Orthodoxy and the Unborn Child


When the bodiless learned of the secret command,
he came in haste to Joseph’s house
and said to her who knew not wedlock:
He who bowed the heavens by coming down
is contained wholly and unchanged in you.
Seeing him take the form of a servant in your womb,
I stand in awe and cry out to You:
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.

Apolytikion from the Akathist Hymn and Small Compline

Orthodox, it is assumed, do not accept abortion. It is a grievous sin, we read. Here and there among Orthodox there are pro-life groups actively promoting the protection of unborn children. (See, for example, the Orthodox Christians for Life Web site, www.oclife.org, for an excellent pamphlet on the Orthodox tradition and life issues.) Yet for some, perhaps, the Orthodox view of abortion is simply a religious inheritance with little connection to the world in which they live. When some Orthodox speak of human rights, too, they may have in mind only less controversial confl icts in the West (a free Tibet, perhaps), but overlook this most basic right – the right to life – as a preoccupation of some Protestants.

It is worthwhile, then, to look at some of these questions and issues afresh. If we have made some accommodations to the ways of the world, our thinking may be changed. If in future we hear some smooth “pro-choice” arguments or assumptions, we may learn how to answer them, even if only in our own minds. And if we meet a woman who is considering an abortion, we may be emboldened to speak up, and, by God’s grace, to save a life, and to save a woman from that grief-filled sin.

Each of us began his or her life as a single cell. This fact is like what we hear of government spending in the trillions of dollars – we can hardly imagine it. When we look at photos of the fertilized human egg, seeming more like a crater on the moon than anyone we know, we wonder, how can I have once been a single cell? I have never known myself as other than somebody with five senses, one who knows himself, one who has emotions and thoughts, and some control over my words and actions. I was an infant once, it’s true, but I marvel when I see the photographs of myself at that stage and then think of what I have become. I’m even more astonished at the idea of having been a single cell. Perhaps I am wrong, and I only became what I am now, an individual human being, a person, at some later point?

This makes some intuitive sense. When women miscarry late in pregnancy, it commonly has more of an emotional impact than if the miscarriage is early on. Grief, it seems, is not all-ornothing. And when we learn that a signifi cant percentage of early pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion without the women even being aware of it, we might wonder if personhood is something that accrues gradually, so that at some point in pregnancy we have another one of us, a baby. Perhaps our lives don’t really begin with that single cell, but later?

Does the Incarnation give us any help in understanding whether each of our lives began with a single cell? Yes! Even if we knew nothing about embryology or fetology, we know that God the Son assumed nothing less than a human nature in the miraculous conception of the person Jesus. The God-Man was never the God - Almost Human! “Well,” someone might say, “perhaps the newly conceived thing in the womb is human (an appendix or a heart, it could be argued, is human in its nature), but it’s not another one of us, a human being.” From the very moment of conception – which we celebrate at Annunciation, singing, “today is the beginning of our salvation: the Son of God becomes son of the Virgin” – the humanity that the Son of God takes on is never devoid of personhood, but is the human nature of the divine Person Incarnate. Scripture makes this plainer: the unborn John the Baptist leapt in St. Elizabeth’s womb when he met the unborn Son of God in Mary’s womb (Luke 1:39–44).

The Incarnation, it is true, is a mystery completely beyond our understanding, a divine “act of power” par excellence. There are many things, too, that we don’t know about the conception and development of the human being in the womb. But we do know that, with every conception, we have another one of us in the womb. This is not above anybody’s “pay grade,” and certainly not above any Christian’s understanding. God entered the world in the womb of a virgin, and hallowed it.

This question of when human life begins is not really academic, of course: some people would say that, because the very small human being is not one of us, not our neighbor, he or she can be destroyed. There have been attempts, too, to set a point after conception that would be the real beginning for human life. (The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, thought that “ensoulment” took place at 40 days after conception for males, and 80 days for females, because these were the earliest points at which male and female genitalia could be discerned, respectively, in miscarried embryos.) A lot rides on the determination of when this entity in the womb is another one of us: it may be life or death! Thus it has to be a sure determination, and not an arbitrary one. Apart from a Christian view of things, if you don’t know when life begins, or if you’re not certain – don’t kill! Hunters can’t just fi re into the woods when they think that their target is probably not another hunter – they have to know that it’s not.

The Church from the earliest times was not very interested in any abstract or philosophical question of when human life begins. The heart of man is desperately corrupt, the prophet writes, and Christians know how easy it is to come to conclusions that justify things the heart knows to be wrong. Many “pro-choice” people admit this unconsciously. They never say that an appendectomy is “a diffi cult moral issue.” A tonsillectomy is never “a deeply personal matter.” Why do they say these things about an abortion? If they mean what they say, it is because they know that abortion has to do with something more than an organ, and they are troubled; their consciences bear witness against what they want to accept, or at least permit. They are like the man who argued with Jesus, wanting to justify himself, when he asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

The Church rejected abortion from the start as the rejection of God’s gift of a new life. The Didache says, “Thou shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed” (2:2). St. Basil wrote, “A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder. And any fi ne distinction between its being completely formed or unformed is not admissible among us.” The Church was known for its care of abandoned infants, in fact.

In the past fi fty years abortion has been promoted from two perspectives. One is often called the feminist – woman throws off the shackles of religion, “patriarchy” and self-serving men, exulting in her will to choose and exercising control over her own body. (Of course, this last claim involves a biological fiction: there’s somebody else’s body there too.) Key to this view of the woman is agency and freedom. Needless to say, this extreme view has not found a home among most Christians. More common among Christians in some quarters in the West, however, has been the victim perspective: there are extenuating circumstances that justify a woman in having an abortion, it’s the compassionate thing, and so forth. Here the woman is not an actor, but one to whom things happen. Each perspective, however, exaggerates one side of womanhood, however, the first reducing the woman to what she can do (all-powerful), and the other reducing her to what is done to her (victimhood). (Those who have stood up for women historically have been opposed to abortion, as are many who are currently defending women’s rights. See, for example, the organizations Feminists for Life, at www.feministsforlife.org, and the Susan B. Anthony List, at www.sba-list.org.)

If we think of a woman only as an object of pity, as someone for whom the “compassionate” thing is to kill the child within her, we deny her humanity, her agency – ironically, we deny her full personhood as made in the image of God. I believe I once heard an Orthodox person say in an aside that sometimes abortion is “the lesser of two evils.” But this treats the woman as only a victim. What she does – killing the child – is never a lesser evil than whatever would happen to her or the child if she carries the baby to term, because God is a just judge. To excuse or attempt to justify an abortion is not “compassion.” Rather, it is a parody of love; we betray her. If we really care for people, we want them first of all to choose rightly, and to choose wisely. We need a strong dose of realism in resisting the notion of “compassionate” killing.

The fact that we are persons made in the image of God from the point of conception onwards should be enough to persuade faithful Christians to reject abortion, even on so-called “compassionate” grounds. But there are many other good reasons to be pro-life. One reason is that, the more we look at the unborn child, the more we see both the undeniable humanity of the child and the unbroken continuity of development from the beginning to birth. Let’s look at the undeniable humanity first; the chart below sketches some of the highlights.

Developmental Highlights
20 weeks after conception Baby is 12 inches long; weighs one pound; has hair on head
Week 18 Vocal cords work; baby can cry
Week 17 Baby can have dream-sleep (Rapid-Eye-Movement, or REM)
Week 11 Baby can grasp objects placed in hand
Weeks 9 & 10 Teeth begin to form, baby can turn head, frown
Week 8 Every organ is in place; bones, fingerprints begin to form
Week 7 Eyelids, toes form; nose distinct baby kicking and swimming
Week 6 Brain waves detectable; mouth, lips present; fingers forming
Week 5 Eyes, legs, hands begin to develop
Day 22 Heart begins to beat with the child’s own blood, often a different blood type than the mother’s
Day 6 Embryo begins implanting in the uterus
Day 1 Fertilization: all human chromosomes present

(To see a beautiful and informative presentation of fetal development on the Web, go to www.justthefacts.org.)

There was a time when abortion proponents would say that the entity in the womb doesn’t look human; the reality is that ultrasound, embryology and fetology are showing that humanity, so that when we see the pictures or read the descriptions, we recognize another one of us. But remember that single cell that you once were? That cell was so small and so simple. And even if that cell divided and those cells divided a few more times, it was still very small and simple. Who would think that these cells were the person that I am now, only at an earlier stage?

We recognize a baby at twenty weeks after conception, even at eight weeks, but as we get closer to the beginning the individual human being seems less like one of us – to our imaginations. Yet there is no big, qualitative change, no sudden transformation from that single cell to the more developed body, just the continuous development of one unique human being. Aristotle, take note! Any marker we place in pregnancy to indicate that we have another person, suddenly worthy of respect and protection, is simply arbitrary. Fertilizing a human ova, or egg, and then harvesting that embryo’s stem cells, killing the embryo in the process, is killing one of us. Science confirms the Orthodox view of these things.

So the facts of fetal development should incline anyone to acknowledge the personhood of the child in the womb. Some people harden their hearts with arguments, however. It may be that nothing will change their minds, but perhaps they are open to listen to the other side. Remember what I wrote about the high number of early miscarriages, and how that might make the life of the child in early pregnancy seem less important, perhaps “less human”? There’s a simple analogy that puts things in perspective: in the past, half the population of a town might be wiped out by a plague, but no one thought that the lives of the townspeople were less important, or that they were less human because they died in large numbers. An argumentative spirit may just antagonize people, but arguments can help change minds when we want the best for the other person. Let’s imagine a discussion of some of those arguments about the “hard cases.”

The question of abortion sometimes comes up as a result of rape. After all, this horrible thing has been done to you without your consent. Wouldn’t the child be a reminder of the attack and the attacker? How could the mother love him or her?

This may sound persuasive, but you need to give it some second thoughts. It is true that you’re not guilty of anything here, but pregnancy is not a punishment. God is the author of life, and the child may be the only good thing to come out of this situation. Perhaps the child will remind you of your attacker, and you will find it hard to love your child – who knows until he or she is born? – but if you really love him or her, you can give the child up for adoption. (There is a dearth of children available for adoption to good homes.) And many women who have born a child from rape have spoken of a change of heart towards the baby when he or she was born, or before: they are struck by the innocence and dependence of this little one on them. Finally, we have to face it again: abortion kills, and one doesn’t kill a child for the father’s crime.

And what of pregnancy following sexual abuse by someone in the family (incest)? Won’t the child have genetic problems? And won’t he or she be subject to abuse by the same family members, once they are older?

What has been said about reasons to bear a child produced by rape, apply again here. For the question of genetics, realize that problems with genetic abnormalities occur in small communities where there is inbreeding over several generations, but not particularly with incest within two generations. As for the future safety of your child, the answer is to stop the incest, period, with the help of the authorities. Abortion can hide incest, making it easier for it to continue, so the perpetrator may pressure you to have one.

What about a handicapped child? What if you found out you were carrying a child with a serious problem, like Down syndrome? What if the child were to be born, only to die a short time later? Isn’t it merciful to the child not to have to suffer?

Handicapped people rightly insist that they should not be reduced to their disabilities: they will say that they are people with disabilities, not disabled people. This is just as true of them before they are born. If we won’t kill a child with a disability at two years of age, why would we do it at birth? Why would we do it before birth? What about the child who will die soon after birth? We don’t want anyone to suffer, especially the innocent, but the answer to suffering is not to kill the sufferer. We do not put people down like animals. “Thou shalt not kill.”

If we are honest, behind the concern for the child is a fear of our distress – we will find life hard with this child. We may even grieve for his or her suffering, but not want to suffer with him or her. In contrast, however, people who have taken responsibility for a disabled family member often grow in the depth of their love and in their gratitude to God for all the blessings of this life.

There are many hard situations in life that could be mentioned – unsupportive spouses or boyfriends, parents pressuring their daughters to kill their grandchildren, and so on. Again, “compassion” does not treat anyone as simply a victim; by God’s grace a woman can choose, she can repent, she can do what is right and noble. Orthodox Christians can help women facing difficult pregnancies, too: there are many organizations, like CareNet (CareNet.org) or Birthright, where we can offer our services or our money. The key thing, however, is what people around the pregnant woman do and say: will they help her make the right decision, to choose life? If you know somebody who is pregnant and upset, will you help her do the right thing?

The Church, Orthodox believe, does not accept abortion, but has always called it a grievous sin. In our generation much of the Western world has turned its back, not only on the Triune God, but on Christian ethics and on just law. There have been close to 50 million abortions in America since 1971, each ending an individual human life like each of ours. Many, many women have seared their consciences and wounded their hearts. Part of the rich inheritance of Orthodoxy is its refusal to accept inferior, pagan views of human beings, its insistence on the God-given dignity of human life, made in the image of God. One temptation Orthodox face in this country is to accommodate their thinking to post-Christian, “establishment” moral views, to sacrifice faithfulness to comfort, to care more for what men say about them than what God has to say. (It is a scandal that there are politicians, so-called Orthodox, who are “prochoice.”) Jesus warns us, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

Will we be light in this dark world? Will we be Orthodox in our thinking and acting? Will we do anything in our generation to save the generation that is conceived but not yet born? Will the next generation look back to us as godly defenders of the defenseless? May it be so.

Christopher Humphrey, Ph.D.
Member of St. George Orthodox Cathedral,
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Assistant Editor, The WORD

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