Social media was flooded last week with the release of an undercover video that starred a Planned Parenthood representative that discussed butchering children for profit. These babies, not thought worthy of life, are ironically being sold off because of their life-giving capacities—being described as “tissue.” This genocide against children is nothing new. Sure we have become more proficient in the art of killing with the advances of technology and science; yet, a war against children has been waged throughout all of time, starting with child sacrifice to phantom gods. Even in antiquity, the practice of infanticide, for nothing more than inconvenience, is well-documented.
The people of God have always abhorred the slaughter of the innocence. For those who are acquainted with the history of the church, they will know the difficulty of identifying a unified voice. Even on other ethical issues, the church can sometimes offer a cacophonous sound of varying notes. But when it comes to children and life in the womb, the church sings in unison and with deafening clarity. Children are full-fledged members of the human race.
From the earliest periods of church history, Christians have spoken out against the atrocity of abortion and the practice of exposure. When the author of the Epistle to Diognetus wanted to demonstrate how Christians differ from other citizens, he pointed out that Christians “do not expose their offspring” (ἀλλʼ οὐ ῥίπτουσι τὰ γεννώμενα). And the Didache specifically addresses abortion—“you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide.” Christians distinguish themselves from the rest of humanity, in part by protecting those unable to protect themselves—Christians give a voice to the voiceless.
Why is protecting life in the womb non-negotiable for Christians? Because we believe every child has a soul and every child bears the indelible image of God from conception (Gen 1:26–27; Ps 139:13–16).
Tertullian (fl. 200), church father from Carthage, is credited with the view of soul transmission called traducianism. This is taken from the Latin tradux, meaning “transmission” or “transferal.” Traducianism teaches that the soul is created by the parents through procreation, just as the body is. Tertullian rejected the Platonic view that souls have existed from eternity past and that they are inhaled (adduci) by a person at birth and exhaled at death (educi). His contention with Plato’s view is that it denied life in the womb. The soul is what animates life. “Death,” Tertullian said, “is defined to be nothing else than the separation of body and soul, life, which is the opposite of death, is susceptible of no other definition than the conjunction of body and soul.”
To counter the accepted science of the day (the Platonic view), Tertullian turned to the testimony of mothers. Tertullian called on women who had birthed, while beseeching “barren women and men keep silence,” asking them, “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?” The fact that a woman feels life inside of her should be cause enough for doctors to “blush.” The same should be true today. Can a woman truly deny that there is life in her womb when she feels the first kick or when the child begins to flip around as though auditioning for a spot on a gymnastics team?
Tertullian then comes to the thorniest of all abortion test cases—what do you do when the mother’s life is in jeopardy? Though we could debate the ethical dilemma of aborting a child to save the mother, Tertullian considers such a loss of life as tragic.
The harrowing section comes from On the Soul.
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 ἐμβρῠοσφάκτης, 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.
The process is graphic, and even though sanitation has improved, the gory details remain the same. A spike is driven through the head and hooks are inserted to tug the fetus out “by a violent delivery.” For Tertullian to be that familiar with the details of abortion—to describe it in such vivid color—likely means that this type of abortion was all too common.
Aborting a child is “a cruel necessity” whereby the “infant is put to death.” Tertullian’s primary concern is the reality of an “ensouled” child. His comment that this is “a furtive robbing of life” is telling. Abortion, even in the rare case where the mother’s life is on the line, is infanticide. It is the robbing of life. It is the taking of a soul.
This was not Tertullian’s only swipe at abortion. Elsewhere he remarked:
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. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed.
At conception, a seed is planted that grows into a full fruit-bearing person. To dig out the seed is tantamount to chopping down the tree. Just as the slaying of a full-grown adult is condemned, the annihilation of a full grown adult in seed form should be condemned.
Tertullian was not known for mincing his words. Abortion is a form of murder that society has accepted. But for Christians, for those who believe that there is life in the womb, it is an affront to God and treachery towards fellow man.
- Tertullian reports that up until the reign of Tiberius, child sacrifice was still taking place, probably in Tertullian’s own city of Carthage (Apology 9).
Tertullian speaks of “child murder…merely at one’s own self-impulse” (Apology 9). ↩
Only in the most recent years of history has this been challenged, and only among those ‘Christians’ who stretch the definition of Christianity to the point of breaking. ↩
Diog. 5.6. ↩
Did. 2.2. See Michael Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 347. The Greek text is “οὐ φονεύσεις τέκνον ἐν φθορᾷ οὐδὲ γεννηθὲν7 ἀποκτενεῖς.” ↩
Tertullian, On the Soul, 25. Bishop Kaye translated these Latin words in this way, but they are more accurately translated “taken up” and “lead out.” The sense remains the same. ↩
Tertullian, On the Soul, 27. ↩
This word is untranslated in the ANF. It means to “cut up the fetus in the womb” (LSJ, s.v. ἐμβρῠοσφάκτης) ↩
Tertullian, Apology 9. ↩