Abortion and Early Christianity

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery …'”
(Ephesians 5:19-20a)

(Excursus on Abortion)

Many Christians today have the misconception that abortion is a modern issue, and that early Christians—or for that matter non-Christians around the time of Christ—had no inkling as to what abortion was. This line of thinking is incorrect.  There is nothing new under the sun.

The Hippocratic Oath, likely written around 400 BC, prohibits giving a woman an abortive remedy. It is recognized that various methods for abortion were used centuries before Christ, and that one common method was the use of chemicals to kill the unborn.

Dr. Alvin Schmidt has presented the fact that a common Greek word for abortion around the time of Christ was “pharmakos”.  Our word pharmacy is derived from this word, and considering this word-derivation, it appears that chemical abortions were common.  When St. Paul described the works of the flesh in his letter to the Ephesians he explains, Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery… [5:19,20a]. The final word in this list, translated sorcery, is precisely the Greek word pharmakos.  Dr. Schmidt is convinced Paul was referencing abortion. When one considers the words preceding sorcery—sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality and idolatry—one realizes that each of these words describe actions that can lead to pregnancy (Idolatry often involved sex with temple prostitutes.).  How appropriate that the next fleshly deed listed would be abortion!

In support of this pharmaceutical-abortion line of thinking, consider a few quotes from early church fathers.  Athenagoras the Apologist, born around 133AD, wrote: “…we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give account to God for the abortion.”  Around the same time, Octavius of Minucius wrote, “There are some women who, by drinking medical preparation, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit parricide before they bring forth.”  Around 400AD Augustine wrote, “Sometimes their sadistic licentiousness goes so far that they procure poison to produce infertility, and when this is of no avail, they find one means or another to destroy the unborn and flush it from the mother’s womb.”

Consider then the following quotes which, though they do not necessarily identify chemical abortion, present authoritative early Christian belief about abortion:

“You shall not slay the child by abortion.” [Didache, shortly after the Apostles]

“You shall not destroy your conceptions before they are brought forth…” [Letter of Barnabas, ~ 100AD]

“Those who use abortifacients commit homicide.”  [Clement of Alexandria, ~ 200AD]

“But for us (Christians), to whom murder has been once for all forbidden, it is not permitted to destroy   even what has been conceived…He is a human being who will be one; the whole fruit is actually        in the seed.”  “The mold in the womb may not be destroyed.”  [Tertullian, ~ 200AD]

“The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder.” [Basil the Great, ~ 370AD]

May the One who came to save us, entering our blood-stained world through the womb of the blessed Virgin, mercifully grant forgiveness to us all by His sin-atoning life, death and resurrection.