As the Texas abortion ban goes into effect, a religious scholar explains that pre-modern Christian attitudes about marriage and reproductive rights were very different.



The Supreme Court of the United States has failed to rule on an emergency request to block SB8, a controversial Texas law that prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. As such, the legislation entered into force on September 1, 2021.

By signing the new law on May 19, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said: “Our creator gave us the right to life, yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion.”

As Abbott’s words show, these kinds of drastic restrictions on women’s reproductive rights in the United States are often fueled by the belief of many Christians that abortion and Christianity are incompatible. For example, the catechism of the Catholic Church, an authoritative guide to the beliefs and practices of Roman Catholics, says: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of any induced abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchanging.

However, this statement only tells part of the story. It is true that Christian leaders, virtually all male, have widely condemned abortion. Nevertheless, as specialist in pre-modern Christianity, I’m also aware of the messier realities that this statement hides.

Celebrate the celibacy of women

The story of Walatta Petros, a 17th-century Ethiopian nobleman who later became a saint, shows that Christianity has a complex history with abortion and contraception.
A 1721 manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

The first Christian writings – the letters from the apostle Paul – marriage and reproduction discouraged. Later Christian texts supported these teachings. In a 2nd century text known as Acts of Paul and Thekla, a Christian author from Asia Minor praised Thekla for rejecting his suitors and avoiding marriage in favor of spreading Christian teachings.

In the third century, the story of Thekla inspired a Roman nobleman called Eugenia. According to the Christian text entitled Acts and Martyrdom of Eugenie, Eugenia rejected marriage and ran a male monastery for a time. Subsequently, she discouraged Alexandrian women from having children, but this advice angered their husbands. These men convinced Emperor Gallienus that Eugenie’s teachings on the reproductive choice of women endangered Rome’s military might by reducing the “supply” of future soldiers. Eugenie was executed in the year 258.

Even as the Roman Empire became more and more Christian, women still received praise for avoiding marriage. For example, Bishop Gregorios of Nyssa, an ancient town near Harmandali, Turkey, wrote the beautiful text Makrina’s life to celebrate his beloved sister and teacher, who died in 379. In this text, Gregorios admires Makrina for wittily rejecting suitors by claiming that she owed loyalty to her deceased fiance.

In summary, while early Christian texts did not exactly encourage women to explore sexual experiences, they also did not encourage marriage, reproduction, and family life.

Choices beyond celibacy

Pre-modern Christian women also had options besides celibacy, although the state, church, and mediocre medicine limited their reproductive choices.

In 211, the Roman emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla made abortion illegal. It is telling, however, that Roman laws regarding abortion primarily concerned the father’s right to an heir, and not women or full fetuses. Later Roman Christian lawmakers left that largely unchanged.

Conversely, Christian bishops have sometimes condemned the injustice of laws regulating sex and reproduction. For example, Bishop Gregorios of Nazianzos, who died in 390, lawmakers accused of self-serving hypocrisy to be kind to men and tough to women. Likewise, the Bishop of Constantinople, Ioannes Chrysostomos, who died in 407, blamed men for putting women in difficult situations which led to abortions.

Christian leaders often met in meetings called “synods” to discuss religious beliefs and practices. Two of the most important synods concerning abortion took place in Ankyra – now Ankara, Turkey – in 314 and in Chalkedon – today Kadiköy, Turkey – in 451. Notably, these two synods considerably reduced the penalties for abortion by compared to previous centuries.

Abortion protesters listen to clergy deliver speeches and pray
Some contemporary Christians oppose abortion and contraception because of their religious beliefs. But historically, faith has at times supported women’s reproductive autonomy.
Brennan Lindsey / AP

But over time, these legal and religious views did not appear to significantly affect women’s reproductive choices. Rather, methods of preventing and terminating pregnancy flourished in premodern Christian societies, especially in the medieval Roman Empire. For example, the historian Prokopios of Kaisareia claims that the Roman Empress Theodora almost perfected contraception and abortion during her time as a sex worker, yet this accusation had no impact on Schuyler’s canonization as a saint.

There is even some evidence that pre-modern Christians actively developed reproductive options for women. For example, Christian doctors, like Etios d’Amida in the 6th century and Paulos of Aegina in the seventh, provided detailed instructions for performing abortions and making contraceptives. Their texts deliberately changed and improved the medical work of Soranos of Ephesus, who lived in the second century. Many manuscripts contain their work, which indicates that these texts circulated openly.

Other Christian texts on holy figures suggest complex Christian perspectives on the acceptable arrest of fetal development – and even the life of newborns. Consider a text from the sixth century, the The Egyptian life of Dorothea. In this story, Dorotheos’ sister, an Egyptian hermit from Thebes, becomes pregnant while being possessed by a demon. But when Dorotheos successfully prays for her sister to miscarry, the text treats the unusual termination of pregnancy as a miracle, not moral outrage.

About 1,100 years later, a similar event occurs in Ethiopia The life of Waltatta Petros. According to this text, Petros, a nobleman later canonized as a saint, married a general and became pregnant three times. However, whenever she conceived, she prayed that her fetus would die quickly if it “did not please God in life.” The narrator tells us that the three children died a few days after their birth, because “God heard his prayer”.

Certainly Christians have a history of opposing methods of preventing and terminating pregnancies. But these pre-modern texts, spanning some 1,500 years, indicate that Christians also used to provide these services and make them safer for women.

This strained and inconclusive relationship with abortion may be poorly understood – or perhaps overlooked for political convenience. But that doesn’t change the fact, as I see it, that Christians who support women’s reproductive rights are also following the historical precedent of their religious tradition.

[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]

This is an updated version of an article first published on July 13, 2021.



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