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Tertullian on Abortion


I came across the following quotation in the reading for my ethics class. Most of us probably think abortion is a new ethical question brought on by the advent of modern science and technology. In fact, the early Christians were already wrestling with this question. The following is from Tertullian of Carthage (north Africa), a late second century teacher and defender of the faith. Here is what he writes to the Romans who were persecuting the Christians in his book Apology chapter 9:

How many, think you, of those crowding around and gaping for Christian blood,–how many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their sever measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death? As to any difference in the kind of murder, it is certainly the more cruel way to kill by drowning, or by exposure to cold and hunger and dogs. A maturer age has always preferred death by the sword. 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.”


8 Responses to “Tertullian on Abortion”

  1. on 11 Feb 2011 at 8:32 amBrian K (not Keating)

    I just listened to a podcast in which the author of a book was discussing abortion and natural law. At one point he quoted this same section from Tertullian as well as something from Clement of Alexandria.

    My understanding is that in those days, infanticide was not uncommon — it seems to me that Tertullian condemned abortion as a form of infanticide. I can’t help but image that he would have found many of the arguments for use of abortion today quite abhorent.

    The author in the podcast I listened to indicated that these guys didn’t go to the Scriptures, but rather used natural law to make their arguments. But then their audience was not the Church but the pagans.

  2. on 11 Feb 2011 at 3:53 pmSean

    Brian K (not Keating but Kelly),

    Could you post a link to the podcast? Also, the following is from the Didache (late 1st, early 2nd century)

    Did. 2.1-2
    1 And the second commandment of the Teaching;
    2 Thou shalt not commit murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not commit paederasty, thou shalt not commit fornication, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not practice magic, thou shalt not practice witchcraft, thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten. Thou shalt not covet the things of thy neighbor,

  3. on 13 Feb 2011 at 7:56 pmBrian K (not Keating)

    It seems to me that unless you can absolutely prove from the scriptures that abortion is not the taking of an innocent human life, it should be considered against God’s Commandments.

    I wonder if ante-nicene writers considered it abortion through a full term of pregnancy or only what we would now consider later term abortion. Was there knowledge of pregnancy such that they knew about fertilized eggs, zygotes, embryos, etc.

    Here’s the link for the podcast about Abortion and Natural Law;


  4. on 13 Feb 2011 at 8:12 pmXavier

    Brian K (not Keating)

    Was there knowledge of pregnancy such that they knew about fertilized eggs, zygotes, embryos, etc.

    “According to Chinese folklore, the legendary Emperor Shennong prescribed the use of mercury to induce abortions nearly 5000 years ago. Many of the methods employed in early and primitive cultures were non-surgical. Physical activities like strenuous labor, climbing, paddling, weightlifting, or diving were a common technique. Others included the use of irritant leaves, fasting, bloodletting, pouring hot water onto the abdomen, and lying on a heated coconut shell. In primitive cultures, techniques developed through observation, adaptation of obstetrical methods, and transculturation. Archaeological discoveries indicate early surgical attempts at the extraction of a fetus; however, such methods are not believed to have been common, given the infrequency with which they are mentioned in ancient medical texts.”


  5. on 13 Feb 2011 at 9:14 pmSean

    Athenagoras (approx. a.d. 175)
    We say that thos women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder. And we also say they will have to give an account to God for the abortion. So on what basis could we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being (and therefore an object of God’s care)–yet, when he has passed into life, to kill him. We also teach that it is wrong to expose an infant. For those who expose them are guilty of child murder.

  6. on 13 Feb 2011 at 10:58 pmBrian K (not Keating)


    Thanks for the info. So it sounds like a woman would know early on that she was pregnant and measures would be taken to cause a miscarriage. If this did not happen, they would wait until the birth and then commit infanticide.
    My question would be did they consider this a tiny baby being miscarried, or something “less”?


    I can quite follow what this statement is saying:

    For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being (and therefore an object of God’s care)–yet, when he has passed into life, to kill him.

  7. on 07 May 2011 at 12:32 amGeorge

    Jesus was called a holy thing within you,Mary could have been stoned to death.is not life when one takes their first breath and death when you exhale your last?

  8. on 09 May 2011 at 10:01 amSean

    Hi George,

    I find that definition problematic. To think my little Wesley was dead until he came out of the birth canal is impossible. Ask any pregnant woman who feels the life within her kicking, jabbing, and doing somersaults if the baby is alive. I understand that for the first man, life did begin with his first breath (Gen. 2.7), but he was certainly a special case.


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