Abortion and the Christian (Part 1)

The Problem of Unwanted Children

A problem and a sad reality of the world we live in is that sometimes a child is born who is unloved and unwanted. Some think that a good solution to this problem is simply killing these children at birth or soon after. Every so often, we see a story in the news about a parent doing this. Thankfully, modern society as a whole rejects infanticide and counts it as murder, but historically this was not always the case.

In the Roman Empire, the fathers had absolute rights over their newborns. To be considered fully human and admitted to Roman society, a baby would be lifted by its father in ceremonial acknowledgement.[1] Newborns not so accepted could be smothered or simply left to die of exposure. “The unwanted child was simply left to die on the trash heap or in some isolated place. Sometimes slave traders would take the child to be reared in slavery. Girl babies might be taken to be reared for a life of prostitution . . . The newborn was not considered a part of the family until acknowledged by the father as his child and received into the family in a religious ceremony. Thus, they did not consider exposure murder but the refusal to admit to society.”[2]

These practices were not isolated to Rome. Old Testament scholar Richard M. Davidson writes about the practice of exposing infants (especially females) in Mesopotamia: “The practice of parents exposing their children seems to have been quite widespread throughout ancient Mesopotamia during the entire period of biblical history. [Children were] exposed in places such as the street, in the woods, on mountains, in rivers or wells, even in swamps or puddles. Most of these children were exposed immediately after birth, with their birth blood still on them.”[3]

Parents could have had any number of motivations for this. Economic uncertainty, fear of the social consequences for bearing children out of wedlock or from an adulterous affair, considerations of overpopulation, sex selectivity (a big one in China and India even today), and physical deformities or imperfections have all played their part in encouraging infanticide around the world.

Then there is child sacrifice. Even in cases of children who might otherwise have been wanted and valued, gruesome archaeological discoveries have shown that societies ranging from the Carthaginians in North Africa to the Aztecs of old Mexico practiced the sacrifice of their babies in order to secure protection and a more prosperous future from the gods.

When you boil it down, the desire for easing one’s own life is the common thread in virtually all cases of infanticide. The life of a weak and dependent human is made expendable for the convenience or prosperity of those stronger than itself. Personhood is made dependent on an arbitrary standard set by society, and it is decided that some lives may or even must be sacrificed to personal convenience or to the general good.

Infanticide’s Other Form

The practice of killing small humans, but pushed back before the moment the child exits the womb of the mother, is abortion. Abortion is the parenting decision to kill one’s child rather than attempting to care for them. Abortion also existed in the ancient world, but it may not have been as common as post-birth infanticide, since before modern technology and techniques it could be quite dangerous to the mother. Sometimes today, abortion is characterized as a mercy because the child might otherwise grow up in neglect or poverty, though it is unclear whether those doing the aborting would themselves choose death rather than hard living conditions.

In the Roman world of the early centuries A.D., Jews and Christians stood out from the beginning for condemning any act of child-killing in all its ugly forms. The first century Jewish writer Josephus says, “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 done so, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a life, and diminishing humankind.”[4] The Roman writer Tacitus, no admirer of the Jews, records this as an oddity about them: “They take thought to increase their numbers; for they regard it as a crime to kill any late-born child.”[5]

Christians, arising out of Judaism, also condemned infanticide and abortion from the earliest days. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament, and in part a kind of discipleship manual, commands “you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (2:2). Another very early Christian document, the Epistle to Diognetus, describing Christians scattered throughout the Roman world says that they “marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring” (5:6).

In these historical texts, infanticide and abortion are paired as species of the same action. The Romans conferred personhood through the ceremony with the father described above; modern America has granted the birth canal these magical personhood-conferring properties instead.

You Shall Not Murder

Ancient Jews and Christians opposed abortion and infanticide because the Sixth Commandment prohibits murder. And according to early publications of the most prolific abortion provider in the country, Planned Parenthood, abortion “kills the life of a baby after it has begun.” This is accurate, and patently horrific, but as shown above, plenty of societies throughout history have thought not—modern America since 1973 is one of them (provided that the child is in the womb).

The objection that the being in the womb is “a fetus, not a baby!” is an argument over words rather than substance. Whether it is a fetus, a baby, a toddler, a teenager, or a geriatric, it is a living, individual, and genetically-human being with its own existence. There is no non-arbitrary way to deny it full personhood, and so classifying abortion as murder is not any more or less “religiously based” than are laws against murder in the first place. Abortion represents the personal choice to hire a doctor to perform the role of executioner of one’s own child.

Asking whether the fetus is a person is ultimately like the self-justifying lawyer’s question to Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Excluding the living human being in the womb from full personhood is a cynical move that has been made far too often in the past, whether with African slaves in America or Jews in Nazi Germany. Asking the “personhood” question is a privilege of those in power who would seek to define marginal cases as excluded from true humanity. When we go this route, we leave no real defense against the dehumanization of any person or group whom the majority or the strong might want to leave unprotected. It has been done before, and is what the abortion movement does now.

Yet in the United States, abortion has come to be embraced as a triumph of independent womanhood, a celebration of the ability of women to secure their own future prosperity by killing the life that might get in their way or hinder their personal autonomy. As a society we have reverted to pre-Christian and non-Christian paganism in this regard, where the weak are subject to the whim of the strong, and the good of future generations must be sacrificed for the enjoyment of the present.

Tragically, many Christians have come to see this issue as not very important, or as of less concern than today’s hot-button issues. The Social Justice movement, even in Christian circles, has chosen to focus its energies on issues like racially-charged rhetoric, centralized and government-managed healthcare, the alleviation of income disparities, and liberal immigration policies, and all but-ignores the intentional killing of thousands of small humans per year.

Some Christians will express opposition to abortion but still accept it as something that should be allowed by law because “it will happen anyway,” and maybe if legal it will more likely be safe for the mother. Why society should ensure that killing can be done safely is unclear. Some will express opposition but place all focus on implementing social policies that will supposedly reduce the number of abortions by reducing the felt need for them. Why we cannot do this while still also outlawing abortion itself is unclear.

Many politicians who profess Christian faith and claim personal opposition to abortion will nevertheless embrace and support legal abortion rights with no limitation whatsoever, under the pretense that it is a “personal issue” into which the government ought not intrude. How they can personally consider abortion to be murder and yet be content to let it enjoy legal protection is unclear. Some more radical yet, against all reason and the practically universal testimony of the Christian faith, embrace abortion as a positive Christian good.

It will be worthwhile then to go back to basics and consider why, from a biblical perspective, all Christians should be opposed to abortion entirely. We will see, first, that the Bible takes the personhood of the unborn for granted; and second, that despite the absence of any explicit references to abortion, broader biblical considerations militate against its moral legitimacy as well. Biblical testimony here confirms what nature itself tells us, that human life can only begin at conception and that abortion ought to be regarded under law as murder. This will be the subject of part two.

[1] “[T]he treatment of the newborn, just emerged, was also left to the discretion of parents. The point at which a child was accepted into Roman society was not its first breath but the ceremony in which its father, by lifting it up, formally acknowledged its legitimate existence. A baby not vouchsafed such recognition could be killed, left to die by exposure or sold as a slave. In all such cases the infant was treated as not fully human… It is probable that active infanticide, by suffocation or some other method, was less common than exposure of the baby to die of neglect. At any rate, exposure was common enough to raise issues about the legal status of children found abandoned.” Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, p. 234.

[2] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds to Early Christianity, p. 81.

[3] Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, p. 489. Davidson suggests that Ezekiel 16:5 is a reference to practices like this.

[4] Josephus, Against Apion, 2.202.

[5] Tacitus, Histories, 5.5.