Abortion: from Moral and Ethical Issues: Confronting Orthodox Youth Across North America

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Written by Archpriest Joseph F Purpura

taken from his book: Moral and Ethical Issues: Confronting Orthodox Youth Across North America

Given the divisiveness of this issue in contemporary America, it is not surprising that teens would be unsure what they should believe in regards to abortion. Further compounding this problem is the seeming silence of the Church on this issue. While the Church has a clear and strong position on the issue of abortion, in recent years the Church has not taken an active part in the public debate and discussion of this issue. Abortion also is not part of the formal church school curriculum, or other formal teen and adult discussion forums on the parish level. The Church has not been silent because she does not care, but because many in the church feel the Church’s position is well known. It is apparent from the survey that whether it is or is not well know, many teens are unsure what they should believe concerning abortion.

Teens were asked three different forms of this question in the survey. They were first asked, “Is it right or wrong to have an abortion for reasons other than to save the life of the mother?” to which 67 percent said it was wrong, only 5 percent said it was right and 27 percent were unsure. They were then asked, “Is it right or wrong to have an abortion to save the physical life of the mother?” to this question 38 percent saw it as right, which is the one occasion upon which the Church understands the possible need for a couple to choose to have an abortion, 20 percent saw it as wrong and 41 percent were unsure if it was right or wrong. Teens were then asked, “Is it right or wrong to have an abortion for any reason?” less than 3 percent thought it was right, 63 percent thought it was wrong and 33 percent were unsure if it was right or wrong. It was clear from the survey that while a slim majority saw abortion as wrong, in all three scenarios, at least 3 out of 10 teens were not sure whether having an abortion was right or wrong. Abortion is an issue on which teens receive many mixed and conflicting messages.

Youth workers ought to help teens discern what they believe on this issue and to help teens come to an understanding of what and why the Church holds the position she does on abortion. While lecturing or sermonizing may appear to be the best way to convey this information it is often ineffective in assisting the teen to incorporate this belief into his or her own belief system. It is often more beneficial to allow teens to enter into a free dialogue on this issue. One of the goals of that dialogue is to help teens see that the Church views all life as precious and that when we devalue anyone’s life no matter how early in development or how late in late in life, we devalue and dehumanize all life.

We know from the survey that one of the most effective ways of teens understanding and accepting the Church’s teaching on abortion is for both parents and clergy to dialogue with them on this issue.[1] Part of the strategy of having parents and clergy work together on this issue ought to involve spending time with the parents, so they better understand the Church’s teaching on abortion and can better articulate it to their children. Providing the opportunity in youth group and at retreats for teens to dialogue on this issue also provides opportunities for teens to articulate and better understand their own position on abortion. I have found it helpful at retreats to provide a group of teens with materials on the Church position on abortion (a sample of which is provided below) or any other issue for that matter and ask them to study the material (20 minutes or more) and then have them present the Church’s teaching on this subject to their peers. I find at least two things happen through this process: first teens take the task seriously when they know they will be getting up in front of their peers and secondly both they and their peers listen more intently to the material. I have found that simply exposing them to the teaching of the Church in a non-threatening open dialogue allows them to better understand the Church’s position. In hearing the Church’s position, which is very logical and loving, most teens are ready to accept it. I believe that most teens want to do that which is right; they simply need to hear and be taught what is right and what is wrong. Teens are ready to accept and incorporate the truth into their lives, but they need to hear the message and be allowed to freely discuss, debate and then own this truth.

The following material on abortion is an example of material that I would give to both teens and adults in preparing them to discuss the issue of abortion. I do not feel a need to give them views opposing that of the Church as I feel they already have been inundated with that material. Further, my intent here is to convey to them the Church’s teaching on abortion. In fact, when I ask teens to give a presentation on the material, I specifically ask them to present the Church’s teaching, not their own or anything else that they have already learned elsewhere. This is important because they need to clearly hear the Church’s teaching so they can place their personal beliefs on this issue along with other views alongside that of the Church. In seeing these positions side by side the logical discerning teen will easily see the Church’s teaching as the only logical option, though I want them to come to that conclusion through their own thought process. Again, the purpose here is not simply that the teens accept the Church’s view as their own, but that they accept and incorporate all of the issues surrounding the teaching; that killing is wrong, that all life is precious, that God loves all of us, that God is the source of life, that procreation is participation in the life creating action of God, and so forth.

The Church’s View on Abortion

The Church teaches that God is the source and sustainer of life and that He created us as male and female with a purpose in mind. The Church views sexual relations between a husband and wife as something very sacred and good and, in fact, when it bears life, the Church views this action as participating in the very action of God’s Creation. The Scriptures say that God became man so that we might become one with Him. Here in this very action of sexual intercourse, when it bears fruit and a child is conceived we already have a foretaste of becoming one with God, by sharing in the creative life giving action of generating life. “For in sexual intercourse, it is not only the seeds of physical being that are united, but also a soul. A father and mother not only transmit their physical characteristics to the child, but they also transmit its soul. This sacred power man possesses of continuing God’s creation with Him is indeed a great wonder.”[2] Hence, to generate life is participation in the Divine Life. The Church opposes abortion, because abortion consciously stops the process of life already begun. Since God is the source of life, and once the woman’s egg is fertilized and if allowed to grow and develop in the woman’s womb, it will result in the birth of a child. Therefore, any intervention at any point once that process has begun (conception) results in the ending of life and a rejection of the wonderful gift of life and the ability to generate life given to us by God. Hence, it is not only a rejection of the gift of a new life, but rebellion against God’s creative energy and love.

Abortion is not a new controversy brought about by new technologies and understandings of our body. Abortion is an ageless controversy struggled with and recorded at least from the time of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek “father of medicine.” Until recently, doctors who took the Oath of Hippocrates[3] swore not to give poisonous drinks that would abort a fetus. In Roman law abortion was considered a major crime and in the New Testament a fetus was considered a life already begun. The New Testament Gospel written by the physician Luke, has as its beginning, the conception of two children. The first, John the Baptist, the one called to prepare the way of the Lord and the second, the Christ Child, the Messiah, God Incarnate. We read in Luke the account of these two conceptions:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,
and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever;
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, which the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:26-46)

Likewise, the Church in Her liturgical life recognizes these two conceptions by setting aside feast days nine months before the Church celebrates each of these births. For example, in the case of Jesus Christ, while the Church celebrates His birth on December 25th, she also celebrates His conception on March 25th; In the case of Mary the Church celebrates Her birth on September 8th and Her conception on December 9th; in the case of John the Baptist his birth on June 24th and his conception on September 23rd. Both the scriptural accounts and the liturgical calendar make a statement concerning the Church’s belief that life begins at conception. In the case of our Lord, March 25th is one of the major Feast Days of the year. The Church believes it is at the moment of conception life has been given and begins; She marks these days with great celebration and sacredness. In the great feast of the Nativity of Mary (September 8th) celebrated as the first feast of the Church New Year (which begins on September 1st) one reads concerning Mary, that she was chosen by God before she was even conceived: “Come, all ye believers, let us hasten to the Virgin; for behold she was forechosen a Mother to our God before she was conceived in the womb…”[4] It appears that even before conception God has plans for our life.

In keeping with the scriptural teachings the Apostles spoke out against abortion, “Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant.”[5]Q Barnabas, one of the early Church writers, said, “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay the child by abortion. You shall not kill that which has already been generated.” (Epistle of Barnabas XIX, 5) St. Basil writes, “Those who give potions for the destruction of the child conceived in the womb are murderers, as are those who take potions which kill the child.” (Letters, CLXXXVIII, Canon 8) St. John Chrysostom considered the abortionist as “even worse than a murderer.” (Homilies in Romans, XXIV) St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “There is no question about that which is bred in the uterus, both growing and moving from place to place. It remains, therefore that we must think that the point of commencement of existence is one and the same for body and soul.” (On the Soul and the Resurrection – Gregory of Nyssa) Modern Orthodox theologians continue with the thought pattern found in the writings of the Fathers. John Meyendorff, writes, “The fact that this interruption takes place makes, of course, a psychological difference, but does not change the nature of the act of abortion being killing, and as such a very grave sin. Because killing is evil . . . ” (“The Orthodox Church” [Newspaper] October 1972). Again, “. . . human life begins at the moment of conception and all who hold life as sacred and worthy of preservation whenever possible are obliged at all costs to defend the lives of unborn children regardless of the stage of their embryonic development.” (“Seminar in Medical Ethics,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 17, no 3, 1973, p. 246.)

Stanley Harakas, one-time professor of Ethics and Morality at Hellenic College and Holy Cross Orthodox School of Theology, writes in his book Contemporary Moral Issues:

One of the most common arguments used by supporters of abortion on demand is that a woman’s right to privacy extends to control over what happens within her own body, including the contents of her uterus. This argument was accepted by the Supreme Court (as far as the first three months of pregnancy are concerned) in its 1973 decision on abortion. Some advocates of this position go so far as to refer to the nascent life as a cancerous growth, or "piece of extraneous tissue", that has invaded the mother’s womb. Orthodoxy rejects such notions due to the great value attached to life by God, and the fact that life is a gift which no person has the right to take. If we do not have the right to take our own lives, how much more so must it be that we have no right to take the innocent life of the embryo or fetus in the womb? If our bodies are "temples of the Holy Spirit" as we profess, then to kill an innocent human being is a crime, not only against that person, but also against the Holy Spirit. That the developing persons inside the mother’s womb has a life separate from its mother is evident from the fact that its chromosomal makeup is different from the mother’s since it is a combination drawn from both mother and father. Further, it is genetically unique; its particular combination of traits and characteristics shall never be repeated.

Further he writes;

A second argument commonly made by those who favor abortion "rights" is that, particularly if the removal of the nascent life occurs during the first few weeks of pregnancy, no human person, or person who is "fully human" has been destroyed. They also claim that unwanted children will not have the opportunity of developing into "responsible personhood," or will jeopardize the "personhood" of parents and siblings, due to the added burden they impose. In opposition, we profess that no human being is ever fully a "person", but that all persons have the potential to become "fully human", to achieve union with God. Therefore, we cannot declare on the basis of "personhood" that the fetus in the womb has no value, or lesser value in the eyes of both God and man than a person born.

Further supporting Fr. Harakas’ statements are the effects that new medical technology is having upon the abortion rights movement. This new technology supports the fact that the fetus is not a "piece of extraneous tissue", but a visible child in formation:

Faye Wattleton, former head of Planned Parenthood, was crushed to learn that women’s attitudes on abortion are not what she supposed they were. A poll conducted by Wattleton’s new group, the Center for Gender Equality found that 53 percent of American women think abortion should be allowed only after rape or incest, to save a woman’s life, or not at all. Only 28 percent said abortion should be gen­erally available, and 70 percent want more restrictions.

Another sign of slippage in support for abortion shows up in UCLA’s annual national survey of the attitudes of college freshmen. Support for legal abortion dropped for the sixth straight year. In 1990 it was 64.9 percent. Now it is a bare majority, 50.9 percent. The National Opinion Research Cen­ter in Chicago found declining opposition to legal abortion from 1988 to 1996. But opposition climbed again in 1998 and is now in the 55 percent range.

Declining support for abortion owes something to the gruesome details that emerged in the debate over “partial-birth” abor­tion. Improvements in ul­trasound imaging also tend to undermine abor­tion, cutting through the abstractions of “choice” and “reproductive rights” and showing pregnant women how much a fetus resembles a newborn. When ultrasound video shows the fetus in 3-D, support for abortion could drop further.[6]

Aside from the theological and technological arguments, are the inherent human emotions surrounding the tragedy of abortion. One common comment heard by this author from young women who have chosen to have an abortion is that they were encouraged or strongly convinced to have an abortion. Often these women had been encouraged to seek abortion as a solution by their own parents or other relatives, friends, teachers and advisors. The tragedy is that often this council is misguided and the young woman never really comes to terms with her own feelings on this issue until it is too late and she recognizes that she has ended a life – a life conceived and carried in her own womb, a life given and taken by her own choice. A similar comment appears in the February 5, 1999 Greek Orthodox Observer Newspaper,[7]

While researching her book, Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion, writer Frederica Mathews-Green came across a recurring theme. “As I traveled the country holding ‘listening groups’ with women who had abortions, I always asked, ‘What situation caused you to make this decision?’ I expected to hear tales of financial woe, yet nearly 90 percent of the women told me they had had their abortion because of a relationship – because someone they loved, a boyfriend or a parent, told them to. When asked what anyone could have done to help them complete the pregnancy, over and over the answer was: Just stand by me. “If only I had one person to stand by me.” Writes Mrs. Mathews Green.[8]

Many teens, including teens in the Orthodox Teen Study, are either unaware or confused about the teachings of the Church on abortion or have chosen to believe otherwise. Much like Frederica Mathews Green it is the belief of this author, as partially demonstrated in an earlier chapter, that relationships really do matter. Many of our teens that believe abortion is wrong, aside from their intrinsic human emotions, because they have been guided and nurtured by others who believe the same. It is not unexpected that one out of every four teens are unsure if abortion is right or wrong, even when allowing it in the case of a mother’s life being at stake.[9] Young people from the youngest of age are presented with abortion as an acceptable and legal solution to a pregnancy crisis and a right to be had upon demand, even without parental consent in the case of minors. They hear of the ease of obtaining an abortion but seldom of the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain and suffering, let alone of the suffering and the end of life for the child. It is the hope of this author that more qualified, loving adults will stand by young people and share with them just how precious life is and that even when serious mistakes or sins, like pre-marital sex take place, resulting in pregnancy, the life created is still precious, belongs to God. Although intercourse takes place outside of marriage without the blessings of God (hence sinful), the creation of life is still participation in the divine creative action of God. Choosing an abortion is not taking responsibility for a choice to participate in God’s creative action and further compounds the first sin and effectively leads to death of part of oneself and certainly of the life created.

An issue confronting even married couples that want to keep their child is the increasing pressure from doctors to conduct prenatal tests and recommendations of aborting children whose tests show that the child may be born with physical or psychological defects. Here again, Harakas’ words, that none of us are fully human nor will reach our full human potential until we see God in His Kingdom, gives a good indication as to where the Church stands on this issue. One might ask, who are we to determine what constitutes a full human being and that even a child born with handicaps, no matter how severe, is still capable of seeing, feeling and participating in God’s majestic beauty of creation and His presence, albeit maybe differently than we may think and perceive, none-the-less as capable and maybe even more free to enjoy His presence. Another difficult area for many to accept is the case in which a rape results in a pregnancy. The Orthodox Church’s position is that even in the unfortunate and uncontrollable instance of rape, abortion is not a solution. Here perhaps is one of the most difficult choices a young woman may be called to make, when she has been violated, to carry the violator’s baby to term. Perhaps this is where she can take control and choose good over evil, choose to give life rather than destroy and unlike her perpetrator, grant life and joy if not to herself in keeping the child, then in offering the child to a loving couple through adoption. Parents, who themselves have been violated by their child being violated in instances of rape or incest, often want the solution that seems to offer the quickest solution for the child and all involved. Choosing abortion, while it may seem to be the quickest of choices, in fact itself leaves many more scars for the person already victimized. The author is very mindful of the violation that has taken place, and offers the wisdom of the Church as a possible means to real healing. It is the belief of this author that the person violated by rape or incest, is again violated through abortion and that by carrying and bearing the child and offering the child up for adoption to a loving couple can very well be a source of healing and strength at this most difficult time. In any of the instances above, the choice to abort or not to abort has much to do with those surrounding the young person and what they counsel and support. Fr. John Kowalczk reminds all of us surrounding those dealing with a crisis pregnancy:

Any involvement in an abortion; having one, performing one, condoning one, is an action against God. Abortion can be termed a hostile act of rebellion against God’s very work of creation. And do not the words “hostile rebellion against God” sum up the very essence of the work of Satan?[10]

[1] See Parental and Clergy effect on teens views concerning Abortion in Chapter 3
[2] Rev. Fr. John Kowalczyk, An Orthodox View of Abortion (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Gopher State Litho Company, 1977), 6-7
[3] See the appendix for the text of the Hippocratic Oaths from the 5th century BC and the present.
[4] From the Aposticha of Vespers of the Fest of the Birth of the Theotokos, September 8, by the hymnographer Sergius, as found in the The Divine Prayers and Services of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. p. 287
[5] Didache, Teachings of the Apostles II,2
[6] John Leo, “The Joy of Sexual Values,” U.S. News and World Report, 1 March 1999, 13.
[7] This quote appeared in an article concerning an Orthodox Movement entitled “ZOE for Life!” which is a pregnancy outreach for women and exists to help young unmarried women who have chosen to bring their child to full term. It is a movement to help young women complete their pregnancy and either keep their child or place the child with an adoptive family. ZOE for Life can be reached at 1-440-893-9990

[8] Eleni Daniels, “Zoe for Life! Crisis Pregnancy Outreach for Women,” The Orthodox Observer, (New York: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of N. America), 5 February, 1999, 7.
[9] As mentioned earlier, the one case when the church understands a couple’s decision to have an abortion is when a choice needs to be made concerning saving the physical life of the mother when the alternative is that mother and/or child will die if there is no intervention. This is not saying in this instance this is not killing. The Church still recognizes that the choice is made to kill the child in the womb, but the decision is understood when, if no action is taken, both or at least the mother will die. It is here, in consultation with their spiritual father that the couple makes the decision to save the mother’s life, leaving it to the mercy of God and praying for restoration of health and soul, well aware of the sacrifice being made to save a life. Again, the emphasis is on saving and preserving life as best one can. Typically the choice is without intervention both will die. It is not considered an affront to God to try and save at least one of those lives. Though even and perhaps especially here the mother and father will still bear the loss of a child and all that surrounds that real loss.
[10] An Orthodox View of Abortion, Rev. Fr. John Kowalczyk, p. 7



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