Ancient Testimonies Against Abortion

In doing research for an Our Sunday Visitor column (my regular Q and A column), I found it necessary to comb through some of the early Church sources regarding the teaching against abortion. I thought it might be helpful here, by way of a resource, to post some of those teachings here. While I have seen a quote here and there, I was actually quite pleased to find several quotes I had not seen or read before on the question of abortion and to assemble in one place a good number of quotes.

I also ask your help in adding to the list I have assembled here. For the sake of some scope I have limited the quotes to generally no later than the 4th Century. While you can feel free to add from later periods as well, I find the early centuries to be of particular value, due to their antiquity.

As with many quotes from the ancient world, some of the quotes herein are perhaps quite harsh, and some may be critiqued at their focus essentially on the women who procure abortion, with little mention of the men involved. In our own time the Church is more careful to articulate and understand that abortion often occurs when women are under duress, or on account of family crisis, poverty and other social factors. Hence, we who speak against abortion must be ready and able, as I think the Church admirably is, to assist women and families in crisis to give birth. Yet the churchmen who are quoted below were men of their times, and, as my father was often heard to say of the “old days” Things were tough all over.

Whatever the tone, the teaching is not at all unclear, and for this we can be grateful.

A couple of years ago a former Speaker of the House, whose name need not be mentioned here at all, showed herself an amateur theologian lacking in even basic knowledge by claiming (on what she called Jesuitical authority) that the Church teaching on abortion was no older than the 1950s. The usually cautious American Bishops lost no time in issuing vigorous correction. And rightly so, of course, as quotes like these will show.

Here then are some of the quotes:

The Didache (“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) ca 110 AD. Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion. (2:2)…The Way of Death is filled with people who are…murderers of children and abortionists of God’s creatures. (5:1-2)

Letter of Barnabas, circa 125: You shall not kill either the fetus by abortion or the new born

Athenagoras the Athenian (To Marcus Aurelius), ca 150 AD: “We say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion…, [For we] regard the very fœtus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care… (# 35).

Clement of Alexandria: (circa 150 – 215 AD) Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, if order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the child completely dead, abort at the same time their own human feelings. Paedagogus, 2

Tertullian circa 160-240 AD: For us, we may not destroy even the fetus 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 when you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one: you have the fruit already in the seed. Apology 9:6

Tertullian (circa 160 – 240 AD): …we are not permitted, since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy …the fetus in the womb. It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth. Apology (9:7-8)

Tertullian circa 160-240 AD: [John the Baptist and Jesus] were both alive while still in the womb. Elizabeth rejoiced as the infant leaped in her womb; Mary glorifies the Lord because Christ within inspired her. Each mother recognizes her child and is known by her child who is alive, being not merely souls but also spirits. De Aninta 26:4

Hippolytus (circa 170-236 AD): Whence certain women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility and to gird themselves round, so as to expel what was conceived on account of their not wanting to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time. From “Refutation of all Heresies” 9:7

Minucius Felix (180 – 225 AD): Some women take medicines to destroy the germ of future life in their own bodies. They commit infanticide before they have given birth to the infant (Octavious (30, 2))

St. Basil the Great (330 – 379 AD): 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. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events if we regard it as done with intent. The punishment, however, of these women should not be for life, but for the term of ten years. And let their treatment depend not on mere lapse of time, but on the character of their repentance. Letter 188:2

St. Ambrose: (339 to 397 AD) The poor expose their children, the rich kill the fruit of their own bodies in the womb, lest their property be divided up, and they destroy their own children in the womb with murderous poisons. and before life has been passed on, it is annihilated. Hexaemeron”, (5, 18, 58)

St. John Chrysostom (circa 340 – 407 AD): Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? Where there are many efforts at abortion? Where there is murder before the birth? For you do not even let the harlot remain a mere harlot, but make her a murderer also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather something even worse than murder. For I have no real name to give it, since it does not destroy the thing born but prevents its being born. Why then do you abuse the gift of God and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the place of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? Homily 24 on Romans

St. Jerome (circa 342-420 AD): I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the church, their mother….Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. Letter 22:13

The Synod of Elvira, 306 AD: If a woman becomes pregnant by committing adultery, while her husband is absent, and after the act she destroys the child, it is proper to keep her from communion until death, because she has doubled her crime. Canon 63.

The Synod of Ancyra, 314 AD, Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees. (Canon 21).

Council of Trullo (692 AD): Those who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the fœtus, are subjected to the penalty of murder. (Canon 91)

Ancient Testimonies against abortion. Please add to this list.

33 Replies to “Ancient Testimonies Against Abortion”

  1. “Whence certain women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility”

    Is this not also an ancient teaching on contraception? So much for Humanae Vitae being a “surprise!”

  2. Anonymous Epistle to Diognetus (Late 2nd century) describing the lives of Christians: “Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them.”

    Exposure was the widespread practice of abandoning babies to to elements to die. Retroactive abortion in other words. This is important in case you get some chucklehead that since the Bible is silent about a well-known and widespread practice, therefore it is morally acceptable.

    1. This is still the practice in China where there is a one child law. Our grandson (adopted from China) was born with defects and was wrapped naked in just a sheet in the cold of winter and left on a snowdrift in a wooded area outside of a village. A villager saw the bundle and discovered him in time. He was turned over to the authorities and placed in an orphanage. He is the joy of our lives and there is no defect in his spirit as he knows that Jesus loves him.

  3. Thank you so much for this amazing compilation. What a treasure of wisdom and truth. I’ve bookmarked it for reference as a ‘weapon of truth’ to open the eyes of the blind I encounter.

  4. While I know you wanted to stick to the 4th century, there is one elephant in the living room from the medieval period that was finally officially put to rest relatively recently that ought to be delt with because it WILL come up. It’s the wrangling over the issue of ensoulment. Off-the-reservation Catholics like Gary Wills have tried to make hay from what seems like Pope Sixtus and Pope Gregory XIV taking St. Aquinas’ work on ensoulment and contradicting each other over the morality of abortion. THEY DID NOT. They had differing rulings on what canonical crime was committed by procuring an abortion. One holding it was murder and another saying it wasn’t. It was about a legal definition, not a moral one. Neither Gregory or Sixtus formally taught that abortion was morally acceptable. So if you get someone trying to use this canard, point them to the 1974 CDF Declaration on Procured Abortion endnote 19:

    “19. This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement. For some it dates from the first instant; for others it could not at least precede nidation. It is not within the competence of science to decide between these views, because the existence of an immortal soul is not a question in its field. It is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains independent for two reasons: (1) supposing a belated animation, there is still nothing less than a human life, preparing for and calling for a soul in which the nature received from parents is completed, (2) on the other hand, it suffices that this presence of the soul be probable (and one can never prove the contrary) in order that the taking of life involve accepting the risk of killing a man, not only waiting for, but already in possession of his soul.”

    The objective evilness of abortion does not stand or fall on ensoulment. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    1. Yes, thanks for this addition. It is what I was also working on in the OSV article. And while I cannot reproduce that article here, since OSV has not yet published it, here is the gist of what I wrote regarding the issue of ensoulment there:

      There are some who like to cast doubt on the Church’s teaching by pointing to certain theologians )e.g. Aquinas) who at times, pondered the question of “ensoulment” and for reasons of Aristotelian philosophy (and also primitive notions of embryology) did not always presume the soul to be present from the moment of conception, but some 40 days later. This does not mean however that these theologians ever approved abortion. St. Basil in one of the quotes below acknowledges that such an opinion exists among some (seemingly outside the Church) but scoffs at any distinction about formed or “unformed” fetuses.

      Further, the date of ensoulment is not essential to the Church’s position on the sinfulness of abortion. The Church roots her teaching in Scripture (e.g. Ex 21:22-23; Ps 51:5; Ps. 139:13-16; Job 10:11; Is 44:24; Jer 1:5), Tradition and Natural Law. Clearly natural science today demonstrates the existence of a genetically unique individual at conception. Thus, whatever speculations certain theologians made about ensoulment based on Aristotelian notions and flawed embryology are rightly and reasonably set aside and do not, in any case form the basis of the Church’s teaching.

      1. I suppose I should credit the show CSI, because they had an episode where they have a pro-lifer in custody and harangued her with the Pope’s ensoulment stuff. I got me studying up on the subject and discovering another truth: Subtract 50 IQ points whenever the entertainment industry covers religious topics. They also had an episode in which an unexplained pregnancy was called an immaculate conception. Oi vey people! Five minutes on the internet could turn up the correct understanding.

  5. Generations of women and men have been confused by the “science and legal communities” to justify the pursuit of sexual pleasure seemingly without the usual consequences and yet the consequences are worse than before.

    The media compounds the problem by not admitting the eugenics at the root of the abortion program and young women and men are encouraged to become sexually promiscuous to their moral,physical,emotional and spiritual detriment.

    Young people lack the capacity to understand how their actions affect them in the long term and many, many parents have shrugged off their responsibility by going along with the culture. The parents seek approval from the culture and their children instead of responsibly teaching their children the discipline of self control and the common sense of traditional moral teaching.

    Keep speaking out Msgr. Pope because there are a lot of confused parents and young people out there….There are also a lot of people waking up from the stupor of that cultural confusion who want to change,repent and seek guidance and moral support for the work ahead of them.

    1. Agreed but I want to add that this eugenics policy is not limited to the reduction of specific races but rather to the whole of the human race – the ultimate slap at our creator by the father of lies.
      Pray and fast for the truth in all things that we may be made whole – that we may reflect the image of God and be a light to the world.

  6. The eugenics philosophy that the media and the lawyers,politicians and the doctors advocating Roe v Wade will not admit.
    video at link:
    “As this conversation escalates you will be shocked at what you hear come out of the mouth of this abortionist!

    This man who kills unborn life for a living justifies his profession. He claims he is helping society by lessening the burden on tax payers by killing unborn babies….”

  7. In Galatians 5:20 and St. John’s Revelation 18:23, the word commonly translated into English as “sorcery” is “pharmakeia” – drug-taking with wicked intent. I believe an excellent case can be made that this usage is an oblique reference to abortifacients, which were well known to the ancients.

  8. I don’t consider these testimonies harsh but they certainly are clear.
    In this century, we do not speak the truth clearly but we do help women to pick up the pieces and reconcile their lives to God. More clarity would probably do much to stop this holocaust or at the very least, slow it down.
    The very soil of our great nation weeps for these lost children. May God have mercy on us.

  9. (Wisdom of Solomon 14: 22-26) afterward it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God,
    but they live in great strife due to ignorance,and they call such evils peace.
    For whether they kill children in their initiations ,( read on to 26)

    This appears to allude to direct killing and contraception with potions.
    Gloria Schotten.
    Thank God for you Monsignor Pope. Keep telling it the way it is. Jesus certainly did.

  10. Lest we forget to post the most famous Pre-Christian Ancient Testimony against abortion:

    “I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract: “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.”

    -Hippocrates (circa 400 B.C.)

  11. The writings would be more beliveable if in the original english translation. The word fetus wasn’t used then.
    Thank you. I enjoy your website.

    God Bless You,
    Ernest Troie

  12. As I read through these, I was reminded that I once heard our (allegedly Catholic) Vice President Joe Biden say something to the effect that the church “has struggled with this issue (abortion) for two thousand years” Obviously I knew that such words were simply an attempt to justify his support for his party’s position on legalized abortion. Well, take a look at this article uncle Joe, the Catholic position is not a recent revelation.

    1. He’s right – the Church has struggled with it for 2000 years. Struggled with getting people to listen and stop aborting.

      1. While that struggle is remains, sadly more than ever…the context of Mr. Biden’s comment was not in reference to that struggle. He implied an uncertainty concerning the Church’s position and teaching on the matter throughout history, which is easily disproved.

  13. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection

    There remains the question of the when of the soul’s commencement of existence: it follows immediately on that which we have already discussed. For if we were to grant that the soul has lived previous to its body in some place of resort peculiar to itself, then we cannot avoid seeing some force in all that fantastic teaching lately discussed, which would explain the soul’s habitation of the body as a consequence of some vice. Again, on the other hand, no one who can reflect will imagine an after-birth of the soul, i.e. that it is younger than the moulding of the body; for every one can see for himself that not one among all the things that are inanimate or soulless possesses any power of motion or of growth; whereas there is no question about that which is bred in the uterus both growing and moving from place to place. It remains therefore that we must think that the point of commencement of existence is one and the same for body and soul. Also we affirm that, just as the earth receives the sapling from the hands of the husbandman and makes a tree of it, without itself imparting the power of growth to its nursling, but only lending it, when placed within itself, the impulse to grow, in this very same way that which is secreted from a man for the planting of a man is itself to a certain extent a living being as much gifted with a soul and as capable of nourishing itself as that from which it comes. If this offshoot, in its diminutiveness, cannot contain at first all the activities and the movements of the soul, we need not be surprised; for neither in the seed of grain is there visible all at once the ear. How indeed could anything so large be crowded into so small a space? But the earth keeps on feeding it with its congenial aliment, and so the grain becomes the ear, without changing its nature while in the clod, but only developing it and bringing it to perfection under the stimulus of that nourishment. As, then, in the case of those growing seeds the advance to perfection is a graduated one , so in man’s formation the forces of his soul show themselves in proportion to the size to which his body has attained. They dawn first in the fœtus, in the shape of the power of nutrition and of development: after that, they introduce into the organism that has come into the light the gift of perception: then, when this is reached, they manifest a certain measure of the reasoning faculty, like the fruit of some matured plant, not growing all of it at once, but in a continuous progress along with the shooting up of that plant. Seeing, then, that that which is secreted from one living being to lay the foundations of another living being cannot itself be dead (for a state of deadness arises from the privation of life, and it cannot be that privation should precede the having), we grasp from these considerations the fact that in the compound which results from the joining of both (soul and body) there is a simultaneous passage of both into existence; the one does not come first, any more than the other comes after.

    Related: Justin Martyr, First Apology: Chapter 27. Guilt of exposing children

    But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or grazing horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery. Indeed, the things which you do openly and with applause, as if the divine light were overturned and extinguished, these you lay to our charge; which, in truth, does no harm to us who shrink from doing any such things, but only to those who do them and bear false witness against us.

    Chapter 29. Continence of Christians

    And again [we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers. But whether we marry, it is only that we may bring up children; or whether we decline marriage, we live continently. And that you may understand that promiscuous intercourse is not one of our mysteries, one of our number a short time ago presented to Felix the governor in Alexandria a petition, craving that permission might be given to a surgeon to make him an eunuch. For the surgeons there said that they were forbidden to do this without the permission of the governor. And when Felix absolutely refused to sign such a permission, the youth remained single, and was satisfied with his own approving conscience, and the approval of those who thought as he did. And it is not out of place, we think, to mention here Antinous, who was alive but lately, and whom all were prompt, through fear, to worship as a god, though they knew both who he was and what was his origin.

  14. In Genesis 17:21, “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” Isaac is named. What’s in a name? The name stands for the person. To be saved by God’s name is to be saved by God. Next year. She is not pregnant, yet the child has been named. It is a person though not yet conceived. And this only makes sense as God is the author of all life. Life begins in the mind of God. Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” The first expression of life is when the sperm meets the egg.

    Psalm 54:1, “O God, save me, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.”

    Joel 2:32, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    Acts 2:21, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

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