Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Abortion and Public Policy

Rev. Peter J. Pappas

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St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly
Volume 39 - No. 3, 1995

One of the challenges facing the Orthodox Christian in modernAmerican society is discerning the relationship between personal ethicalconvictions and questions of public policy. If one of theresponsibilities of American citizenship involves voting for state andfederal officials who will create and execute the laws, decisions regardinghow personal convictions will affect public policy cannot be avoided. Insimply voting for a candidate for public office, one must responsiblyconsider the implications of one's decision and the impact it will haveon public policy. The issue of abortion, without question the mostdivisive social issue in America today, presents special problems in theformation of the Christian conscience regarding responsible citizenship. The Orthodox Church has consistently maintained an outspoken condemnationof abortion from apostolic times to the present. While the humanity ofthe unborn is rooted in both the Old and New Testaments, the oldestauthoritative document that specifically condemns abortion is the Didache,which dates back to the early second century. Similar teachings appear inthe writings of Athenagoras of Athens, Cyprian of Carthage, Clement ofAlexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Jerome, and JohnChrysostom. The scriptural, patristic, and liturgical traditions forma consistent witness recognizing the humanity of the unborn from conceptionand consistently identifying abortion as the killing of a human being. Theloss of life of the unborn child was regretfully tolerated only in caseswhere the life of the mother was endangered.(1) The Church's teaching onabortion took its most developed canonical form in Canon 91 of the Councilin Trullo. This canon prescribed a penance of up to ten yearsexcommunication, the same as that for a repentant murderer. Such penanceshave virtually disappeared today, the emphasis being on reconciliationwith God and with the faith community. Nevertheless, the ethicalteachings of the Orthodox Church regarding abortion are clear andunambiguous.

To what extent these teachings should affect society at large needsfurther clarification. While the various Orthodox jurisdictions inAmerica have not been silent on the issue, the lack of adequateexplanations for these positions leads clergy and laity alike to adoptpositions present in the popular culture which may not be informed by theconsciousness of the Church. Thus, some maintain personal opposition toabortion as an immoral act, but do not believe the state should legislateagainst it.

This "pro-choice" position has become pivotal in the shaping of publicopinion regarding the abortion issue. It has also been influential in thepolicies of Orthodox and Roman Catholic politicians who maintain personalopposition to abortion but do not wish to impose this view on others.While this position holds a certain attraction, it also reveals afundamental confusion regarding the limits of reproductive freedom. In apoll conducted in 1989, seventy-four percent of the respondents agreedwith the statement, "I personally feel that abortion is morally wrong, butI also feel that whether or not to have an abortion is a decision thathas to be made by every woman for herself."(2) In another poll conductedthe same month, only forty-one percent agreed with the statement,"Personally I believe abortion is wrong, but I think it should belegal."(3) While this position has never been supported by any officialdeclaration of any Orthodox body in America, it is a position which hasbeen adopted by many of the faithful, clergy and laity alike. However,this position will be shown to be morally indefensible in light ofOrthodox Christian ethical teachings regarding the sanctity of life andthe responsibility of the Christian to the state. Rather, OrthodoxChristians should oppose abortion both on a personal level and seek itsprohibition by the government. The ethical justification for this approachcan be demonstrated by an examination of the presuppositions which underlieChristian ethical teachings on abortion, the responsibilities of the statein light of Christian Tradition, and the history of the abortioncontroversy in the United States.

Of primary importance to Christian ethical teaching on abortion isthe principle of the sanctity of human life and creation in the imageand likeness of God. Both these principles underlie the historic ethicalteaching on abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide. To uphold the sanctityof life means affirming that human life possesses an intrinsic sacredquality which mandates its preservation and maintenance. While a sacredcategory of existence requires a religious foundation, purely secularsocieties can also use terminology derived from religious presuppositionswhich may have since been abandoned. Thus, reference to the sanctity ofhuman life in the popular culture means that it has intrinsic value orworth. A system of ethics which upholds the sanctity of life willadvocate the unconditional value and equality of all human life and willseek to advance its well being even in the face of conflicting values. Frequently placed in contradistinction to the sanctity of life is a"quality of life" ethic. Such an approach seeks to evaluate the worth ofa particular human life based on the quality of existence the personexperiences. Thus, at its best, the quality of life ethic seeks toimprove the lives of people by taking into consideration a number offactors. Ethical choices should increase their ability to participatein relationships and activities which give expression to meaningfulmembership in the human community. Related factors include adequatefood, clothing, shelter, health care, and an environment which allows forthe pursuit of meaning, purpose, and happiness without fear of persecutionor other circumstances which would detract from these aims. However, whenthis concern for quality is placed in opposition to the sanctity of life,the resulting choices ultimately cheapen the value of life and place indanger the ability to pursue such goals as those stated above. Quality oflife is an ambiguous concept which frequently depends for its definitionon a subjective evaluation of human life and what constitutes a meaningfulexistence. Christians recognize that quality of life consists in arelationship with the Holy Trinity which allows for growth toward the imageand likeness of God through the saving acts of Christ in the Holy Spirit.Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have itmore abundantly."(4) In a contemporary secular society, those makingdecisions regarding quality of life would for the most part not share thisperspective. Therefore, the affirmation of the sanctity of life isnecessary as a basis for the proper treatment of human life both inpersonal relationships and for the maintenance of a just and well orderedsociety.

Human life derives its sacred character from its creation in the image andlikeness of God. The Biblical account of creation affirms this belief:"God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him;male and female He created them."(5) This doctrine is foundational forthe Christian faith and provides the basis for resolving ethicalquestions involving human life. Orthodoxy affirms that even after sinentered the world, the image of God, while distorted, remained as acharacteristic of the human person and that human moral capacities werenot completely obliterated. Through sin, human beings have brokencommunion with God and thus have in some degree become "less than human."Because all human beings share this state, full human "personhood" cannotbe a criterion for determining the value of one's life. All life hasintrinsic worth as being because it is created in the image and likeness ofGod.

The idea of sanctity of life, to varying degrees, also appears innatural law. The Orthodox Church accepts and teaches the reality of anatural moral law which may be discerned through experience and reason andthrough which the fundamental rules and laws of human moral and sociallife are acknowledged.(6) When various cultures of diverse times andplaces adopt similar standards of behavior, this is an indication of acommon moral sense among people derived from faith, reason, andexperience. For example, nearly every human culture in recorded historyhas been characterized by laws against murder. While some culturescondone or even enjoin murder, the condoned murder tends to be highlyselective. Murder may be approved for one's enemies but not for membersof the group themselves.(7) Biological science also illustrates someaspects of natural law at its most basic level. Living organisms makeattempts of immense magnitude to stay alive and reproduce. Thus, auniversal law of self-preservation manifests itself in nature. So strongis this instinct, in fact, that one of the goals of Christian life is tosubdue this desire and channel it into acts of self sacrifice on behalf ofothers. In terms of human reproduction, the force of nature is even moreastonishing. While a fertile female produces one egg per month, duringintercourse the male releases between thirty and sixty million spermtoward the target egg to increase the chances of fertilization. Thefertilized egg must then survive a myriad of crisis stages, includingimplantation, development, and birth, before a child can be born. Thestruggle to produce a healthy living baby is one of the most amazing featsof nature, which includes a system of human reproduction that promotes thesurvival of the species.(8) In the case of abortion, the natural processis interrupted by the willful act of one of its own kind, frustrating thecycle of nature's survival mechanisms. Thus, a number of sources ofnatural law testify to the sanctity of human life.

The sanctity of life created in the image and likeness of God hashistorically provided the Church's basis for the proscription ofabortion, which previously was accepted in some ancient societies. Thepractice of abortion was widespread in ancient Greece and was usuallyallowed by the law, which even prescribed it in certain cases. Themedical community opposed the practice, and so the Hippocratic Oathrequired physicians to bind themselves not to give women poisonous drinkswhich would abort the fetus they were carrying. In ancient Rome thefather had power of life and death over his family. The fetus was notregarded as a person, and abortion was widely practiced in Roman society.An exception to the frequent practice of abortion in antiquity was foundamong the Jews. Despite the absence of a specific prohibition ofabortion in their scriptures, research has discovered no mention of anontherapeutic Jewish abortion in any text of Jewish literature throughA.D. 500.(9) The early Roman Empire continued the ancient Roman policyand prescribed no punishment for abortion with the consent of thefather, unless the mother died.

This was the context in which the early Church formulated its teaching.The Didache as well as the Epistle of Barnabas give absolute stricturesagainst abortion and refer to the fetus simply as a "child." In the secondcentury, Athenagoras outlines the common, accepted Christian position thatabortion is murder, that the guilty must give account to God, and that thefetus is a living being.(10) The late second and early third centuriesgive evidence of an increasing Christian effect on Roman law concerningabortion. Through the witness of Christians, many pagans were acquaintedwith their ethical perspective, which was similar to that of some paganmoralists. Christian apologists such as Athenagoras and Tertullian hadaddressed Roman emperors and governors concerning the standardChristian view.(11) When the empire enacted laws restricting abortion inthe third century, including the prescript of Septimus Severus andAntonios Caracalla and the application of the Lex Cornelia to abortifacientdrugs and drug dealers, it was quite likely due to the growing Christianpopulation's influence on public opinion toward punishing abortion andpromoting life. For Clement of Alexandria, an abortion of one child isa contribution to the destruction of the entire human race.(12)Likewise, both Basil the Great and John Chrysostom equate abortion withmurder. It is true, as Vigen Guroian points out, that these statementshave a unique context and purpose:

In point of fact, the statements about abortion in the letters of St.Basil or the homilies of St. John Chrysostom were not intended to bemetaphysical pronouncements about the beginnings of human life. Nor arethey statements about basic human rights in the profoundest sense, leaveaside the shallow nominalistic and voluntaristic way in which oursociety has come to define human rights. They are primarilyexhortations directed to a specific community about what kind of apeople it is and what behavior is or is not fitting with its identity asthe bride of Christ and the sacrament of the Kingdom of trinitarian loveopen to all life.(13)

However, their statements are nonetheless applicable to the presentdiscussion because the issue of abortion in the social context calls intoquestion what kind of community is or is not to be promoted by the civilauthorities and what behaviors are or are not appropriate for ANY civilizedpeople. The danger Guroian points out is that regarding many issues ofpublic policy, the Orthodox Church runs the risk of accommodatingitself to the "common faith" of American civil religion. The basicdoctrine of this perspective asserts that there exist individual rightsto life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which are of absolute publicconcern while other transcendent questions regarding human relationshipswith God and with each other are only of relative legitimacy and have noplace in public discourse. Thus, the faithful must view their positionin terms of a prophetic call to adherence to basic truths of which theChurch is the guardian.

Issues of church and state were not absent even from the ministry ofChrist. He spent much of His time dispelling the notion of the zealotsthat the messiah was to be an earthly ruler who would end Romanoccupation of Palestine and establish a theocratic state. Thus it wasa supreme irony that Jesus was crucified by the Romans precisely becausehe viewed Himself as a King and was seen as a threat to the civilauthorities. Because the Gospel presents itself as the 'politeuma', thecommunity of the coming age, it must accordingly see as its most intrinsicconcern its disposition toward the present 'polis', the secularstate.(14) St. Paul provides a clear summary of the character and purposeof the state:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there isno authority except from God, and the authorities that exist areappointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists theordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want tobe unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praisefrom the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you doevil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God'sminister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil."(15)

At the same time, Paul does not advocate an uncritical participation in theinstitutions of the state. Thus, in another passage, he asks thebelievers in Corinth, "Dare any of you, having a matter against another,go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?"(16) WhileSt. Paul recognizes the legitimate authority of the state and instructs thebelievers in Rome to do the same, he exhorts the Corinthians not to availthemselves of this authority, even though it is within the sphere ofcompetence of the state to make judgments. A unique set of methods andattitudes based on values such as love and mercy should differentiate theChristian community from secular institutions. Furthermore, in the endGod's people will stand in judgment of the principalities and powers whichstand behind the institutions and authorities of this world.

The Gospel does not confuse the kingdom of God with the stateaccording to any theocratic ideal, and given the eschatological nature ofthe kingdom, it sees a certain tension between the earthly state and theheavenly kingdom. However, it does not reflect an ontological dualismbetween the Church and the world. The relationship found in the NewTestament is a chronological tension between now and the future whichaffects the Christian's attitude toward the state. While the state isnot divine in essence, it is willed by God as an instrument for thepresent age. The earthly state is God's servant so long as it remainsin the order which is willed by God.(17) This order entails the abilityto discern good and evil and the use of methods appropriate to its functionto restrain evil. Hence the Christian must be obedient to the state whilemaintaining a critical stance toward it to see that it remains in thedivine order. When its laws become unjust, the Christian must seekrevision of these laws. When it commands what God has forbidden orforbids what God has commanded, then the Christian must disobey.Therefore, a Christian can remain obedient to any state up to the pointwhere it becomes totalitarian.

While Orthodox Christians throughout history have sometimes confused the'politeuma' with the earthly state, such as in the Byzantine empire orin Czarist Russia, the Church has never endorsed any particular form ofgovernment. However, the Byzantine concept of the 'symphonia' has oftenbeen a guiding principle in the relationship between church and state.The theory of 'symphonia' envisions a system of harmony and mutualitybetween church and state which is based on the sufficiency and independenceof the two cooperating principles within one common society, without thesubjugation of one to the other. This harmony is based on the belief thatboth church and state are instituted by one Lord: the Church "toinitiate the Kingdom of God and to prepare for its eschatologicalrealization" and the state "to serve the worldly needs of humanity,providing order, peace, justice and external harmony."(18) This conceptprovides a historical perspective which can inform contemporary reflectionon the relationship of church and state. Given contemporary socialrealities this idea can never be realized in its fullness, nor would itbe desirable. As John Meyendorff has pointed out, the Constantinian periodout of which it emerged was characterized by two fundamental theologicalflaws: "in thinking that the authority of Christ could be identified withthe political power of the state, and in considering that the universalityof the Gospel is defineable in political terms."(19) At the same time,Christians must also avoid the doctrine of strict separation which seeks tosilence the voice of the Church on matters of public policy. Thisdoctrine implies an ontological dualism between the Church and the world,while the Gospel reflects a chronological and ethical tension. Theseparation doctrine perpetrates the secular notion that the world reallydoes not need the Church or God.(20) Thus the Church must act in a spiritof obedience but must also maintain a critical posture toward the state.

At the same time, in a pluralistic setting such as the UnitedStates, it is impossible to resolve public policy issues solely onreligious grounds. A precedent of translating purely religious doctrineinto public policy would allow this to occur in a number of differentareas where the dominant religious groups may want a particular versionof scientific creationism taught in the public schools which would besectarian in nature. Another example would be the unconditional supportfor the state of Israel advocated by many Christians based on adispensationalist interpretation of Scripture. Consequently, somethingother than a religious definition of when human life begins is needed asthe basis for legislation.

Human life is defined spiritually and philosophically in a multitude ofdifferent ways. Therefore, a biological definition of human life providesthe only basis for enacting legislation. Any organism would clearly haveto meet three criteria to determine whether human life is present: Is thisbeing alive? Is this being human? And is this being complete? At no timeduring the entire period of gestation are any of these requirementslacking in the prenatal human life. This being has the characteristics oflife. That is, the prenatal human life can reproduce his or her own cellsand develop them into a specific pattern of maturity and function.(21)This is a unique being, distinguishable totally from any other organism,completely human in all of his or her characteristics, including agenetically unique set of 46 human chromosomes. Life is clearly presentin the fertilized ovum and at subsequent stages of development.

Once it has completed the process of implantation, at the end of thesecond week, the embryo can only develop into a human being. Before thistime, it can become a hydatidiform mole, a product of an abnormalfertilization which is formed of placental tissue.(22) However, the factthat an abnormal fertilization may occur which is only evident after thefact does not reduce the humanity of the normal zygote which is presentfrom fertilization. Similarly, a large percentage of zygotes die beforeimplantation and a significant number are lost afterwards throughmiscarriage due to severe chromosomal abnormalities. This does notreduce their humanity, but simply reveals a high mortality rate for thisstage of life. Therefore, the prenatal life is distinctly human.

This being is also complete. Nothing new will be added from the time offertilization except growth and development of what is already there atthe beginning.(23) The zygote does require genetic information fromthe maternal mitochondria, and the maternal or paternal genetic messagesin the form of messenger RNA or proteins.(24) However, this informationis conveyed through interaction with the molecules already present in thezygote. Therefore, this fact does not reduce the humanity of the zygotefrom the completion of conception. A critical finding of modern biology isthat conception is a process beginning with the penetration of the outerlayer of the egg by a sperm and concluding with the formation of thediploid set of chromosomes, a process that takes about a day. Thus onecannot properly speak of a "moment of conception."(25) However, bothfertilization and conception have traditionally been identified with theunion of the sperm and ovum. Consequently, even though it refers to aprocess that takes several hours, conception is recognized as the beginningof a new human life because the three above stated criteria are presentbeginning at this point. Viability, that is, the ability to surviveoutside the mother's body, is of no value in determining the beginning ofhuman life. Improvements in medical technology are continually movingbackward the point at which the fetus can survive outside the womb. Thus,at best, viability is an imprecise measure of current technologicalcapabilities, not a measure of the human capacities of the fetus. In 1981 the United States Senate conducted extensive hearings (8 days,57 witnesses) on the proposed "Human Life Bill." The official Senatereport states:

Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception [theydefined fertilization and conception to be the same] marks the beginningof the life of a human being - a being that is alive and is a member ofthe human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point incountless medical, biological, and scientific writings.(26)

The report lists a limited sample of 13 medical textbooks, all of whichstate categorically that the life of an individual human begins atconception. The report then quotes several authorities who testifiedpersonally:

Professor J. Lejeune, Paris, discoverer of the chromosome pattern of Down'sSyndrome: "Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception."Professor W. Bowes, University of Colorado: Beginning of human life? -"at conception."Professor H. Gordon, Mayo Clinic: "It is an established fact that human lifebegins at conception."Professor M. Matthews-Roth, Harvard University: "It is scientificallycorrect to say that individual human life begins at conception."

Dr. Leon Rosenberg, from Yale University, stated that he knew no scientificevidence showing when actual human life begins. But, he then definedhuman life in a philosophic way, and spoke to a value judgment. To quotethe Senate report:

Those witnesses who testified that science cannot say whether unbornchildren are human beings were speaking in every instance to the valuequestion rather than the scientific question. No witness raised anyevidence to refute the biological fact that from the moment of humanconception there exists a distinct individual being who is alive and isof the human species.(27)

Abortion advocates decry the "biological reductionism" in this argumentbecause, as one writer states, "the beginning of human life is not theissue, for it can be argued that fetuses, even if they are `human life,' arestill not human persons."(28) The same writer states, "The doctrine offetal personhood is morally offensive from a feminist, socialist, andhumanist standpoint because what makes human life distinct is its capacityfor consciousness and sociability."(29) Since "personhood" is frequentlydefined by subjective criteria, legal definitions must be based on thebiological evidence and previous legal precedent. Thus, as formerPresident Ronald Reagan correctly stated, "The real question today is notwhen human life begins, but, What is the value of human life?"(30)

A synthesis of these Biblical, patristic, historical, and canonicalformulations in light of contemporary social and political realities andscientific evidence will yield a number of principles which are readilyapplicable to sanctity of life issues. The state is instituted by Godto promote good and to restrain evil. The church and the state not onlyhave different ends, but employ different means to achieve those ends.The church employs public witness to proclaim the Gospel to the world andinvites all people to respond to this call. As a charismatic body, theChurch seeks to demonstrate God's love for the world through obedientservice to the kingdom and offer it to God through eucharisticcelebration. The state employs the rule of law and the use of force toenjoin compliance with that law. The church, in its capacity of propheticwitness, can seek to influence the state in its promotion of good, mostnotably when it has lost touch with the content of good and evil. In thepast, the Church has not always exercised this capacity wisely and hassometimes employed it in a manner contrary to her own principles, such asusing the powers of the state to confront heresy. However, the church mustconfront the state when unjust laws do not restrain evil or prohibit thatwhich is good. In a republic such as the United States, the ability of thechurch to influence the state is expressed in the form of voting by thechurch's members in elections to choose the representatives who willcreate, interpret, and enforce the laws. In addition, this influencetakes the form of voting for public referenda, lobbying elected officials,drafting legislation, and holding public office.

While Christians are called to address the state in certain instances andin the United States are able to do so in a variety of different ways,there remains the question of what responsibilities the state shouldassume and when Christians should address the affairs of state with aunited voice. As has been clearly stated, the natural moral law indicatesthe necessity for a society to protect human life. Prohibitions againstmurder have been a part of nearly every society in recorded history. On thewhole, the patristic tradition identifies in large part the content ofthe natural law with the Ten Commandments.(31) The commandment, "Youshall not murder"(32) is a basic moral and legal precept without which nosociety could long endure. Since the state is the institution authorizedto use force to enact compliance with the laws, the state is the onlyinstitution that can effectively prohibit a particular action. Alltheories of the state accept the thought that the political system,whatever else it does, must protect its members from physical harmcaused directly by others. This responsibility is the minimum requirementfor any state, whatever its form or ideology. A state that does notfulfill this responsibility is no state at all.(33)

The Church can affirm the sanctity of life, but it must look to science toanswer the question, "When does life begin?" Therefore, the fact thatabortion has consistently been viewed as a form of murder and thatopposition to abortion was consistently due to concern for the life of thefetus, along with the state's responsibility to protect human life,provide a clear mandate for the state to take a role in prohibiting thepractice of abortion. Consequently, to be personally opposed to abortionyet support its legalization (i.e. that it is a decision to be left tothe woman and her doctor) is a morally untenable position. Christiansand other citizens of good will must stand opposed to all efforts to makelegalized abortion and euthanasia the practice of the nation. At the veryleast, the incarnational dimensions of the Orthodox Christian perspective donot allow for a withdrawal from engagement with the moral issues of thenation and state.(34) When the issue at hand involves the taking of humanlife, it becomes imperative that Christians respond.

If in fact the protection of human life has been a universallyrecognized function of government and abortion has long been recognizedas taking a life, it becomes necessary to examine the causes of thebreakdown of this consensus in the United States and other modernsocieties. The central issue of the regulation of abortion practices iswhether abortion is, or can be assimilated to, homicide.(35) Thehistorical evidence reveals a legal tradition that has consistentlyequated the two in the past. As was the case with the Roman Empireafter the third century, the rise of the Western societies influenced byJudeo-Christian values was accompanied by laws prohibiting abortion. Theearliest compilations of English common law reflect the fact that abortionwas regarded as homicide. Bracton, who administered the King's law inthe thirteenth century, includes in his list of provisions concerninghomicide:

If there be someone, who has struck a pregnant woman, or has given herpoison, whereby he has caused abortion, if the fetus be already formed oranimated, he commits homicide. Abortion is homicide, but a dividing lineis fixed at the formation or animation of the fetus.(36)

Punishments were not as severe in the early stages of pregnancy, beforequickening because, medically speaking, people did not recognize thehumanity of the unborn before this point.

American law, which developed in close relationship to British law,delegated to the states the responsibility for legislation on abortion.Generally, the old provisions of common law applied in the United Statesuntil the situation was clarified by the passing of statutes in eachstate. The earliest statutes were usually severe with abortion afterquickening, but lenient or silent concerning abortion before that event.Amendments gradually eliminated the silence and even removed thedistinction from the law of all but ten states. The reason for thedevelopment of the statutes is not to be found in any religious doctrine,but in the progress of scientific knowledge.(37) The campaign forenactment of stringent abortion laws in the United States between the1860s and 1880 produced what historian James C. Mohr characterized as"the most important burst of anti-abortion legislation in the nation'shistory." At least forty anti-abortion statutes of various kinds wereplaced upon state and territorial lawbooks during that period.(38)

As a result of this legislation, for over one hundred years abortion wasprohibited throughout the United States except when the mother's life wasthreatened. The first permissive law was passed in Colorado in 1967, whichby 1970 was followed by fifteen other states. After that, only one morestate legalized abortion (because of a court order), while thirty-threestates debated the issue in their legislatures. All of them voted againstpermitting abortion for any reason except to save the mother's life.(39)However, in 1973 the laws in these states were struck down by the SupremeCourt. The Roe v. Wade decision, together with the companion case Doe v.Bolton legalized abortion in all 50 states for the full nine months ofpregnancy. Specifically, the court allowed no legal restrictions for thefirst trimester, some restrictions in the second trimester until thepoint of viability, and only in the third trimester to protect the "lifeor health" of the mother. In defining "health" the court said thatabortion could be performed "in the light of all factors - physical,emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age - relevant to thewell being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health."(40)

Thus abortion-on-demand until birth became the national policy.

While this policy was not voted on by the citizens or enacted bylegislators, there developed enough of a consensus in certain sectors ofsociety to allow for the acceptance and maintenance of this policy. In thestatements and writings of those involved in efforts to repeal abortionlaws a number of themes were emphasized. One theme sounded in thestatements is simply that abortion laws were outmoded and that a newthinking must be allowed to shape the laws. A second theme which had agreat effect was that the laws were "cruel" and "uncompassionate."(41)Coupled with an emphasis on "quality of life" and a situational approachto morality, the major theme became that the abortion decision should beleft entirely to the woman, in accordance with her own conscience. It isnot made clear if there are norms that the conscience is to be shaped by. Afinal theme is the attempt, particularly by the press and some religiousgroups, to paint the anti-abortion position as a Catholic position, and toview the controversy as a sectarian struggle.(42) Dr. BernardNathanson, founding member of the National Association for the Repeal ofAbortion Laws (NARAL, today known as the National Abortion Rights ActionLeague), documents how the organization portrayed the Catholic hierarchyas the force behind opposition to abortion and used latent anti-Catholicismin American society, with the help of the media, to win support for theircause.(43) Dr. Nathanson subsequently became an outspoken opponent ofabortion based on his study of the science of fetology.

These approaches appear in much of the public discourse surroundingthe abortion issue. Typical is the reaction of the New York Times to theRoe v. Wade decision: "Nothing in the Court's approach ought to giveaffront to persons who oppose all abortion for reasons of religion orindividual conviction. They can stand firmly as ever for thoseprinciples, provided they do not seek to impede the freedom of those withan opposite view."(44) The Richmond News Leader responded in this way:

Catholic Church leaders may call the high court's position an `unspeakabletragedy' but the Catholic injunction against abortion is of ratherrecent origin in a religion two thousand years old. While Catholicspokesmen's horror at the decision can be understood, a majority ofthe high court properly recognized that no religion has a constitutionallicense to force its beliefs upon others.(45)

The religious, legal, andmedical data previously stated clearly demonstrate the inconsistency ofthese positions. The only way to make abortion an issue of privatemorality is to make murder an issue of private morality, anunconscionable position for anyone who believes in the sanctity of life.

Two objections to this position should be noted at this point. Whilethe equation of abortion and homicide has been well established, and withit the need for legislative action, could abortion be considered thelesser of evils given circumstances that may result if were notavailable? While many examples are cited to support the availability ofabortion most concern social or economic factors which have a lessersignificance than the value of a human life. Therefore, factors such asunwanted children, overpopulation, or pregnancy due to rape or incestcannot be used to justify the availability of abortion. However, oneexample that concerns protection of human life is the consideration ofmaternal deaths due to illegal abortions.

One of the arguments for legalized abortion prior to the Roe v. Wadedecision was that thousands of women were dying from illegal "back-alley"abortions. One figure often quoted during this period was "5,000 to10,000 deaths a year" due to illegal abortion. This figure wasconsciously fabricated by NARAL to gain public support for their position.Dr. Nathanson states, "I confess that I knew the figures were totally false,and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But inthe `morality' of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widelyaccepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honeststatistics?"(46) In 1972, the last year before Roe vs. Wade, the deathtoll from illegal abortion was 39 women. The death rate due to illegalabortion had been consistently declining each year due to improvedsurgical techniques and better antibiotics. Furthermore, the abortiontechnique itself was revolutionized at this time through the widespreadintroduction of suction curettage in 1970. Though safer if done by alicensed physician, one can expect that if abortion is ever drivenunderground again, even non-physicians will be able to perform thisprocedure with remarkable safety.(47) Therefore, while legalproscription of abortion would drastically reduce the number of abortions,some would occur, but these would certainly not cause widespreadmaternal deaths, a high of number of which could still not justify the 1.5million fetal deaths each year due to legal abortion.

Another proviso frequently cited is that abortion must be consideredwithin the framework of a number of issues which involve the sanctityof human life. For example, the abortion issue is frequently connectedwith the question of capital punishment. Thus, many adopt the positionthat it is inconsistent to support capital punishment and opposeabortion. The basic question concerns whether capital punishment violatesthe sanctity of human life. The book of Genesis indicates that capitalpunishment was instituted for a specific reason: "Whoever sheds man'sblood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He mademan."(48) The moral basis for capital punishment in this account is thesanctity of life. Because man is endowed with the image of God, his lifeis so sacred that any malicious destruction of it must be punished byexecution.(49) While Jesus consciously and explicitly reversed thispractice of retributive justice for the Christian community, the statefrequently and legitimately uses methods contrary to what theChristian is called to do personally. This viewpoint was probably whyEphraem the Syrian (ca. 306-373) recommended capital punishment forabortion.(50) There are a number of reasons why Orthodox Christiansshould oppose capital punishment today. It is at best an unfortunatenecessary evil, precludes the possibility of rehabilitation, and isinconsistently applied. However, it is fundamentally a question of socialjustice and not a sanctity of life issue. Likewise, other issues cannotbe considered to be of equal significance to sanctity of life issuessuch as abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

When considered in light of the responsibilities of the state,decisions regarding such priorities involve the question of single issuepolitics. Is the abortion issue alone a sufficient criterion by which toevaluate the qualifications of a candidate for public office? While anaffirmative answer to this question could be taken to extreme lengths, acommitment to the sanctity of all human life, born and unborn, clearlyshould be the most important consideration. American society in thenineteenth century faced a similar problem regarding the issue ofslavery. The Supreme Court, in its Dred Scott decision of 1857, declaredthat black Americans could not hold citizenship according to theConstitution. As a result, the abolitionists began a movement whichsought equal treatment under the law for all races. A number ofsignificant problems confronted the nation at that time and manyabolitionists went to extreme lengths to advance their position.However, they recognized the most important issue at that time was whether acourt of law could declare a person of a certain race to be anything lessthan a person. In the same way, those who recognize the humanity of thefetus must do no less than to share this truth with others, and to callon the civil authorities to fulfill their responsibility in upholding the sanctity of life for all human beings.

The implications of the preceding arguments are clear. First of all,public officials cannot in good conscience take the position they are"personally opposed" to abortion but support a woman's "right to choose."Likewise, unless an Orthodox Christian is willing to abstain from thepolitical process entirely, one cannot take refuge in the position thatthe Church bears witness to the sanctity of life but does not becomeinvolved in the political arena. Simply voting for a candidate who holdsa "pro-choice" position amounts to indirect support for the continuedpractice of legalized abortion. The Church bears a significantresponsibility to inform and educate the faithful. As one Orthodoxpro-life activist has written, "it is essential that the Church make clearto those people involved in abortion including the woman, those who havegiven her counsel, those who have actually performed the abortion andeven those whose support of abortion is limited to intellectual acceptance,that to continue to be considered part of the Orthodox Church, they mustrepent, turn away from their sinful ways and undergo a reconciliationinto the Body of Christ."(51) Likewise, those involved in the struggleagainst abortion must make available viable options for women andfamilies in crisis pregnancy situations. St. Basil states concerningabortion, "there is involved the question of providing justice for theinfant to be born."(52)

The various Orthodox jurisdictions have taken a hopeful step in speakingout on the issue. The Twenty-Third Clergy-Laity Congress of the GreekOrthodox Archdiocese of North and South America in 1976 issued thefollowing statement:

The Orthodox Church brands abortion as murder; that is, as apremeditated termination of the life of a human being... Decisions of theSupreme Court and State Legislatures by which abortion, with or withoutrestrictions, is allowed should be viewed by practicing Christians as anaffront to their beliefs in the sanctity of life.(53)

In 1986, Rev. Ed Pehanich, a priest of the American Carpatho-Russianjurisdiction and John Protopapas, a member of the Orthodox Church inAmerica founded a pan-Orthodox Pro-Life organization, Orthodox Christiansfor Life to serve as a resource for sanctity of life issues and tocoordinate activities.(54) In 1989 both the Orthodox Church in Americaand the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America issuedresolutions opposing abortion on demand.(55)

The same year forty-five bishops and other spokesmen from every Orthodoxjurisdiction in the United States filed an amicus curiae brief in theSupreme Court's Webster decision. The brief points out that the issue ofabortion has a moral and a legal dimension that have historically beenintertwined and that laws have traditionally been positive expressions ofmoral norms.(56) It carefully situates the specific Orthodox position onabortion in the mainstream of the Judeo-Christian tradition of westerncivilization while emphasizing Orthodoxy's unique role as a witnessto the teachings of the early Church. It also asserts that modernscience has vindicated the ancient insight that a fetus is a human beingwith rights equal to those who have been born. Thus, it is appropriate forthe court to make a statement on the constitutional value of human life,at whatever point it begins. This document provides a cogent legalargument which can serve as the basis for Orthodox Christians toproclaim their views at every level of government.

The position of the Orthodox Church regarding abortion is informed by afirm commitment to the sanctity of human life from the moment ofconception. The scriptural, patristic, and liturgical sources of theOrthodox Tradition consistently reflect this position, which is found inthe canonical formulations of the conciliar process. The modern scienceof fetology has affirmed the presence of human life throughout the entireperiod of gestation, thereby confirming the historical Christianposition. Because of the state's responsibility to protect life, Christiansmust unite with one prophetic voice to call for the restoration of thisprotection which has been taken away in the United States. However,the secular forces in American society which deny the sanctity of lifehave influenced the thinking of many of the faithful on this importantissue. Therefore, by promoting dialogue and reflection on this issue,the Church can encourage participation in appropriate and effective actionsbased on firm personal convictions. Orthodox Christians will thus be ableto defend the rights of every human person so that they may have life,and to proclaim the new life in Christ so that they may have it moreabundantly.


(1) John Protopapas, "An Eastern Orthodox Christian Perspective on the Sanctity of Human Life," p. 1.
(2) George Skelton, "Most Americans Think Abortion is Immoral," Part 1, Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1989, p. 1.
(3) Ethan Brommer, "Most in US favor ban on majority of abortions, poll finds," The Boston Globe, March 31, 1989, p. 12.
(4) John 10:10, Holy Bible: The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984).
(5) Genesis 1:27
(6) Stanley S. Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1983), p. 120.
(7) R.C. Sproul, Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1990), p. 41.
(8) Sproul, pp. 43, 44.
(9) Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 33.
(10) Gorman, p. 54.
(11) Gorman, p. 61.
(12) John Kowalczyk, An Orthodox View of Abortion (Minneapolis: Light and Life, 1979), p. 14.
(13) Vigen Guroian, Incarnate Love (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), p. 126.
(14) Oscar Cullmann, The State in the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956), p. 4.
(15) Romans 13:1-4
(16) 1 Corinthians 6:1.
(17) Cullmann, p. 89.
(18) Stanley S. Harakas, "Orthodox Church-State Theory and American Democracy," Greek Orthodox Theological Review 21 (1976), p. 401. (19) John Meyendorff, Living Tradition (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), p. 143.
(20) Guroian, p. 159
(21) John C. Willke, Abortion Questions and Answers (Cincinnati: Hayes Publishing Co., 1985), p. 52.
(22) Thomas A. Shannon and Allan B. Wolter, "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-embryo" Theological Studies 51 (1990), p. 608.
(23) Willke, p. 53.
(24) Shannon and Wolter, p. 608.
(25) Shannon and Wolter, p. 610.
(26) Willke, p. 40.
(27) Willke, p. 42.
(28) Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, Abortion and Woman's Choice (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990), p. 341.
(29) Petchesky, p. 345.
(30) Ronald Reagan, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), p. 22.
(31) Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life, p. 133.
(32) Exodus 20:13
(33) Fred M. Frohock, Abortion: A Case Study in Law and Morals (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 168.
(34) Stanley S. Harakas, Living the Faith: The Praxis of Eastern Orthodox Ethics (Minneapolis: Light and Life, 1992), p. 260.
(35) Frohock, p. 169.
(36) Grisez, Abortion, pp. 186-8 in CAC Abortion Debaters' Handbook (Washington, DC: Christian Action Council, 1984), p. 41.
(37) Grisez, p. 191.
(38) William Brennan, The Abortion Holocaust: Today's Final Solution (St. Louis: Landmark Press, 1983), p. 8.
(39) Willke, p. 19.
(40) Willke, p. 21.
(41) Stephen M. Krason, Abortion: Politics, Morality, and the Constitution (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), p. 49.
(42) Krason, p. 51.
(43) Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America (Toronto: Life Cycle Books, 1979), and The Abortion Papers (New York: Frederick Fell, 1983).
(44) The New York Times, New York, NY, January 24, 1973.
(45) The Richmond News Leader, Richmond, Virginia, January 24, 1973.
(46) Nathanson, Aborting America, p. 193.
(47) Nathanson, Aborting America, p. 194.
(48) Genesis 9:6.
(49) Sproul, p. 33.
(50) Gorman, p. 65.
(51) Valerie Protopapas, "Orthodox Action Plan Against Abortion," p. 1.
(52) D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder (Chicago: Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1957), St. Basil the Great, Canon 2, p. 789.
(53) Stanley S. Harakas, Let Mercy Abound: Social Concern in the Greek Orthodox Church (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1983), p. 145.
(54) For more information, write to:
Valerie Protopapas, Executive Secretary
Orthodox Christians for Life
P.O. Box 805
Melville, NY 11747
(516) 271-4408
(55) Rachel's Children, Fall 1989, Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 1.
(56) James George Jatras and Paul Farley, in the Supreme Court of the United States, October Term. 1988, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, Brief Amicus Curiae of the Holy Orthodox Church, p. 2.

Rev. Peter J. Pappas is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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