As abortion activists fume over what they see as “Christian fundamentalism” behind pro-life laws like the Texas Heartbeat Act, one professor of religious studies is trying to advance the baseless argument that Christianity previously expressed support for abortion.
A religious studies professor at Scripps University, Luis Josué Salés takes the reader on a tour of selectively chosen, obscure pre-modern Christian figures whom he argues condoned abortion, while omitting the vast majority of authoritative pre-modern Christian figures who clearly denounced abortion as immoral. His work also relies on questionable revisionist interpretations of texts and church synods.
Christianity, celibacy… and abortion?
Salés begins by pointing to the early preference for celibacy in Christianity as indicative of a prejudice against marriage — and therefore also against childbearing. This, he claims, shows support for the idea of abortion.
The idea that Church leaders would have condoned abortion because of their preference for celibacy is an absurd argument, and the author presents no proof of his claim at all. Salés then tries to use a variety of texts from pre-modern writers to support his point; however, his reliance on a few scattered sources is unconvincing and often relies on a revisionist interpretation. The teaching of prominent Catholic Church Fathers, not scattered and selectively chosen individuals, provides a far more reliable basis for interpreting what the pre-modern Christian Church taught and believed.
One of the earliest authoritative writings about what pre-modern Christians believed comes from the Didache, a collection of the teaching of the Twelve Apostles written in the 1st century AD, and held in high regard both then and now by Christian leaders. On the subject of abortion, the Didache reads as follows: “The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. […] You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).”
Similarly, the Epistle of Barnabas, written around the same time and cited by many early Church fathers, states: “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born” (Letter of Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
Another key point, omitted by Salés, is that beliefs and teachings about the preborn child have their roots in Scripture: both the belief in the personhood of a preborn baby (Ps 139:13, Jer 1:5, Ps 51:5), and also the Levitical laws regarding the protection of preborn babies (Ex 21:22-25). Early Church teachings were not new or improvised, and the continuity and consistency of belief on this point lends credence to the authoritative nature of this teaching. There are no contrary teachings from major fathers or theologians that explicitly embrace the practice of abortion; rather, the opposite is true. What is new is the author’s claim that abortion was somehow an acceptable practice.
How science influenced Christian beliefs
It’s true that, in some cases, attitudes towards preborn children were limited to what could be understood by the best available science of the day. The pre-Christian Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose works on natural science informed pre-modern Christians philosophy and theology, believed that babies were first imbued with a vegetative soul which quickly became an animal/sensing soul, and eventually a rational soul. As one academic noted, even though St. Augustine — influenced by Aristotle — thought that ensoulment occurred sometime after conception, he still believed abortion prior to ensoulment constituted a homicide and gravely sinful act. The fact is that, even for those who were unsure of when “ensoulment” actually occurred, the killing of a preborn child was always wrong.
Additionally, Salés points to the existence of pre-modern scientific texts describing contraception and abortion, but he fails to note that these texts, which were likely designed to be used by other scientists and not to be taught broadly, do not have any bearing on the morality of abortion, and are not authoritative sources of Christian teaching. In short, the presence of opposite opinions on a complex topic does not detract from the consistency of Christian teaching on abortion from authoritative sources, the theological and moral leaders of the day.
Does Christianity influence pro-life laws?
Salés’s piece comes as abortion activists are quick to blame what they pejoratively call “Christian fundamentalism” for the success of pro-life laws, most notably regarding Texas. Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of the abortion chain Whole Woman’s Health, angrily tweeted after the Supreme Court denied an injunction on Texas’ SB 8.
“Yall! SB8 is the product of CHRISTIAN fundamentalism,” she wrote. “Born and bred here in these very United States. Stop it with your Islamaphobia, stop it with comparing Texas to other countries. This happened in the name of Christianity, in our country and on our watch.”
Yall! SB8 is the product of CHRISTIAN fundamentalism. Born and bred here in these very United States. Stop it with your Islamaphobia, stop it with comparing Texas to other countries. This happened in the name of Christianity, in our country and on our watch.￼
— Amy Hagstrom Miller (@AmyHM) September 3, 2021
Oddly, in another tweet, she tried to water down her comments by stating that a basic Christian belief — the sanctity of human life — is not believed by the majority of Christians.
Attacks on Christianity will undoubtedly continue as pro-life activists, some inspired by Christian teaching (but not all), continue to advance policies that protect preborn babies and their mothers. But despite what those like Salés argue, the fact is that Christianity has always taught that abortion is an unacceptable and gravely evil practice. Pro-lifers who are inspired by Christianity are not fundamentalists or extremists, but well within the mainstream of a great tradition.
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