Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

An Orthodox Perspective on Abortion

Priest Joseph O'Brien

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The earliest specific written references to abortion in Christian literature are those in the Didache (so called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and the Epistle of Barnabas. The Didache combines a code of Christian morality with a brief manual of church life and order, while the Epistle of Barnabas is a more theological tract on Christian life and thought. Both were probably written between the second half of the first century and the early part of the second century. Both writings refer to an ancient tradition known as the "Two Ways". This tradition contrasts the way of Life against that of Death; or of Light against Darkness. The Didache reads, "thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born," and the Epistle of Barnabas reads nearly identically.[1]


Littlehas changed in some two thousand years. Morally speaking, in that earlier era there was little argument over whether abortion was 'right' or 'wrong'. It was simply morally wrong -- a morally wrong choice. Although today the public rhetoric may be increased, if even a bit confused, over what defines moral 'right' and 'wrong', the basic 'problem' has not changed and public polls consistently support this. That 'problem' is the problem of choice, or more accurately, that which 'informs' a person's choice -- what determines a person's morality.

It is important here that we understand morality as a doctrine or system of guiding principles or rules for right human conduct. With this in mind, the results of a recent opinion poll are quite informative. According to the poll, "Among those who support abortion without restriction, 39 percent said they were influenced by medical information they had read or heard; 36 percent said they were swayed by a personal experience, and 6 percent based their opinion on religious beliefs. 76 percent of those who said abortion should not be legal in any circumstance said their position was most influenced by their religious beliefs, while 10 percent cited a personal experience and 9 percent medical information.[2]

The free choice with which man has been endowed is, from the Christian perspective of course, by design of God. Its ultimate purpose is understood in man's capacity to love. Bp. Kallistos Ware has well stated, "As a Trinitarian God, a God of shared interpersonal love, He desired that we humans in our turn should be joined to Him in a relationship of mutual love. Mutual love, however, presupposes freedom, for where there is no voluntary choice there can be no love. Love cannot be constrained, but can only be tendered willingly; God is able to do anything except compel us to love Him.[3]

From our Christian perspective then, it is unquestionably the most hideous imaginable act which utilizes man's most fundamental and 'human' attribute, that of his capacity to 'love', to the purpose of the destruction of that which is to be the object of that love. The fulfillment of the basic principle of life, man's highest achievement, is wrapped up in the commandment, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself " (Lk. 10:27).


The human person is not merely a lump of flesh, but an embodied soul.[4] "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7). St. Gregory the Theologian says, "The Creator-Word, determining ... to produce a single living being out of both (the invisible and the visible creation) fashions Man; and taking a body from already existing matter, and placing in it a Breath taken from Himself (which the Word knew to be an intelligent soul, and the image of God)... He placed him on the earth... earthly and heavenly, temporal and yet immortal, visible and yet intellectual [spiritual/immaterial], halfway between greatness and lowliness, in one person combining spirit and flesh...."[5] Man, the human person, is a psychosomatic being, that is to say, he is a complete person only in that soul (yuc -psyche) and body (sma - soma) are united (psycho-somatic).

The origin of each individual psychosomatic human person is not fully revealed in Holy Scripture. This is a mystery known to God alone. One thing we as Christians can and must say with certainty, however, is that the soul-endowed fetus who resides as yet unborn in its mother's womb is no less a human person. Tertullian says, "We acknowledge, therefore, that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul begins at conception. Life begins when the soul begins."[6] But our most fundamental example of the personhood of the fetus lies in a passage of Holy Scripture familiar to all of us Orthodox Christians:

In those days Mary [newly pregnant with our Lord] 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 [John the Forerunner] 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, that 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" (Luke 1:39-44).

The reformation of ethics -- materialism[7]

Materialism is defined as a theory wherein physical matter is the only or fundamental reality. The only or highest values or objectives then must lie in material well-being. Materialism is basically a preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than spiritual things.[8] Mankind has become infected with this spiritual disorder known as materialism. How did it happen?

Man was originally created to live without a care in the world! He was created to live eternally in a relationship of mutual love with God and his fellow man wherein God, as man's Creator, provided for his every need. Our God has even given us an earthly example of this spiritual relationship in the healthy parental/infant relationship. The child is a free and unique person who is, however, completely dependent -- bodily, materially, emotionally, and spiritually -- upon his parents, who in turn provide for those needs in a relationship of mutual love. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ proclaims, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Lk. 18:16, 17).

With no concern for his needs, nor any thought for his survival, pre-fallen man, like that completely dependent infant, walked with God in the Garden of Paradise (Gen. 3:8). Now, however, as a result of his choice to walk alone, man has lost his carefree life. Man opts for independence and autonomy, and has thus separated himself from God. He must now find a new source for those things which had been previously provided freely and naturally by God.

Most profoundly, man's freedom has been lost to the tyranny of the 'garments of skin' (Gen. 3:21) that he acquired as a result of the Fall. The human body is now 'grossly' material and as such it has become the object of man's undivided attention. I don't wish to imply here a neoplatonic anthropology -- that man was previously a 'spirit' being, a disembodied soul, but is now 'materialized' due to the Fall. My actual point is that man went from being a 'prefallen', might we speculate by saying a 'balanced' psychosomatic being, to being a psychosomatic being who is preoccupied with his soma, his material aspect which is physically decaying. He became mortal. St. Paul writes:

For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?" The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:53-57 NKJV)

Due to his estrangement from God man must now strive by the sweat of his brow to acquire his own physical sustenance.[9] He must also provide all those other forms of sustenance which are less tangible but no less real; purpose, self-worth, love, and even longevity, i.e., life itself. However, man remains the creature, not the Creator. He thus falls very short indeed of providing himself with these necessities of genuine life.[10] The result of a secularized existence separated from God is gross materiality and estrangement from the life-bestowing immaterial energies of God. The creature remains fundamentally powerless, although he still carries a vague familiarity with those naturally imparted essential aspects of human life which make him complete and genuinely human. Fallen man becomes a biologically preoccupied being. The focus of man's life becomes materialistic rather than spiritual.

Materialism is thus driven by the priority of biological survival, followed closely by other matters of material preservation and the need to supply those other less tangible forms of sustenance in a world estranged from God.[11] Not only the imperatives of food, shelter and clothing, but those of purpose, fulfillment, love and companionship also take on more of a materialistic conception of fulfillment. Thus the kind of car that we drive, the location of the home we live in, the status of the job we are employed at, are all aimed to fulfill these fundamental needs we perceive within us. The choice to abort a child then is a choice born from the 'materialization' of such needs. The sanctity of life and the inherent potential of the deification of man, which seem to strike some primal chord within us, are now all but drowned out by the redefined imperatives of a materialistic world-view

The restoration of ethics

This is the essence of life in Christ -- the restoration of man to God and the subsequent restoration of those things that make man truly human. In light of such things, abortion is truly unthinkable, even if pregnancy results in the most tremendous hardships. Why? Because the believer who is entering the kingdom of God does not live for the things of the flesh, but for the things of the spirit. "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit" (Rom. 8:5). "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other ... " (Gal. 5:16-17).

It is always a matter of choice. It must be so. This is what makes us human. Not all choices, however, are equal. We are absolutely unconstrained, and must make our choices. Yet with each choice comes the potential to further our freedom. We must choose to either live in Christ and in the freedom of life in the Holy Spirit, or we can choose to allow ourselves to be enslaved to a grossly material 'substitute' way of life, imprisoned by our own fears and our own passions.

The unique tragedy of the choice we call abortion is that it is a terminal choice for another human soul, someone of whom our Lord has said, "...for to such belongs the kingdom of God" (Lk. 18:16). As such, the choice for abortion stands, even more so than the premeditated murder of an adult person, as the ultimate manifestation of man's self imposed alienation and estrangement from God and from his fellow man. It is the fatal and final choice which marks our own spiritual death.


1 Lightfoot, J. B., ed., The Apostolic Fathers: The Didache 2.2; Epistle of Barnabas 19.5, Grand Rapids, 1988,  pp. 230, 286. See also Athenagoras' Apology 35, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, p. 147.

2 Associated Press poll reported in an AP article, Poll: Abortion should remain legal with limits, Washington , January 1998.

3 Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Inner Kingdom: The Collected Works, Vol. 1, Crestwood, 2000, p. 187.

4 Not a soul looking to be freed from its fleshly 'tomb', as the Platonists erroneously supposed.

5 Oration 45. 7. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 7, p. 425.

6 A Treatise on the Soul, ch. 28, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, p.209.

7 In this case we could use 'secularization' and 'materialism' or 'materialization' almost equivalently.

8 See Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Electronic Edition, Version 1.2, Copyright 1994-6, Merriam-Webster Inc.

9 See Gen. 3:16 f.

10 We could make the argument that satisfying only the most basic physical needs reduces man's life to some 'sub-human' level. The necessities of genuine human life include far more than food and shelter.

11 In a similar sense, technological advancement, which is inseparable from man's materialism, is largely driven by these same biological imperatives. The foremost of these is man's quest to slow or stop his relentless progress to the grave -- "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." Add to this man's efforts to ease his labor by "the sweat of thy face"; i.e., to undo the painful symptoms of the Fall (Gen. 3:17-24).

Joseph O'Brien is priest at St. Nicholas of South Canaan Church in Billings, Montana. This article can be found at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship website and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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