Eugenics Yesterday and Today (5): The Great Parenthesis of the Christian Era

June 18, 2020

Through the extraordinary revolution that evangelical doctrine brought to the world, and as a result of the action of the Church, eugenics disappeared to make way for Christian civilization. First thanks to the morality brought by Christ, then by the laws and institutions that it inspired.

Jacques Testart, the father of the first test-tube baby in France, in his book, Le désir du gène (1992), wrote: “With Christian evangelization the elimination of unwanted children disappeared, at least officially, until the Renaissance.” This author is most unlikely to be suspected of benevolence towards the Church. He says of himself: “When, as a militant Trotskyist, I deepened the principles of the permanent revolution...” [L’œuf transparent]. It is one of the characteristics of evangelization to have been able to impose respect for enfants on peoples won over to the cause of eugenics in all its forms—apart from the Jewish people who are custodians of the Old Testament, and to have defended them [enfants] against the crimes of which they were the object.

This defense of the little ones is both positive, encouraging the procreation and education of children, and negative, by banning infanticide and its substitutes.

Doctrine of the Church Fathers

From the first century, the Didache (around A.D.70) testified to an absolute prohibition: “do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn” (2,2). Shortly after, an author wrote (around A.D. 130): “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion, nor again shalt thou kill it when it is born” (Epistle to Barnabas, 19:5).  This warning came up very often in the following centuries, due to the entrenchment of barbaric habits among pagan nations which were converted only little by little.

St. Justin Martyr states (around A.D. 150): “But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men.” He gives several reasons: “and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God.” But there is another reason, which reveals a terrible reality: “first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution… so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use;… And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother” (First Apology, chp. 27). 

This is explained by the fate that often awaited abandoned children in Rome. When they were collected, they were sometimes adopted. But more often than not they fell into the worst abjection; these alumni (the name given to these abandoned and taken in children) became “pleasure slaves,” who were delivered to prostitution. Saint Justin is not the only one to note this fact.

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) writes: “Besides, the wretches know not how many tragedies the uncertainty of intercourse produces. For fathers, unmindful of children of theirs that have been exposed, often without their knowledge, have intercourse with a son that has debauched himself, and daughters that are prostitutes” (The Instructor, Bk. 3, ch. 3). “When you expose your children,” adds Tertullian (155-220) in his Apology, “counting on the compassion of others to collect them and give them better parents than you, do you forget the risks of incest, the awful chances that you make them run?” Minucius Félix (died around 250) also says: “You often expose the children born in your homes to the mercy of others; then you happen to be pushed towards them by a blind passion, to sin without knowing it towards your sons; so you prepare without being aware of the vicissitudes of an incestuous tragedy.” Finally Lactantius (250-325): “who is ignorant what things may happen, or are accustomed to happen, in the case of each sex, even through error? For this is shown by the example of Œdipus alone, confused with twofold guilt” (The Divine Institutes, Bk.VI, ch. 20).

Christian charity intervened very early to save these unfortunates from their fate. The Apostolic Constitutions, at the beginning of the 4th century, warn the faithful that if “When any Christian becomes an orphan, whether it be a young man or a maid, it is good that some one of the brethren who is without a child should take the young man, and esteem him in the place of a son” (Bk.IV, #1). But charity did not extend only to Christian children, since Tertullian calls out the persecutors thus: “our compassion spends more in the streets than yours does in the temples” (Apology, ch. 42). And St. Augustine adds: “sometimes foundlings which heartless parents have exposed in order to their being cared for by any passer-by, are picked up by holy virgins, and are presented for baptism by these persons” (Letter 98).

Athenagoras (133-190) joins the prohibition of abortion to that of the exhibition: “And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God's care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it” (A Plea for the Christians, ch. 35). Take note of the vigorous affirmation of the humanity of the fetus and its intangibility, which contrasts with contemporary thought.

Tertullian also noted the crime of the pagans, and taking advantage of the accusation of the Thyestian Feast[1] launched against the Christians, he made this scathing retort: “how many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their severe measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death?

As to any difference in the kind of murder, it is certainly the more cruel way to kill by drowning, or by exposure to cold and hunger and dogs... In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, …To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed” (op cit ch. 9).

Minucius Félix also opposes this accusation: “And now I should wish to meet him who says or believes that we are initiated by the slaughter and blood of an infant. Think you that it can be possible for so tender, so little a body to receive those fatal wounds; for any one to shed, pour forth, and drain that new blood of a youngling, and of a man scarcely come into existence? No one can believe this, except one who can dare to do it. And I see that you at one time expose your begotten children to wild beasts and to birds; at another, that you crush them when strangled with a miserable kind of death. There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. It is from your gods that this barbaric use comes” (op. cit. c. XXX).

Lactantius who influenced Constantine, sums up the arguments of the previous centuries: “Therefore let no one imagine that even this is allowed, to strangle newly-born children, which is the greatest impiety; for God breathes into their souls for life, and not for death. But men, that there may be no crime with which they may not pollute their hands, deprive souls as yet innocent and simple of the light which they themselves have not given…What are they whom a false piety compels to expose their children? Can they be considered innocent who expose their own offspring as a prey to dogs, and as far as it depends upon themselves, kill them in a more cruel manner than if they had strangled them?... It is therefore as wicked to expose as it is to kill” (op.cit.).

St. Jerome does not fail to castigate these abominable practices which alas! were also found among Christians: “Some go so far as to take potions…and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder” (Letter 22:13).

St. Augustine sends a terrible warning to the prevaricators: “Those who, either by bad will or by criminal action, seek to obstruct the generation of children, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honorable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct. Having also proceeded so far, they are betrayed into exposing their children, which are born against their will. They hate to nourish and retain those whom they were afraid they would beget… Well, if both parties alike are so flagitious, they are not husband and wife; and if such were their character from the beginning, they have not come together by wedlock but by debauchery” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Bk. I, ch. XV).

The Fathers also encourage two positive and complementary aspects to fidelity between spouses and to dignified and responsible procreation. St. Justin writes: “But whether we marry, it is only that we may bring up children; or whether we decline marriage, we live continently” (op. cit., ch. 29). We find the same doctrine in Athenagoras: “Therefore, having the hope of eternal life, we despise the things of this life, even to the pleasures of the soul, each of us reckoning her his wife whom he has married according to the laws laid down by us, and that only for the purpose of having children” (op. cit., ch. 33).

[1] Thyeste, a mythological person, seduced his brother’s wife ; his brother then found out about his wife's affair with Thyeste and decided to take revenge. He killed all of his brother's sons, cooked them and served them to Thyeste as revenge. People accused the first Christians of this practice during the “mysteries.”

Ecclesiastical Legislation

The Church worked to contain these cruel mores and make them disappear. The Council of Elvira (circa 300) provides for the case of a mother killing her child to hide her fault, and pronounces a variable punishment according to whether the mother is Christian or simply a catechumen; in the first case she is excommunicated without possible reconciliation, even at the end of her life; in the second case, she can only be baptized at the hour of death.

In 314, the Council of Ancyra softened these rigors by enacting Canon 21: “Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfil ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees.”

The Council of Lérida (524) accepted a more benign punishment: “Whoever sought to kill, either after birth, or in the womb of the mother, the fruit of adultery, cannot be admitted to communion before seven years, and will spend the rest of her life in tears and humility.”

The Third Council of Toledo (589) asked civil judges and the clergy “to join efforts to destroy the abominable practice, very widespread, of parents killing their children so as to not feed them.”

Mention should be made of the Church’s legislation on marriage, which, in various aspects, achieves positive eugenics. By prohibiting consanguineous marriages, it prevents the transmission of hereditary defects, even if it is not the first aim of these laws, but rather to avoid debauchery in families. It is also achieved by the delay in the age of marriage (compared to other civilizations which fixed it or fix it as of puberty), and by the condemnation of extra-marital relations and the mastery of passions. Finally, consecrated virginity has an effect on both the quantity and the quality of procreation, since it gives an example and encourages the whole of society to make an effort to maintain chastity or continence, these virtues always being an improvement of morals.

Civil Law

As soon as the Church gained influence, she inspired the state to enact protective legislation for children. Starting with Constantine, civil laws will be enacted to defend the unborn or already born child.

The first Christian emperor settled the fate of the alumni. As early as 315 he officially organized charity towards parents who were driven to abandon their children: “Let all the cities of Italy know this law, the aim of which is to divert the hand of the fathers from parricide and to inspire them with better sentiments. If therefore some father’s poverty prevents him from providing food and clothing to his children, take care that our tax authorities and even our private estates provide for them without delay; because the aid to be given to children who have just been born should not be delayed.”

In 319, the same emperor brought a law which condemns to the last punishment the parricides - and under this name the Roman law understood not only the children who kill their parents, but also the parents who kill their children.

In 374, Valentinian still ordered the death penalty against infanticide and wanted the sanctions imposed on those who exposed their children to be put into effect: “Let everyone feed their children; if he exposes them, let him be punished in accordance with the law.”

Numerous other laws, inspired more or less directly by the Church, will thus emerge, both in the Roman world and among the “barbarians.” They will give body to medieval Christianity.

It would not be until the Reformation that the atrocities that were believed to have disappeared from the diverted hearts of men would begin to progressively reappear.