Under Roman law, initially established about 500 B.C., the male head of the family had complete power over his wife, children and grandchildren – even the power of life and death. Infants who were weak, sickly or deformed were often rejected by their fathers and abandoned or killed. Infants were also killed or abandoned if they were female or simply because the father did not want to be burdened with another child. Husbands could also force wives to have an abortion, and given the lack of sanitation and cleanliness in Roman culture, this often led to her sterility or death.Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011), pp. 131-132.
Abortion, infanticide and infant abandonment became so common that they led to a declining population. Roman Emperors responded by offering land or political advantages to men who fathered at least three children.Ibid., p. 132 The abandonment and killing of so many infant girls led to a skewed sex ratio. Sociologist and author Rodney Stark says that the best estimates suggest that "there were 131 males per 100 females in Rome – rising to 140 males per 100 females in the rest of Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa."Ibid., p. 131.
These issues were not just part of the Greco-Roman world; they were world-wide phenomenon. Pastor and author George Grant writes, "Virtually every culture in antiquity was stained with the blood of innocent children." He goes on to describe horrors inflicted on pregnant women and unwanted children in Persia, China, Arabia, India, Canaan, Polynesia, Japan and Egypt.George Grant, Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1991), p. 12 Sociologist Alvin Schmitt concurs, and adds that infanticide was also practiced in North and South America, Africa and Asia.Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), p. 49.
The early church carried the belief from Judaism that children are made in the image of God, male and female, and that children are a gift and blessing from Him. The church followed the command, "Thou shall not murder," and knew that Christ died for these little ones. So killing children – whether by abortion, abandonment or infanticide – was a sin.
The Early Church Worked to Save Children
Here are several ways the early church fought the horrors of abortion and of abandoning and killing infants:
- Through the preaching of the gospel, Christians taught that God loved people so much that He gave His Son to die for their sins, offering forgiveness and redemption. That's how valuable and loved every human is.
- Bishops and priests taught church members not to abandon or kill their own babies, but to receive them into their families and love them, raising them to know God's love. The Didache, for example, is a set of instructions for the church written in the first century. It may have been used as a catechism to teach new believers the basics of the faith, and it includes clear instructions, "Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant."Cyril C. Richardson, translator and editor, The Didache, in Early Christian Fathers (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 172.
- The church offered forgiveness and cleansing from guilt, sin and shame to those who were involved in sexual sin, committed abortions, or had abandoned or killed their own children. One former prostitute, Afra of Augsburg, was so transformed by the faith that she started a ministry to abandoned children and created an adoption network.Grant, op. cit., p. 28.
- The early church reached out beyond its own members, working to rescue and care for abandoned children. In the second century, for example, Callistus of Rome set up "Life Watches," where Christians would watch at the places where infants were abandoned. These infants were rescued and placed in Christian homes.Ibid., p. 27.
- Christians also worked in the public arena to promote the sanctity of human life. George Grant, in The Third Time Around, writes about the work of St. Basil the Great. Among other actions:
He preached a series of sermons on the sanctity of human life; he mobilized the member of his church to help care for families of women who were facing crisis pregnancies; he began to exercise the full weight of his family influence as well as his own considerable powers of persuasion to change the laws; he began and education program throughout the entire city so that people could fully understand the issues…"Ibid., pp. 19-20
Basil's work is said to have influenced the Christian Emperor Valentinian who outlawed abortion, infanticide and child abandonment in 374 A.D.Schmidt, op. cit., p. 59.
This edict did not completely eliminate these practices, but the church continued to speak out and affirm the sanctity of human life. Schmidt notes that from the fourth century to the twelfth century, the church issued four thousand canons that upheld the value and sanctity of life.
An Ongoing Task to Affirm Life
From its earliest days up until the 1900s, the church stood firmly for life, and Western, Christian-influenced countries had laws against abortion. However, as George Grant writes, "Some battles just don't stay won."Grant, op. cit., p. 115. And the last century saw a steady erosion of the church's centuries-long pro-life legacy. In the U.S., this eventually led to the 1973 Supreme Court decisions that changed abortion laws in all 50 states. So the church is once again working to transform the culture into one that values life.
What Can I Do to Promote a Culture of Life?
Many supporters of Focus on the Family also participate in pro-life work. But for Christians who aren't yet engaging the culture on this issue, here are a few ideas for joining us in our life-affirming efforts:
- Get educated and equipped about pro-life issues. Our free resource, The Advocacy for Human Life Toolkit, will help you be a voice for life in your church and community. It'll also help you raise your children and grandchildren to know the dignity and sanctity of life.
- Partner with us in one – or more – of these projects: The Sanctity of Human Life: How We Help.
- Our affiliated Family Policy Councils work to pass pro-life policies at the state level. Contact your state's Family Policy Council to connect with others who advocate for life.
- Watch Focus on the Family's film release, "The Drop Box," a documentary about South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak, who works to save and care for unwanted and abandoned children.