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Legacy of life

Pro-life advocacy is as old as the gospel

By James Hernando

In August of 1998, as Allison Baker entered the soiled linen closet of Christ Hospital in Oak Hill, Ill., something caught her eye.1 The movement was subtle at first, and she might have ignored it had she not heard the faint sound.

There across the room, lying naked on a metal table was a baby, deliberately delivered prematurely at 22 weeks. The Down syndrome child gasped for breath, its arms and legs flailing.

Baker knew that such live-birth abortions took place at the hospital, but usually the babies were wrapped in a blanket and placed in a warmer until they expired. Baker was incensed at this inhumane treatment. When she inquired of the nurse in charge, she was told staff were just too busy and did not have time to do anything more.

Baker wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed it in a warmer. The baby lived for just 2½ hours.

Things might have gone unchanged, but the following year Jill Stanek, a Christian nurse, learned the same hospital had just performed a second-trimester abortion of another Down syndrome baby. She was shocked to discover the hospital routinely performed induced “therapeutic” abortions on second- and third-trimester babies and often the baby was born alive. If the mother did not want to hold the child, it was often taken to the soiled linen closet and left to die.

Death sometimes came slowly. More often the child died within an hour or two, but later Jill learned of babies who survived for up to eight hours.

At the sight of a colleague carrying a Down syndrome child, Stanek intervened. She could not bear the thought of leaving the baby boy to die alone and unattended amid medical waste and soiled linen.  She took the baby and rocked and cradled him for 45 minutes until he died.

Outraged, Stanek went to hospital administrators and told her story. Her protest was met with indifference. It was hospital policy deemed “humanitarian,” sparing the parents and others the pain of watching the child die. To her dismay, Stanek found almost no support from Christian colleagues.

Her protest did gain one supporter in Baker, who decided to add her voice and testimony. Together they began to lobby members of the Illinois state congress. Enough legislators were moved to action by their story that a bill was drafted mandating medical treatment to babies who survive an abortion. It passed overwhelmingly. Next they took their story to members of the U.S. Congress, who drafted the “Born Alive Infant Protection Act.” In 2003 it passed in the Senate 98-0.

Stanek’s and Baker’s protests are recent additions to a long line of voices raised through the ages. In fact, an ancient pro-life tradition dates back to the earliest Christian writers.

We forget that the world Christ entered was no stranger to abortion. Greeks and Romans practiced not only abortion, but also abandonment, the exposure of infants, and outright infanticide. Roman society left unwanted babies (usually girls) in public dumps outside the city walls. The ancient Greeks developed herbal potions that induced abortions. The same is true of ancient Hindus and Arabs. Persians were known for their refined surgical procedures that would cut the developing baby from the womb. The Bible records the Canaanites’ practice of child sacrifice, a practice detestable to the Jews.

As Christian scholar George Grant points out, “Virtually every culture in antiquity was stained with the blood of innocent children.”2

Dramatically, the coming of Christ and the preaching of the gospel brought a revolt against the wanton destruction of innocent human life. Why? The answer undoubtedly lies with the sacredness of human life explicit in the Old Testament Hebrew Bible. God, as Creator, is the Author of life3 and is therefore sovereign4 over His creation. Humans derive their value from God who created them in His image. Human life receives its highest dignity through the incarnation of Christ, so essential and instrumental to our redemption.5

Consequently, it is no surprise that the Christian protest against abortion, abandonment and infanticide is replete among the apostolic fathers of the Early Church. The first-century Didache is a treatise purporting to present the teachings of the apostles. In it we read of two ways, “the way of life” and “way of death.” Thus, the writer enjoins, “Do not murder a child by abortion, or kill a newborn infant”6 Similarly, the Epistle of Barnabus (early second century) enjoins us to love our neighbors more than ourselves. Such love prohibits both the slaying of children through abortion, and killing a child that has just been born.7

Athenagoras (ca. 177), writing to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, “The fetus in the womb is a living being and therefore the object of God’s care.”8 Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200) affirmed our whole life can only move toward God’s perfect plan if we give Him dominion over every area of life. To illustrate the opposite he cites destroying human offspring “through perverse and pernicious arts,” offspring “who are given birth by Divine Providence.”9 He goes on to condemn those who hide their fornication through abortion, which he equates with murder and a crime against the human race.

Similar and numerous sentiments and condemnations can be found among the Early Church fathers: Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine.10 However, there was none more singularly impassioned to change his pro-death culture than Basil of Caesarea (ca. 330-379).11 Sometime during the middle of the fourth century he poured himself into ministry among the poor. Walking about the city brought him face to face with societal evil in its diverse forms and expressions. However, none burdened him more than abortion, infanticide, exposure and abandonment.

Christianity had already received its official status, but pagan practices persisted in Cappadocia. Particularly grievous was the guild of abortionists known as the sague, which facilitated abortions among poor women.12 Basil launched into a campaign of protest. He preached a sermon series on the sanctity of human life. His messages rang with prophetic denunciation. He condemned abortion as murder, and denounced the abortionists as “murderers themselves.”

Basil, however, did not merely curse the darkness, but also embarked on a proactive ministry to support the women seeking abortions so as to offer an alternative. He lobbied against the tradition of exposure/infanticide of unwanted children. His efforts changed society in his time. With his own hands he and his deacons dismantled the infanticide shrine in Caesarea. He lived to see the demise of the sague when Emperor Valentinian in 374 condemned child killing.

The world has changed much since the days of Basil of Caesarea, but not as much as is needed. The story of Allison Baker and Jill Stanek suggests that only the actors have changed. We still live in a culture of death. More than 40 million babies have been aborted since the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Advocates of partial birth abortions lobby for what is nothing less than infanticide, as the practice of induced live abortions graphically illustrates. Christians must not be silent. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the protest of a Caesarean bishop broods over Christ’s church in search of new heroes of life to raise up a prophetic standard.

1 The following story is based on testimony given by Allison Baker and Jill Stanek on July 20, 2000, before the U.S. House of Representatives at a hearing on H.R. 4292, The “Born-Alive Infant Protection Act of 2000.”

2 George Grant, Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-life Movement from the First Century to the Present, (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1991), 12.

3 Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 36:9; Psalm 104:24-30; Isaiah 45:9-12.

4 Deuteronomy 32:39; Job 10:12; Psalms 22:9-10; 139:13-16.

5 John 3:16; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6. Cf. Acts 2:22-28; Romans 5:21; Colossians 3:4; 2 Timothy 1:10.

6 Didache, 1.1; 2.2.

7 Epistle of Barnabus, 19.6.

8 Athenagoras, A Plea for Christians, 35.6.

9 Clement of Alexandria. Paedagogus, 2.10.96.

10 Tertullian, Apology, 8.6; 9:4; Ambrose, Hexameron, 5.16.58; Jerome, Letter to Eustochium, 22.13; Augustine, On Marriage, 1.17.15.

11 For this survey I am indebted to Grant, Third Time, 17-21.

12 Grant points out the lucrative practice of selling the fetuses to Egyptian cosmetologists for the production of beauty creams. See Grant, Third Time, 19.

DR. JAMES HERNANDO is professor of New Testament studies at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo.

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