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 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”.

9 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 debate on personhood

Science has clearly shown us when human life begins. Now that this fact is virtually irrefutable, you may find that the goalpost will move. Pro-choice advocates will then begin to claim this debate is really about when the human being becomes a person.

It should go without saying, but humanity and personhood are inseparable. Throughout human history, the worst atrocities were committed by individuals and countries who insisted on the separation of humanity from personhood. Perhaps the two most poignant examples are the Holocaust and the slave trade. However, there are numerous other instances when a human being was denied personhood, for one reason or another, and it was considered acceptable to kill or subjugate him…because he wasn’t really a person. In the eyes of the Church, such a view is arbitrary and dangerous.

The Eastern Orthodox Church’s view on abortion

The Church holds all human life as sacred, 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. 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 as 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.

What if an abortion is medically necessary?

It is often said that sometimes an abortion is medically necessary to protect the life of the mother. This is simply not true. Even in the most high risk pregnancies, there is no medical reason why the life of the child must be directly and intentionally ended with an abortion procedure. In situations where the mother’s life is at risk, her pregnancy must end and her baby must be delivered.

If the mother’s life is in danger, a preterm delivery is far safer than an abortion. Emergency C-sections take no more than an hour or two, whereas a typical abortion procedure after 24 weeks can take up to 2-3 days (due to the necessary dilation process). This essentially delays treatment and significantly increases the risk of death and serious disability to the mother. There is no reason why the child must die in order for the mother to survive; we should strive to save them both!

Ectopic pregnancies

Treatments for medical conditions, such as ectopic pregnancies, are not considered abortions. An abortion is the deliberate and unnecessary taking of the life of an unborn child. In an ectopic pregnancy, the child implants outside the uterus; and every place outside the uterus is hostile to the child’s growth and development. Therefore, allowing the ectopic pregnancy to continue always results in the death of the child and in many cases will threaten the mother’s life.

These situations are absolutely devastating; however, treating an ectopic pregnancy is not considered abortion. The same way a mother with cancer might receive chemotherapy to treat her condition and this may result in the death of her child, so too it is with ectopic pregnancy. 

What about emergency contraception?

The Church condemns the use of emergency contraceptives. Whatever their intended use by a woman, research shows that all emergency contraceptive methods can and do cause early abortions. A closer look their manufacturer labels reveals that they do, in fact, prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg (which is a unique human life with infinite value in the eyes of God).

Though this doesn’t happen every time, that kind of gamble isn’t one the Church would advise any of her flock take up. After all, if there is the slightest possibility that a pregnancy could have begun, then the woman now becomes responsible before God for ending the life of her child.

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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