EDITOR’S NOTE: During the coming months, Baptist Press will periodically publish stories observing the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, Oct. 31, 1517.
NASHVILLE (BP) — With pro-life rallies and events making headlines in the past few days, ethicists and historians have issued a reminder that the pro-life ethic has deep historical roots, including advocacy by the 16th-century Protestant Reformers.
Reformation leaders John Calvin and Martin Bucer both condemned willful termination of a pregnancy directly while Martin Luther addressed the dignity of unborn children and the glory of childbearing. Anabaptists likewise dignified unborn life.
The Reformers’ “anthropology — their doctrine of humanity — led them to confess that abortion was the killing of a human being,” said Union University bioethicist and provost C. Ben Mitchell.
“Similarly, for pro-life evangelicals, biblical anthropology leads us to affirm the sanctity of every human life, from womb to tomb, because human beings are made in the image of the living God,” Mitchell told Baptist Press in written comments.
When Calvin addressed the destruction of unborn life, he didn’t mince words.
“The fetus,” Calvin wrote in a commentary on Exodus 21:22, “though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.
“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 fetus in the womb before it has come to light,” Calvin wrote.
In commenting on Psalm 139:16, Calvin spoke of “God’s having known” the “embryo” when “he was yet a shapeless mass” in the womb.
That view seems to contrast with a popular medical manual of the day written by German physician Eucharis Rosslin, who taught that “human life does not begin at conception,” according to Steven Ozment’s account of Reformation family life, “When Fathers Ruled.”
Rosslin claimed that “during the first two months the womb contains only formless matter,” Ozment recounted.
Though abortion was regarded as sinful and illegal in medieval times, according to Wolfgang Muller’s “The Criminalization of Abortion in the West,” many people believed a baby was not human until 40 or 80 days following conception.
Calvin “sounds about as pro-life as you’re going to get,” Timothy George, Reformation scholar and dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, told BP.
Similarly, Bucer, a German Reformer, regarded abortion as “profoundly contrary to the divine institution of marriage,” according to H.J. Selderhuis’ “Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer.”
Should a wife procure an abortion without her husband’s knowledge or consent, Bucer argued, he would have grounds for divorce.
Chemical and surgical abortions have been available since ancient times, according to Michael Gorman’s “Abortion and the Early Church.”
Luther apparently never addressed abortion directly, but he “reportedly maintained that a rational soul animated the fetus right from conception,” Muller wrote. That view “enjoyed great popularity among the Lutherans.”
In his 1522 treatise “The Estate of Marriage,” Luther said “a woman in the pangs of childbirth” should be encouraged with the admonition “that this work of God in you is pleasing to Him. Trust joyfully in His will, and let Him have his way with you. Work with all your might to bring forth the child.”
By giving birth, Luther said, a woman is doing God’s will “even if her child is born out of wedlock.”
Fathers who wish they did not have to “rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench [and] stay up nights with it,” Luther said, are in error. Amid the difficulties of parenthood, fathers and mothers should tell God, “I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.”
Anabaptist Janneken Munstdorp gave birth to a daughter while imprisoned for her faith and awaiting execution in 1573, according to George’s “Theology of the Reformers.” Munstdorp’s letter to her newborn seemed to reflect a tender care for preborn and infant life.
“Now that I have abided the time, and borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months,” Munstdorp wrote, “and given birth to you here in prison, in great pain, they have taken you from me. Here I lie, expecting death every morning, and shall now soon follow your dear father,” who was martyred.
“And I, your dear mother, write you, my dearest child, something for a remembrance, that you will thereby remember your dear father and your dear mother,” Munstdorp wrote.
Admittedly, George told BP, explicit treatments of abortion by Reformers are limited. Yet they obviously upheld the sanctity of unborn life.
Reformers “didn’t address [abortion] more directly,” George said, because “it was just assumed” that anti-abortion sentiments were valid. “They were a part of the ongoing biblical, patristic, medieval, Catholic tradition.
“This was part of the assumed consensus that all life was sacred and came from God, including the life in the womb before it was born,” George said.