The Orthodox Church’s View on Abortion

Eastern Orthodox icon of Christ embracing victims of abortion

The Eastern Orthodox Church has always held a clear and strong position against abortion. However, this does not mean Orthodox Christians should condemn those who have had abortions or who are considering them. In this post, we explore the Church’s views on abortion and discuss what we, as Orthodox Christians, must do to help women who find themselves trapped into making this sorrowful, harmful “choice”.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

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. 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.

The majority of current public discourse about 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 pregnancy, conception, intrauterine development, childbirth, and abortion, 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 the Eastern Orthodox view on abortion.

When does life begin?

Human life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg inside the Fallopian tube. (Note: some people call this conception, but fertilization is the scientific term.) 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 Eastern Orthodox Church’s view on abortion

The Church holds all 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, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born I sanctified you.” (Jeremiah 1:5).

Eastern Orthodox icon of the protectress of victims of abortion.
An icon of the Theotokos holding her son, Jesus Christ (left), and a guardian angel embracing an unborn child (right).

Thus, the Church has always condemned abortion. Despite not having the technology and scientific knowledge we have today, the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church always viewed 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. Thus, one cannot be a faithful Orthodox Christian and be “pro-choice” when it comes to abortion. One cannot profess belief in the One True God and the Divine sanctity of human life He established, while at the same time condoning a woman’s “right to choose” whether she will kill her unborn child.

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. However, this does not mean the Church turns away or condemns those who have had or are leaning toward getting an abortion. Rather, the Church reaches out to help them, provide for the mother and the child, and offer love and support to the women who find themselves in a crisis pregnancy. Additionally, the Church calls upon them to repent and overcome the consequences of the sin through prayer and penance.

Quotes from the Fathers

Here are a small collection of quotes from the Church Fathers on abortion. These illustrate the Church’s view quite well. This list is by no means exhaustive:

  1. “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” (Didache, Teachings of the Apostles)
  2. “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)
  3. “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)
  4. “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.” (Letter of Barnabas, 19)

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.

Who bears responsibility for the abortion?

In the Orthodox view, the mother always bears responsibility before God for the sin of abortion, along with the doctor who performed the abortion. If the father gave his consent then he, too, bears responsibility. Likewise for any family member, counselor, priest, friend, etc. Essentially, any involvement in an abortion – having one, performing one, condoning one – is an action against God.

What about rape and incest?

Perhaps the most common “hard cases” brought up in support of abortion are rape and incest. Even in these unfortunate, uncontrollable circumstances, the woman still has other options. 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 grant life and joy to the child by either keeping and raising him, or allowing a loving couple to adopt him.

A pregnancy may also sometimes 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 go to confession.

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

We must show the love of Christ

Abortion has always been an extremely divisive topic in our society. Extremists on either side of the issue end up resorting to harassment and violence to make their point. As Orthodox Christians, we must show those women who are faced with abortion that they are not alone. That someone will help and support them should they keep their child, both during and after the pregnancy. But how do we show that love?

First and foremost, we show the love of Christ through prayer. The Lord hears our prayers to protect His innocent ones and help their mothers. Secondly, we show this love by building a community that provides women and their babies with love, care, and support (whether financial or otherwise) after the birth of the child. It is wrong (and hypocritical) 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 prenatal 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.

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 society’s view on abortion, but to manifest a profound love of, and gratitude for, God’s gift of life. If we reject that calling, we cannot call ourselves truly Orthodox Christians.

In The Name Of Choice

In August 2020, Deacon Adam Roberts of the Antiochian Archdiocese published a nine-part documentary series about women who feel trapped or forced into abortion and those who are responding with help. We hope this helps to enlighten our readers and encourage them to help in whatever way they can.



Read More: What Does It Mean To Repent?

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10 Responses

  1. Respectfully I do not believe it is correct to say you cannot be an Orthodox Christian and be pro choice. Can you please clarify under what authority do you say that? An Orthodox Christian can understand the gravity of abortion and yet believe that their religion is not a basis for establishing the law of the land in the world. Those who do not claim Jesus are not under obligation to Him. Am I wrong?

    1. Lisa,
      Christ is in our midst! Ultimately, all of us will be held to account for the sins we commit and do not repent of. So while in the technical sense, those who are not Orthodox (or Christian in general) are not “obligated” to Jesus, they will be judged just as we are. The laws of the world being what they are does not excuse them because they do not “claim Jesus”. God’s law applies to all of Creation, not only to those who believe in its authority.
      If, as Orthodox Christians, we understand the gravity of abortion, that means acknowledging it as a sin worthy of condemnation should the person not repent. That also means proclaiming the truth that God’s law is universal, not subjective based upon what someone may or may not believe. Having acknowledged these things, it then becomes impossible for an Orthodox Christian to legitimize abortion as a choice for others and yet not for themselves.
      Hopefully this helped answer your questions. If you have further questions, feel free to reply here. God bless!

    2. Hi Lisa,
      I think about abortion like I think about the ovens at auschwicz. Can an orthodox Jew be pro-choice about auschwicz? The good human beings in Germany could not buy bread due to inflation……they felt desperate……not unlike a pregnant woman without a home. A man said to me yesterday, “I read that the waste from abortion goes into MacDonalds hamburgers now.” Desperation doesn’t make it ethical….just understandable. We should not judge even the diabolical executioners of auschwicz…..its just difficult not to. –Love

  2. Thank you for your reply. He is and always shall be!! There are many ways to prevent abortion in the world. It is easy for many people to simply vote for the anti-abortion candidate, especially if that candidate aligns with one’s views in other things. There is no sacrifice there. No effort whatsoever to end abortion. Some people and organizations actually help women give birth and overcome the concrete reasons they want an abortion. They may even take them into their homes or financially support them. Why do you not say you can’t be an Orthodox Christian if you have not lovingly and with care helped a woman bring an unwanted child in the world and turn from abortion? Abortion is tragic and sinful, yes but how to stop it in the world is a complex question. It is really not up to the church to tell people how to vote on issues in society is it? There are many ways to solve problems in civil society and no law or candidate’s proposed solution, or candidate themself has it all right. There is no way to avoid sin in politics. So I am not clear if you are saying Orthodox Christians must be pro life, meaning they must vote to for a pro life candidate? If so, Is this the Church’s position or your opinion? Thank you for engaging in the conversation and I ask the questions humbly with respect.

  3. Lisa,
    We wholeheartedly agree that as Orthodox Christians we should do all that we can to help women who feel trapped and have no other choice but to abort their child. We would be happy to revise our article and add a section in which we discuss that facet of the topic. Because you are absolutely right; simply casting a vote for an anti-abortion candidate does nothing to actively change the circumstances that make many women feel trapped into getting an abortion. There are so many organizations out there, including some that are Orthodox, whose aim is to do just what you described, helping these women give birth to and support their children. While each Orthodox Christian may not have the blessing of helping one of those women directly, we should be doing all we can to educate others, financially support organizations that help women in these situations, and continue to pray. If we do not do these things and yet cry for an end to abortion, we are indeed being hypocrites.
    The issue of abortion often remains in the political sphere, and our goal in writing this was to show that it need not remain only there. The life we live (as Orthodoxy is a way of life, not simply a “religion”) informs the choices we make in our lives (i.e. who we vote for), not the other way around. So while the Church will not tell you how to vote, her teachings should INFORM how you vote, if you submit yourself to those teachings. So while the Church has no official dogmatic position on voting per se, especially when it comes to abortion, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Orthodox clergyman who would tell you voting for a candidate that is staunchly pro-choice/pro-abortion is acceptable, as doing so would fundamentally contradict other teachings of the Church. We hope that helps address your question.
    God bless!

    1. Thanks for that clarification. Birthright is a wonderful organization, by the way. I understand the church also sees capital punishment as sinful. The candidate who is actively anti-abortion is usually also pro capital punishment. What if the anti-abortion candidate(s) lie and endanger the lives of others because they lust after power, also sinful? It is my understanding that the Orthodox church does not rank sins, that gossip is as bad as murder. Is this correct? Why does the abortion question have to be the deciding factor when much that the candidate stands for is sinful too? What if the candidate is pro- life and also pro gay marriage? Religion informs our voting but no one party or candidate is free of sinful policies or behaviors so why would the abortion question be the one elevated above the others in the minds of the clergy? Thank you. If you would prefer to continue this dialogue offline that is fine and I thank you for answering my questions.

      1. Lisa,
        You’re most welcome. We will definitely look into Birthright and inform our parishioners about how they can become involved! Regarding capital punishment, there is no official dogmatic position from the Church; however, the Church does acknowledge the sanctity of all human life and would strongly prefer alternatives to the death penalty. We wrote an article about capital punishment and the prevailing opinions among Orthodox theologians.
        You are correct that the Orthodox Church does not “rank sins”, and this is primarily because sin is not so much a crime against God in Orthodox thought as it is missing the mark of living the life of Christ. In Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, sin is treated in a more juridical manner, which necessitates ranking sins in order of severity. But in Orthodoxy, sin is a sickness and repentance the cure.
        Abortion seems to be the deciding factor for many because of the acute sense of injustice, the victim always being innocent and undeserving of the violence perpetrated against them. They are defenseless and have no voice, so many Christians (and non-Christians even) feel much more deeply moved to do something about it. And this desire is good, because it spurs us toward positive change. The clergy don’t necessarily elevate abortion above all other issues. However, it is one where the line is rather cut and dry, and it is one that many of the faithful will feel moved to change. We all want to protect the unborn, to protect those most precious to us and to our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
        God bless you!

  4. Thank you for the blessing and for engaging in conversation. I also really love and appreciate the changes to your article. The legalism in the Catholic church is the reason why I am Orthodox convert. That and God’s miracle working. I actually rejected all religion as a teen because of my Catholic school. I don’t want to bash the Catholic church because they do a lot of good for a lot of people. But for me, as a young person, I felt truth, love and the Holy Spirit got extinguished in all the legalism. I thought all churches would be like that but discovered that Orthodoxy isn’t! It wants people to aspire to the calling of the faith, rather than be punished or shamed into it, and is loving and inclusive! For these and other reasons it gives me pause when churches talk politics, because politics can be condemning and divisive. Thank you again for the discussion.

    1. Lisa,
      Thank you for sharing your experience. We are truly thankful to God that you have found your way home! If there are other topics you think we could write about that we have not yet touched on here on our blog, please feel free to comment other suggestions or shoot us an email. 🙂

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