Abortion is the medical termination of a pregnancy either by surgical procedure or other means, commonly performed by doctors in the developed or western world. It is generally available in private clinics and hospitals. Abortion has become the most debated of all sexual health issues by medical professionals, women’s liberationists and religious and social groups.
The abortion debate became prominent, in the western world, in the 1930’s when the decriminalisation of abortion was advocated as a result of many women losing their lives during attempted non-medically endorsed abortions by ‘abortion practitioners’ who often had little or no medical knowledge and experience. The history of abortion and its practice however outdate this debate by nearly three thousand years. The Hippocratic Oath clearly forbids the practice of abortion when it makes reference to “ουδέ γυναικί πεσσόν φθόριον δώσω” (“… nor should I give to a woman something corruptible in order to abort…”), while the International Code of Medical Ethics states “a doctor must always bear in mind the importance of preserving life from the moment of conception until death”. Unlike today however, where abortion is a simply a moral dilemma, the termination of pregnancy in antiquity was seen as an abominable crime given that it was not a medical problem but a social problem in which medical practitioners were asked to become social executioners.
Current estimates indicate that the number of abortions among adolescent women globally (WHO 1986 definition of adolescent is used here referring to those 15-24 rather than the traditionally accepted 10-19) is approximately 4.5 million (UNFPA 1998). There are no precise figures for women of all ages although the World Health Organisation estimates that some 27 million abortions are carried out each year (WHO 2004). The total number of abortions performed are not known because of the numbers of unsafe abortions that go unrecorded predominantly in developing countries estimated in the tens of millions (Benagiano 2000).
Abortion statistics can be studied as incidences or they can be looked at in comparison with birth rates. A population study Benagiano refers to highlights this. While showing the Russian Federation’s abortion rate, which was relatively low compared to other European countries in 1995, it revealed that 179 abortions were performed per 100 births therefore nearly two for every one birth (Monnier 1998). It is therefore imperative that abortion statistics are not viewed as either incidences or rates, but as both.
Abortion has been a major political, moral, and emotional issue in the United States for decades now. We have seen too often political slogans such as:
- "It's a child, not a choice;"
- "Abortion stops a beating heart;"
- "Against Abortion? Don't have one;" and
- "I'm pro-choice and I vote."
Abortion has been legal in the US since 1973 with the now-famous decision in the Roe v. Wade case of the US Supreme Court. The justices, by split decision, declared that a fetus in the early stages of pregnancy is considered a nonperson and therefore part of the woman's body. The woman was then given the choice, the right, to keep or remove the fetus. This decision and the development of abortion clinics has divided the nation into pro-choice and pro-life constituents. These constituents have created catchy but divisive slogans such as the ones above.
Depending upon whom you ask, there are many different stages during which an unborn life may be aborted upon request. For example, the unborn child might an embryo, it may have not implanted in the womb, it may still be without a heartbeat, it may not have a distinct human form yet, or it may be too young to survive outside the womb. Almost all people agree that the unborn child is a human by the time of birth. However, it is the Orthodox Christian belief that a human is made after the image of God at the moment of conception. In fact, all people are temples of the Holy Spirit once they are conceived. Additionally, the Orthodox Church has feast days celebrating conceptions: Annunciation to the Virgin Mary on March 25, the Conception by St. Anna of the Theotokos on December 9, and the Conception of St. John the Forerunner and Baptist on September 23.
Fr. Stanley S. Harakas (For the Health of Body and Soul: An Eastern Orthodox Introduction to Bioethics, 2002) states the following about the question of abortion:
- Because our humanity is a psychosomatic unity and because Orthodox Christians see all of life as a continuous and never ending development of the image and likeness toward theosis and full humanity, the achievement of particular stages of development of the conceptus is not ethically relevant to the question of abortion.
- In his second canon, St. Basil specifically rules out the artificial distinction between the "formed" and "unformed" conceptus (The Rudder, pp. 789-790). Thus, any abortion is seen as an evil. Since the physical and the personal aspects of human existence are understood as essential constitutive elements of our humanity, the conceptus—unfulfilled and incomplete as it may be—may not be destroyed under normal circumstances. Eastern Orthodox ethicists reject as unworthy those counterarguments which appeal to economic and social reasons and so hold life to be less valuable than money, pride, or convenience. Armed with modern genetic information, they also reject the argument that an abortion may be justified because a woman is entitled to control her own body. That basic affirmation of self-determination is not rejected; what is rejected is the claim that the conceptus is a part of the mother's tissue. It is not her body; it is the body and life of another human being entrusted to her for care and nurture.
God is the author of life; he never wants us to die for any reason. Rather, he wants all of us to live. Our personal ethical task is to receive the Cross and Resurrection with thanksgiving and not to curse the grace he gives us because of the cross he asks us to bear. In this case, the woman's cross is to bear a child and not to harm the child in any way. God created nature and called it good; it should never be destroyed.
Many Church Fathers have said that married couples who have children are co-creators with God. The man and the woman supply a portion of themselves to conceive a child, and God gives life to the conceived and born. The unborn, then, have the Holy Spirit of God in them from the time of conception. If we are co-creators with God, then it stands to reason that a child who is conceived is part of human nature and was intended to be good. Jesus said "you are not of your own; you were bought with a price." Therefore, even when a child is in the mother's body, the mother is expected to be a good steward of both the body and the child that God has given her.
Abortion is a means to less ultimate aims, and it does not lead to true happiness. The true meaning of happiness is in the cross of Christ because the cross is a lifegiving cross. We live with joyful sorrow, and we love one another because Christ loved us first and gave himself for us.
Media and government influences in favor of abortions abound. In the United States, women with unplanned pregnancies are told through various media that the conceptus is part of the woman's body and is thus dispensable like a disease or tumor. Also, there are several reports of forced abortions at or near full term by the Chinese government which is trying to impose population control. Women and overpopulated countries are too often pressured by economic and social demands and see abortion as a way of meeting those demands. They escape, deny, ignore, or outright reject the responsibility and divine calling of bearing and raising a child. Such people, as well as the abortion providers, are considered guilty of murder, and any one who counsels a pregnant woman to abort her child is also guilty as a conspirator.
To simultaneously defend the life of the child and the true freedom of the mother, the mother needs a lot of support from her family and her friends. If she can see the love of her family and friends, she is more likely to share some of the love with her unborn child. If the mother is actually considering an abortion, no one should judge her, but no one she speaks with should be afraid to say that abortion is wrong. With the loving support of family, friends, church members, church ministries and the help of various social organizations, this vulnerable woman can be well defended and challenged at the same time to make the right choice.
Besides family, parish, and community support, the pregnant woman can find healing through the sacraments of the Church. When she participates in the Divine Liturgy, Holy Confession, and the other sacraments, it will help her find the proper balance between the Death and Resurrection of life and find the true good life. Such an ethical action transfigures our nature and further purifies our will. When we participate in and live out these sacraments in our daily lives, we allow God to transform us. We then can make the right choices because we follow God's will and we do it with joy.
Official and Formal Statements
- An Orthodox View of Abortion - The Amicus Curiae Submitted to the Supreme Court
Bibilical & Patristic Quotations
From the earliest of Christianity, there was a strong opposition to abortion. Very early on in Canon law, those who committed abortion were excommunicated for life—this was the same penalty as for murder. Later on, out of mercy, excommunication was limited to ten years.
In the second century, Athenagoras, a philosopher and a convert to Christianity addressed charges of cannibalism among Christians by saying:
- What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God’s care, and at the same time slay it, once it had come to life. Nor would he refuse to [leave infants out in the woods to die], on the ground that those who expose them are murderers of children, and at the same time do away with the child he has reared. But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it.
Tertullian, who died around 240, described how Christians thought about abortion in this way: "For us, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter when you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one: you have the fruit already in the seed" (Apology 9:6).
In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great addressed those who wanted to draw an arbitrary line concerning the beginning of human life by saying: "The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. The hair-splitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us."