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 Conversation) – The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on an emergency request to block SB8, a controversial Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. As such, the legislation entered into force on September 1, 2021.

When the new law was signed on May 19, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said, “Our creator endowed us with the right to life, yet millions of children lose their right to life every year. because of the 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, states: “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. Nonetheless, as a scholar of premodern Christianities, I am also aware of the more messy 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 of the apostle Paul – discouraged marriage and reproduction. Later Christian texts supported these teachings. In a 2nd century text known as The 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 titled Acts and Martyrdom of Eugenie, Eugenie 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 city near Harmandali, Turkey, wrote the magnificent text The Life of Makrina to celebrate his beloved and teaching sister, who died in 379. In this text, Gregorios admires Makrina for humorously dismissing the suitors by claiming that she owed loyalty to her deceased fiancé.

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, 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 this 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, accused lawmakers of self-serving hypocrisy because they were forgiving of men and tough on women. Likewise, the Bishop of Constantinople, Ioannes Chrysostomos, who died in 407, criticized 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. On the contrary, methods of preventing and terminating pregnancy flourished in premodern Christian societies, especially in the medieval Roman Empire. For example, historian Prokopios of Kaisareia claims that Roman Empress Theodora almost perfected contraception and abortion during her time as a sex worker, and yet this accusation had no impact on Theodora’s canonization as that holy.

There is even some evidence that pre-modern Christians actively developed reproductive options for women. For example, Christian physicians, such as Aetios d’Amida in the 6th century and Paulos d’Aigina in the 7th, 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 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 the Ethiopian life of Walatta 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.

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

(Luis Josué Salés, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Scripps College. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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