Christian Origins

The New Testament itself takes no position on abortion or on the status of embryonic or fetal life, although some scholars feel that negative references to pharmakeia in several passages specifically refer to abortifacient drugs and not to medicine generally. As in Judaism, the core Scriptures of Christianity ignore the moral questions of fetal life and of abortion. But to say that because the New Testament does not address abortion, it says nothing theological about fetal life, is wrong. Two of the four Gospels (Matthew and Luke) devote substantial attention to the miraculous conception not just of Jesus but also of his forerunner, John the Baptist. According to the story, John's mother Elizabeth is too old to conceive, but in keeping with a tradition that goes back to Sarah, she conceives because of God's involvement and for the sake of God's purposes. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is Elizabeth's cousin, and in the story of the "virgin birth" (or more precisely the "virginal conception") the tradition of miraculous conceptions reaches its culmination. God is so immediately involved in the details of this human conception that a human sperm is replaced by a miracle. The virgin birth is often the subject of theological puzzlement by scholars but is widely, if only sentimentally, affirmed by many ordinary Christians to this day. One must not underestimate the significance of this tradition in forming Christian attitudes toward embryonic and fetal life.

Not unexpectedly, therefore, as Christianity developed and distinguished itself from Judaism, it opposed abortion more strongly than Judaism or than the teachings of the New Testament itself. In some early post—New Testament writings, abortion is equated with murder. For instance, an early writing known as the Didache comments on abortion by listing it among the commandments: "You shall not commit murder ... you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born" (2:2). This text not only prohibits abortion, but, by identifying it with murder, also implies that fetal life is fully human or personal. Another early text, the Letter of Barnabas, uses essentially the same terms: "Thou shalt not kill the fetus by an abortion or commit infanticide" (19:5). These texts, critically important in shaping the early Christian conscience, expressed agreement in considering abortion as murder and as elevating its prohibition to the status of commandment. Furthermore, the claim that God is fully present in the human life of Jesus, even in utero, at once divided Christian from Jew and drove the Christian to a new consciousness of the value of nascent life.

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