Abortion: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on the Sanctity of Human Life
Each human being is unique creation of God. Each one of us has never been before and will never be again – throughout all eternity each human being who is, has, and will be conceived is unique.
By Rev. Deacon John Protopapas, Executive Director,Orthodox Christians for Life
The Orthodox Church regards abortion as premeditated murder. As such, She strongly opposes it because God demands the protection of all innocent human life, including that of the unborn child. The humanity (personhood) of that child exists from conception, a scientific fact that has always been recognized and unquestioned in Orthodox theology from the very beginning. Indeed, conception and not birth is the moment of the union of soul and body.
The Early Church – of which the Orthodox Church is a living witness – expressed a disgust and horror of abortion at any stage of pregnancy; it always regarded it as abhorrent and an abomination before God because it is the killing of a human being.
The present-day Orthodox Church’s teaching on abortion can be directly traced to the earliest written Christian document, the Didache (late 1st Century), constantly reiterated through the centuries in Patristic writings and canon law, and finally compiled in the Photian Collection which was adopted as the official ecclesiastical law book of the Church in 883 A.D. and is still in effect today.
The canons of the Orthodox Church consider abortion as premeditated murder and all those who participate in the procedure – that is, those who perform, promote, prescribe, advocate, support and undergo abortion – as murderers. For the penitent, excommunication of periods up to ten years are still prescribed – the same as for any repentant murderer.
The Source of Christian Teaching
The teaching of the Orthodox Church on abortion is not arbitrary or the result of a monastic “anti-feminine attitude.” The preciousness of pre-natal human life can be traced throughout both the Old and New Testaments and Jewish Talmudic tradition. It is even expressed in our modern worship services on the feast days. The principle theme in the Church’s understanding of the sanctity of human life is the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God as illustrated in the Genesis account –
“. . . then the Lord formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (ruah), and became a living being. . .” [Gen 2:7].
The breath of life (ruah) is a special gift that God gave to Adam directly and is not given to the animals (Gen. 1:24-30). Very clearly, man is not just a superior animal, but a very special creation of God.
Throughout the Old Testament man is revealed not only as a special creature, but as coming into being for a purpose:
Jeremiah 1:5 the prophet was set aside: “Before I was formed in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you and appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.”
The Messianic passage of Isaiah (49:1,5) which prefigures Christ: “The Lord called Me from the womb, from the body of my mother He named Me by name . . . and now the Lord says who formed Me from the womb to be His servant. . .”
In Psalm 139:13,16, the Psalmist details an intimate relationship between God and man:
“For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mothers womb…Thy eyes behold my unformed substance; in thy book were written every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. . .”
A similar theme can also be seen in Job 10:8, 9, and 11.
The basic ethical/moral principle on the sanctity of human life which forbids the taking of innocent human life appears in the commandment of Exodus 20:13 which is usually translated, “Thou shall not kill.” However, the Hebrew word for here is “ratasch” which means an intentional and unjustified killing of a human being; the words for accidental deaths and killing in self defense are “katal’ and “harag.”
Thus, the commandment should be more correctly translated as, “Thou shall not murder.”
Abortion was common in many cultures of antiquity but not with the Jews.
Though there is no specific condemnation of abortion in the Old Testament, biblical researchers have found no reference to non-theraputic abortion in any of the texts through 500 AD. In Jewish tradition, deliberate abortion – like the pagan practices of exposure and human sacrifice – was unthinkable. In fact, when the Jews did revert to these pagan practices – as in the time of Jeremiah – they were severely punished by an angry God.
The first direct reference to the death of an unborn child is in Exodus 21:22- “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as a woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.”
The two theological “schools” in ancient Judaism were the majority Alexandrian – which required punishment for damage to the fetus depending upon its state of development – and the Palestinian – which only required punishment for any harm to the mother. Both schools addressed the personhood of the unborn from a legal rather than a moral aspect and their discussions centered on either accidental or therapeutic (necessary) abortions. No moral implications can be drawn from these legal debates, but it is important to note that both condemned deliberate abortion as disrespect for life and the shedding of innocent blood. The real distinction between the two concerned the severity of the penalty for an accidental or therapeutic abortion.
The fact that human life is a precious in the sight of God is illustrated in Genesis9:5-6: “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in His own image.”
Even if an animal killed a man, it was put to death. However, this is a profoundly interesting passage for another reason: the second sentence is rendered by many Orthodox Jewish rabbis as: Whoever sheds the blood of man within man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” The phrase “man within man” is understood to refer to the unborn child. Consider this passage in context with the rest of the verse: Whoever sheds the blood of “man within man” (man by man) shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. And you be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.”
Taken in its totality, it is easy to discern why modern Orthodox Jews prohibit abortion with very few exceptions. The Jewish abhorrence of the shedding of innocent blood and their respect for human life – including that of the unborn – was the foundation for the Christian doctrine on abortion.
Another dimension of the reverence for human life can be seen as St. Paul declares that the body is the dwelling place of God, likening it to a temple: “Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” [1 Cor 3:16-17]; “. . .for we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them, and move among them, and I will be their God. . .” [2 Cor. 6:16]
“Do you not know that your bodyis a temple of the Holy Spirit within you which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” [1 Cor. 6:19-20]
Within Man’s being is a place of residence for God’s Spirit, something again unique in Creation. Thus Man exists at the intersection of the spiritual and physical worlds – between heaven and earth – and, as a creation of God, is worthy (axios) to worship, adore, and be in communion with Him. Man is much, much more than merely a rational animal. He a worshipping creature – “Homo Adorans,” as Fr. Alexander Schmemann has described him in “For the Life of the World.” Man, then, is a unity of the material and the spiritual. Scripturally, the whole man prays to, adores, and worships God and, so, Man is a creature uniquely created to love, worship and be in communion with God as is no other part of Creation.
If we turn to the Festal cycle, the consciousness of the personhood of the unborn is strikingly manifest especially in three important Feasts: The first is the Feast of the Conception of John the Baptist (September 23) in which we sing: “Rejoice, O barren one, who had not given birth; for behold you have clearly conceived the one who was about to illuminate the whole universe, blighted by blindness. Shout in joy, O Zacharias, crying in favor; truly the one to be born is a prophet of the High!” John the Baptist existed as a human being and a part of God’s plan of salvation from the moment of his conception.
The second is the Conception of the Theotokos (December 9). Here the vesperal hymn proclaims: “Behold the promises of the Prophets are realized for the Holy Mountain is planted in the womb, the Divine Ladder is set up, the great Throne of the King is ready, the place for the passage of the Lord is prepared . . .” It is notable that both Elizabeth and Anna were advanced in years and barren. Thus they were considered “cursed” in the Jewish tradition where children were a sign of God’s blessing. (Consider that mind-set with our own of today and how God’s Plan is being affected by the hundreds of millions who will never participate in it.)
The quintessential Feast illustrating the Church’s belief of the importance of human beings from the moment of conception is the Annunciation (March 25) which is so important that a Divine Liturgy must be served even when it falls on Great and Holy Friday! The Annunciation Troparion makes a most profound statement:
“Today is the beginning of our salvation, the revelation of the eternal mystery! The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of grace…”
This is a far cry from the “pro-choice” rhetoric of “Who knows when life begins?” or the degradation of the unborn by calling him a “blob of tissue” and a “product of conception.”
Can any Christian seriously propose that Jesus Christ was ever a “blob” or an appendage of the Theotokos’s body?
At the Great Compline the hymnography makes this astonishing claim: “…O marvel! God has come among men; He who cannot be contained in a womb; the timeless One enters time…For God empties Himself, takes flesh, and is fashioned as a creature, when the angel tells the pure Virgin of her conception…” This is not sung at the feast of our Lord’s Nativity but at His conception!!! Such concepts as “viability” and “quickening” are utterly without meaning and irrelevant.
Scripture and the Unborn
In the New Testament, consciousness of the personhood of the unborn is clearly manifested. The same word – brephos - is used for the child in the womb as out of the womb unlike modern medical and scientific distinctions of “zygote,” “embryo,” “fetus“ etc. used to differentiate among the stages of pre-natal life. The Latin word “fetus” simply means “little one” and was never intended as a means of denying humanity to the child dwelling in his mother’s womb. A similar pattern of language occurs in the Old Testament as in the book of Job 3:16 in which he refers to: “Infants [gohlal] which never saw the light.” In Luke 1:41 we find another astonishing image of the scriptural consciousness of the personhood of the unborn: “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb” Here, the unborn John the Baptist recognizes and rejoices at the unborn Messiah – a “fetus” greeting a “fetus.” This is not just a “literary device” as some would insist.
It illustrates the narrator’s consciousness of the already existing personality – and Divine calling – of an unborn human being. We do celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, the Theotokos, and the Lord Jesus Himself, but we also celebrate their conception – their entry into time and the physical world – the “fulness of time” as it is called by St. Paul.
A more profound point to this all is that these feasts, especially the Annunciation, point to the Incarnation. By Jesus Christ taking on our humanity from the moment of conception, existing in the pre-natal condition in the womb of the Theotokos, experiencing birth, living through infancy to adulthood, and finally physical death, God sanctified every moment of human existence – from conception to death. There is more to this – God also completely identifies with us in our fallen suffering nature, and by dying for us on the cross, He expresses His solidarity with us: whether we are a zygote, embryo, fetus, infant, child, adolescent, adult, or elderly: human existence is a continuum from conception, and – yes – beyond death to life eternal in the Lord!
The Orthodox Church has had a long history of outspoken condemnation of abortion which dates from Apostolic times. Although the aforementioned feasts did not exist in Apostolic times, they illustrate the living Tradition from which Church teaching on the uniqueness and sanctity of human life, born and unborn sprang from – it was no vacuum!!!
What The Early Church Said:
The Didache – First Century
“Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.”
The Epistle of Barnabas – First Century:
“You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay the child by abortion. You shall not kill that which has been generated.
Apologia of Athenagoras of Athens- 177 AD.:
“What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard a fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore, an object of God’s care, and at the same time slay it, once it had come to life.”
Tertulian (WesternChurch) – Third Century:
“Abortion is a precipitation of murder, nor does it matter whether or not one takes a life when formed, or drives it away when forming, for he is also a man who is about to be one.”
Clement of Alexandria – Third century:
“Universal life would proceed according to nature if we would practice continence from the beginning instead of destroying, through immoral and pernicious acts, human beings who are given birth by Divine Providence.”
The Regional Council Of Elvira, Spain – 303A.D.:
Prescribes life-long excommunication for penitent persons involved in abortion. Eucharist denied even on the death bed.
The Council of Ancyra, Canon 21-314/315A.D
“Regarding women who become prostitutes and kill their babies, and who make it their business to concoct abortives, the former rule barred them for life from communion, and they are left without recourse. But, having found a more philanthropic alternative, we have fixed the penalty at ten years, in accordance with the fixed degrees.”
St. Basil The Great (330-379 A. D.):
“A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder.”
“Those who give potions for the destruction of the child conceived in the womb are murderers, as are those who take potions which kill the child.”
“. . . we do not have a precise distinction between a fetus which has been formed and one which has not yet been formed.”
“. . . any hairsplitting distinction as to its being formed or unformed is inadmissible with us.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394):
“There is no question about that which is bred in the uterus, both growing, and moving from place to place. It remains, therefore that we must think that the point of commencement of existence is one and the same for body and soul.”
St. John Chrysostom (345-407):
Speaking about those who force a woman to have an abortion to hide immorality: “You do not let a harlot remain a harlot, but make her a murderer as well.”
Regarding the abortionist, St. John considered him/her: “. . . worse than a murderer.”
Quinsext Ecumenical Council, Canon 91-691 A. D.
Decreed that people “. . . who furnish drugs for the purpose of procuring abortion, and those who take fetus-killing poisons, they are made subject to the penalty prescribed for murderers.”
All these various writings and canons were codified by St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople in the Ninth Century, into the “Photian Collection” and are still in effect today. In fact these teachings were universal in the whole Christian Church, East and West. Even the Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin were outspoken in their opposition to abortion.
What the Modern Church Says:
Archpriest John Meyendorff, Theologian – 1972:
“The fact that this interruption (abortion) takes place at an initial stage in the human life process makes, of course, a psychological difference, but does not change the nature of the act of abortion being killing, and as such a very grave sin, because killing is evil…The hundreds of thousands of legal abortions performed in New York hospitals are a case of mass killing.”
Metropolitan IRENEY, Orthodox Church in America – 1973
“The very moral foundations of society are being subjected to doubt, and there is no open objection . . . the whole meaning and context of life is being reduced to the seeking of material goals, external success, and the gratification of the senses . . . As a horrible symbol of this moral decay, I cite the legalization of abortion, the frightening transgression of the most sacred of all Divine Commandments.”
(In a telegraph to President Nixon in 1973) “Together we, the Bishops of the
Orthodox Church in America, wish to convey to you, Mr. President, our feelings of shock and indignation at the recent ruling of the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion. We urge you to initiate all constitutional procedures necessary to reverse this tragic decision.”
“An abortion for convenience at any stage of gestation, is a violent termination of life. “
V. Rev. Vladimir Boreschevsky, Theologian – 1973:
“. . . human life begins at the moment of conception and all who hold life sacred and worthy of preservation whenever possible are obliged at all costs to defend the lives of the unborn children regardless of the stage of their embryonic development.”
23rd Clergy-Laity Congress – Greek Orthodox Archdiocese – 1976:
“The Orthodox Church has a definite, formal and intended attitude toward abortion. It condemns all procedures purporting to abort the embryo or fetus, whether by surgical or chemical means. The Orthodox Church brands abortion as murder; that is, as a premeditated termination of the life of a human being…The only time the Orthodox Church will reluctantly acquiesce to abortion is when the preponderance of medical opinion determines that unless the embryo or fetus is aborted, the mother will die. Decisions of the Supreme Court and State legislatures by which abortion, with our without restrictions, is allowed should be viewed by practicing Christians as an affront to their beliefs in the sanctity of life.”
Metropolitan THEODOSIUS, Orthodox Church in America – 1980:
“. . . the willful abortion of children is an act of murder and the sinful character of that act always remains, even when conception has taken place in the most tragic circumstances.”
Theologian FR. STANLEY HARAKAS – 1982:
“Human life is not an unconditional gift from God, but carries with it certain responsibilities. That God considers the taking of an innocent life to be a particularly heinous crime is evident, not only from the Sixth Commandment, but also from the story of Cain and Abel, recounted in Genesis 4:1-6. Further, the Incarnation of the Logos has, for all eternity, sanctified all human life, in both its physical and spiritual aspects.”
“. . . since God is perfect beyond our human comprehension, the process of growing more like God, of “developing our personhood” is a never ending one for every human being. It begins at conception and continues to the very moment of our physical death. Thus, no human being is a “person” or entirely “human” in the fullest sense, since none of us are exactly like God. Yet, all human beings share the same potential developing into “persons” whether they be in the womb, at the prime of life, or on their deathbed. The potential for “personhood” of the human fetus is evident not only from the Orthodox concept of psychosomatic unity, but from Scripture.”
“In opposition (to the idea that the unborn child is not a person), we profess that no human being is ever fully a “person” but that all persons have the potential to become “fully human”, to achieve union with God. Therefore, we cannot declare on the basis of “personhood”, that the fetus in the womb has no value in the eyes of both God and man than a person born.”
Regarding a woman’s “right” to her own body: “Orthodoxy rejects such notions due to the great value attached to life by God, and the fact that life is a gift which no person has the right to take. If we do not have the right to take our own lives, how much more so must it be that we have no right to take the innocent life of the embryo or fetus in the womb? . . . That the developing person inside the mother’s womb has a life separate from its mother is evident from the fact that its chromosomal makeup is different from the mother’s since it is a combination drawn from both mother and father. Further, it is genetically unique; its particular combination of traits and characteristics shall never be repeated.”
General Assembly of the Antiochian Archdiocese – 1989:
WHEREAS a recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States of America has modified the 1973 decision of Roe vs. Wade relating to the abortion issue; and
WHEREAS the Supreme Court of Canada has struck down as unconstitutional all laws protecting the unborn, and therefore no legislation currently exists regulating abortion in Canada; and WHEREAS all prolife organizations, especially Orthodox Christians for
Life, need our support, moral and financial, in defense of the thousands of “innocents” who are deprived of the possibility of life; and WHEREAS the Orthodox Church, from its inception on the day of Pentecost, has condemned abortion as a grievous sin:
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, meeting in General Assembly in Anaheim, California on 28 July 1989, reiterates its previous resolutions against abortion and asks Orthodox Christians throughout the United States and Canada to support those organizations which strive to protect the rights of the unborn.
All American Council, Orthodox Church in America – 1989:
WHEREAS the Orthodox Church in America has consistently spoken out in defense of the sanctity of life, and has done so in connection with contemporary threats to the life of the unborn, the handicapped, the infirm, and the elderly; and
WHEREAS abortion in all cases has been condemned by the Orthodox Church in America unequivocally on the basis of Orthodox theology, which faithfully reflects for today nearly two thousand years of Christian doctrine and ethical teaching; and WHEREAS, before the end of this century, “do-it-yourself” abortion will more than likely be commonplace (the RU 486 pill), and legislation will have little effect on whether or not a woman brings her child to term; BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT the Ninth All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America strongly reaffirms the Orthodox Church’s opposition to abortion in all cases, and that it does so on theological and moral grounds; commends the efforts of Orthodox bishops, clergy, and laity to bear witness to the sanctity of life in the public arena, especially noting in this connection the work and witness of Orthodox Christians for Life; and commits the Orthodox Church in America to continued witness on behalf of the God-given sanctity of life;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the Orthodox Church in America recognizes that opposition to and condemnation of abortion in all cases, except to save the life of the mother, is not enough, and that the Orthodox Church and Orthodox Christians have a moral obligation to work for the creation and maintenance of Orthodox adoption agencies and for the facilitation of adoption procedures for families to consider adopting a homeless or unwanted or disabled infant, regardless of the child’s racial or ethnic background in the realization that the Church as a whole and the parish community in particular is called to give active material and spiritual support to those who accept the responsibility of adoption;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT this Council affirms and supports the work of the Orthodox Christian Adoption Referral Service and encourages parishes and members of the Orthodox Church in America to give their material and moral support to this organization;
FINALLY, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT this Council recognizes and affirms spiritual, pastoral and educational efforts towards moral persuasion, directed to the father as much as to the mother, to help stem the present hemorrhaging of unborn and unwanted human persons and lives.
Resolution on Sanctity of Life Sunday:
WHEREAS the Orthodox Church in America has always respected the right to life of all men and women from conception to the time of natural death, and
WHEREAS the Supreme Court of the United States of America has allowed legalized abortion since January 22, 1973, leading to the deaths of 1,500,000 unborn children each year, WE HEREBY PROCLAIM the Sunday in January falling on or before
January 22 each year to be called Sanctity of Life Sunday in all churches of the Orthodox Church in America, and that on this Sunday a letter from our primate be read in all churches, and special petitions be taken at Liturgy, proclaiming our respect as a Church, for all human life.
There is little more that can be said – the deliberate destruction and/or desecration of a human being is unthinkable for a true-believing Orthodox Christian. God created Man in his own likeness and image, man is a living icon of flesh and blood, in which God gave the breath of life (ruah). Killing an innocent human being can be seen is an act of blasphemy against God – it is the ultimate act of iconoclasm.
Abortion is not a political issue, but a moral issue that has become politicized!