Infanticide was common in the Roman Empire, until the Catholic Church stepped in and provided protection.
During the height of the Roman Empire and even during its decline, when a family experienced an “unwanted pregnancy,” they would resort to infanticide to solve their problems. This was a common practice, something that historians have recently confirmed.
According to Discovery News, a study in 2011 reiterated the fact that “Infanticide, the killing of unwanted babies, was common throughout the Roman Empire and other parts of the ancient world.” It did not matter if the child was male or female and researchers concluded that “societies with extreme poverty may use infant homicide as a means to conserve resources, reduce economic strain, or improve the quality of life for the family.”
When Christianity began to spread within the Roman Empire, this practice was openly condemned by the Church and various councils sought concrete ways to stop this practice.
In the book History of Pediatrics, there is a chapter dedicated to how the Church created laws to eradicate infanticide and provide options for struggling families.
The Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) decreed that, in each Christian village, a xenodochion, or hostelry for the sick, poor and vagrant, should be established. Some of these xenodochia became brephotrophia or asylums for children. The Council of Vaison (442) provided that an abandoned child should find sanctuary in a church … This was confirmed by the Councils of Arles (452) and Agde (505), and mothers, who were driven to abandon their new-born offspring through shame or poverty, now left them in the marble receptacle at the church door. This privilege was freely granted at the Council of Rouen. The Council of Constantinople (588) compared the crime of infanticide to that of homicide.
Unfortunately, this practice continued when barbarian tribes took over Europe, but the Church continued to provide sanctuaries for infants. For example, in 787 the Archbishop of Milan, founded the first asylum for abandoned infants with the following declaration.
“Now, therefore, I Datheus, for the welfare of my soul and the souls of my associates, do hereby establish in the house that I have bought next to the church, a hospital for foundling children. My wish is that as soon as a child is exposed at the door of a church, it will be received in the hospital and confided to the care of those who will be paid to look after them.”
Over time this practice was greatly diminished and Christian orphanages were founded to care for children in such difficult situations.
The Catholic Church has always been the strongest advocate for the rights of the child, either born or pre-born, and strives to provide families with much better alternatives that respect the dignity of every human person.