Religion and Abortion Part 2: Historical Notes

By Bernard Brandon Scott 5.25.2022

Introduction

Whatever the Supreme Court decides about Roe v. Wade, the issue remains on our agenda both as a nation and as religious groups. My first blog post on this topic laid out the historical context for understanding abortion: patriarchy. Patriarchy is a worldview, a complete mental system that determines how abortion and other moral issues are evaluated. The Enlightenment, an alternative worldview, began undermining patriarchy by removing the male from the system’s center, assigning priority instead to the rights of the individual. The clash between patriarchy and Enlightenment values has been ongoing and harsh. And may become harsher yet.

This second post will examine the historical evidence for abortion. Historical method involves two steps. First, what is the evidence? Historical evidence may be missing, partial, or one-sided because of the accident of survival. The second aspect of historical method involves questioning the evidence. Why is it this way? The interpretative task attends to context. How do things fit together? In all this, our own biases and points of view must be observed. Mine were laid out in the first blog.

Patriarchy is always the context, the worldview. We will hear only male voices, never those of women. We must always remember that we are overhearing a male discussion about female activity.

Greece and Rome

Neither Hebrew, nor Greek, nor Latin have separate words for miscarriage and abortion. The same word is used for both, and context decides meaning. This is very different from English, which clearly distinguishes the two.

The practices of Greece and Rome are important because they were often the context in and especially against which Christians developed their own positions. Contrast with “pagans” was essential in the construction of early Christian self-understanding.

Agriculture: The Stoics?

The ancient Greco-Roman world basically exhibits two positions. The Stoics allowed abortion because they understood childbearing in agricultural terms, according to an analogy to seed. The seed (semen; the male as active agent) is planted in the ground (uterus; the female as passive receptible). Until a plant emerges from the ground (birth), weeding it (abortion) is permitted. A fetus does not become fully human until birth.

What Kind of Soul?: Aristotle

Aristotle advanced a second position. He distinguished between an unformed and a formed fetus. Only the abortion of unformed fetuses was allowed. “Unformed” means the first forty days for a male fetus and eighty for a female, what would later be equated with quickening, when a fetus first moves. Aristotle’s distinction assumes at a certain time the unformed becomes formed, an animal, a living being. For Aristotle that moment marks the advent of the soul, referred to as ensoulment. This distinction became important for later Jewish and Christian communities.

The Stoics and Aristotle offer two different anthropologies (ways to understand a human person), which in turn determine how to evaluate abortion. Both views operate within a patriarchal worldview.

Legal Situation in Greece and Rome

The ancient Hippocratic oath forbids a doctor (a male) to provide a woman with drugs or herbs as an abortifacient. “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 woman a pessary to cause an abortion” (Greek Medicine). This prohibition understands abortion strictly within a male context and insists a male doctor should not be involved, remaining silent on what women may or may not do. This aspect of the oath is often overlooked. The oath’s prohibition is linked with withholding lethal drugs. The concern is not for a fetus or a woman, but for the male employing lethal drugs.

There is no evidence for laws about abortion during the Roman Republic or early empire. We know that abortion, along with infant exposure (infanticide) were the common ways to control fertility. In the early third century ce, the co-emperors Severus and Caracalla issued two decrees concerning abortion. In the first case, if a divorced woman had an abortion, the crime was against the ex-husband with a penalty of exile. The decree does not designate the criminal. In the case of a woman who died of drugs administered to induce an abortion, the death penalty was proposed for the administrator of the drugs. The reasoning parallels the Hippocratic oath’s prohibition of lethal drugs. Both decrees are designed to protect male prerogatives.

In extant writings and inscriptions from the ancient world, the mention of abortion is remarkably infrequent. In the Greco-Roman world, exposure of infants was a frequent form of a birth control because one could select for sex and it was safe for the woman. (See the letter from the first century bce quoted in last week’s blog.). There was no pushback in legal or philosophical writings.

The Bible Said What?

The sacred writings of Israel and the New Testament contain no mention of abortion. Whenever a student would ask, “What does the Bible say about abortion?” I would gleefully answer, “Nothing.” I was off the hook.

Why in the whole of sacred scripture is there no mention of abortion, much less no condemnation? This is especially ironical since some modern Christians see defending fetal life as central to Christian belief. The general invisibility of women certainly forms a major part of the answer.

Population Growth: Israel

Israel was pronatalist. As a small nation surrounded by powerful enemies in Egypt and Persia, Israel needed a growing population. The primary concern was with fertility to build a strong nation. Pronatalism became a consistent policy throughout Jewish life well into modern times. This position is well represented in g-d’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28).

Pronatalism is not based on respect for the life of a fetus but on growing a population. A generalized respect for life is difficult to find in the sacred writings of Judaism and Christianity. In trying to compel Pharoah to let the Israelites go, g-d visits a tenth plague on Egypt. “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock” (Ex 12:29). While Christians have often praised the peace-loving nature of their holy writings in comparison to those of Israel, the violence of the Book of Revelation belies that claim. But that violence is a fantasy. For the most part, the followers of Jesus were a small and powerless group on the receiving end of violence, but when Christians got power, they turned to violence to punish their enemies with relish.

Another reason the scriptures do not discuss abortion is that g-d is obsessed with Israel’s behavior. Whereas the ancient world considered ethics to be the domain of philosophy, not religion, Judaism was the exception and Christianity adopted its procedures. The regulations of Leviticus are mostly concerned with priestly issues (Priestly Code) and only then male issues. Females rate lower on the holiness scale as befits patriarchy and their concerns are largely ignored. Abortion falls into the female category.

Abortion and infanticide occurred in Israel and later Jewish communities, but the rabbis primary position was pronatalism, not legislating against abortion. The concern, always from the male point of view, was the control of female fertility and the nation’s growth.

Who Gets the Blame for a Miscarriage?

While no Hebrew holy writing deals with abortion, Exodus 21:22–25 deals with a miscarriage. This passage strongly influenced later tradition.

When two men scuffle and deal a blow to a pregnant woman, so that her children abort-forth, but (other) harm does not occur,
he is to be fined, yes, fined, as the woman’s spouse imposes for him,
but he is to give it (only) according to assessment.
But if harm should occur,
then you are to give life in place of life—
eye in place of eye, tooth in place of tooth, hand in place of hand . . .
(Evert Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

This case law imagines two situations. In the first instance the fetus is aborted, but the woman is not harmed. The penalty is a fine set by the judges. The miscarriage is not viewed as taking life. In the second case, the life of mother is taken and that requires a life for a life, “an eye for eye.” The law reflects a male point of view throughout. When two men fight, the husband extracts payment for his lost property in both cases. The woman is passive and ignored; harm to her does not merit redress.

The Septuagint (LXX), an Alexandrian translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, renders the passage differently.

Now if two men fight and strike a pregnant woman and her child comes forth not fully formed, he shall be punished with a fine. According as the husband of the woman might impose, he shall pay with judicial assessment. But if it is fully formed, he shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand . . .
(Pietersma and Wright, A New English Translation of the Septuagint)

The first case is the same, but the second, where the fetus is fully formed, is viewed as taking a life. This follows Aristotle’s distinction, mentioned above.

As noted above, while exposure of newborns, especially females, was widespread in the Greco-Roman world, Jeremiah 7:30–4 condemns the practice.

The Rabbis on the Soul

Rabbinic writings, like the Hebrew Holy Writings, do not consider abortion but they do discuss situations where the life of a mother is threatened by a miscarriage or in labor. In general, the rabbis allow the life of the mother to be protected on the principle that existing life comes before potential life.

In conversation with the Greco-Roman world, the rabbis do discuss ensoulment, but never in relation to abortion. The Mishnah, one of the earliest compilations of rabbinic discussions, deals with ensoulment in relation to ritual purity, not abortion. It offers two opinions. The first follows Aristotle:

“She who miscarries on the fortieth day does not take account of the possibility that it is a human fetus” (Mishnah, Niddah, 3.7, Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah) and for a female eighty days, “for the male is completed on the fortieth day, and the female on the eighty-first.” But a second opinion is also recorded: “And sages say, ‘all the same is the process of the formation of the male and the female—both are completed on the forty-first day.’” Among the later rabbis the second opinion dominates.

There is no notion in rabbinic opinions that the fetus is a person. Following the example of Jeremiah, they firmly reject the Greco-Roman practice of exposure of the newborn, while permitting birth control. The rabbis remain strongly pronatalist.

Earliest Christian Reference

Didache

As mentioned above, the New Testament does not deal with abortion. However, an early writing from a Jesus group contemporaneous with some New Testament writings does mention abortion. The Didache in its present form was probably compiled in the early second century, but it contains traditions that go back to 50–85 ce. It opens with an extended paraenesis based on the two ways, a traditional Jewish teaching method. “There are two ways—one of life and one of death” (Didache 1:1). (See the Sermon on the Mount which concludes with a two ways paraenesis about building houses on sand and rock, Matt 7:24–7).

Then follows the first instruction in the way of life which begins with the love of God and love of neighbor. The second instruction of the way of life contains a prohibition of abortion.

And a second instruction of the teaching : Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not corrupt a child, do not be sexually immoral, do not steal, do not practice magic, do not use potions, do not abort a child or kill a newborn, do not lust for a neighbor’s possessions (Didache 2:1–2, Clayton Jefford, Didache).

The Greek literally reads, “you shall not kill a child by miscarriage.” “You shall not kill” are the same Greek words as the Decalogue command, “You shall not kill.” The Greek word glossed here as “miscarriage” is the word that also means abortion. Context decides its precise meaning. English is more precise than the Greek.

The second instruction begins with two prohibitions from the Decalogue. Magic, potions, abortion, infanticide and neighbor’s possessions are connected by an associative logic. Magic and potions go together, and potions were often used to produce an abortion (see above with the Hippocratic oath). Abortion and exposure of the newborn (infanticide) are also connected. And finally, the concern for a neighbor’s possessions reminds us that in a patriarchal worldview, women, fetus, and newborn are all a man’s property.

Didache offers no reason why abortion is wrong, but neither does it offer reasons for its other prohibitions. The connection of abortion with “kill a newborn” indicates a general rejection of Greco-Roman fertility control practices. The two ways—the way of life and death—is based on an implied contrast between us and them, the followers of Jesus and the pagans, the way of death.

Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas 19:5 has the same two-part prohibition: “do not abort a child or again do not kill a newborn.” Except for the word “again” the Barnabas passage is identical to Didache, indicating traditional phrasing. It also is part of a ways paraenesis, although in Barnabas it comes at the letter’s conclusion, as in the Sermon on the Mount. It is less elaborate and more random in construction.

Since the Letter of Barnabas could have been written any time between 70 and 130 ce, we should consider it as contemporaneous with Didache.

When Does God Create the Soul?

Didache and the Letter of Barnabas set what becomes the Christian position on abortion. As the tradition emerges, it elaborates this position. Neither of these early writings give any reasons for the commandment but are simple prohibitions without nuance. The form does not allow for making distinctions. But the later tradition will make distinctions. Such is the way of ethics.

The engagement of Christian communities with Greek thought, especially that of Plato, Aristotle, and Neoplatonism, creates complications. Christianity ultimately adopted an anthropology that understands a human to consist of a body and a soul. Unlike the Platonists who understood the soul as naturally eternal, Christians elaborated a theory of the soul in which, after God created the soul, it remains immortal. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures contain no notion of a soul or its immortality. This anthropology became central to Christianity beginning in the late second and early third centuries. Saving one’s soul, a completely non-biblical idea, became the essence of Christianity.

Since God creates the soul, when does ensoulment takes place? This becomes the real question.

Augustine

Augustine (354–430) argues that abortion is wrong because it interferes with God’s procreative plan. He opposes contraception for the same reason. Both abortion and contraception exemplify “cruel lust,” because Augustine finds any pleasure in sex to be sinful. The only form of sex that is not sinful is intercourse solely for the purpose of procreation (De Nupitiis et Concupiscentia, 1, 17). Augustine clearly states that abortion is not homicide. “Where in truth the birth is unformed the question of homicide is not pertinent” (Quaestionum S. Augustini in Heptateuchum, II, 80. The idea of the unformed fetus is from Aristotle.). Augustine denies that a fetus will participate in resurrection (Enchiridion 85-6), because of the effects of original sin.

Augustine lacks an elaborated theory of the soul, which Thomas Aquinas supplies in the thirteenth century. Aquinas followed up on Aristotle and elaborated a progression of souls for the fetus: from vegetable, to animal, to human. The fetus passes through these states. Only in the last stage when a human soul is present is abortion murder.

Conclusion

Christianity follows in Israel’s footsteps and takes a pronatalist position. Like Israel, the rabbis and Christians reject infanticide as a way to control fertility, contrary to Greco-Roman practice. But in contrast to the rabbis, Christians take a stronger position on abortion, with Augustine and Aquinas trying to work out a considered position about how the notion of the soul effects the understanding of the fetus. They do not argue that abortion is homicide, and do not understand the early stages of a fetus as human. What becomes the Christian position on abortion in the medieval period emerges from Israel’s pronatalist position that life should be encouraged, combined with Aristotle’s notion of ensoulment.

The voice and experience of women is missing from this review because it did not survive in Christian tradition. Outside the purview of elite males, women undoubtedly obtained abortions. But their voices, rights, risks, and experiences of pregnancy and childbirth constitute historical evidence that did not survive. Its disappearance is no accident—such is the power of patriarchy.

Works Consulted

Kapparis, Konstantinos. Abortion in the Ancient World. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2002.

Nardi, Enzo. Procurato aborto nel mondo greco romano. Milano: A. Giuffrè, 1971.

Schiff, Daniel. Abortion in Judaism. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.