Many people I meet–Christian or not–share a common misconception about why Christians have opposed abortion for two millennia.
Modern arguments usually focus on whether abortion “murders” an unborn baby. Discussions degenerate into legalistic and technical discussions about what constitutes murder.
As the Captain said: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
Really, the central issue for Christians who understand their tradition is not murder but *idol worship*. The Older Testament is littered with cautions against killing children to satisfy pagan gods. Take for example Ezekiel 16:20–
You even took the sons and daughters you bore to Me and sacrificed them as food to idols … You slaughtered My children and delivered them up through the fire to idols.
In the ancient Near Middle East and Mediterranean, burning children in sacrifice to idols was a common practice. The Jewish priesthood fought for a long time to abolish this tradition, and Christians carried forward the unequivocal rejection of child sacrifice pioneered by the Jews.
Abortion is not a new phenomenon. Abortion was widespread in the Roman empire, but far more dangerous than today. During certain periods, Roman men could legally force their wives to abort or abandon a child, if they didn’t feel like having another mouth to feed. A Roman husband probably said at some point: “My bread, my choice.” In fact, the founding myth of Rome, the story of Romulus and Remus, follows two twins who are abandoned in the woods to be raised by a wolf.
Roman children (and wives, for that matter) were viewed something like livestock: lovable and useful if you wanted and needed them; but a burden if you did not. Countless Roman women were drawn into the early Christ followers because, if their families committed to this odd new flock, it meant husbands could not avail themselves of the Roman law on forced abortion and abandonment.
In contrast to Roman society, early Christians made a habit of adopting abandoned babies and raising them as their own in the faith. Respect for the lives of children–including abandoned babies–equated to respect for God’s creative power and to respect for his only begotten Son. The church’s enthusiastic protection of children and support of families contributed to the explosive growth of the young revolutionary religion.
So … IS abortion child sacrifice?
Few women who avail themselves of an abortion would characterize it that way. They characterize it in the Roman manner: a medical relief of an inconvenience. Supporters of abortion usually speak of it in terms of beneficial social engineering and assistance to women. If one is talking about *conscious* child sacrifice, the answer is “No.”
But anyone either intensely self-observant or familiar with experimental psychology knows that human beings demonstrate an astonishing number of *unconscious* patterns of thought and action, coupled with conscious denial of their true motives.
Anthropology should make us suspicious of unconscious motives for abortion. Ancient civilizations around the world–not just the Near Middle East–have practiced child sacrifice in religion down through history. There seems to be something fundamental and “natural” (in the most pejorative sense of that word) about destroying innocents to placate dark spiritual forces.
As a *society*, it is legitimate to ask: do we really permit abortion just to help women avoid unsustainable or unwanted family burdens? Are we really so empathetic and so nice? Or is “helping women” a pretext to revert to mass destruction of children to assuage our collective terror at spiritual evil outside our control?
This latter question is less ridiculous than it might first appear. Recall that many progressive thinkers connect abortion and the apocalypse of climate change. Put in first-century terms: “The weather gods are going to destroy us, unless we volunteer to destroy more unborn children and reduce our population.” If this repetition of an ancient pattern turns out to be a coincidence, it’s a *very* peculiar one.
For Christians and Jews, abortion is not murder. It’s a transgression far worse–the placation of false gods. If the Older Testament prophets are to be believed, the consequence of idolatry is the catastrophic collapse of a society. Those who deny God’s creative power lose their ability to function as a group and fall to savaging one another.
For those without faith, it’s impossible to say with logical certainty whether the prophets are correct. Religion marches forward where reason fears to tread. If one believes humans are just animals anyway, then degeneration into mere animal behavior may not present much of a threat.
But looking around at America today should give us pause for thought and prompt us to question whether the prophets might be on to something; to question whether we are opening a door to ancient chaos that we will later wish had remained closed.