, when lying awry in the orifice of womb [breech position?] he impedes parturition, and kills his mother, if he is not to die himself [here the discussion of the surgical abortion technique is given]...[Well-known physicians of the day] pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death [with the "embruosphaktes, the slayer of the infant"], to escape being tortured alive.[27]

It is clear from the language Tertullian uses (e.g., "furtive robbery of life," "slayer of the infant," "infanticide function") in this passage, that he was uneasy even with therapeutic abortions.

Augustine also mentions therapeutic abortion (surgical procedure), but as cited above, in his account the fetus was already dead.[28]

Selfishness and greed

While the first two motives for abortion treated above may certainly be described in large measure as selfish, one subsidiary motive for abortion mentioned by two of the early fathers stands out as a particularly selfish and frivolous reason for destroying the preborn. Ambrose (c.A.D. 339-397), bishop of Milan, reports that "Even the wealthy, in order that their inheritance may not be divided among several, deny in the very womb their own progeny."[29]

Hippolytus too affirms that women misled by Callistus had aborted their children because they did not wish "to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth."[3O] To avoid having to share their wealth with too many children, the rich were driven to abort their offspring. It was a decision born of simple selfishness and ordinary greed.

The Morality of abortion

You have heard that the ancients were told, "You shall not commit murder and Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court." (Matthew 5.21)[31]

Aborters and murder

The early church fathers whose statements on the subject have survived are unanimous in their condemnation of abortion and infanticide. And even though the pagan world of the time readily embraced these practices, the fathers neither minced words nor displayed timidity in attacking them at every turn. There is an abundance of patristic references to abortion as child-killing and murder.

One of the earliest pieces of extant non-canonical Christian literature to address the issues of abortion and infanticide is the Didache (original title, The Lord's Instruction to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles[32]). Composed probably before the end of the first century (while the apostle John was still living), the Didache was an instructional handbook for Gentiles, dealing with matters of morality, liturgy, and church life. In a catalog of gross sins which are condemned, including murder, adultery, sodomy, fornication, stealing, and the practice of magic and witchcraft, the Didache includes the command, "thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten [infanticide]."[33]

And written at about the same time as the Didache, or perhaps shortly thereafter, the Epistle of Barnabas repeats the same commands. It states, "Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion, nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born."[34] It is clear that the contemporary practices of first aborting a child and then starving it to death if it is born alive, would have been vigorously condemned by the early church.

It is clear too that because of the early church's stand on the sanctity of human life and its abhorrence of homicide in any form, the fathers felt compelled to denounce abortion as murder. Almost with one voice they pro- nounce those who rob the womb of its fruit, murderers, man-killers, and parricidists (murderers of near relatives). The second-century Christian apologist Athenagoras, for example, states flatly that "women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder."[35] And Clement of Alexandria suggests that "women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug kill not only the embryo but, along with it, all human kindness."[36]

Tertullian addresses the subject in terms of the explicit biblical command against murder. He proposes that in the Christians case,

...murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus 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.[37]

As already noted, Tertullian appears to have been uneasy even with abortions performed for therapeutic reasons.

The third-century Christian apologist Minucius Felix condemns abortion as an act of "parricide" that extinguishes the "source of the future man" in the mothers "very bowels." He ascribes the practice to the teachings of pagan gods.[38] And after the heretic Novatius struck his wife's womb with his heel causing her to miscarry, Cyprian termed the aborted offspring, "the fruit of a father's murder."[39]

In contrast to all the members of the animal kingdom, man alone possesses intellect, emotion, and will. And in contrast to all viviparous animals[4O] -a classification to which most of the highest forms of animal life belong- only man is known to destroy his preborn young. With his emotions aborted in advance, man has both the will to kill his preborn offspring, and the intellect for devising the means by which that will may be imposed. In this regard and with reference to women who use "parricidal mixtures" to "snuffout the fruit of their wombs," Ambrose asks these most sobering and damning rhetorical questions: "Who except man himself has taught us ways of repudiating children? Who has discovered such cruel parental customs?"[41]

Basil, Ambrose's contemporary, added two important elements to the issue of abortion as murder. The first dealt with the matter of whether the aborted fetus was "formed" or "unformed" (i.e., the question of the preborn's value relative to its stage of development) at the time of its expulsion from the womb, the other concerned women who died during an abortion procedure. While the formed/unformed issue is discussed in full below, suffice it here to say that for Basil, it was a moot point; for him the debate was irrelevant. After he makes the charge that "The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder," he immediately states that "With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed."[42] For Basil, the abortion of a child at any point in its development was murder.

Basil addressed one other important element in the abortion controversy. He says that in most cases, those who procured abortions died themselves. For this reason, he maintains that the woman who aborts her child also makes an "attack upon herself." Basil concludes that "The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events if we regard it as done with intent."[43] Jerome also mentions the frequency with which women died during an abortion procedure, but he calls the mother's death "suicide" and that of the fetus, "child murder."[44]

Today, an oft-repeated pro-abortionist argument against a possible supreme court reversal of Roe v. Wade, is that it would result in the deaths of countless numbers of women. If abortion should become illegal, so the argument goes, women would be driven to attempt coat hanger abortions themselves, or to seek out back-alley butchers to perform the dirty deed for them. Evidently, Basil and Jerome would not have been impressed by the argument. For them, the woman who dies during an abortion attempt, suffers the unfortunate but logical consequences of a crime which she has committed not only against her own offspring, but against herself. It would have been impossible for these fathers to accept the notion that someone (or something, i.e., a rescinded law) other than the woman herself was responsible for her own death. As Jerome suggests, any belief to the contrary implies the distorted reasoning of one for whom a perverted conscience alone has become the all-sufficient guide.[45]

Writing at about the same time as Basil and Jerome, John Chrysostom viewed abortion as an abuse of God's gift and at variance with His laws. After he condemns drunkenness and fornication, he addresses the matter of "murder before birth...or rather to a something even worse than murder." He writes:

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?[46]

Abortionists and murder

Two extant patristic treatments of abortion as murder are not content to charge the expectant mother alone with the crime of murder, but indict those who administer the abortifacients as fully culpable accomplices. Basil writes, "Women also who administer drugs to cause abortion, as well as those who take poisons to destroy unborn children, are murderesses."[47] And at the end of the seventh century, the Trullan or Quinisext Council validated that conclusion.[48] Since the patristic period is generally regarded as covering the first through the seventh centuries, with the condemnation of abortion by the Didache in the late first century and by the Quinisext Council at the end of the seventh, the entire age of the church fathers was virtually bracketed by the concept of abortion as murder.

The Metaphysics of abortion

The word of the Lord came to me, saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:4-5)[49]

Preborn and personhood

Among the burning questions in the contemporary abortion debate are, "When does life begin?" and "When does the preborn child become a human being, a person?" But we are by no means the first to ask such questions. The fathers of the church wrestled with these issues centuries ago. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians ever produced by the church, puts it this way:

And therefore the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men, though I do not know whether it is in man's power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb: whether life exists in a latent form before it manifests itself in the motions of the living being.[50]

While the issue was obviously one for which there was no clear and easy resolution, the fathers nevertheless expounded what they felt to be biblically sound teaching on the sanctity of all human life, from conception onward. Throughout their writings, there are references to "the fetus in the womb as a created being and therefore an object of God's care,"[5l] and to abortion as the murder of a "human being,"[52] as "mankilling"[53] and "child murder."[54]

Particularly damning for physicians today who perform abortions is Tertullian's pointed assertion that the prominent physicians of his day and before, "all knew well enough that a living being[55] had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death [before a therapeutic abortion could be performed]."[56] Unfortunately, for the preborn in the abortionist's operating room today, while the medical paraphernalia for snuffing out their lives is in plentiful supply, pity for their "most luckless...state" is not.

Perhaps the most complete treatment of the question of the humanity of the preborn is found in Tertullian's writings. This African father clearly considered the preborn to have an identity, individual and separate from that of its mother. He points out that while the preborn "human being [in the womb] derives blood from other parts of the [mother's] body for its sustenance," the mother herself knows that it is separate from her. He calls on mothers, whether still pregnant or after they have delivered,

...[to] give us your testimony...(Tell us, then,) whether you feel in the embryo within you any vital force other than your own, with which your bowels tremble, your sides shake, your entire womb throbs, and the burden which oppresses you constantly changes its position. Are these movements a joy to you, and a positive removal of anxiety, as making you confident that your infant both possesses vitality and enjoys it? Or, should his restlessness cease, your first fear would be for him...[57]

Tertullian offers an interesting series of arguments for the humanity and individuality of the preborn. His first set of arguments rests upon logic, the second set upon Scripture, the third upon theology. First Tertullian argues that if the preborn child is subject to disease, it must be alive, "since there is no disease where there is no soul or principle of life." Then he cites as other logical conditions for humanity, the need of food for sustenance, "growth and decay, fear and motion." He who ceases to experience these, says Tertullian, ceases to live. He concludes by saying, "And thus by and by infants are stillborn; but how so, unless they had had life? For how could any die, who had not previously lived?"[58]

Augustine applies the same logic when he says, "To deny that the young who are cut out limb by limb from the womb...have never been alive, seems too audacious. Now, from the time that a man begins to live, from that time it is possible for him to die."[59] The logic in Tertullian and Augustine's argument is simple. That which is not alive cannot become ill, cannot eat, cannot die.

In his second set of arguments, Tertullian acknowledges the limitations of human opinion before calling on Scripture, divine revelation, to act as the ultimate witness to the humanity of the preborn. He writes:

Now there is no end to the uncertainty and irregularity of human opinion, until we come to the limits which God has prescribed. I shall at last retire within our own lines and firmly hold my ground there, for the purpose of proving to the Christian (the soundness of) my answers to the Philosophers and the Physicians. Brother (in Christ), on your own foundation [of Scripture] build up your faith.[60]

Tertullian proceeds to do just that, to build up faith on the foundation of Scripture. He cites four biblical examples of infant vitality in the womb and of interaction between mother and preborn child. He says, "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."[61]

The first example cited by Tertullian is that of the twins Jacob and Esau, the future fathers of two nations, who struggled in their mother's womb (Genesis 25:22-26). It was prophesied that one would be stronger than the other, and that the younger brother would serve the elder. Of these circumstances and those surrounding the birth, Tertullian writes:

Possibly we might have regarded as a prodigy the contention of this infant progeny, which struggled before it lived, which had animosity previous to animation, if it had simply disturbed the mother by its restlessness within her. But when her womb opens, and the number of her offspring is seen, and their presaged condition known, we have presented to us a proof not merely of the (separate) souls of the infants, but of their hostile struggles too. He who was the first to be born was threatened with detention by him who was anticipated in birth ["And afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau's heel..." Gen. 25:26], who was not yet fully brought forth, but whose hand only had been born.[62]

Tertullian cites further the conceptions of John the Baptist and Jesus as examples of the humanity and personhood of the preborn. Of these two, he recounts:

...even these have life, each of them in his mother's womb. Elizabeth exults with joy, (for) John had leaped in her womb [Luke 1:41-45]; Mary magnifies the Lord, (for) Christ had instigated her within [Luke 1:46]. The mothers recognize each their own offspring, being moreover each recognized by their infants, which were therefore of course alive, and were not souls merely, but spirits also.[63]

Finally, Tertullian quotes the classic passage Jeremiah 1:5, to show that it is God Himself who is superintending the formation of the preborn child. He writes:

Accordingly you read the word of God which was spoken to Jeremiah, "Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee" [Jer. 1:5]. 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" [Gen. 2:7]. 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" [Jer. 1:5]. 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" [Matt. 22:32].[64]

Preborn and ensoulment

At length, Tertullian comes to the all-important matter of the soul. Life may indeed exist prior to birth, but at what stage of intrauterine development? Where does the soul come from and at what point does the preborn possess this essential ingredient of humanity? When does ensoulment take place? Tertullian states the case as follows:

How, then, is a living being conceived? Is the substance of both body and soul formed together at one and the same time? Or does one of them precede the other in natural formation? We indeed maintain that both are conceived, and formed, and perfectly simultaneously, as well as born together; and that not a moment's interval occurs in their conception, so that a prior place can be assigned to either. As death is defined to be nothing else than the separation of body and soul, life, which is the opposite of death, is susceptible of no other definition than the conjunction of body and soul. If the severance happens at one and the same time to both substances by means of death, so the law of their combination ought to assure us that it occurs simultaneously to the two substances by means of life. 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.[65]

Tertullian's position is clear. Authentic human life is dependent upon the confluence of a simultaneously generated body and soul. Proceeding from this premise, Tertullian argues that if death is defined as the separation of body and soul, then life must be defined as the uniting of body and soul. Furthermore, if death occurs at exactly the moment the body and soul separate, then genuine human existence must have its beginning at precisely the moment of conception when body and soul are united.

Augustine was ambivalent about the manner in which the soul comes into being.[66] Of major concern to him was the maintenance of a spiritual (as opposed to material) conception of the soul, and an explanation of the soul's origin that would best account for the transmission of original sin from Adam to the rest of the human race. It was this last point that caused Augustine to lean generally toward Tertullian's position, that is, that the soul like the body is generated by the parents at the time of conception.[67]

Preborn and the incarnation

Within the larger issue of the preborn's status as a human being, perhaps no single element is more intriguing than that concerning its relationship to the incarnation of Christ. What possible relevance could or should the conception, intrauterine development, and birth of the second person of the Trinity nearly two thousand years ago have with regard to the humanity of the preborn today? Some insight into the matter is provided by the fourth- century bishop Ambrose, who rebutted a particularly dangerous heresy of his day by relying in part upon some of the same biblical references used by Tertullian to establish the humanity of the preborn.

According to Ambrose, there were those who blasphemous charged that prior to His birth, Christ did not exist.[68] So in A.D. 378, at the request of the western emperor Gratian, he began work on his De Fide, or Exposition of the Christian laxity. The treatise was intended to serve as a corrective to Arianism, a denial of the eternal existence of Christ. This heresy had already been condemned at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.

In his treatise, the learned bishop argues that since Christ was the creator of all things, He Himself could not have been created.[69] This conclusion is preceded by the observation that "neither had the Son of God any beginning, seeing that He already was at the beginning, nor shall He come to an end, Who is the Beginning and the End of the Universe."[70] This is the Logos doctrine that Christ the eternal Word was in the beginning, coequal and coeternal with God the Father (John 1:1). He is the Alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13).

Arianism constituted a direct challenge to the biblical doctrine of the pre-existence and eternality of Christ. Ambrose explains that "of God's Son they assert that before He was begotten He was not...they would have us believe, there was a time when the Son existed not." The Arian assertion, labeled blasphemy by Ambrose, implies "a time when God lacked the fulness of Divine Perfection."[71]

In his refutation of Arianism, Ambrose cites biblical references to "prove to them that men have existed before they were born."[72] He first makes mention of Jacob, who, prior to his birth, was "appointed and ordained" and "whilst yet hidden in the secret chamber of his mother's womb supplanted his brother" (Genesis 25:23). This is followed by the familiar reference to God's intimate knowledge and selection of Jeremiah as a prophet before he was even formed in his mother's womb (Jeremiah 1:5).[73]

Finally, Ambrose recalls the encounter between the expectant mothers, Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1: 39-45). John, while still in his mother's womb (in the sixth month of development, Luke 1:36), says Ambrose, "perceived in the spirit the presence of his Lord, and leaped for joy" (reference to Luke 1:41, 44). According to Ambrose, this shows that "surely [John] was in being" when he responded to and "worshipped His maker."[74] In summarizing the importance of the event, Ambrose writes:

Consider the proper force of each word. Elizabeth was indeed the first to hear the voice of Mary, but John was first to feel His Lord's gracious Presence. Sweet is the harmony of prophecy with prophecy, of woman with woman, of babe with babe. The women speak words of grace, the babes move hiddenly, and as their mothers approach one another, so do they engage in mysterious converse of love; and in a twofold miracle, though in diverse degrees of honour, the mothers prophesy in the spirit of their little ones. Who, I ask, was it that performed this miracle? Was it not the Son of God, Who made the unborn to be?[75]

In point of fact, states Ambrose, the Arian "objection fails of reconcilement with the truths of human existence."[76]

The implications of Ambrose's argument are evident. Because these babes were formed in the womb under divine supervision, and consecrated before birth by divine will, and displayed prophetic intuition "whilst yet hidden in the secret chamber," they were certainly in existence. And not only that, they possessed the qualities of genuine humanity.

With regard to the Arian heresy, the point that Ambrose wished to make was that before their births, Jacob, Jeremiah, and John did indeed exist as living beings. And what was true of these three, is also true of the second person of the Trinity. Before His birth, the incarnate Christ had genuine existence (was a living being) in the womb. The central question for today, of course, is how long before His birth did the Son of God exist in His humanity? Was it at conception or at some intermediate point between conception and birth?

Mary could not have been long pregnant when the encounter with Elizabeth took place.[77] It has even been suggested that the zygotic Christ may not have been implanted in the womb at the time.[78] Yet even so, Elizabeth makes reference to "my Lord" (Luke 1:43) and the fetal John leaps in his mother's womb while in the Lord's presence (Luke 1:41,44). Elizabeth's reference to Jesus as "Lord" and John's response to His presence would hardly have been appropriate if He were in fact nothing more than a lump of "tissue." The zygotic Christ could not have been called "Lord" and at the same time considered to be something less than human.

Someone might argue that it was only Christ's divinity (His divine nature) that was being responded to by Elizabeth and John, not His humanity (His human nature). But the Council of Chalcedon (convened in A.D. 451), the fourth ecumenical council of the early church, made it abundantly clear that the two natures of Christ, though distinct, could not be separated so as to imply two persons. The Definition of Chalcedon states in part that, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons...[79]

When Elizabeth addressed the babe in Mary's womb as "my Lord" and John leaped at His presence, they could only have been responding to a singular person, at once human and divine-the God-man Jesus Christ.

That Chalcedon established the true humanity of Christ as part of the church's creedal confession is clear. But for that council's conclusions to have complete coherence and consistency, the preexistent second person of the Trinity must have been endowed with full humanity at the moment of His conception. From that point onward, the ultimate import of Chalcedon-that the incarnate Christ was and is at the same time fully God and fully man-is realized.

Who can deny that in the earliest stage of prebirth development, the second person of the Trinity was fully God? And based on the biblical data surrounding the initial phase of the incarnation event (i.e., Elizabeth and John's testimony), who can deny that He was fully man?

If there was a period of time after the Lord's conception during which He was fully God but something less than man, for that time at least (for nine months?), the Definition of Chalcedon had no meaning or relevance, and the door has been left ajar for the entrance of heresies long ago condemned by the church. If, on the other hand, Jesus was fully human from the moment of conception (as Chalcedon implies) how can full humanity be denied all who are created in the image of God-and that from the instant of conception? Those who would object to this conclusion are subject to Ambrose's charge against the Arian denial of the preexistence of the incarnate Christ: "your objection fails of reconcilement with the truths of human existence."[80]

Preborn formed and unformed

But even if it is granted that life (including ensoulment) begins at conception, the matter does not end there. Intertwined with the questions of when life begins and when the preborn become full-fledged human beings, is the issue of the relative worth of the preborn at various stages of development, over against the worth of the mother. An article titled, "But Is It a Person?," published in Newsweek in 1982, concluded its report on the subject this way:

Even many doctors who believe that abortions are justified will concede that life begins at fertilization, and that the fetus becomes human at any point the antiabortion groups care to specify; the problem is not determining when "actual human life " begins, but when the value of that life begins to outweigh other considerations, such as the health, or even the happiness, of the mother. And on that question, science is silent.[81]

Science may be silent on the subject, but the fathers were convinced that Scripture was not. In the patristic period generally, it was believed that life begins at conception. Furthermore, the fathers accorded the incipient intrauterine human being equal status and worth with the postbirth human being, of whatever age. It is true, however, that among the Jews, and to a lesser degree among a few church fathers (like Tertullian,[82] Origen,[83] Jerome,[84] Augustine,[85] and possibly in the Apostolic Constitutions[86]), there was some question as to the legal status of the "unformed" preborn versus that of the "formed" one.

The stage for the debate was originally set in the third century B.C. when some seventy scholars were commissioned to translate the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek for the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, Egypt. The result was what was to become known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX)-the translation of the seventy.

Unfortunately, these translators rendered Exodus 21:22-25 in such a way that it allowed for the following inaccurate understanding of the text: "And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed,[87] he shall be forced to pay a penalty: as the woman's husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

The LXX rendering of these verses led to the erroneous conclusion that Moses had taught that the abortion of a "perfectly formed" preborn was of greater consequence, legally speaking, than that of an "imperfectly formed" one. Among the Jews, the context for such discussions of the legal valuation of the preborn was largely accidental (as in Exodus 21) or therapeutic abortions. The concept of elective abortion would have been naturally abhorrent to the Jews and rejected out of hand as incompatible with the laws of God (e.g., Exodus 2O:13) and the privileges of parenthood (e.g., Psalm 127:3-5).

On the matter of Exodus 21 and its meaning for abortion, the Jewish philosopher Philo Judeus (2O B.C.-A.D. 52), provides us with valuable insight into the views of one important school of thought within Judaism-the Alexandrian. He writes:

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 creatures, 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, which he has destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light, like a statue lying in a studio requiring nothing more than to be conveyed outside and released from confinement.[88]

What should be noted here is that while Philo repeats what he believes to be the Mosaic legislation (based on the LXX) of a fine for a maliciously[89] caused miscarriage of an unformed preborn but death for a formed one, he nevertheless calls the violence against the unformed preborn an "outrage" against the natural process of prebirth development. He in no way suggests that it is of trivial consequence. In this passage, the preborn is considered not merely as tissue, but as a developing human being, a work of art being shaped by the hands of "the artist Nature."

It should be borne in mind that according to early rabbinic thought, the preborn took on fetal form (i.e., was "formed") quite early. To deal with matters of ceremonial uncleanness following abortion or miscarriage, it was determined that fetal formation was complete by the forty-first day[90]- about halfway into the first trimester of intrauterine development. If Philo subscribed to such a view in his day,[91] then by his account an abortion performed (or caused) during the first six weeks of pregnancy is nothing short of an "outrage" against nature; beyond six weeks, it is outright murder.[92]

A little later on in the same work, Philo again makes a fast distinction between the formed and unformed preborn based on the LXX translation of Exodus 21:22-25. He explains:

So Moses then, as I have said, implicitly and indirectly forbade the exposure of children, when he pronounced the sentence of death against those who cause the miscarriage of mothers in cases where the fetus is fully formed. No doubt the view that the child while still adhering to the womb below the belly is part of its future mother is current both among natural philosophers. ...and also among physicians...But when the child has been brought to the birth it is separated from the organism with which it was identified and being isolated and self-contained becomes a living animal, lacking none of the complements needed to make a human being. And therefore infanticide undoubtedly is murder...[93]

Philo calls into question the views of the philosophers and physicians of his day that the preborn is only "part of its future mother." In pagan society, these two groups of men generally condoned elective abortion. The preborn was regarded as a nonperson, as an extension of the host organism.

Alexandrian Jews disagreed. They regarded the preborn as something more than mere tissue, especially after formation was complete. In their view, as Philo expressed it, the fetus was a human being under construction in Nature's laboratory; a living statue being formed in her studio.[94]

Philo advances his argument further by saying that Moses implicitly forbade infanticide ("the exposure of children" to the elements and wild animals) when he required the death penalty for the killing of the preborn (formed) fetus. He goes on to suggest that, while these men may not hold the fetus in very high regard, considering it to be only part of its mother, what possible excuse can they have for their practice of exposing children after they emerge from the mother's womb as independent beings? Here there can be no question. "Infanticide is undoubtedly murder."

Philo pulls no punches in his indictment of the twin crimes of abortion and infanticide as practiced in pagan society. And two thousand years later, his words still have relevance. It is not uncommon today for a preborn child to suffer the double outrage of first being aborted, and then if still alive, being smothered, drowned, or starved to death.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-98), a member of the Palestinian community, also comments on the Exodus 21 passage. The abortion or miscarriage he describes can be understood as either accidentally or to some degree maliciously caused. He writes:

He that kicks a woman with child, so that the woman miscarry, let him pay a fine in money, as the judges shall determine, as having diminished the multitude by the destruction of what was in her womb; and let money also be given the woman's husband by him that kicked her; but if she die of the stroke, let him also be put to death, the law judging it equitable that life should go for life.[95]

Josephus makes no direct reference to fetal formation in this passage and on the surface appears to follow the Hebrew text (in keeping with Palestinian practice). Furthermore, the penalties he prescribes are with reference to the woman's welfare rather than that of the child. However, in another place, Josephus makes this remarkable statement:

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 humankind: if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean.[96]

In this reference, Josephus clearly states that abortion apparently meaning elective, non-therapeutic abortion-is forbidden by Jewish law. And even more importantly, he calls it murder (a reference to Exodus 2O:13, "You shall not murder"?).

Some would make a firm distinction between Josephus' two references to abortion. They say the first deals with an instance of nonelective (or accidental) abortion considered in legal terms only, while the second addresses elective (or deliberate) abortion viewed from an ethical and moral perspective.[97] While this view has merit, the two passages do have an important point of contact. They share at least one important theme.

In both passages, Josephus laments the diminution of the human race by the loss of a single preborn child through abortion. This, coupled with the distinct reference to abortion as murder in the second passage,[98] could indicate that Josephus was influenced by the LXX to regard at least the formed preborn as a person, if in fact this assessment was not made even of the unformed preborn. Since the historian's assertion that abortion is murder is made without reference to the preborn's stage of development, this interpretation remains at least a possibility.

As previously noted, a few of the early church fathers were also seduced, at least partially, by the LXX rendering of Exodus 21:22-25. In his otherwise unflagging defense of the preborn as ensouled human beings from the moment of conception, at one point, Tertullian takes what appears to be a backward step. He writes:

The embryo therefore becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that its form is completed. The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion, inasmuch as there exists already the rudiment of a human being, which has imputed to it even now the condition of life and death, since it is already liable to the issues of both, although, by living still in the mother, it for the most part shares its own state with the mother.[99]

In this passage, Tertullian too seems to make some distinction, based on Exodus 21, between the status of the pre-forty-first-day "embryo" and the forty-first day one.[100] As noted earlier, Origen,[l01] Jerome and Augustine, generally agreed on this point. But what position would these fathers have taken on the matter had their translation of Exodus 21:22-25 been an accurate one and rightly understood?

Modern versions of the Bible have correctly translated the Exodus 21:22-25 passage (using the Hebrew text) this way: "And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."[102]

The meaning is this: If the blow from the two men caused premature delivery of the baby, but both mother and child were otherwise unharmed, the guilty party was required only to pay a fine (to be determined by the woman's husband and the judges who heard the case). But if there was further injury to either the mother or the child, then depending on the severity of the injury, the penalty would be life for life, eye for eye, etc. When this passage is properly understood it is clear that the preborn child was considered to be fully human and coequal with the mother in worth and status. The abortion of the preborn at any point was a capital crime; it was murder.

Certainly this was Basil's position. While the fathers cited above felt constrained to abide by the spirit of the LXX rendering of Exodus 21:22-25, the renowned Cappadocian father, Basil the Great, asserts that "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.[103]

But even in the case of Jews and Christians who did understand there to be a distinction between the formed and unformed preborn, two important factors must be kept in mind.

First, with regard to non-therapeutic abortion, the discussion seems to have focused on the earliest period of pregnancy (the first trimester), during which formation was believed to occur. And if the prevailing opinion of the rabbis-that the fetus is formed within forty-one days of conception- was current from Philo onward, then the focus of the discussion was confined even further to the midpoint of the first trimester.[104]

Secondly, and even more to the point, the formed/unformed distinction was not made for the purpose of determining when non-therapeutic abortion was acceptable. Its purpose was to determine the degree of punishment for those who committed this sin against God and outrage against nature.

The majority of the fathers who address the issue of abortion make no reference one way or the other to the preborn as formed or unformed. Their basic position is summarized well by Athenagoras. He states bluntly that "those women who...bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for [it]..."[105]

The maleficence of aborters

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. (Revelation 2O:12)[106]

Judgment of church

And what, according to the fathers, will the accounting of women who practice abortion consist of? What is the fate of aborters and abortionists? And what is to become of aborted children?

The early church passed its own judgments against both those who procured abortions and those who provided them. Some Christian leaders, according to Canon 21 of the Council of Ancyra, called for their exclusion from the church until the hour of death. Others preferred a ten year period of exclusion with return conditioned upon evidence of true repentance (Basil's position).[107]

The severest penalty of all was called for by the Syrian theologian and hymnist Ephraem (c.A.D. 306-373). He considered abortion to be a capital offense, worthy of the death penalty. He writes:

Because she made the child in her body into a miscarriage so that it would be buried in the darkness of the earth, it also makes her into a miscarriage, so that she must wander in outer darkness. This is the penalty for adulterers and adulteresses who take their children's life: they are punished with death...[108]

Judgment of God

Whatever the punishment called for by the church in this life, the fathers were sure that beyond the grave divine justice and retribution awaited those who destroyed their preborn children. The Apostolic Constitutions declares that aborted children "shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed."[109] Caesarius of Arles (A.D. 47O-543) warns further that "No woman should take potions for purposes of abortion, because she should not doubt that before the tribunal of Christ she will have to plead as many cases as the number of those she killed when already born or still conceived."[110] And Chrysostom maintains that those involved in an abortion heap upon their own heads "a great pile of fire,"[111] presumably a reference to future judgment (see for example Rev. 16:8,9; 21:8).

Some apocryphal literature like the Apocalypse of Peter and the Vision of Paul avoid all caution and restraint in their descriptions of what awaits the destroyers of the preborn. They predict that aborted children will stand before God and the angels as the accusers of those who killed them and will even take part in their parents' punishment. The Vision of Paul, for example, pictures "men and women who are strangled in fire" as they "pay their penalties." The explanation is given that,

These are women who defiled the image of God when bringing forth infants out of the womb, and these are the men who lay with them. And their infants addressed the Lord God and the angels who were set over the punishments, saying: Cursed be the hour to our parents, for they defiled the image of God, having the name of God but not observing His precepts: they gave us for food to dogs and to be trodden down of swine: others they threw into the river. But their infants were handed over to the angels of Tartarus who were set over the punishments, that they might lead them to a wide place of mercy: but their fathers and mothers were tortured in a perpetual punishment.[112]

The Apocalypse of Peter envisions aborters up to their necks in gore, "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."[113]

As for the aborted, Augustine assigns them a place in the resurrection, and that with every defect caused by premature death having been rectified.[1l4] others like Clement and Methodius, following the Apocalypse of Peter, are convinced that "the children who are born out of due time...are delivered over to a caretaking angel that they may attain a share of knowledge and gain the better abode..."[115] And as noted above, the Vision of Paul pictures them being led by these caretaking angels "to a wide place of mercy..."[116]


Thus it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. (Matthew 18:14)[117]

Almost three thousand years ago, Solomon wrote, "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9). In the case of abortion, his conclusion is essentially supported. The methods and motives, and the questions involved in the morality and metaphysics of abortion, are not much different today than they were two millennia ago when the church first began to address them. Out the church was young then and stood with conviction against this blight. Today, however, certain segments of the church are timid and indecisive-if not altogether indifferent-about the plight of the preborn.[118] In this they have broken away from the moral moorings to which the fathers of the church were firmly attached.

The position of the early church on abortion was neither timid nor indecisive; it was neither vague nor vacillatory. on the contrary, the writings of the church fathers show decisively that early Christians were resolute in their stand against this predominantly pagan practice. John T. Noonan summarizes the matter well. He writes:

All the writers agreed that abortion was a violation of the love owed to one's neighbor. Some saw it as a special failure of maternal love. Many saw it also as failure to have reverence for the work of God the creator. The culture had accepted abortion The Christians...condemned it. Ancient authorities and contemporary moralists had approved, hesitated, made exceptions; the Christian rule was certain.[119]

It is imperative today that the church-all the church return to that rule. A day of judgment is coming when all will be required to give an account even for every careless word spoken.[12O] How much more severe will the accounting be for those who actively participate in the wanton destruction of innocent life and for those who stand idly by and watch the slaughter with cowardly indifference? Now is the time to take a stand.

Nearly two thousand years ago, the fathers of the church examined Scripture and concluded that abortion is murder and that all human life-from the womb to the tomb-is sacred. They concluded too that abortion is a heinous crime not only against the creature, but against the Creator as well. And in the face of the endless "uncertainty and irregularity of human opinion" on the matter, as Tertullian expressed it, they could think of no better defensive posture to assume than to retire "to the limits which God has prescribed" and "firmly hold [their] ground there."[121] The twentieth-century church can afford to do no less.

Notes and Appendices


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