Following the prolife theme of this week’s posts, I recommend that you read Matushka Frederica Mathewes-Green’s address, “The Pro-Life Cause, Orthodoxy, and Hope.” Matushka Frederica speaks of her own transformation from an abortion rights supporting feminist to a supporter of the prolife movement, and she lists some interesting selections from the fathers concerning abortion. Here are segments of her speech:
You may be surprised to learn that abortion was common in the ancient Roman Empire. The methods were more dangerous than today (I should say, more dangerous to the mother; every abortion is lethally dangerous to the child). But those methods were nevertheless used by women who wanted to conceal sexual activity, or who were forced to have abortions by their husbands and lovers.
The ancient, pagan world was a harsh one. Not only were children aborted before birth, but a newborn child was not officially received into a family until its father picked it up and held it. If the father didn’t want the child he simply refused to take it up, and the child was legally abandoned. This was called “exposing” an infant; it would be placed in some public place, and the social fiction was that someone else might pick it up and care for it. Sometimes people did take in these babies, and rear them to be sold as slaves or put on the street as prostitutes. But, often enough, no one took the child before it was found by dogs or other animals, or died of exposure and starvation.
And this was legal. It was a harsh world. Christians stood out as different, in that world. They were different in seeing every human being as worthy of dignity, whether free or slave, male or female, Jew or Gentile (as St. Paul said in Galatians 3:21). One of the big differences between Christians and pagans was that Christians did not have abortions. From the earliest years, the Church Fathers spoke against abortion. Let me read you some of their statements.
This is from the Didache, a work which was written about the same time as the Gospels: “You shall not murder a child by abortion.”
The Letter of Barnabas, written about the same time, repeats those words. “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not murder a child by abortion.” Note the connection he makes there. This is not about sexual morality, it’s about loving your neighbor, who in this case is a helpless child.
The Letter to Diognetus, probably written around 125, describes to a nonbeliever what Christians are like. He writes, “They marry, as do all others; they beget children, but they do not abort fetuses.”
The Apocalypse of Peter says that, in heaven, aborted children are cared for by an angel named Temlakos. He writes, “The children shall be given over to the caretaking angel Temlakos, and those who slew the children will be punished forever, for this is God’s will.”
Matushka Frederica continues:
Yet, even though the early Christians refused to participate in abortion, a terrible rumor circulated about them in those days. You know that, in the centuries when Christianity was illegal, some parts of our faith were kept secret and not shared outside the community of believers. For example, the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist was something only baptized Christians knew about, and it was never spoken about to nonbelievers. We still say, in the pre-communion prayer of St. John Chrysostom, “I will not speak of your mystery to your enemies.”
Yet rumors started to circulate that Christians were cannibals. There was a story going around that in Christian worship a baby was put inside a sack of flour and beaten to death, and then eaten. Well, if you thought people in your neighborhood were doing that as part of a religious ritual, you’d want to see them executed too. And you can see how the rumor is a mixed-up version of our belief that Christ came to earth as a child, and that he gives us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. So, many of the early Christians were martyred because they were thought to be child-killers and cannibals, and some early writers protest it’s a lie, Christians do no such thing, while it’s pagans who commit abortion and expose newborns.
Minucius Felix wrote, around 200 AD, “I would like to meet the person who says …that we [Christians] are brought into the faith by means of the slaughter and blood of an infant. Do you think that it can be possible for such a tender little body to receive such fatal wounds? Is it possible for anyone to pour forth the new blood of a little child, scarcely come into existence? Nobody is capable of believing this—except the person who would do it. Yes, I see that you expose your newborn children to wild beasts and to birds, and at other times crush them to death. There are some women who drink medicines that extinguish the life of a child while it is still inside their body, and thus murder their own relative before they bring it forth.”
Tertulllian says that for Christians, “Since murder has been once and for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb. …To interfere with a birth is merely an earlier way of killing a person. It doesn’t matter whether you take away a life that has been born, or destroy one that is coming to birth.” (Apology 9:8) Elsewhere he wrote, “We hold that life begins with conception, and that the soul also begins at conception; life has its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does.” (Apology 27)
St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Do you condemn the gifts of God, and fight against His laws? Childlessness is seen as a curse, but you seek it as though it were a blessing. Do you make the chamber of birth a place of slaughter? Do you teach the woman who is formed to give life to perpetuate killing instead?” (Homilies on Romans 24)
St. Basil puts medicines that cause abortion in the same category as other kinds of killing. He writes, “The man or woman is a murderer who gives a potion, if the person that takes it dies from it. So also are they who uses a medicine to procure abortion; and so are those robbers who kill on the highway.”
Matushka further shows how our Orthodox appreciation for pre-natal life has scriptural and festal sources. She quotes the story of the Visitation in the Gospel of Luke, wherein Elizabeth exclaims at Mary’s visit, “Why do I deserve such honor, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.”
Moreover, we celebrate not only the birthdays of Mary, John, and Jesus—September 8, June 24, and December 25, respectively—but also their conceptions—December 9 (a day later than the December 8 celebration for the Latins), September 23, and March 25, respectively. Christians have always been a people of and for life . . . and life more abundant.