Jacob Conrod ’24 is studying history and philosophy. Outside of classwork, Jacob is involved in Reformed University Fellowship as well as Greater City and the Noetica research journal. The opinions expressed in the article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the belief of any associated organizations.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
Recently, the College of William and Mary’s chapter of VOX hosted their annual panel discussion in support of reproductive rights, this year entitled the Pro-Abortion Talk. Subsequently, The Flat Hat published an article describing the event (which can be found here), taking note of the diverse backgrounds of the speakers who chose to attend. Reading the article, I found the comments put forward by the Wesley campus minister, Mr. Max Blalock, arguing for abortion rights from a Christian perspective, to be particularly interesting. Being myself a Christian, and a Christian who has read somewhat deeply into the history of the Church at that, I felt compelled to draft a response. Specifically troubling to me was the description in the article that:
“Blalock began by reading a statement issued by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1971, which explicitly condoned abortion in certain cases. According to Blalock, the shift towards a pro-life stance occurred in accordance with the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s. Blalock explained how being pro-abortion and placing trust in pregnant people aligns with the teachings of Christianity.”
Ultimately, I, and many other Christians, would disagree strongly with this conclusion. However, a newspaper op-ed is not the place to debate Biblical hermeneutics (although I hold that a common-sense reading of the Scriptures would lead anybody to some form of fetal personhood, a la St. John the Baptist). The point of this essay is not necessarily to make a political argument about the legality of abortion, nor is it to comment on the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade. My point is to correct erroneous historical claims about the Christian Church being made in the public square.
My specific quarrel is with the historical claim that “the shift towards a pro-life stance occurred… in the late 1970s.” I am a history major. My specific interest is the history of Christianity and of Christian theology. From my reading of historical Christian thought on a number of topics, I would argue that this claim, although popular, is misleading.
I am not arguing that there was an absolute opinion that abortion was equivalent to murder throughout the history of Christianity. I am trying to argue that, although there is some nuance in the historical record, considering the teachings of Christianity to be “pro-abortion”, or even neutral on the question, would be radically anachronistic in regards to the beliefs of 99% of global Christians throughout history. Saying that churches became pro-life beginning in the 1970s is misleading. In reality, the shift by some churches towards a more pro-abortion stance in the last half-century is where a change took place – a change that is radically out of step with the rest of Christian history throughout the world.
While it is true that several evangelical Christian bodies in the United States, such as the Southern Baptist Convention that Mr. Blalock cited, did briefly liberalize their attitudes towards abortion in the decades before Roe v. Wade (before returning to a staunch pro-life stance), this episode stands as a mere blip on the timeline of Christian attitudes towards abortion. It is an aberration when compared with the historic position. Furthermore, although the SBC briefly condoned abortion in limited circumstances, other evangelical bodies – including the LCMS and PCA – did not (Steven Wedgeworth, Protestant Social Teaching).
To demonstrate the validity of my opinion, I will spend the rest of this article citing major thinkers from throughout Christian history on the question of abortion. It will quickly become apparent that there is a broad consensus – from Martin Luther to Mother Theresa, from Thomas Aquinas to Karl Barth – within historic Christianity in opposition to abortion, and that the argument that “being pro-abortion… aligns with the teachings of Christianity” falls far outside the mainstream of traditional Christian thought.
The first explicit reference to abortion in a Christian document comes from the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, an early Christian doctrinal manuscript from the end of the first century A.D., around the same time that the New Testament books were being written. In the Didache, the author commands the faithful: “Do not murder a child by abortion.” (Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers). Ironically, the author of the Didache includes this command as implicit in the Biblical maxim to love one’s neighbor – the exact same text cited by Mr. Blalock at VOX’s event last week in support of abortion.
In 176 A.D, a little-known Greek Father named Athenagoras penned a letter to the Roman Emperor defending the legitimacy of the young Christian religion. In the letter, Athenagoras condemns abortion in the strongest possible terms, referring to it as “murder”, and then explains that the Christians of the second century “regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God’s care.” (Athenagoras, trans. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers). Tertullian, an early theologian from North Africa, further made the comparison between abortion and murder (Tertullian, Apology 9.8).
Admittedly, some nuance enters the picture as the later patristic era dawned and a number of influential theologians wrote on the topic. Most of them, such as the North African bishop St. Augustine, did allow for some distinction between a “formed” and “unformed” fetus; aborting a “formed” fetus was equivalent to murder, whereas aborting an “unformed” fetus was still wrong, but not murder (Wedgeworth). However, this concept still understood the fetus to be an ensouled, living thing from the moment of conception (Wedgeworth). This opinion held into the high middle ages, in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. One outspoken voice in the fourth century is the influential St. Basil (the Great) of Caesarea, who argued that all abortions done with intent qualify as murder, and that “with us there is no nice enquiry as to it being formed or unformed” (Basil, quoted in Wedgeworth). The procuring of an abortion at any stage was always considered immoral – the debate revolved around how immoral. To classify the medieval or patristic Church as in any way “pro-abortion” would be radically anachronistic.
As the Protestant Reformation dawned, the leading thinkers of the day did not shy away from the topic. Martin Luther, ever the firebrand, argued that to “kill and expel tender fetuses” was itself evidence of “the wickedness of human nature” (Luther, quoted in Wedgeworth). Later in the Reformation, John Calvin would argue in his commentary on Exodus that abortion was worse than infanticide (Calvin, quoted in Wedgeworth).
The solidified opinion of the Roman Catholic Church in this era is well-known but it should not be a surprise that from the Reformation and through the first half of the twentieth century, opposition to abortion was the norm in Protestant and Evangelical circles. In 1869, the General Assembly of the PCUSA (which has liberalized on the issue today) referred to abortion as a “crime against God and against nature” (quoted in Wedgeworth). Through the 20th century, some of the most influential evangelicals in the world were vocally opposed to the practice. Karl Barth, the great German theologian and founding member of the Confessing Church, wrote that “the unborn child is from the very first a child… He who destroys germinating life kills a man” (Barth, quoted in Wedgeworth). In like manner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who would go to his death for resisting Hitler, argued that “destruction in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life” (Bonhoeffer, quoted in Wedgeworth). The 1930 Lambeth Conference of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which bodies like the Episcopal Church are a member, condemned abortion in the strongest of language (Wedgeworth).
The pro-life stance amongst Christians was not confined to Europe (nor is it confined to men, although an unfortunate fact of historical records is that they have rarely preserved the thoughts of women until relatively recently). Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist who fought for voting rights for African-Americans in the deep south, referred to abortion as “legalized murder” at a 1969 White House conference – a mere two years before the infamous SBC decision to condone the practice. Across the world, in Calcutta, Mother Theresa was rising to prominence as one of the world’s leading humanitarians. After receiving the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, she became a highly-sought after speaker. It was at one of these events, in San Diego in 1988, that she declared abortion “the greatest threat to world peace.”
In the present day, some of the strongest advocates for the historical Christian perspective on abortion come from the global south. Cardinal Robert Sarah, an influential Guinean prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, has been vocal in his opposition to the practice, calling abortion the “greatest tragedy of our time.” GAFCON, an assembly of global Anglican churches that are disproportionately drawn from Africa and South America, proclaims on its website that “abortion is immoral.” Ironically, the progressive churches in Europe and the United States that argue for a “pro-abortion” stance are espousing a view of Christianity that is not only ahistorical, but Eurocentric in the extreme.
I hope that I have provided enough examples to prove my case that Mr. Blalock’s assertion, according to The Flat Hat, that “a shift towards a pro-life stance occurred… in the late 1970s” is false. The brief period in the mid-20th century in which prominent evangelical bodies in the United States softened their stance against abortion is an aberration in the otherwise continuous global Christian opposition to the practice from the time of the apostles to the present day.
Mr. Blalock has argued that being pro-abortion is in alignment with Christian teaching. My only response is that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that say otherwise.