Bottom Line Up Front: Within Christian history, abortion has always been viewed negatively, but it has not always been regarded as murder from conception.
“The Christian tradition has taken a generally negative view of abortion, but the moral basis and perceived implications of this negative view have varied greatly.” So begins philosophy professor Peter Millican’s entry on abortion in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. This is, as we’ll see, an accurate summary.
The first explicit reference to abortion in early Christian writings is found in a document called The Didache, which deals with matters of Christian ethics and was probably compiled in the late first or early second-century. It states quite plainly and without qualification, “You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor again kill it after birth.”
Tertullian, a prolific Christian writer in the late second and early third centuries likewise regarded all abortion as murder because he believed that the human soul was present in the semen of the male:
In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus 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.
Basil of Caesarea, a highly regarded theologian from the fourth century, believed similarly. He writes, “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.” We’ve already seen a reference to a distinction between a formed and unformed fetus in the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Contra Philo, Basil did not recognize a qualitative difference.
Not all early church leaders, however, understood the issue in such black-and-white terms. For example, Basil of Caesarea’s own brother, Gregory of Nyssa, himself a respected theologian, may have disagreed with Basil. Gregory writes, “It would not be possible to style the unformed embryo a human being, but only a potential one, assuming that it is completed so as to come forth to human birth, while as long as it is in this unformed state, it is something other than a human being.” He says this despite elsewhere saying, “Soul is necessary to life, and the embryo lives. Therefore soul is not born after body. So body and soul are born together.” If that seems complicated, it’s because it is. In Gregory and Basil’s day there were competing philosophical, religious, scientific, and legal theories about the nature and timing of life, soul, and personhood.
No discussion of the early church’s view on any issue is complete without at least a brief mention of Augustine of Hippo’s view on the subject. Few theologians have had as significant or as lasting an impact on Christian thought as the African Bishop from the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Scholars across the board have demonstrated that although Augustine was certainly no fan of abortion, he nevertheless understood there to be a qualitative difference between terminating a pregnancy early in gestation as opposed to late. Commenting on the Exodus 21 passage we’ve become so acquainted with, Augustine said,
If what is brought forth is unformed but at this stage some sort of living, shapeless thing, then the law of homicide would not apply, for it could not be said that there was a living soul in that body, for it lacks all sense, if it be such as is not yet formed and therefore not yet endowed with its senses.
For Augustine, the termination of an “unformed” fetus was not to be regarded as murder, but the termination of a “formed” fetus was to be regarded as murder, since the “formed” fetus would have been endowed with “a living soul.”
Scholars have noted that Augustine here is likely influenced by two different factors. First, he’s commenting on the Greek translation of Exodus 21 from the Septuagint, which, as we saw in the last installment contains a mistranslation from the Hebrew, replacing the words for “harm/no harm” with “formed/unformed.” Second, he seems to be influenced by the philosopher Aristotle’s theory of ensoulment in which developing fetuses progress from having a plant-like soul to an animal-like soul to a human soul as the body forms more fully in the womb. The standard time for formation and ensoulment varied from 40 days for males to around 90 days for females. This formed/unformed distinction (which was also referred to as an animated/unanimated distinction) was already prevalent in Augustine’s day and, as we’ll see, it would continue to be the dominant understanding of the fetus in the Western church for more than 1000 years.
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), once wrote “no human intellect accepts the view that an infant has a rational soul from the moment of conception.” He was, of course, writing in the context of “original sin” and trying to determine at which point a fetus became truly human and therefore inherited original sin. He did not believe that moment was at conception, and apparently he didn’t think anyone else did either.
Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) established in canon law a distinction between terminating a pregnancy before and after “quickening.” “Quickening” is commonly understood as the first time the mother feels the fetus move. It has is generally understood to take place around the midpoint of pregnancy. This “quickening” disctintion eventually made its way from Catholic canon law into English common law. As G R Dunstan notes,
The canon law and the English common law were thus, for their respective purposes, in step. Inevitably the philosophical notion of animation became identified with the subjective experience of quickening; so quickening became a determining point for various purposes in the common law.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose influence in the western church is rivalled only by Augustine, also made a distinction between an “animated” fetus and an unanimated one. Answering questions about homicide and commenting on Exodus 21 he wrote, “He that strikes a woman with child does something unlawful: wherefore if there results the death either of the woman or of the animated fetus, he will not be excused from homicide, especially seeing that death is the natural result of such a blow.” As scholars have demonstrated, Aquinas’ use of “animated” there is consistent with his writings elsewhere indicating that, following Aristotle and Augustine, Aquinas believed in what has been called “delayed hominization,” the belief that the embryo did not become fully human until a certain point in fetal development in which a “formed” body was capable of receiving a “rational soul.”
That a distinction between formed and formed fetuses was the dominant view of the western church is made obvious by the fact that in 1588, Pope Sixtus V issued a papal bull entitled “Effraenatam” in which he abolished any distinction between formed and unformed fetuses in determining the punishment for abortion. The bull states, in part,
By this our constitution, to be valid in perpetuity, we decree and ordain that all henceforth who by themselves or by the hand of any intermediary procure the abortion or ejection of an immature fetus, whether animate or inanimate, formed or unformed, . . . and also the pregnant women themselves who knowingly do the same, shall incur, by the very act the penalties set forth and inflicted by divine as well as human law against actual murderers.
It’s also worth noting that the very same document also condemned with the same penalty the use of contraception and sterilization.
Apparently, however, this new decree was not well-received. Just three years later, Sixtus’ successor Gregory XIV reversed Sixtus’ bull, decreeing, “The penalties for procuring the abortion of an inanimate fetus or for administering or taking potions to cause women to be sterile we revoke just as if that constitution so far as it concerns these things had never been issued.” Historian John Christopoulos explains Gregory’s rationale,
Experience showed Gregory that the bull was too harsh and could not deliver its “hoped for fruit.” Not only had Sixtus’s bull “not diverted” the practice of abortion, but it had even provided the opportunity “for very many sacrileges and for the most grave sins and crimes”: people went on aborting, and because travelling to Rome was not an option, they accepted or ignored their excommunication.
This distinction between formed and unformed and animate and inanimate fetuses would remain standard, though not unchallenged, in Roman Catholic moralism for the next three hundred years. In 1869 Pope Pius IX eliminated any distinction on the basis of formation or animation and declared that abortion from conception would be penalized with excommunication. That remains the official position of the Roman Catholic church to this day.
Adding to the complexity is one reason for this shift in posture. Fifteen years prior, the very same Pope Pius IX declared by papal bull that Mary was “in the first instance of her conception” without original sin, thus securing with papal authority the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. If Mary was conceived without original sin, it follows that she must have had a human soul at conception, and if humans have souls have conception, then abortion at any stage is understood to be murder.
This of course, was not the only reason for the shift. New discoveries in biology led to a gradual abandonment of the previously dominant theory of delayed ensoulment. Additionally, advances in medicine and technology made intentional abortion safer, and thus, more prevalent, and this led to a renewed interest in curbing the practice.
Abortion and Contraception
To complicate matters even further, it should also be noted, as Peter Millican observes, that “in the early church, abortion and contraception were often seen as broadly equivalent, both involving interference with the natural reproductive process.” In other words, as the following quotations will demonstrate, the use of birth control, chemical, surgical, or otherwise, was considered by some of the Church Fathers to be just as bad as, if not worse than, abortion.
John Chrysostom, the golden-tongued preacher of the fourth century made a statement in his 24th homily on Romans that many scholars believe is a reference to contraception:
Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility, where there is murder before conception [or before birth]? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. . . . Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with His [natural] laws?
Augustine similarly condemned contraceptive practices believing that sex for the purpose of pleasure alone, even with one’s spouse, was equivalent to adultery. He wrote,
I am supposing that then, although you are not lying for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame. They give themselves away, indeed, when they go so far as to expose their children who are born to them against their will; for they hate to nourish or to have those whom they feared to bear. Therefore a dark iniquity rages against those whom they have unwillingly borne, and with open iniquity this comes to light; a hidden shame is demonstrated by manifest cruelty. Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility, and, if these do not work, extinguish and destroy the fetus in some way in the womb, preferring that their offspring die before it lives, or if it was already alive in the womb to kill it before it was born.
Jerome, a contemporary of Augustine, said of contraception, that those who “drink potions to ensure sterility and are guilty of murdering a human being not yet conceived.” But, regarding abortion Jerome said, “Seeds are gradually formed in the uterus, and it is not reputed homicide until the scattered elements receive their appearance and members.” In other words, inexplicably to most of our modern sensibilities, Jerome seemed to regard contraception as worse than early abortions.
This attitude remained prevalent
for centuries, with canonists and penitentials prescribing “exactly the same
penance for intentional homicide, contraception by potion, and coitus
If you’ve found all of this to be dizzyingly complex, well, that’s the point. It
serves to highlight the problem of oversimplifying historical positions to
either support or undermine modern positions. In the next installment in this
series, we’ll look at the history of abortion in the Protestant and American
Evangelical history of Christian thought.
 Peter Millican, “Abortion,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3.
 Didache, 19.5.
 Tertullian, The Apology, chapter 9.
 Basil of Caesarea, “Letters,” CLXXXVIII, II. Obviously Basil wouldn’t say “with us there is no enquiry as to its being formed or unformed” if others weren’t making that distinction. As we’ve already seen, that very distinction was present in the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria’s system of thought.
 Gregory of Nyssa, Against the Followers of Macedonius,15.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Argument.
 Augustine, Quaestionum in Heptateuchem, I; II; n80
 Anselm, De conceptu virginali et de originali peccato, c. 7.
 Pope Innocent III. Canon 5.20. De homicidio voluntario vel casuali.
 G R Dunstan, “The moral status of the human embryo: a tradition recalled,” in Journal of Medical Ethics, 10, no. 1, (1984), 40.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,
Pope Sixtus V, Effraenatum, 1588 Oct 29.
 Pope Gregory XIV. Sedes Apostolica, 1591 May 31.
John Christopoulos, “Abortion and the Confessional in Counter-Reformation Italy,” Renaissance Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2012): 443–84. doi:10.1086/667257.
 Millican, “Abortion.”
 Augustine, “Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.15.17.
 Jerome, “Letter 22 to Eustochium,” 13.
 Jerome, “Letter 121 to Algasia,” 4.
 Dave Armstrong and William Klimon, “Contraception: Early Church Teaching,” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2017/10/contraception-early-church-teaching-william-klimon.html