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What Did the Early Christians Think About Abortion?

By: Jared Dobbs

Abortion is not a new problem. From the beginning of church history, Christians have had to draw a moral line in the sand on this question. The earliest Christian writers are unified in their teachings: They drew an unmistakable line on the side of life.

1. The Didache

The Didache is an early Christian manual that circulated around 100 AD. Christians who lived during the time of the apostles most likely read it. This manual distinguishes between a Way of Life—a life of righteousness—and a Way of Death—a life of wickedness. Within the Way of Life, there is a commandment: “Practice no magic, sorcery, abortion, or infanticide.”

2. The Epistle of Barnabas

This short epistle, which is probably a late first-century or second-century text, commands readers to “Never do away with an unborn child, or destroy it after its birth.”

3. The Apology of Tertullian 

Tertullian was a prolific early Christian writer from Carthage; his Apology was written around 197AD.

For us murder is once for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the mother’s blood is still being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder. It makes no difference whether one take away the life once born or destroy it as it comes to birth. He is a man who is to be a man; the fruit is always present in the seed.

4. St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom was the Archbishop of Constantinople at the turn of the fifth century AD, and he is one of the most highly esteemed saints of Eastern Orthodoxy. He offers a strong, direct condemnation of abortion:

Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with His laws? What is a curse, do you seek as though it were a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?

As the Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, and Tertullian all indicate, the child’s location—inside versus outside the womb—is an arbitrary line to draw when determining when human life begins. This is part of the early Church’s unified message regarding the duties of society towards the young and vulnerable. Destroying the image of God is among the gravest of violations, and the Church—both East and West—has always borne witness to this truth.

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