The Orthodox Church’s Understanding of Abortion

The Orthodox Church has always maintained a clear and strong position on the issue of abortion. However, in recent years she has not played an active role in the public debate and discussion around this topic. This issue typically doesn’t occupy a central part in the parish life of most Orthodox churches. This isn’t because the Church doesn’t care, but because many feel the Church’s position is well known. But is it, really?

In this post, we dive deep into the issue of abortion (so please, prepare yourselves spiritually before reading further), understanding it from an authentic Orthodox perspective. We discuss current statistics and science, and tie those into Scripture, writings of the Church Fathers, and the canons of the Church. We hope this article will clear up any doubt in the heart of an Orthodox Christian, which side they should be on in the abortion debate.

Current opinions on abortion among the Orthodox

We said earlier that most Orthodox believe that their Church’s opinion on abortion is well-known. If that is truly the case, we have a bit of explaining to do.

Off to the right, you see statistics from a 2014 Pew Research study exploring Orthodoxy and her practioners’ views on various topics. Abortion was among those topics surveyed. Unfortunately, this graphic seems to speak for itself. In many countries, a fair percentage (or even the majority) of Orthodox surveyed for this study stated they supported legalized abortion.

Thankfully, these numbers have gone down since 2007, and have hopefully decreased even more within the last five years. But even 1% of the Orthodox supporting abortion…is 1% too many.

What is abortion?

Abortion is the killing of a child before he or she has been born, usually within the first 28 weeks of pregnancy. Modern society has transformed the definition into “the termination of a pregnancy”. Make no mistake: the altering of the definition does nothing to change the substance of the act; it merely dehumanizes human beings and strips them of their value.

By definition, all voluntary abortions (with the exception of abortifacient contraceptives) take place after the mother discovers she is pregnant. This usually happens after a skipped menstrual cycle, which means the fetus has already implanted into the wall of the womb. The child already has a primitive nervous system and a tiny heart. Even in outward shape, the fetus looks clearly human. But when does he actually become a human?

When does life begin?

The majority of current public discourse surrounding abortion hinges on one question: “When does life begin?” Thankfully, we live in a time in which we have technology available to help us understand the mechanisms of pregnancy, conception, intrauterine development, and childbirth, in a way our blessed Fathers could never have imagined. And that science, a beautiful gift from God, shows us a reality in complete harmony with Scripture and Orthodox teachings on abortion.

Human life begins at the moment of fertilization, when the sperm fertilizes the egg inside the Fallopian tube. (Note: some people call this moment conception. But calling it conception muddies the waters as to what is actually happening in a scientific sense. Fertilization is the scientific term, one which cannot be obfuscated by pro-choice opposition.) The scientific explanation behind this is lengthy and complex. So, to put it simply, upon fertilization, the newly formed zygote has all the genetic information (DNA) required to be a unique individual. At this stage, he or she is a human being, in every sense of the word.

Scientifically speaking, the only difference between you as a newly conceived zygote and you right now boils down to: 1) the number of cells in your body; and 2) the complexity of their organization. Throughout every stage of development, you had all the genetic material you needed to grow. You were, are, and will be a human being, at every stage of your development.

The Orthodox teaching on abortion

The Orthodox Church holds human life as sacred, as created according to the image and likeness of God. We know that God’s eyes see our substance (Psalm 139:16), and that He makes and fashions each of us. That He clothes us with skin and flesh, fences us with bones and sinews, and brings us forth out of the womb (Job 10:8-12). The Lord even says to the Prophet Jeremiah, “I formed thee in the belly… and before thou comest out of the womb I sanctified thee” (Jeremiah 1:5).

Thus, the Church has always condemned abortion. Despite not having the technology and scientific knowledge we have today, the Fathers have always considered abortion a grave sin and equated it with murder. Since our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit,” to kill an innocent human being is a crime, not only against that person, but also against the Holy Spirit, against God Himself.

Quotes from the Fathers

Here are a small collection of quotes from the Church Fathers on abortion. This list is by no means extensive:

  1. “You shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” (Didache, Teachings of the Apostles)
  2. “Women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God.” (Athenagoras, 2nd century)
  3. “Nor could God have known man in the womb unless he were a whole man […] Was it, then, a dead body at that stage? Surely it was not, for ‘God is the God of the living and not the dead.'” (Tertullian, 3rd century)
  4. “Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not.” (Canon II, The First Canonical Epistle of Our Holy Father Basil)
  5. “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.” (Letter of Barnabas, 19) 
  6. “She who has intentionally destroyed [the fetus] is subject to the penalty corresponding to a homicide.” (St. Basil the Great, First Letter 2 [confirmed by Canon 91 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council)

Naturally, modern Orthodox theologians continue with the thought pattern found in the writings of the Fathers. But for the sake of brevity, we will not get into their commentaries in this article.

Responsibility for the sin of abortion

The mother always bears responsibility for the in of abortion. If the father gave his consent then he, too, bears responsibility. However, if a wife had an abortion without the consent of the husband, there may be grounds for divorce. In addition to the mother and father of the child, the doctor performing the abortion is also responsible before God. Thus, the Church calls upon the state to recognize the right of medics to refuse to procure abortion for the reasons of conscience.

Essentially, any involvement in an abortion; having one, performing one, condoning one, is an action against God. Abortion is a hostile act of rebellion against God’s very work of creation. And don’t those very words sum up the essence of the work of Satan?

The threat of abortion

The Church sees abortion as a threat to the future of humanity and a clear sign of its moral degradation. One cannot be a faithful Orthodox Christian and be “pro-choice” when it comes to abortion. To support abortion requires forsaking teachings of the Church. This is a clear issue, one that must be addressed in the hearts of any Orthodox who are “okay with” legalized abortions. Abortion presents an additional threat to the physical/spiritual health of a mother.

The Church considers it her duty to protect the most vulnerable and dependent human beings, especially unborn children. Therefore, under no circumstances can the Orthodox Church bless abortion. This does not mean the Church rejects those who have had abortions. Rather, the Church calls upon them to repent and overcome the consequences of the sin through prayer and penance.

Oikonomia and rare circumstances

Before we get into this section, a clarification: oikonomia can never permit, excuse, or justify the committing of a sin. Oikonomia must be exercised by spiritual fathers with the utmost care.

Rape

In public discussions around abortion, perhaps the most common “hard case” brought up is rape. Even in these unfortunate, uncontrollable circumstances, abortion is still not a solution. Undoubtedly, the young woman who faces this decision will face pain, confusion, and shame. But perhaps this is an opportunity for her to take control when she previously could not. It is a chance for her to choose good instead of evil, give life rather than destroy it. Perhaps this is a chance for her to be better than her attacker and grant life and joy to the child by either keeping and raising him, or allowing a loving couple to adopt him.

While abortion may seem the quickest, most pain-free choice, it actually leaves many more scars than it removes. In any case, the Church is always there for those struggling with this horrible situation, and offers spiritual healing to those in need of it.

Threat to the mother’s life

In even rarer circumstances, a pregnancy may threaten the mother’s life if carried to term. If this is the case, especially when the mother has other children, the Church recommends leniency from spiritual fathers. Each situation would require the careful attention of the priest and bishop. Women who terminate their pregnancy under these circumstances can return to communion with the Church, so long as they fulfill the canon of Penance assigned by the priest and take confession.

What should we do?

First and foremost, we must continue to pray. The Lord hears our prayers to protect His innocent ones, and we must continue to lean on Him and His Saints for strength as we fight to protect the unborn in the United States and abroad.

Secondly, we must work to change the legal climate within our society. The United States has the most permissive abortion laws in the industrialized Western world; there are more restrictions even in the most secular nations of Western Europe. In addition to this, we must also work toward positive justice, for a society in which women who do bear children will not be penalized for having made that choice. It is wrong for us to condemn abortion without trying to protect motherhood, create conditions favorable for adoption, and help those for whom bearing a child will involve very real burdens.

Thus, we should volunteer with organizations which help unmarried pregnant women, or poor women who cannot afford appropriate pre-natal care. People have opened their homes to women who have chosen to bear a child rather than choose abortion, and there are many people eager to adopt such children.

And perhaps most importantly, we must set a proper example. All the facts, science, and stellar reasoning in the world won’t persuade someone as much as the example of a Christian who manifests a genuine and compassionate respect for life. The ways in which we choose to do that will vary from person to person–but as Orthodox Christians it is our calling not only to oppose the use of abortion, but to manifest a profound love of, and gratitude for, God’s gift of life.

Read More >> Moral and Ethical Issues for Orthodox Christians

Icon of Christ protecting the unborn and innocent
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