One of the brute facts by which we can judge how the ancient world valued women is the common practice of abandoning baby girls. The practice of leaving newborn girls to die led to a gender imbalance in the Greco-Roman empire. We gain a sobering insight into this from a letter by a Roman soldier to his wife in 1 BC. The otherwise affectionate letter includes this instruction: “Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out.”
Babies with disabilities were also discarded. In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had pitched for eugenics legislation: “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.”
The idea of abandoning baby girls is alien to us. But even today, we see this practice continuing in the two largest countries that haven’t yet been significantly shaped by Christianity.
The Chinese church is growing so fast that it could reshape Chinese culture in the next generation. But selective abortion and infanticide in past generations have led to a gender gap of 35 million. Likewise in India, where Hinduism is the dominant religion, the gender gap from selective abortion and infanticide is 25 million.
Jesus’s valuing of babies is as striking as his valuing of women.
So what has changed our ideas about the abandonment of newborns in general and of newborn girls in particular? Jesus. Jesus’s valuing of babies is as striking as his valuing of women.
Jesus Values Women and Children
Right after Jesus preached against divorce (a practice that left women and children abandoned), people tried to bring their little children to him for his blessing (Matt. 19:3–15; Mark 10:2–16). Luke says they were bringing “even infants” (Luke 18:15). Jesus’s disciples turned them away. But Jesus rebuked them:
Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. (Mark 10:14–15)
Then Jesus took the children and babies in his arms and blessed them.
Jesus’s valuing of babies is as striking as his valuing of women.
We don’t feel the shock of his words and actions. But his first hearers did. Paul Offit, a non-Christian professor of pediatrics at University of Pennsylvania, calls Christianity “the single greatest breakthrough against child abuse” in history. He explains:
At the time of Jesus’ life . . . child abuse, as noted by one historian, was “the crying vice of the Roman Empire.” Infanticide was common. Abandonment was common . . . children were property, no different than slaves. But Jesus stood up for children, cared about them, when those around him typically didn’t.
Taking their cues from Jesus, the early Christians collected the babies abandoned by others. And when (to everyone’s surprise) the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian, legal protections for women and children started to come into place.
In the early fourth century, Constantine passed laws protecting women from unwarranted divorce and offering provision for children born into poverty: “If any parent should report that he has offspring which on account of poverty he is not able to rear, there shall be no delay in issuing food and clothing” (Theodosian Code, II.27.1–2).
Historian John Dickson notes that Constantine used churches “as the welfare distribution centres for this program.” Killing an infant became a form of homicide in AD 374, under a subsequent Christian emperor.
In our culture, pro-lifers are often accused of not caring about vulnerable mothers and children after birth. But the first Christ-motivated pro-life legislation in the world followed laws protecting women from abandonment and providing for poor families. Consistent Christian ethics must do all these things.
It’s no coincidence that in Matthew and Mark, Jesus’s teaching on marriage and welcoming children is followed by his instruction to the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor. Today, as in the first century, two symbiotic factors put babies at risk: poverty and fatherlessness.
In the United States in 2018, 85 percent of women seeking abortions were unmarried and about three quarters were living below or not far above the federal poverty line. Due largely to historic inequalities, this means that black babies are more than three times as likely to be aborted as white babies. These tiny black lives matter. But rather than providing women with the support they need, our society opts for the quick fix of abortion.
Thankfully, abortion rates in America are trending down—2018 saw the lowest rate on record. But that still represents 619,591 lost lives.
We Need More Kids
What’s more, far from being a public good, abortion pushes an alarmingly low fertility rate down yet further. With a fertility rate at 1.78 babies per woman—significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1—the United States is sitting on the demographic time bomb of an aging society.
To be clear, the value of life should never be measured in economic terms. But contrary to the prevailing myth that children are a burden on society, from a purely economic perspective, we need more kids.
Rather than providing women with the support they need, our society opts for the quick fix of abortion.
Most women also want more children. In America, “the gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”
And contrary to popular imagination, the vast majority of abortions do not arise from teenage pregnancies, but are sought by women who—with the right support—could be in a good position to raise these children.
The Bible doesn’t call us to a pseudo-Christian past, when the West was supposedly controlled by Christian norms, but men were all too often excused to sleep with prostitutes and servant girls, and pregnant women were abandoned by the thousands. It doesn’t call us to a world in which unmarried mothers are despised or marginalized and forced into back-street abortions.
Rather, God calls us to a world in which women are seen as equal to men, regardless of their marital status; in which pregnant women are supported; in which men are called either to be faithful husbands or faithful singles; and in which babies are valued and provided for—not just by their biological parents, but by their spiritual family writ large.
To solve the problem of abortion, we don’t just need one law reversed. We need a loving revolution.