It seems that May has become pro-life month, with the March for Life May 14, the Catholic Church’s National Week for Life and the Family May 11 – 17 and the Focus on Life gala dinner May 25. Here Brian Norton shows why pro-life issues are so significant for the church.
Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, the number of abortions is numbing – over 100,000 pre-born children are terminated every year in Canada. And for the woman who aborts, she faces the possibility of post abortion grief and risks to her personal health.
However, there is good news. It was the spread of the gospel and the love of the church which, historically, curbed widespread abortion and infanticide throughout Western civilization.
Abortion in the ancient world
The devaluing of children, whether in or outside the womb, is not a sickness unique to our own generation. Abortion and infanticide were freely practiced before and during the time of Christ.
Plato and Aristotle both supported abortion on demand. Plato also held that any pregnant woman over 40 years of age must abort. Aristotle also argued that handicapped infants should be left to die of exposure. The Greeks procured abortions by means of medicinal or herbal abortifacients. The Persians terminated pregnancies using sophisticated surgical procedures.
The ancient Hindus and Arabs subjected women to vaginally inserted chemical abortifacients. The waists of Chinese mothers were bound so tightly they would abort; stomachs of pregnant Polynesians were beaten with stones. In Egypt, newborns were harvested for ingredients used in the manufacturing of cosmetic creams. In Rome, unwanted children were left to die from exposure outside the city walls.
Created in God’s image
In contrast, our Judeo-Christian God affirms the sanctity of human life. Foundational to this view of humankind is the imago Dei: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27).
From all biblical accounts, human life is sacred – sui generis, unique. All human life has intrinsic value, not because of developmental milestones or personal achievements, but because we are created in God’s image.
Love and social justice
It was not until the birth of the Christian church that there was substantial opposition to abortion, infanticide and abandonment. The gospel changed people’s hearts to a higher view of human life.
First century Christians in Rome would rescue babies left to die of exposure and bring them home to raise as their own. In Corinth, Christians would provide residential care for prostitutes experiencing crisis pregnancies.
Not only was the early church united against abortion, a host of our church fathers can be cited, including Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom and Augustine. Following Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman Empire, laws prohibiting abortion were established. Moral opposition to abortion continued with the Reformation and beyond. This Judeo-Christian cultural consensus for the sanctity of human life dominated the West for centuries.
Closer to our own times, history records that Christian love and social justice was fundamental to creating the anti-slavery abolitionist movement, the prison reform movement, the women’s suffragette movement, and the civil rights movement – and today’s pro-life movement.
However, in the late 20th century, a humanistic worldview and situational ethics eroded the Judeo-Christian base for moral absolutes. And out went the sacredness (intrinsic value) of human life. Today the unborn, the infirm, the handicapped and the elderly are again seen as expendable.
The gospel and the love of the church essentially curbed abortion and infanticide up to our own era, essentially to the 1960s. The bride of Christ and her diversity of gifts continue to be absolutely necessary for evangelism, social action and compassionate outreach to devalued people.
The call of the church
In the words of historian Dr. George Grant: “The pro-life movement and the Christian faith are synonymous. Where there is one, there will be the other – for one cannot be had without the other.”
Individually and collectively, we must open up our finances, our homes, our congregations, our lives, to those in need, to those at risk. It is not surprising, then, that the majority of people involved in today’s pro-life movement are Christians, whether in right-to-life agencies, outreaches for the poor, services to people with disabilities, hospice care, crisis pregnancy centres, maternity homes or post abortion counselling ministries. Our calling and work continues.
Brian Norton is executive director of the Christian Advocacy Society of Greater Vancouver, a faith-based ministry providing help, for 25 years, to women experiencing unplanned pregnancies, post abortion grief, domestic violence and sexual assault. All peer counselling services are free of charge – a gift from the church community to those in crisis.