The secular culture would like us to believe that the Christian opposition to abortion is just another one of those strange, misogynistic, anti-scientific hang-ups of the Church. This view has always seemed to me thoroughly contrived: how can a position that denies the right of the weakest and smallest members of society to protection, making them subject to the whims of adults, be anything other than unnatural and barbaric?
But it’s worth pointing out that the secularists have a point. Opposition to abortion is, in fact, highly peculiar to Christianity. The March/April issue of Touchstone Magazine opened with an editorial by Allan Carlson exploring Christian attitudes toward fertility. Carlson writes:
While their pagan neighbors practiced contraception, abortion, and infanticide, allowed for easy divorce, and had a preponderance of males (due to female infanticide), the new Christian movement strongly opposed abortion and infanticide, discouraged birth control and divorce, and had a high proportion of members who were women in their fertile years. Religious sociologist Rodney Stark concludes that “a nontrivial portion of Christian growth was due to superior fertility.”
Routinized infanticide practices in pre-Christian Greece and Rome have been well-documented, as has child sacrifice in much of the Mediterranean. Christian opposition to the destruction of children, both born and unborn, was seen as strange and barbaric in Rome – just as it is today in supposedly enlightened Western societies.
For those of you who, like me, are willing to settle for a low bar of scholarship, this Wikipedia article provides a detailed review of the topic. Significantly, the article highlights:
Judaism prohibits infanticide, and has for some time, dating back to at least early Common Era. Roman historians wrote about the ideas and customs of other peoples, which often diverged from their own. Tacitus recorded that the Jews “regard it as a crime to kill any late-born children.”
And we don’t really need Wikipedia: All we need is the book of Genesis. When God stayed Abraham’s knife from the neck of his son Isaac, what was His message? That He is merciful to those who obey Him; that He will provide His own Lamb as sacrifice for the sins of His people. But we must also recall that the nations among whom Abraham lived sacrificed their children to their gods; thus it was probably little surprise to him when he was asked to bring Isaac to the altar. Was not what ensued the perfect way to make clear that the God of Israel, unlike the bloodthirsty idols of the pagans, did not desire the blood of children, and would not see their blood spilled?And if it is not fit to take away a child’s life for God’s sake, how can it be fit to take it away for any other reason?
The same Wikipedia article points out that the first Roman philosopher to speak out against it was Philo of Alexandria. Whether or not he was indeed first, Philo – for all his stature as a Roman philosopher – was a Jew.
Of course Jews are not just opposed to killing babies: They are famously philoprogenitive. (Isn’t that a great word? It means “loving of offspring.”) Big, warm families are a distinguishing mark of Orthodox Jewish communities.
The pro-life stance of Christians – both early and modern, both Jewish and Gentile – may be one of the most powerful practical ways in which they have remained connected to a distinctly Jewish heritage.