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The Christian Church's Stance on Abortion

Introduction

Historic, orthodox Christianity has stood firmly against abortion through the centuries.  Of course it would: the Christian faith is a faith affirming the sanctity of life and that all humans, not just those viable on their own, are created in the image of God and worthy of care and protection.  Yet the Church has often had to advocate for life against cultures of death, whether in ancient times or today.

Reasons such cultures give to kill the vulnerable, whether the unborn, children, elderly, or sick change, but the fact remains: such ethics of death are antithetical to the Christian faith.  Of course, some aberrations of Christianity, reflecting the culture at large, have, from time to time, advocated for abortion.  A document in the early 1980s in the United Presbyterian Church (USA), e.g., tried to relate covenant theology--of all things--to allowing abortion!  The human mind knows no bounds to its ability to find reasons, even theology, to justify its sinful practices.  But these are aberrations from orthodoxy.  The Church has always opposed this horrific practice.

The following collection of quotations from extra-Biblical, primary sources on the issue of abortion shows how Christians followed Jews in their reading of Scripture.  Some understanding of the context for early Christians is given through non-Christian Jewish and Graeco-Roman sources.  The majority of quotations that follow these are early Christian.  This is not an exhaustive study, although it is indicative of the primary source evidence.  Many thanks to those who have worked on this issue before me to collect the relevant texts.


JEWISH SOURCES (Non-Christian)

Josephus, Against Apion 2:202 (1st century):

The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to kill it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by killing a living creature, and diminishing human kind; if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean.

Philo, Special Laws 3:108-109, 117 (1st century):

But if any one has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strike her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he committed and also because he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence. But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape [Exodus 21:22 LXX] in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die;  109 for such a creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor's workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world…. 117 Therefore, Moses has utterly prohibited the exposure of children, by a tacit prohibition, when he condemns to death, as I have said before, those who are the causes of a miscarriage to a woman whose child conceived within her is already formed.

GRAECO-ROMAN SOURCES (Non-Christian)

Aristotle, Politics 7.14.10.1335b: [1]

As to exposing or rearing the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared; but on the ground of 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 practised 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.

Aristotle, Historia Animalium, Book IX (VII), 7.3.583b:[2]

Now in the case of males, their movement tends to take place … at about forty days, that of females … at about ninety days.

Ovid (43 BC - AD 65) De Nuce, lines 22-23:

Of what avail to fair woman to rest free from the burdens of war [i.e. pregnancy], nor choose with shield in arm to march in the fierce array, if, free from peril of battle, she suffer wounds from weapons of her own, and arm her unforeseeing hands to her own undoing?

She who first plucked forth the tender life deserved to die in the warfare she began. Can it be that, to spare your bosom the reproach of lines, you would scatter the tragic sands of deadly combat?  (Cf. Amores 2.13)

Juvenal Satire 6.592-601 (c.57/67-127)

Poor women…endure the perils of childbirth, and all the troubles of nursing to which their lot condemns them; but how often does a gilded bed contain a woman that is lying in it? So great is the skill, so powerful the drugs, of the abortionist, paid to murder mankind within the womb

Musonius Rufus, Fragment 15a:
[In reference to Augustinian legislation of 28 BC and 9 AD]

The lawgivers, who had the same task of searching out and finding what was good for the city and what bad, and what helped or harmed it, did not they also consider that it was most beneficial to their cities to fill the houses of the citizens, and most harmful to deplete them? They considered that childlessness, or small families, of citizens was unprofitable, while to have children, and in fact many children, was profitable. Therefore, they forbade the women to abort and attached a penalty to those who disobeyed; secondly they forbade them to use contraceptives on themselves and to prevent pregnancy; finally they established honors for both men and women who had many children and made childlessness punishable. 

Following Graeco-Roman context quotes are from: M. J., Elsakkers, Reading Between the Lines: Old Germanic and early Christian Views on Abortion.[3]

Visigoth Laws

VI.3.2. Old law (reflecting Exodus 21): If a free man causes a free woman to abort. If anyone strikes a pregnant woman by any blow whatever or through any circumstance causes a free woman to abort, and from this she dies, let him be punished for homicide. If, however, only the fetus is destroyed, and the woman is in no way debilitated, and a free man is recognized as having inflicted this to a free woman, if he has destroyed a developed [formed] fetus, let him pay 150 solidi; if it is actually an undeveloped [unformed] fetus, let him pay 100 solidi in restitution for the deed.[4]

VI.3.7. King Chindasvind (642-53). Concerning those who kill their own children, either already having been born or in utero. There is nothing worse than the depravity of those who, disregarding piety, become murderers of their own children. In as much as it is said that the crime of these has grown to such a degree throughout the provinces of our land that men as well as women are found to be the performers of this heinous action, we therefore, forbidding this dissoluteness, decree that, if a free woman or a female slave murders a son or a daughter which has been born, or, while having it still in utero, either takes a potion to induce abortion, or by any other means whatsoever presumes to destroy her own fetus, after the judge of the province or of the territory learns of such a deed, let him not only sentence the performer of this crime to public execution, or if he wishes to preserve her life, let him not hesitate to destroy the vision of her eyes, but also, if it is evident that the woman’s husband ordered or permitted such things, let him not be reluctant to subject the same to a similar punishment.

Alamans (German)[5]

Alamannic law 88.1. If anyone causes an abortion in a pregnant woman so that you can immediately recognize whether [it] would have been a boy or a girl: if it was to be a boy, let him compensate with twelve solidi; however, if a girl, [let him compensate] with twenty-four.

88.2. If whether [the fetus is male or female] cannot be immediately recognized, and [the fetus] was not formed in [its] bodily features let him compensate with twelve solidi. If he seeks more, let him clear himself with oathtakers.

Bavaria (German)[6]

8.19. Various cases of abortion. If anyone causes an abortion in a woman through any blow, if the woman dies, let it be considered the same as a homicide. However, if the child alone is killed, let him compensate twenty solidi if the child does not come forth alive. If, however, it was living [at the time of the abortion], let him pay the wergeld.

Old English[7]

Alfred’s Law 9. If anyone slays a woman with child, while the child is in her womb, he shall pay the full wergeld for the woman, and half the wergeld for the child, [which shall be] in accordance with the wergeld of the father’s kindred.


EARLY CHRISTIAN SOURCES[8]

Didache 2 (late 1st c.):

And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge….[9]

The Apocalypse of Peter (ca. 135) 

"I saw a gorge in which the discharge and excrement of the tortured ran down and became like a lake. There sat women, and the discharge came up to their throats; and opposite them sat many children, who were born prematurely, weeping. And from them went forth rays of fire and smote the women on the eyes. These were those who produced children outside of marriage and who procured abortions." 2:26

 "Those who slew the unborn children will be tortured forever, for God wills it to so." 2:64

The Letter of Barnabas (2nd c.)

"The way of light, then, is as follows. If anyone desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works. The knowledge, therefore, which is given to us for the purpose of walking in this way, is the following....Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born" Letter of Barnabas 19

St. Clement of Alexandria (2nd c.)
Paedagogus (2.10.96): “Women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug kill not only the embryo, but along with it, all human kindness.”

Athenagoras (d.177), Legatio Pro Christianis (or Apology):

What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore and object of God's care [and then kill it]….But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it (35).

How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God's care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. But we are in all things always alike and the same, submitting ourselves to reason, and not ruling over it (35.4).

Tertullian (c. 160 - 240)  De Anima 25.5 – 6:

 That the unborn child is alive:
How are they dead unless they were first alive? But still in the womb an infant by necessary cruelty is killed when lying twisted at the womb's mouth he prevents birth and is a matricide unless he dies. Therefore there is among the arms of physicians an instrument by which with a rotary movement the genital parts are first opened, then with a cervical instrument the interior members are slaughtered with careful judgment by a blunt barb, so that the whole criminal deed is extracted with a violent delivery. There is also the bronze needle by which the throat - cutting is carried out by a robbery in the dark; this instrument is called and embryo knife from its function of infanticide, as it is deadly for the living infant.

This Hippocrates taught, and Asclepiades, and Erasistratus and Herophilus, the dissector of adults, and the milder Soranos himself, - all of them certain that a living being had been conceived and so deploring the most unhappy infancy of one of this kind who had first to be killed lest a live woman be rent apart. Of this necessity of crime, Hicesius, I believe did not doubt, as he added souls to those being born from blows of cold air, because the word itself for "soul" among the Greek relates to such a cooling.  

Tertullian De Anima 26.4:

 They [John and Jesus] were both alive while still in the womb. Elizabeth rejoiced as the infant leaped in her womb; Mary glorifies the Lord because Christ within inspired her. Each mother recognizes her child and each is known by her child who is alive, being not merely souls but also spirits.

Tertullian De Anima 26.5:

 Thus, you read the word of God, spoken to Jeremias: "Before I formed thee in the womb, I knew thee." If God forms us in the womb, He also breathes on us as He did in the beginning: "And God formed man and breathed into him the breath of life." Nor could God have known man in the womb unless he were a whole man. "And before thou camest forth from the womb, I sanctified thee." Was it, then, a dead body at that stage? Surely it was not, for "God is the God of the living and not the dead."

Tertullian Apologia, cap 25, line 42:

 It is not permissible for us to destroy the seed by means of illicit manslaughter once it has been conceived in the womb, so long as blood remains in the person. 

Tertullian Apologia 9.1:

 To the governors of Roman provinces and to the Emperor Septimus Severus, defending Christianity against various charges:

'That I may refute more thoroughly these charges ['we are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it', Apologia7.1], I will show that in part openly, in part secretly, practices prevail among you which have led you perhaps to credit similar things about us.

Tertullian, Apologia 25:

 In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man - killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed.

Tertullian, Apologia 197:

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.  Apologia 197

Tertullian, De Anima 25:

Give us your testimony, then, ye mothers, whether yet pregnant, or after delivery (let barren women and men keep silence), - the truth of your own nature is in question, the reality of your own suffering is the point to be decided. (Tell us, then,) whether you feel in the embryo within you any vital force other than your own, with which your bowels tremble, your sides shake, your entire womb throbs, and the burden which oppresses you constantly changes its position?

Are these movements a joy to you, and a positive removal of anxiety, as making you confident that your infant both possesses vitality and enjoys it? Or, should his restlessness cease, your first fear would be for him; and he would be aware of it within you, since he is disturbed at the novel sound; and you would crave for injurious diet, or would even loathe your food - all on his account; and then you and he, (in the closeness of your sympathy,) would share together your common ailments - so far that with your contusions and bruises would he actually become marked, - whilst within you, and even on the selfsame parts of the body, taking to himself thus peremptorily the injuries of his mother!

Now, whenever a livid hue and redness are incidents of the blood, the blood will not be without the vital principle, or soul; or when disease attacks the soul or vitality, (it becomes a proof of its real existence, since) there is no disease where there is no soul or principle of life. Again, inasmuch as sustenance by food, and the want thereof, growth and decay, fear and motion, are conditions of the soul or life, he who experiences them must be alive. And, so, he at last ceases to live, who ceases to experience them. And thus by and by infants are still - born; but how so, unless they had life? For how could any die, who had not previously lived? But sometimes by a cruel necessity, whilst yet in the womb, an infant is put to death, when lying awry in the orifice of the womb he impedes parturition, and kills his mother, if he is not to die himself.

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, from its infanticide function, the name of ….., the slayer of the infant, which was of course alive.

Such apparatus was possessed both by Hippocrates, and Asclepiades, and Erasistratus, and Herophilus, that dissector of even adults, and the milder Soranus himself, who all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive.

Of the necessity of such harsh treatment I have no doubt even Hicesius was convinced, although he imported their soul into infants after birth from the stroke of the frigid air, because the very term for soul, forsooth, in Greek answered to such a refrigeration! Well, then, have the barbarian and Roman nations received souls by some other process, (I wonder) for they have called the soul by another name than ….? How many nations are there who commence life under the broiling sun of the torrid zone, scorching their skin into its swarthy hue? Whence do they get their souls, with no frosty air to help them? I say not a word of those well - warmed bed - rooms, and all that apparatus of heat which ladies in childbirth so greatly need, when a breath of cold air might endanger their life. But in the very bath almost a babe will slip into life, and at once his cry is heard! If, however, a good frosty air is to the soul so indispensable a treasure, then beyond the German and the Scythian tribes, and the Alpine and the Arguan heights, nobody ought ever to be born!

But the fact really is, that population is greater within the temperate regions of the East and the West, and men's minds are sharper; whilst there is not a Sarmatian whose wits are not dull and humdrum. The minds of men, too, would grow keener by reason of the cold, if their souls came into being amidst nipping frosts; for as the substance is, so must be its active power. Now, after these preliminary statements, we may also refer to the case of those who, having been cut out of their mother's womb, have breathed and retained life - your Bacchuses and Scipios.

If, however, there be any one who, like Plato, supposes that two souls cannot, more than two bodies could, co - exist in the same individual, I, on the contrary, could show him not merely the co-existence of two souls in one person, as also of two bodies in the same womb, but likewise the combination of many other things in natural connection with the soul - for instance, of demoniacal possession; and that not of one only, as in the case of Socrates' own demon; but of seven spirits as in the case of the Magdalene; and of a legion in number, as in the Gadarene.

Now one soul is naturally more susceptible of conjunction with another soul, by reason of the identity of their substance, than an evil spirit is, owing to their diverse natures. But when the same philosopher, in the sixth book of The Laws, warns us to beware lest a vitiation of seed should infuse a soil into both body and soul from an illicit or debased concubinage, I hardly know whether he is more inconsistent with himself in respect of one of his previous statements, or of that which he had just made. For he here shows us that the soul proceeds from human seed (and warns us to be on our guard about it), not, (as he had said before,) from the first breath of the new - born child.

Pray, whence comes it that from similarity of soul we resemble our parents in disposition, according to the testimony of Cleanthes, if we are not produced from this seed of the soul? Why, too, used the old astrologers to cast a man's nativity from his first conception, if his soul also draws not its origin from that moment? To this (nativity) likewise belongs the inbreathing of the soul, whatever that is. 

Tertullian, De Anima 27:

Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does.

Tertullian, De Anima 37:

The Law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion [Ex 21:22-24].

Hippolytus (170-235 AD), Refutation of All Heresies 9.7

"Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!" ([A.D. 228])

Minucius Felix (3rd Century AD), Octavius 30:

There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. And these things assuredly come done from the teaching of your gods. 

Council of Elvira (c. 305)

Canon 68: If a catechumen should conceive by an adulterer, and should procure the death of the child, she can be baptized only at the end of her life.

Council of Ancyra (314)

Canon 21: Women who prostitute themselves, and who kill the child thus begotten, or who try to destroy them when in their wombs, are by ancient law excommunicated to the end of their lives. We, however, have softened their punishment and condemned them to the various appointed degrees of penance for ten years.

Basil (c. 329-379) 

To Anfilochius, Bishop of Iconia:
She who has intentionally destroyed [the fetus] is subject to the penalty corresponding to a homicide. For us, there is no scrutinizing between the formed and unformed [fetus]; here truly justice is made not only for the unborn but also with reference to the person who is attentive only to himself/herself since so many women generally die for this very reason.  First Letter 2

 Canon II.
Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years' penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not.

Basil, First Canonical Epistle to Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium 8:

 …those who give the abortifacients and those who take the poisons are guilty of homicide.

Ambrose (c.340-397) Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam, lib. 10, line 252 [private translation]:

Indeed there are those women who cut off the word prematurely born/aborted, before they give birth, there are those who have Christ in the womb but they will not yet have formed (him), to whom it is said: my children, whom I desire to bring forth again and again until Christ be formed in you. 
Ambrose, Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam, lib. 10 [private translation]:

But why the eye or the hand, since the aborted child has both a hand and an eye which has already been formed?  , line 283

Ambrose, De bono mortis, cap 2, par. 4, line 11:

And elsewhere the same Ecclesiastes, being an old man, guarded him better whom his mother had cast out by abortion, because he did not see these bad things which they make in this world, he neither came into these shadows nor walked in vanity, and for that reason he who did not come into this life will have more of a rest than he who came. 

Ambrose, Hexameron V.18.58 [private translation]:

The poor get rid of their small children by exposure and denying them when they are discovered. But the rich also, so that their wealth will not be more divided, deny their children [when they are] in the womb and with all the force of parricide, they kill the beings of their wombs [while they are] in the same fruitful womb. In this way life is taken away from them before it has been given. 

Jerome (347-420), Epistula 22:

You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder.

John Chrysostom (347-407), Homily 24 on Romans:

Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? where there are many efforts at abortion? where there is murder before the birth? for even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderer also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine. Hence too come idolatries, since many, with a view to become acceptable, devise incantations, and libations, and love potions, and countless other plans. Yet still after such great unseemliness, after slaughters, after idolatries, the thing [fornication] seems to belong to things indifferent, aye, and to many that have wives, too.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), De Nube et Concupiscentia 1.17 (15):

Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born. 

Augustine of Hippo, Enchiridion 23.85.4:

On the undeveloped fetus:
Hence in the first place arises a question about abortive conceptions, which have indeed been born in the mother's womb, but not so born that they could be born again. For if we shall decide that these are to rise again, we cannot object to any conclusion that may be drawn in regard to those which are fully formed. Now who is there that is not rather disposed to think that unformed abortions perish, like seeds that have never fructified? But who will dare to deny, though he may not dare to affirm, that at the resurrection every defect in the form shall be supplied, and that thus the perfection which time would have brought shall not be wanting, any more than the blemishes which time did bring shall be present: so that the nature shall neither want anything suitable and in harmony with it that length of days would have added, nor be debased by the presence of anything of an opposite kind that length of days has added; but that what is not yet complete shall be completed, just as what has been injured shall be renewed. 

Augustine of Hippo, Enchiridion  23.86

On therapeutic abortion:
And therefore the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men, though I do not know whether it is in man's power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb: whether life exists in a latent form before it manifests itself in the motions of the living being. To deny that the young who are cut out limb by limb from the womb, lest if they were left there dead the mother should die too, have never been alive, seems too audacious. Now, from the time that a man begins to live, from that time it is possible for him to die. And if he die, wheresoever death may overtake him, I cannot discover on what principle he can be denied an interest in the resurrection of the dead.

Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 126, line 12:

 Therefore brothers, you see how perverse they are and hastening wickedness, who are immature, they seek abortion of the conception before the birth; they are those who tell us, "I do not see that which you say must be believed."

Augustine of Hippo, Excerpt from a sermon of St. Caesarius (470-543):

No woman should take drugs for purposes of abortion, nor should she kill her children that have been conceived or are already born. If anyone does this, she should know that before Christ’s tribunal she will have to plead her case in the presence of those she has killed. Moreover, women should not take diabolical draughts with the purpose of not being able to conceive children. A woman who does this ought to realize that she will be guilty of as many murders as the number of children she might have borne. I would like to know whether a woman of nobility who takes deadly drugs to prevent conception wants her maids or tenants to do so. Just as every woman wants slaves born for her so that they may serve her, so she herself should nurse all the children she conceives, or entrust them to others for rearing. Otherwise, she may refuse to conceive children or, what is more serious, be willing to kill souls which might have been good Christians. Now, with what kind of a conscience does she desire slaves to be born of her servants, when she herself refuses to bear children who might become Christians?

Theodorus Priscianus (c.4th -5th century AD), Euporiston III, VI, 23:

It is never licit to give something that will cause an abortion. As Hippocrates points out, it is not fitting that the innocent office of a doctor be stained by complicity in such a serious offense. But if they attempt to avoid the birth on account of either a defect in their womb or the difficulties associated with their age, they greatly risk their lives to earn their health just as one risks killing the tree by applying something to the branches or boats which are tossed about by a storm must throw away their cargo. 

The Apostolic Constitutions 7.3 (4th c.? AD):[10]

Thou shalt not use magic. Thou shalt not use witchcraft; for he says, ‘You shall not suffer a witch to live’ [Ex. 22:18]. Thou shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. . . . [I]f it be slain, [it] shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed.

Justinian (527-565), Digest 47.11:

Why a woman who procured an abortion would be punished:
-Because "it might appear scandalous that she should be able to deprive her husband of children without being punished".

Justinian (527-565), Digest 48.19.38.5:

Because the thing is a bad example, lower-class people who give a drink to cause an abortion or to excite passion (although they do not do it deceitfully), are to be condemned to the mines, and more distinguished persons to be relegated to an island and deprived of a part of their wealth. If by this drink a woman or a man has died, they are condemned to capital punishment.

Gregory the Great (540-604), Moralia, Bk. IV, line 3 [private translation]:

The aborted [fetus] because it is born before its due time, is immediately concealed [as] dead. 

Gregory the Great (540-604), Moralia, Bk. IV line 25 [private translation]:

 Moreover this abortion is best said to be secret because from the origins of the world, when we know Moses was writing certain things, part of the human family was greatly unknown/concealed to us.

Disciple of Cassiodorus (after 540 AD), Commentary on I Corinthians, cap. 15, line 49:

He is said to be aborted who was born before the time, or who, alive, was given birth by a dead mother.

Following citations are from: M.J. Elsakkers, Reading between the lines: Old Germanic and early Christian views on abortion.[11]

Theodore’s penitential:

24. Women who commit abortion before [the fetus] has life, shall do penance for one year or for the three forty-day periods or for forty days, according to the nature of the offense; and if later, that is, more than forty days after conception, they shall do penance as murderesses, that is for three years on Wednesdays and Fridays and in the three forty-day periods. This according to the canons is judged [punishable by] ten years.[12]

27. A woman who conceives and slays her child in the womb within forty days shall do penance for one year; but if later than forty days, she shall do penance as a murderess.

Bede’s penitential III. Of Slaughter.

A woman who kills her child in the womb before the fortieth day shall do penance for one year. If it is later than forty days, [she shall do penance for] three years.41 But it makes a great difference whether a poor woman does it on account of the difficulty of supporting [the child] or a harlot for the sake of concealing her wickedness.[13]

St Hubert Penitential 37:

On abortion. If any woman intentionally brings about abortion, she shall do penance for 10 years.

Burchard’s Decretum CXLVII:

Have you done what some women are accustomed to do when they fornicate and wish to kill their offspring, act with their maleficia and their herbs so that they kill or cut out the embryo, or, if they have not yet conceived, contrive that they do not conceive? If you have done so, or consented to this, or taught it, you must do penance for ten years on legal feriae. But an ancient determination removed such from the Church till the end of their lives. For as often as she impeded a conception, so many homicides was a woman guilty of. But it makes a big difference whether she is a poor little woman and acted on account of the difficulty of feeding, or whether she acted to conceal a crime of fornication.[14]

Old English Confessional 19.i, k.

19 i. A woman who causes an abortion of the child (conception) in her womb, and kills [it] after forty days after she received the seed, before it was ensouled, shall fast as a murderess for three years each week on two days till evening [and] in three [forty-day] periods.
19.k. If she loses the child (fetus) [she shall fast] for one year or in three [forty-day] periods.[15]



Further Resources:

Mistry, Zubin, Abortion in the Early Middle Ages, c. 500-900 (York: York Medieval





[1] Aristotle, Politics, trans. H. Rackham (London and Cambridge, MA, 1967), pp. 622–25.
[2] Aristotle, History of Animals. ed. and trans. D.M. Balme, 3 vols (Cambridge, MA and London, 1965–91).
[3] Following quoted in: Elsakkers, M.J., Reading between the lines: Old Germanic and early Christian views on abortion.  PhD Dissertation: University of Amsterdam, 2010. Online: https://pure.uva.nl/ws/files/1578602/76072_article_01.pdf.
[4][4] Translation by Darrel W. Amundsen, ‘Visigothic Medical Legislation’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 45 (1971), 553–69, at 567.
[5] Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians, trans. Theodore John Rivers (Philadelphia, 1977).
[6] Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians, trans. Theodore John Rivers (Philadelphia, 1977).
[7] The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, ed. and trans. F.L. Attenborough (Cambridge, 1922; repr. 1974).
[8] A number of the early Christian sources are taken from: http://www.priestsforlife.org/magisterium/earlychurchfathers/fatherscover.html.
[9] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, trans. M.B. Riddle, ed. Aexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886).
[10] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, ed.Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. James Donaldson (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886).
[11][11] M.J. Elsakkers, Ibid.
[12] McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance.
[13] McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penanc.
[14] Translated by Noonan, Contraception, p. 160, from Migne’s text of Burchard’s Decretum (Bk 19) in PL 140.
[15] The Irish Penitentials, ed. Ludwig Bieler, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 5 (Dublin, 1963).