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Abortion, History, and the Beginning of Life

by Stephen A. Allen on Jan 28, 1998

“Life begins at conception.”

“Abortion is murder.”

Such is the basic pro-life argument against abortion, and it’s an argument being made ever more forcefully as the country observes the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

For opponents of abortion, the Supreme Court’s decision in that case to legalize abortion was a hideous mistake. In their view, the Court created a new right–a woman’s right to have an abortion–by ignoring morality, tradition, and common sense.

Those who seek to ban abortion frequently claim that they’re trying to restore the values, and laws, of the past. But did past generations always think that human life began at the moment of conception? Did older laws always treat abortion as murder? The historical record shows otherwise.

The idea that life begins at conception is a relatively recent one. For much of the last two millennia, discussions about abortion have involved making a distinction between fully-developed and undeveloped fetuses.

One of the main sources of this distinction can be found from the fifth-century writings of St. Augustine. Augustine wrote that abortion could not be considered homicide “if what is brought forth is unformed, but is instead at the stage of being some sort of living, shapeless thing.”

This distinction between “unformed” and “formed” fetuses was maintained for centuries, although authorities differed on the length of time it took for a fetus to form. Some argued that the period of formation took about 45 days, while others claimed that it took up to 80 days. They did agree, however, that the life that came into being at the moment of conception was not yet human.

But what if the aborted fetus was fully-formed? Did the law always consider this murder, pure and simple? Given the vast variety of past legal systems, these questions are too broad. Because pro-life activists often claim that the United States is a Christian country and should be governed by Christian principles, comparisons should be based on the laws of a predominantly Christian society.

Such a society can be found in western Europe in the Middle Ages. Many medieval legal codes were explicitly based on the Bible. Despite this, medieval writers and jurists disagreed about how serious a moral offense abortion was.

The punishments assigned in medieval legal texts for aborting a fully-developed fetus are bewildering in their variety. In some cases, abortion was considered the equivalent of infanticide. In others, it was considered to be about as bad as a major theft. Abortion was almost never treated as harshly as the murder of a fully-grown man or woman.

If legal sources appear to provide insufficient evidence that medieval Christians had a more complex view of abortion than modern, pro-life Christians, consider the accounts of certain miracles attributed to a handful of medieval Irish saints. Saint Kieran, a sixth-century bishop, is said to have come to the rescue of a nun who had been abducted and raped by a local king. According to the legend, when Kieran discovered that the nun was pregnant, “he made the sign of the cross over her womb, causing it to become empty.” Similar tales of miraculous abortions are told about Saints Kenneth and Brigid.

Although these accounts make it clear that the saints did not perform surgical abortions, or provide the women involved with herbs to induce abortion, the end result is the same as if they had. A pregnancy ended early, and an unborn child ceased to exist.

Nevertheless, none of the accounts suggest that the saints have committed murder. And while it’s easy to dismiss these tales as pure fiction, the fact that they were told and believed clearly shows that medieval views on abortion were much more complicated than those generally held today.

What does all of this mean for the modern debate over abortion?

First of all, it provides a necessary reminder that people have been disagreeing about abortion for millennia. There is a great deal of history behind Roe v. Wade that tends to be ignored in the heat of the argument between pro-life and pro-choice forces.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the medieval evidence shows that it’s possible both to be a God-fearing Christian and to have a complex view of abortion. People of good will can, and did, disagree about abortion without abandoning deeply held beliefs.

If more people studied the history of the problem, the battles over abortion might be better informed and less vicious. At the very least, it should be possible to use the facts of history to fashion arguments and legislation, instead of inventing history to support previously-held positions on abortion.

Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.

[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail:]