ABORTION: THE ORTHODOX VIEW
22 Νοεμβρίου 2009
Again we pray for the children of God condemned to death by the unjust judgement of men: that the Lord our God would soften the hearts of those who seek their violent destruction, and rescue those who are being led forth to the slaughter, we diligently pray Thee, O Lord, hearken and have mercy!
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Life is a precious gift of God. It is given to us so that we, while completing our earthly course, should acquire Divine Grace, should become members «of the household of God» and spiritual «fellow citizens with the Saints» (Ephesians 2:19). It is for this reason also that the Lord has established His Holy Church. In the life of the Church, of this Kingdom of God on earth, we are already destined for blessedness, and partake of it in proportion to our piety.
But the fall of our forefathers introduced sin deeply into our life. Sin has poisoned it, has become a property of this world: that is why the Apostle John can say that «the whole world lieth in wickedness» (1 John 5:19). This evil surrounds us and lures us with particular force when the opposition to it on the part of the society around us weakens.
At present, society more and more is losing the distinction between good and evil; under the influence of materialism, more and more it is forgetting about the existence of man’s immortal soul, and sees in him only flesh. Disbelief nullifies the moral law, and man arrives at the principle which Dostoevsky so clearly demonstrated in his negative heroes: If there is no God, then all is permitted. And, indeed, what will a man not permit himself once he leaves the Faith and sinks into moral indifference…!
The growth of pornography, the open defense of unnatural sins, narcotics employed by the youth from an early age – all these things tend to convince men that there are no moral limits for man in his quest for fleshly pleasures.
The communion of men and women established in marriage for the sake of the multiplication of the human race and the mutual salvation of husband and wife, is frequently reduced to the satisfaction of lust, a lust which often exceeds that of even the brute beasts. According to the Apostle Paul, many men who are now «past feeling» «have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness» (Ephesians 4;19). The Apostle explains that these men act that way «in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart» (Ephesians 4:17-18).
A new manifestation of this «ignorance and blindness of heart» is the enacting in New York State of a law according to which freedom is given to arrest pregnancy by means of an operation. Thousands of women have already shown their desire to avail themselves of this law and to have such operations.
Termination of pregnancy by destroying the fetus growing in a woman’s womb is not a new crime, but one which was well known in antiquity. It is condemned as murder in one of the earliest written Christian documents, the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It is also condemned in the Epistle of the Apostle Barnabas, which was a very authoritative work until its’ text was distorted by heretics. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria wrote on the subject.
The very earliest rules of the Orthodox Church, beginning with the LXIII Canon of the Council of Elivira, A.D. 306, and the XXII Canon of the Council of Ancyra, 314 A. D. (Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfil ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees.), deprive the woman who has destroyed a fetus of Holy Communion for a period of ten years. The same provision is made in the XCI Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council and the II and VIII Canons of St. Basil the Great. In his VIII Canon St. Basil gives a succinct and precise definition of abortion: «Those who give potions for the destruction of the child conceived in the womb are murderers, as are those who take the poisons which kill the child.» The only difference between our age and former times is that now this murder is performed not by means of poison but by means of an operation, and that as a result of improved medical techniques, an abortion is now less dangerous to the mother’s life.
Defenders of the new law say that abortion cannot be considered as murder, inasmuch as it is not a child that is destroyed, but a fetus which has not yet been born, and which does not have a soul, and which is not a person. This is the principal argument by which those who seek moral justification for the New York law attempt to salve their consciences.
But that is not how the Orthodox Church looks at the matter.
St. Basil the Great in his II Canon writes, «We do not have a precise distinction between the fetus which has been formed and that which has not yet been formed.» This means that the fruit which is conceived in the mother’s womb passes, as is well known, through several stages of development before it appears on God’s earth with the soul that has been given it by a creative act of the Most High. But from the very beginning of the fetus’s growth life has already been conceived, and dwells in it as a great divine gift. Willfully to extinguish that life is to set oneself against the will of the Creator.
If, in the words of our Savior, even the hairs of our heads are numbered (Matthew 10;30; Luke 12:7), so much the more is it impossible for a fetus to be conceived and grow in the mother’s womb without the will of God. And we know that sometimes this will has brought children into the world when, according to the laws of nature, because of the parents’ age, it was by then impossible to expect the birth of children. Thus we have the birth of Isaac from Sarah, when, according to physical laws, such a thing was already impossible. Upon hearing that the Lord had announced the future birth of her son, she «laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord (=husband) being old also?» (Genesis 28:12). Thus also was the birth of the Holy Virgin Mary and of the Holy Prophet and Forerunner of the Lord, John the Baptist, both from extremely aged parents.
Arresting pregnancy by destroying the fetus is an act usually committed for particular reasons which the unhappy mother wold lie to believe re primary. One such reason might be the shame and fear of having her fornication discovered. Not long ago we read in the newspapers of an adolescent girl who became pregnant and wished to have an abortion. Because of her youth, the hospital required her parents consent, which, however, she was unwilling to request, not to reveal her sin to them. To attain her goal – abortion- she started a lawsuit under another name through a lawyer. Another frequent reason for abortion is fear of the material difficulties connected with the rearing of children. These and reasons of a similar nature may, depending on the circumstances, be sometimes more, sometimes less serious, but they do not change the essence of the matter, and can never serve as the justification of murder.
Indeed there are times when another person’s life can cause us great daily hardship and can be a burden to us. But does that mean that in such cases we can permit murder in order to free ourselves from responsibility for our actions, or from cares which are difficult for us? Cold our conscience, for example, justify the murder of, say, an extremely sick relative we are taking care of, so as to make our won life easier? We shall make no mistake if we say that every believing Orthodox Christian would answer this question in the negative, and would reject the very thought of such an act with indignation. Every Orthodox Christian would be clearly aware that whatever the circumstances it would be an immoral act, a violation of the sixth commandment. No believer would commit such a crime even if it were sanctioned by the civil law.
One must give their due to the various Roman Catholic hospitals, doctors, and nurses who, understanding the issues involved, have simply refused to perform abortions, primarily for religious reasons. One may hope that their Orthodox colleagues will show the same understanding – and the same firmness.
Let mothers who have conceived a new human life in themselves remember that to arrest it by destroying the fetus is to commit exactly the same murder for the sake of life’s outward conditions as the murder of a relative, even though the case is not so obvious, since the fetus is hidden from view and doctors do not show the women operated upon the terrible sight of the child which has been removed from their wombs.
Let women never forget that when they discover themselves to be pregnant, this means that a new human life has already begun in them. Not without reason do certain peoples of the East calculate a human being’s age not from the day of his birth, but from nine months before. And in New York State in the case of an abortion the hospital informs the mother of the death of her unborn child. Now they are trying to make this notification more «attractive» by informing the mother of a child of less than six weeks not of its death but of the «cessation of pregnancy». With pregnancies of over six weeks, however, the mother is informed as before of the death of the fetus. But whatever the law may call it, the fact remains that we are dealing with an inflicted death, and the inducing of such a death is called murder.
Only in rare cases does the conscience of a mother who has agreed to abortion remain completely at rest, when she has been deceived by false rationalizations.
What spiritual director has not had occasion to note this sin of abortion as an act that weighs on the conscience of the woman who has committed it even into deep old age? Women often remember it with bitter tears on their very death-bed. Sometimes they realize too late that for a woman it is more natural to sacrifice her own life in order to preserve that of her child than to destroy that life out of cowardice, or for the sake of personal well-being.
The Church, on the contrary, expects that a pregnant mother will care for the child growing in her womb. In the case of a miscarriage the Church has a special prayer for the woman who has suffered it. That prayer refers to her as «being in sin» for having committed «an unintentional of involuntary murder». The idea is that she may have not been careful enough in her pregnancy, and may have caused the miscarriage and death of her baby through negligence. An expectant mother must not only observe hygienic rules for preserving her baby’s life and for preparing for a successful delivery. She must also remember that the expected child is bound to her organism in the very closest fashion and that, therefore, for the formation of its future personality, her own spiritual mood when she is carrying it in her womb is not a matter of indifference. It is a time when she must be particularly diligent in prayer and must shield herself from all sinful impressions.
Her care not only for the physical welfare of the expected child but also for its spiritual condition will be rewarded in the future a hundredfold.
Protopresbyter George Grabbe
Translated by John Dunlop