The Orthodox view on Abortion

The Sixth Commandment
(Thou Shalt not Kill)

The sixth Commandment prohibits the taking of life. This commandment, therefore, applies equally to the taking of one's own life (suicide), the taking of another's life (murder) and the taking of the life of the unborn (abortion).

Abortion is one of the most burning issues in contemporary life. Many argue over the ethics of abortion, whether it is "right" or "wrong", and totally ignore the soul of the foetus (unborn child). Although the soul is an independent substance separate from the body, nevertheless it exists side by side with the body. Is it possible, then, to consider the issue of abortion without taking into consideration the soul of the foetus? We can receive a partial answer to this question if we turn to the ancient Christian patristic literature.

The origin of each individual human being's soul is not fully revealed in Sacred Scripture. This is "a mystery," according to the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria, "known to God alone." Therefore, the Church does not propound a strictly defined teaching on this question. She decisively rejected the view of Origen (an ecclesiastical writer of the first Christian centuries) who inherited from the philosophy of Plato the notion that souls pre-exist before conception of the foetus. This teaching of Origen and his followers was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

In the view of some of the Church Fathers, (Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Ephraim the Syrian and others) each soul is created separately by God; moreover, some of them time its joining with the body to coincide with the 40th day of the formation of the body. In the view of other teachers and fathers of the Church (Tertulian, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Macarius of Egypt and others), both substances soul and bodyreceive their beginning and are perfected simultaneously: The soul is created from the souls of the parents, just as the body is created from the bodies of the father and mother. In this way, the parents participate with God in the creation of life. Conception is a sacred gift of God; anyone who encroaches on this gift, anyone who destroys it is breaking God's law.

The Church has always condemned abortion, trying with all Her powers to keep Her children from it. Already in the fourth century, St. Basil the Great, in his 8th canon, called murderers those who by whatever means terminated the life of the foetus. We also find this prohibition in the 91st canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

The Church confesses that each life is created by God, that human life is the supreme gift of the Creator. Human life, according to the Church's teaching, is not given unconditionally by God, but is given to man under the condition that he will be responsible for preserving it. The testimony that God respects life above all else is contained in the words of the Gospel:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Orthodox Christians are called to become like God, as far as is possible. This is known as Theosis, or deification. In so far as God's perfection is beyond our understanding, this process of becoming like God, the process of developing our person, is unending. It begins from the moment of conception and continues until the very hour of death. In this way, no one can say that he is a "person" or that he has become fully man, in the full spiritual sense of the word, so long as he has not attained the complete Divine Likeness. But each man possesses the potential to become a Godlike person at whatever stage of physical development he is found in his mother's womb, in the prime of life, or on his deathbed.

We can be certain that the potential is present in the embryo to become a person to the fullest extent, not only by proceeding from the Church's concept concerning psychosomatic unity, but likewise if we turn to Sacred Scripture. The Church teaches that Christ became flesh at the moment of conception; and the Virgin Mary's relative, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, testified to the Virgin Mary,

“For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in me for joy” (Luke 1:44).

In other words, the fruit of Elizabeth's womb sensed the approach of the Divine Foetus in the womb of the Virgin Mary and reacted to this approach with a joyful leap.

One of the most widely disseminated arguments in favour of performing abortions is that each woman has the right to control the functions of her body, in whatever way she finds necessary, right up to terminating the life of an unwanted foetus. The Church rejects this argument outright. First of all, the Church points to the sacredness of Godgiven life, and likewise points to the fact that if it is forbidden for the Christian to raise his hand against his own life, all the more so does a Christian not have the right to terminate the life of another, even if this life has the appearance of a still not completely formed embryo. Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, as the Apostle Paul teaches; this means that the cessation of the life of any other person is considered to be a crime not only in regard to that person, but likewise in regard to the Holy Spirit.

There are many instances which one might consider which further complicate the picture. What if the life of the mother is threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy? What if the pregnancy was due to rape or incest ? The solution to these problems require great spiritual discernment and decisions must not be taken lightly. Only with the spiritual foresight and counsel of a Father Confessor can there be hope for the right decision.

Another difficult question is when the foetus will be born deformed or retarded. In this instance, the Church teaches that such children are also created in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, it is not allowed to terminate their life.

In general, the Church calls upon all of society to sacrificially take part in helping mothers who in one way or another are faced with difficulties connected with bearing children. Each family is a cell of the whole social organism; each cell is answerable for the wellbeing and health of the whole organism; consequently, the whole of society must also take care of each of its individual cells. As the Apostle Paul teaches us, "Bear ye one another's burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).

Finally, it is with special compassion that the Church regards the mother already after having an abortion, frequently performed under pressure from family, society, poverty, etc. Such unfortunates should not be beaten further, but compassionately supported and saved. To this end the woman must consult with her Father Confessor.

Adapted from a sermon by Fr Victor Potapov,
The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Washington DC

Read what the Saints of the Orthodox Church say about abortion
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