(The Conversation) – Opponents and supporters of legal abortion in the United States will watch when the Supreme Court hears Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization during his next term. In that lawsuit, a Mississippi Women’s Health Center challenged the constitutionality of a 2018 state law prohibiting abortions after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. In the hands of the Supreme Court, the case has the potential to affect the provisions of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion in the United States, and further limits women’s access to abortion in many states.
Such challenges to abortion in the United States are often fueled by the beliefs 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 Catholic Christians, 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 first Christian writings – the letters from the apostle Paul – discouraged marriage and reproduction. 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 258 AD
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 Harmandalı, Turkey, wrote the beautiful text Makrina’s life to celebrate his beloved sister and teacher, who died in AD 379. In it, Gregorios admires Makrina for wittily rejecting 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
Premodern Christian women also had options in addition to celibacy, although the state, church, and mediocre medicine limited their reproductive choices.
In 211 AD, 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 wives 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 AD, 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 AD, 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 regarding abortion were held in Ankyra – currently Ankara, Turkey – in AD 314 and in Chalkedon – today Kadiköy, Turkey – in AD 451 Notably, these two synods significantly reduced the penalties for abortion compared to previous centuries.
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 premodern 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, Walatta 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 his 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 premodern 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, in my opinion, that Christians who support women’s reproductive rights are also following the historical precedent of their religious tradition.
Luis Josué Salés, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Scripps College. The opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.