What We Can Learn from Christian Responses to Infanticide

What We Can Learn from Christian Responses to Infanticide June 21, 2019

Over at ABC Religion and Ethics, there is a great piece by Louis Gosbell (St Mary Andrews College) about Christian responses to infanticide.

“As long as it’s healthy”: What can we learn from early Christianity’s resistance to infanticide and exposure?

Augustine is unique in his presentation of the inherent value of deformed infants, as we have no evidence for other discussions regarding this issue within the first five centuries of the Common Era. Nevertheless, concern for the welfare of deformed infants “may be surmised” from a number of factors.

First, the early church openly condemned the practices of infanticide and exposure, despite the fact it was a socially acceptable practice throughout the Graeco-Roman world. While they did not specifically address the plight of infants with physical deformities, they did vehemently oppose the general practices of infanticide and exposure based on the belief that God created all people in his image, and thus each human is imbued with an inherent value. In comparison to the Graeco-Roman world, which generally considered one’s worth to be based on the value of the contribution one could make to the greater community, the early Christians promoted the idea of inherent value that came from being created in the image of God. As Gary Ferngren summarises, “In their blanket condemnation of exposure the Christians implicitly affirmed the right of even the defective to live.”

Second, the church responded to the practices of infanticide and exposure through their care of exposed infants. From the earliest days of the Christian church, Christians collected funds for distribution to the poor and sick. As part of their concern for the vulnerable members in their community, the early Christians acted to protect exposed infants. This was done through the development of hospitals with designated sections for foundlings and through the later development of orphanages that would house and care for foundlings as well as for infants whose parents had died. Indeed, the Christian church gained such a reputation for their care of exposed infants that churches became the established site for abandoning infants.

Finally, the response of the early church can also be seen from a political and legal perspective. Whereas imperial law “neither penalized nor promoted the abandonment of newborn infants,” in 331 CE the Christian Roman emperor Constantine revoked the ruling that allowed exposed infants to be reclaimed by their parents as a means of deterring those who were exposing their infants and reclaiming them at a later stage. Exposure continued to be an issue throughout the empire, however, and in 374 CU Constantine’s successor, Valentinian I, passed down the first law requiring parents to rear their children. Valentinian I also decreed that the killing of an infant was a capital offence. Eventually, in 529 CE, another Christian Roman emperor, Justinian I, “overturned all previous regulations on the status of expositi.” Henceforth, “all abandoned infants, whatever their status at birth, were to be considered freeborn” and could no longer be kept as slaves.



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