Written by Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes
We tend to think of abortion as a practice which suddenly descended upon us in the 1960s. In fact, it has been widely known and practised down through the ages in a multitude of cultures, whether ancient or modern, sophisticated or primitive. Abortion was also known during the Reformation of the 16th century, and the Reformers responded to it.
In 1540 Martin Luther was lecturing on the book of Genesis, and reached chapter 25 where Abraham marries again after the death of Sarah. Luther proclaimed that ‘the begetting of children is wonderfully pleasing to [God] … He is not hostile to children, as we are.’ Then he added: ‘How great, therefore, the wickedness of human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God! Indeed, some spouses who marry and live together in a respectable manner have various ends in mind, but rarely children.’ The God who declares that we are to be fruitful and multiply regards it as a great evil when human beings destroy their offspring.
Luther also wrote a tender little treatise, entitled Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage, which was published in 1542. Here he sought to reassure suffering Christian women that their child did not require baptism in order to be saved. He made it clear that he was not writing for women who resented being pregnant, deliberately neglected their child, or who strangled or destroyed the child. The Christian woman had to bow before the strange providence of God, but could do so in the knowledge that her child who died in the womb had gone to heaven. To Luther, the unborn child was clearly a child.
Luther’s views were shared by the other Reformers. So strongly did Martin Bucer at Strasbourg feel about the subject that he considered that a husband had the right to divorce a wife who procured an abortion or who committed bigamy. Abortion was treated as a violation of the very foundations of the marriage covenant.
The second generation Reformer, John Calvin in Geneva, was clear that ‘the foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being’. Referring to Exodus 21:22-25, he spoke vigorously that ‘If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light.’ In Calvin’s view, the child should be safer in the womb than in the outside world.
Protestants who rightly look to the Reformation for inspiration for its clarity of mind on Christ alone, grace alone, and Scripture alone, need also to look to what it declared on the subject of the taking of unborn life.