Abortion Arguments Old and New

by Jul 13, 2022Christian Ethics, Church History0 comments

I recently over-heard a coffee house patron clam that ancient people could not practice ‘abortion’ like we do today. Ancient people did not even understand the female biology. Likely this ignorance was a case of chronological snobbery. The speaker assumed people in and around Jesus day had just learned about fire how could they even know about things like biology, let alone, how to kill a baby in the womb.

If that’s you, buckle up this will be eye opening. The practice of abortion was known in the first century. Many of the cultures around them performed abortions or gave abortifacient drugs with breathtaking frequency. (1) Abortions were performed by binding a woman around the abdomen until the baby was expelled; using a copper needle or spike; or by the use of a circular blade. Writing the middle of the Second century Tertullian describes this method and tools used in vivid detailed.

Accordingly, among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all, and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery. There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: they give it.. the name of ἐμβρυοσφάκτης, the slayer of the infant..(2)

Clearly Late term abortion were practiced. We also have evidence that chemical abortions were possible using pessaries—oral drugs or poisons—that would cause miscarriages. Eubius, a first-century B.C. poet, even put abortion formulas to verse so they could be more easily remembered. Infanticide also practiced, exposure being the most common method. All these methods were commonly practiced in the first century.

What would lead them to allow such a practice.
The Greek culture was the first in the Ancient Near East to permit, and in some cases require, abortion. In The Republic, for example, Plato (427-347 B.C.) opines that in his idealized polis (greek for city-state), women over 40 years old would be required to have an abortion.

A woman, I said, at twenty years of age may begin to bear children to the State, and continue to bear them until forty . . . And we grant all this, accompanying the permission with strict orders to prevent any [subsequent] embryo which may come into being from seeing the light; and if any force a way to the birth, the parents must understand that the offspring of such an union cannot be maintained, and arrange accordingly.(3)

Similarly, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) thought the state should not bear the burden of disabled or too many children. He said,

Let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared; but on the ground of the number of children, if the regular customs hinder any of those born being exposed, there must be a limit fixed to the procreation of offspring, and if any people have a child as a result of intercourse in contravention of these regulations, abortion must be practiced on it before it has developed sensation and life; for the line between lawful and unlawful abortion will be marked by the fact of having sensation and being alive (Politics 7.14.10).(4)

While Plato and Aristotle have many good ideas, it is clear their ethic of human life was deficient. In each of these cases the same perspective is at work. Rather than considering the moral value of the unborn as the deciding factor, the philosophers considered the well-being of the polis to be paramount. This view amounts to a form of political utilitarianism that sees each person’s value only in terms of the good of the state. (An egregious assumption that persists to this very day in the halls of academia as well as among the political philosophies of many cosmopolitan elite.)

The grim conclusions of these philosophers demonstrate the perils of thinking ethically apart from Scripture. Scripture revealing God as the first principle, the point from which all moral and ethical reflection must begin. God not humanity is the standard of all morality, Apart from this theocentric perspective a person’s ethical reflection can rise no higher than the political good. Yet the good of the state does not provide a vantage point from which to make a judgment about something so lofty as human life.

The Christian tradition, however, viewed the sacredness of every individual human life in theocentric, not political, terms. Since all individuals, including unborn children, were made in the image of the living God, their lives would be respected and were worth preserving. The moral status of a human being was not grounded in what persons could do for the state, but in how persons were related to the God who made them, a relation rooted in being made in God’s image.

While today the argument may not center around the political or social good, but the personal good. Talk of personal right have given way to an idolatry of the Self. We are a culture of entitled children crying “I deserve this” – “I have the right to do this” -even if ‘this’ is the killing of the unborn. The moral status of the unborn is not grounded in whether or not the unborn is a blessing or burden to the parent, but again, grounded in the intrinsic worth of the unborn as an image bearer of God.

In today’s culture, although the center has shifted to individual right, the same moral logic applies. Only a theocentric vision of life leads to an ethic that respects life, everything else (utilitarian, or progressive), inevitably produces a culture of death.




  1. The following is gleaned from the important work by Michael J. Gorman, Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982).
  2. Tertullian De Anima(On the Soul) 25.5 – 6
  3. Quoted in Michael J. Gorman, Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, p.21
  4. Ibid., 22