Christian Perspectives On Abortion-Legislation In Past And Present

Seminar Paper 2005 21 Pages

Theology - Systematic Theology



1. Introduction

2. Historical Review - Abortion in the First Christians' Environment
2.1 Cultural Environment - Legislation in Ancient Societies
2.2 Christian Responses and Influences
2.3 Later Developments

3. Legislation Today - Examples From Two Countries
3.1 Germany
3.2 Canada

4. The Ethical Dilemma in Multicultural Societies
4.1 Should the Law Be A Christian Concern?
4.2 Legal Homicide?
4.3 Borderline Cases

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In concentrating on abortion legislation this essay focuses on one particular aspect of the vast discussion on the disputable issue of abortion. It is the endeavour to come to a solid stance on how Christians can take on their responsibility to live a life according to God's will, even in the political realm. As Christians were already forced to deal with abortion from the beginning of the Early Church on, I hope the historical approach to contribute an insight into what a relevant Christian attitude on the issue could be today. The fact that the church nowadays faces anew the same challenges in modern societies as it did in Antiquity, proves the question of how Christians can respond to ethical questions in a cultural environment that can no longer be called Christian still to be in need of an answer.

Today, the appropriateness of all religiously motivated involvement in political matters is highly disputed. Especially the issue of abortion causes great controversies, not only between Christians and differently minded members of their respective societies, but even among the diverse Christian groups themselves. Even though most people would deny the legitimacy of faith-based arguments on the topic of abortion, I intend to demonstrate the adequacy and the necessity of a Christian involvement in the shaping of abortion legislation.

2. Historical Review - Abortion in the First Christians' Environment

Abortion is by no means a topic merely of modern concern. Ever since the Christian faith emerged almost 2000 years ago, its adherents felt impelled to respond to the challenges raised by a cultural environment which knew and used abortion as a matter of course. As nowadays we again face a situation which resembles the classical one in many respects, it seems consequential to look at the historical developments in abortion legislation in order to discern recent Christian stances towards abortion legislation.1

The questions how legislation has changed over the course of the centuries and how Christians responded to it could offer helpful insights in the search for a contemporary Christian approach to the problem of abortion.

2.1 Cultural Environment - Legislation in Ancient Societies

The sources which indicate abortion to be a well-known and widespread medical means in Antiquity are abundantly rich. There is no doubt as to abortions being procured in both Greek and Roman societyfor various reasons and by many different procedures. The most common reasons were “to conceal the consequences of adultery; to maintain feminine beauty; to avoid danger to the mother when her uterus is too small [...]”2 For some Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle another (utilitarian) reason for abortions was the state's interest in birth control. For Aristotle abortion even “[...] becomes compulsory in his ideal society”3 when the number of inhabitants exceed the state set limit. Sometimes also a family's poverty may have rendered a reason to terminate pregnancy, although the evidence suggests that abortion was particularly popular among upper class women, who had little interest in having too many heirs.4 Numbers of abortions procured were so high that they had a dramatic influence on the Roman population development. Riddle points out that no other available measures for birth control, such as sexual restraint, coitus interruptus, rhythm or non-fertile intercourse can sufficiently explain this enormous declining.5 And Noonan states: “The Roman upper class diminished during the empire; the decline was probably due, in good part, to the practice of contraception and abortion.”6

The means to carry out abortions were just as versatile as the motives. Abortifacient plant extracts, called poisons or potions, were a popular choice. Surgical procedures were known and procured as well, but many physicians were reluctant to use them as they were noted to endanger the woman's life.7

There is little evidence for state-run attempts to stem the excessive use of abortion in classic societies. We do not know of any source that indicates antiabortion-legislation to be existant in ancient Greece and Gorman says: “Since the exposure of newborns, however, was very common in Greece and not only went unpunished but was even expected in certain cases, it is highly unlikely that abortion of the unborn was punished.”8 Where there were laws prohibiting abortion, as during some time in the Roman Republic, their intention was to protect the father's right to dispose of his own offspring. Thus, abortion without the father's consent was reckoned to be a deprivation of his patriarchal rights and women who committed such offense were even executed at times. Meanwhile, protection of the foetus remained a neglected concept in the ancient pagan world.

2.2 Christian Responses and Influences

The stance Christians took within this cultural realm hostile to the unborn life, differs enormously in moral reason and actual deeds. The earliest Christian treatises on the subject are found in the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.9 In Didache 2.2 it says: “[...] do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant”10. Here the Christians' mindset becomes obvious: They clearly ruled out the performance of an abortion. This is not in itself an entirely new idea, as for example the Stoics, the Jews and a few Greek physicians opposed abortion as well. But the reason the young Christian church put forward was revolutionary: For the first time the foetus' right to life was focused on and therefore abortion is referred to as murder or homicide. Literally every church father who spoke out on the issue referred to these teachings and pursued them further on. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Basil and many more unanimously condemned abortion and the church law provided strong punishments for perpetrators within the church. The recurrent argument stated that even a foetus is already God's creation and as such his life is sacred. “Abortion is presented also as an offense against [...] the second great commandment - “Love thy neighbor””11. Besides, other reasons for the Christians' strong disapproval of abortion was that, , it was often closely linked with the attempt to conceal an act of adultery and that the potions used to perform abortions were suspected to be produced by obscure black magic powers.12 But again, first and foremost the “Concern for the fetus distinguishes the Christian position from all pagan disapproval of abortion”13 and was an all new concept in Antiquity.


1 cf. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, p. 13 et seq.

2 Noonan, An Almost Absolute Value in History, in: Nooan, The Morality of Abortion, p. 4

3 Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, p. 22

4 cf. loc. cit., p. 15

5 cf. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, p. 3 et seq.

6 Noonan, An Almost Absolute Value in History, in: Nooan, The Morality of Abortion, p. 7

7 cf. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, p. 15

8 loc. cit., p. 20

9 cf. loc. cit., p. 49

10 Didache, in: Ehrmann, After The New Testament, p. 386

11 Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, p. 50

12 cf. Noonan, An Almost Absolute Value in History, in: Nooan, The Morality of Abortion, p. 9

13 Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, p. 77


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University of Glasgow
Abtreibung Abortion Christliche Ethik christian ethics Abtreibungsgesetzgebung §218 StGB Schwangerschaftsabbruch pregnancy abortion legislation




Title: Christian Perspectives On Abortion-Legislation In Past And Present