Christian Teaching on the Dignity of the Unborn

dignity of the unborn

Old Testament – Dignity of the Unborn

Old Testament writings share an understanding that unborn children have a sanctified value. As related in Isaiah, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?” (Isaiah 49:15).

The Lord reassured the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:4-5). The point of the passage is to announce Jeremiah’s mission as a prophet, part of his identity from creation. The statement also includes an assumption that Jeremiah had a personal identity and a connection to God in the womb. This connection must be common to human beings, for nothing in Jewish tradition celebrates Jeremiah as the only one who ever had a pre-birth relationship with God.

A similar statement came from the prophet Isaiah: “Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name” (Isaiah 49:1).

The book of Job reiterated the idea that God’s relationship with His children begins with each individual’s instant of creation. “Your hands shaped me and made me. Will you now turn and destroy me? Remember that you molded me like clay. Will you now turn me to dust again? (Job 10:2, 8-9).

The Psalms expressed awe at the magnificence of humanity both born and unborn. “You knit me in my mother’s womb . . . nor was my frame unknown to you when I was made in secret” (Psalm 139:13,15). When the psalmist declared “You have been my guide since I was first formed . . . from my mother’s womb you are my God,” he recognized a continuous relationship with God from conception (Psalm 22:10-11). Again, when a psalmist lamented that “In sin my mother conceived me,” he recognized a continuous personal identity with spiritual significance from conception (Psalm 51:7).

Christians should also take note of the great emphasis put in the Old Testament on human fertility and children as special indications of God’s blessing. Eve didn’t take all the credit for experiencing the first birth, nor did she reduce it to a biological process: “I have brought forth a man with the help of the Lord” (Genesis 4:1). It is highly significant that one of God’s first commands was “Be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Fertility is a miracle that begins with the conjugal act and reaches its greatest achievement in the conception of the child, not his or her birth.

In another passage in the Old Testament, murderers of unborn children were subjected to divine justice. The Ammonites earned the wrath of the prophet Amos “because they ripped open expectant mothers in Gilead” (Amos 1:13).

New Testament – Dignity of the Unborn

The ancient Jews and Christians would not have imagined the possibility of conceiving children in a laboratory, let alone altering their lifelong genetic characteristics and placing the edited embryo into the uterus of a woman. They were familiar with abortion of unborn children, however, since it was practiced in the ancient world, particularly among the Roman pagans.

The Bible does not give us any teachings from Jesus that refer explicitly to abortion or the sanctity of an unborn child’s life. We can’t know for sure why this is the case, but it is not really all that remarkable, since the authors of the Gospels did not attempt to share moral teachings about every, or even most, specific practices or theological concepts. Given Jesus’ consistent warning against slavish attention to every literal aspect of the Law, it seems unlikely that he spent much time setting moral rules for many particular sins, except when responding to the verbal challenges of hostile Pharisees and Sadducees.

In evaluating the dignity and sanctity of unborn human beings, however, we can learn much from Jesus’ striking praise for children. “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat 19:14). Children are not simply tolerated, but examples for us to follow: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 18:3).

Jesus may have intended these statements to highlight the childlike faith that he wants from his disciples. The statements also show, however, that Jesus had particular love for human beings who lacked the capabilities, reason, independence, and consciousness of healthy adults; these are not important factors in valuing a human being created by God. We should note these are the criteria usually cited today as justification for excluding unborn human beings from dignified “personhood” and then aborting them.

Luke’s Gospel indicates that unborn children have a spiritual sensibility to which they can respond. When Jesus’ pregnant mother Mary visited Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, Elizabeth said: “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:39-44). Luke does not display any need to explain that the unborn John might have such a connection with the Divine that he could feel joy in the presence of the unborn Christ. John’s perception of Christ in another mother’s body may have been extraordinary, but common sense at the time seems to hold that the unborn child had an identity and capacity for relating with others on a deep level.

Early Christian Church – Dignity of the Unborn

Among the earliest and most authoritative Christian documents offering moral guidance are the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas, both written around the end of the 1st century, and the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus. Following the practices of early Christians, all three documents explicitly prohibit abortion of unborn children. The Epistle of Barnabas, identifying the unborn child as a “neighbor” deserving love, challenges mothers with the statement “Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thy own life.” Both the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas condemn the “corrupters of God’s creatures,” which probably referred to abortionists (based on translation of the Greek).

Revulsion toward abortion was often graphically expressed. “… And near that place I saw another gorge in which the discharge and excrement of the tortured ran down and became like a lake. And there sat women, and the discharge came up to their throats. … And these were those who produced children outside marriage and who procured abortions.” This comes from the Apocalypse of Peter that was included in the earliest canon of the New Testament (later excluded).

In the late 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria lamented the fate of “these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings.” Other who equated abortion with murder included Athenagoras, Minutius Felix, and Maximus the Confessor.

Tertullian wrote in the Apology at the end of the 2nd century: “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.” Tertullian drew on the ancient Greek philosophy of the Pythagoreans that imagined a human soul present since conception.

In the 4th century, Gregory of Nyssa championed the Pythagorean view. Saint Basil of Caesarea wrote that there is no moral or theological difference between an unborn and born human being. The Synod of Elvira in the beginning of the 4th century refused communion to women guilty of adultery and abortion. Abortion was declared to be murder at the Council of Ancyra in 314 A.D.

Most Christians relied heavily on the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which described murder as limited to a “formed” fetus at a later time of unborn development. Christians nevertheless prohibited abortion at any stage as deeply immoral, which indicates that they did not exclude “unformed” human beings from the sacred dignity bestowed by God.

The Sixth Ecumenical Council (or Third Council of Constantinople) equated abortion and murder in 681 A.D.

When an Unborn Child Acquires a Soul

The question of when an unborn child acquired a soul (ensoulment or animation) complicated Christians’ evaluation of behavior toward those children. The pre-Christ philosophy of Aristotle eventually gained dominance among Christians over the Pythagorean belief in ensoulment at conception. Aristotle believed that all living organisms have a form of soul that gives them their life-giving characteristics of movement or nourishment. Vegetative, animal, and rational souls imparted certain capabilities, but only human beings enjoyed rational souls. A soul was part of the essence of the organism as the “form” of the naturally existing body. Human beings therefore had all three types of souls, and it was not the presence of a rational soul that made an organism a human being, but the other way around.

Near the end of the 4th century, Augustine believed that ensoulment (referring specifically to a rational soul) was delayed for some uncertain period after conception. Other Christian leaders pegged ensoulment to the time of “quickening”, when the mother begins to feel the baby move. For centuries, the church declared that abortion before this quickening event was not murder, and therefore not a mortal sin. Such “anticipated homicide” was still considered to be a highly offensive sin, but not as grave as murder of an ensouled person.

The possible lack of a rational soul did not indicate that the unborn child lacked a sacred dignity. Augustine used strong language against abortion, calling it “lustful cruelty, or if you please, cruel lust” (De Nube et Concupiscentia 1.17 (15)).

Augustine was primarily concerned to achieve clarity about the moral value of sexual desire. Sexual desire (concupiscence) for gratification was not a good thing; it drove people to use others for their own use and pleasure. The resulting sexual activity was generally sinful, yet it was beautifully sanctified when between married persons intending procreation.

For Augustine, aborting an unborn child was therefore gravely sinful because it was a direct offense against the only possible sacred purpose of sexual activity: procreation. “Having advanced to this point, they are led on to expose the children that are born unwanted. For they hate to keep and bring up those they were so anxious not to have. And so when they inflict cruelty on their own offspring, whom they begot against their wills, a shadowy wickedness advances into a wickedness evident in the light of day; by obvious cruelty the concealed is convicted of shamefulness.”

Augustine subsequently mused about the time of a child’s ensoulment. Killing the child before ensoulment was still a terrible sin against God’s purpose for sexual activity, and the child before ensoulment enjoyed God’s bestowed dignity of all human beings. Killing the unborn child before ensoulment may not be as grave as murder, “but that a fetus is conceived and born is a divine work, not a human one” (Contra Julianum, V, 34).

The ideas of Aristotle again influenced Christian thought in a dramatic way after Aristotle’s works became available and translated in 12th century Europe (they has been preserved by Muslims for many centuries). Thomas Aquinas came to believe in delayed ensoulment, but explained that abortion of the child at any stage was sinful.

Aquinas followed Aristotle’s idea that the uniqueness of humans came from their rational soul (rather than merely vegetative or animal souls). Aquinas also believed that all human capacities had a natural drive toward excellence, and it was the human intellect that inevitably drove persons toward a perfection of knowledge; this must be full knowledge of God in His presence. The rational soul that characterized a human person’s potential for eternal life with God was therefore tied to the intellect.

Although Aquinas was adamant that any human person was a union between a soul and body in the very essence of humanity – this argument is central to much of his theology – many Christians today simply imagine the soul as some non-natural entity held only temporarily by the body. This idea makes it possible to believe that a living, human body, especially during its earliest development, may not carry a divinely bestowed moral worth. Modern philosophy, such as Rene Descartes’ rather clumsy but influential picture of the human being as a body and mind that are entirely separate (but somehow communicating), reinforces 21st century attitudes toward human nature.

A delay in the animation or development of a rational soul, however, did not invalidate the sacred dignity of the pre-animated unborn child. For Aquinas, killing an unborn child at any stage of development was a grave sin because the sin derived from destroying a God-created identity. Human beings had an individual identity given from conception, and this identity had a divine purpose of development toward acquiring a rational soul and then perfecting the power of the intellect.

Aquinas’ theology on human animation became church doctrine by the Council of Vienne in 1312.

Catholic Doctrine – Dignity of the Unborn

Pope Sixtus V wrote in a 1588 bull that abortion of any unborn child would result in excommunication and the charge of murder. The next pope Gregory XIV, however, excluded unformed children from these rules.

Pope Innocent XVI declared in 1679 that teachers of the beliefs held by so-called casuists would be excommunicated, including their belief that abortion was lawful at any time because a person gains a rational soul only at birth.

In 1869, Pope Pius X finally brought back excommunication for abortion at any stage of an unborn child. This remains a feature of canon law.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Declaration on Procured Abortion in 1974 that spelled out the total prohibition of abortion. A later document Donum Vitae, published in 1987, offered an important statement of the Church’s theology of the dignity of a human being, this time couched in terms that reflected modern philosophy. The human person is fulfilled in “self-realization” of an individual composed of both body and soul. Actions taken on a person’s body have consequences for that person’s soul, demanding a greater consideration of “moral significance and responsibility.”

The 2008 declaration Dignitas Personae, again published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, updated Donum Vitae significantly. “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” (1) The unification of body and soul in the human being is the basis of human dignity, for “he possesses an eternal vocation and is called to share in the trinitarian love of the living God.” Christ affirmed this sacred value of the human body by assuming human form even as He transformed humanity’s relationship with God in the Incarnation. “Christ did not disdain human bodiliness, but instead fully disclosed its meaning and value.”

This human dignity in every individual deserves full respect and rights because a human being has a unified identity (“ontological character”) throughout life. “Indeed, the reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status. The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person.” Personhood and human nature are equivalent: “By virtue of the simple fact of existing, every human being must be fully respected.” Killing an unborn human being through abortion or otherwise is murder.

The modern Church considers abortion to be murder, regardless of any debates over delayed ensoulment of an unborn human child. Pope John Paul taught that, “throughout Christianity’s two thousand year history, this same doctrine of condemning all direct abortions has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and by her Pastors and Doctors.” (Evangelium Vitae 1995).

Protestant Leaders – Dignity of the Unborn

Per John Calvin: “…the unborn, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb before it has come to light.” (commentary on Exodus 21:22)

Martin Luther wrote, “How great, therefore, the wickedness of human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God! Indeed, some spouses who marry and live together in a respectable manner have various ends in mind, but rarely children.’ The God who declares that we are to be fruitful and multiply regards it as a great evil when human beings destroy their offspring.” (In his 1535–1545 Commentary on Genesis, when discussing Chapter 25, verses 1 through 4,  Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective by Stanley James Grenz, the portion quoted is from Luther’s Works, vol. 1, American Edition)