Never do away with an unborn child, or destroy it after its birth. (Epistle of Barnabas, c. 130 A.D.)
Response from our "Readers' Survey' brought several requests for an article giving the Orthodox position on abortion. While we may question the sinfulness of abortion, many could use help in formulating a satisfactory explanation of the Church's unequivocal prohibition of this practice. This grows increasingly imperative as the outrage of abortion becomes not only tolerated by our society but accepted as the lawful right for every woman, her "freedom of choice."
Not long after the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalized abortion, an article on the subject was serialized in "Nikodemos," parent publication of "Orthodox America." As part of this series, a fairly lengthy article by Fr. William Ischie was reprinted. Some years later Fr. John Kowalczyk of the Orthodox Church in America wrote a booklet, "An Orthodox View of Abortion. Earlier, this view had been set forth by Protopresbyter George (now Bishop Gregory) Grabbe. Orthodox commentary on this contemporary issue is not lacking. Although space limits our discussion to a rather brief synopsis of the most salient points mentioned in the above, we hope it will demonstrate sufficiently the grounds for the Orthodox position to facilitate a ready explanation.
A recent cover story in "Newsweek" magazine states that in the U. S. there have been an estimated 15 million legal abortions since 1973; "more than one quarter of all pregnancies now end in abortions, at a rate of roughly 4,000 a day. In some areas, such as New York state, the number of abortions every year nearly equals the number of live births." These statistics dramatically illustrate the changing moral climate in our society, and supporters of abortion have capitalized on the "spirit of the times" to push their opinions into law. Their premise rests on the legal, protection of a woman's privacy, her right to have full control over her body. They variously claim that the fetus is a mere conglomerate of ceils which can therefore be "removed" much as a malignant tumor or unwanted appendix. Peripheral arguments state that legalized abortion is necessary to stem the number of unwanted children, to help control population, to enable people to work toward a higher "quality" of life, to reduce the number of deaths resulting from unsafe and illegal abortion procedures since abortion will be practiced whether legal or no, to end discrimination against the poor who cannot afford the cost of illegal abortions.
These considerations have forced both the medical and legal professions to take sides. In effect, doctors have been asked to be executioners, and lawyers to stamp their approval, thereby sanctioning this "new morality''. What seems to be a majority of both doctors and lawyers, however, have tried to ease their sense of culpability by placing restrictions on abortion, determined by the viability of the fetus, i.e. its ability to survive outside the mother's womb. The Supreme Court ruling carried with it an arbitrary distinction of three abortable stages in fetal development. The first two stages (UP to 28 weeks) are considered "pre-viable", implying somehow that during this time the fetus in no way resembles a human being and can therefore be destroyed without any qualms. After this time, after the accepted minimum age of viability, the pregnancy can still be terminated if the mother's life or health is threatened. The Court defined her "life or health" to mean her physical, psychological or emotional health, her age, marital status, or the infant's prospects of distressful life and/or future! Wholly apart from the ethical question of abortion, scientific advances over the past twelve years have pushed back the "minimum age of viability", making obsolete the Court's 3-stage distinctions and provoking debate among doctors and law-makers alike.
In the Orthodox view of abortion, none of these arguments carry any weight--neither a woman's "right" over her own body, nor fetus viability, nor psychological health, nor economic considerations. Why? Both the ruling on school prayer and the ruling on abortion have made it clear that we can no longer claim to be "one nation under God." As Orthodox Christians, however, we must place the law of God above all else. And this law gives us clear guidelines on the matter of abortion. It is murder.
In explaining the Orthodox position, one must understand that contrary to the adamant insistence of feminists and their sympathizers, our bodies are not our own. Holy Scripture states: "Or do you not k n o w that your members are the temple of the Holy Spirit, Who is in you, Whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" (I Cor. 6:19). Elsewhere the Apostle exorts us to "present your bodies as a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God, which is your reasonable service" (Rom 12:1). Especially in marriage --and 20% of abortions today are performed on married women--are our bodies not our own. "The wife has no authority over her body, but the husband; the husband likewise · has not authority over his body, but the wife" (I Cor. 7:4). It is clear that husband and wife are mutually responsible for their bodies and both are responsible to God. Abortion defiles the temple of the living God and betrays the unity of flesh Created through marriage.
There is likewise no point in entering into debate over the minimum age viability of the fetus. Scripture gives us to understand that all human life is a gift from God, and that this gift of life is given at the moment of conception when a unique individual is formed through a cooperative act of Divine creativity. If it were not so, the Church would have no reason to celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Mother of God (DEC, 9) or of St. John the Baptist (Sept. 23). And nowhere is this more clearly stated than in the service for the Feast of the Annunciation: "The descent of the Holy Spirit has purified my soul and sanctified my body; it has made of me a Temple that contains God, a Tabernacle adorned, a living Sanctuary, and the pure Mother of Fife" (Canticle 7 of the Feast).
in the Troparion of the same feast we sing, "Today is the beginning of our
salvation .... The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces
the coming of Grace
Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee; and before thou camest forth from the womb, I sanctified thee; I appointed thee a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
"The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother He named my name... Who formed me from the womb to be His servant'' (Is. 49:1, 5).
An even more concrete example is found in the New Testament, where there is described the visit of the Holy Virgin to the righteous Elizabeth, already six months with child. While yet a fetus in the womb, St. John the Baptist "leaped for joy" at the salutation of the Theotokos, knowing she was even then, in truth, the Mother of God.
The Holy Fathers were fully aware that the mystery of human life begins at the very moment of conception. In the writings of St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Tertullian and others, it is clear that from the first stages of development the fetus contains a soul, and this soul is sacred. And it is upon this precept that the church canons explicitly .... condemn abortion, identifying it as murder. In the second Canon of/St. Basil the Great we read: "She Who purposely destroys the fetus, shall suffer the punishment of murder. And we pay no attention to the subtle distinction as to whether the fetus was formed or unformed."
More, the Holy Fathers prescribe an equally severe punishment for those who Participate in the abortion. According to a canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (692), "those who give drugs for procuring abortion.., are subjected to the penalty of murder." Similar prohibitions existed even in pagan societies. The Visigoth barbarians put to death or blinded not only the mother who permitted an abortion, but also the father of the murdered child and the abortionist.
If the law of the Church seems harsh to us in this age of tolerance, it should be remembered that the law exists to deter us from sin--whose wages are death (Rom 6:23). But God' does not desire the death of a sinner, and even the darkest sin can be washed away through sincere repentance. The Church has' a special penitential prayer, for those women who have undergone an abortion. How different is this approach from that of the world in which women are counseled not to feel "guilty", thus depriving them of the very desire to weep over their sin. The same "Newsweek'' article states that the "long-term effects of liberalized abortion law are just surfacing. Women are learning why they are seriously depressed, why they've contemplated suicide."
In legalizing abortion, the Supreme Court effectively trampled upon the law of God, exalting a morality of convenience and 'hedonism above the unalterable code of Christian ethics. And where God is no longer supreme, as Dostoevsky expressed it, everything is permitted. We live in a society where abortion clinics sell live human fetuses to laboratories for experimentation, while cries are made to protect animals from a similar fate.
How much longer will God tolerate a society which annually flushes over a million bodies containing immortal souls into waste receptacles, all the while shouting, "Save the whales!" Surely, judgment is at Our door.
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