105. Abortion, Part One

These two Posts have been revised somewhat since originally published.

In this Part, we’ll cover 1 What is a Person? 2 The Scriptures on Abortion, 3 The Church Fathers on Abortion, 4 What Science tells us about the Unborn Child

This is a difficult issue (especially for those of us who tend in many respects to be politically liberal) * and a difficult article to write, so I’ve tried to choose my words carefully. Please read carefully – including the section in Part Two entitled “How Should We Apply Orthodox Principles to Society”.

  • As they define it these days. Once we had different categories and choices, but that’s another story.

Who is a Person? 

For much of American history, each African American was legally considered 3/5 of a person. To the right: once a partial person.

In 1889 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations (for example, Starbucks) have the rights of persons. In January 2010 the Court ruled further that political contributions are the same as free speech, and so on the grounds that the Bill of Rights guarantees no limits on free speech (like to yell “Fire!” in a theater?!) there can therefore be no limits on political contributions. This means that, acting as “persons”,  wealthy corporations can legally drown out the speech of actual individual persons

On January 22, 1973, in its Roe v. Wade decision, the United States Supreme Court  recognized women’s Constitutional right to abortion. In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled further that unborn babies (right: at seven or eight months) have the right to be born, but no guaranteed right to protection from mistreatment (including abortion) before birth.

I am no lawyer. Please tell me if I have got any of this wrong. But the point I’m making here is not a legal one. It’s this: All the above has debased our concept of personhood.

Everybody knows (it’s perfectly obvious) that corporations aren’t persons. They aren’t born, they don’t live, they don’t love, they don’t pray, they don’t die. They don’t have to get marriage licenses before they merge! Their sole reason for existence is to make money. To treat them as persons is a legal fiction. While everybody knows (it’s perfectly obvious) that African-Americans are and always have been persons. And everybody knows (it’s perfectly obvious) that a viable unborn baby boy or girl at eight months (I’m taking an easy case) has the potential, right now! to do everything persons do.

No wonder people are so confused. Is this part (not all) of what lies behind today’s seemingly casual attitude towards abortion? as if it were only a legal or political issue? This has led to a lot of yelling and screaming and people being backed into corners on all sides. And whatever the cause, since 1973 there have been at least 50 million abortions in the United States – out of a total population of about 300 million. That’s a lot of killing, brothers and sisters.

What I’m concerned about in this article is our attitude towards abortion. For abortion is above all not a legal or political issue, but a moral one. And a matter of human decency and respect for life. That, especially… And that is why my personal opinion is that passing laws will not solve the abortion issue, and in fact could make it worse.

Did you know that Norma McCorvey, the real name of the Jane Roe in the Roe v. Wade decision, is now anti-abortion? Why? She wrote, “I looked at a fetal development chart…. I had a lot of emotions stirring up inside of me. That’s when I decided that it was wrong in any stage of pregnancy.” She was arrested some years ago while protesting abortion. But then (keep reading…) in 2020, just before her death, she confessed that she had been need of money and had been paid by “Right to Life” people to oppose abortion, but that in fact she had not changed her mind. * So there we are.

  • See: https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2020/05/21/aka-jane-roe-fx-norma-mccorvey-paid-speak-against-abortion/5236476002/

Scriptural Prohibition of Abortion

I’m tempted to leave this section blank. Despite the fact that in the ancient pagan world abortion and infanticide were common, how many times is abortion  condemned in the Holy Scriptures? None, so far as I know. *

  • Please correct me if I’m wrong.

There are Old Testament verses such as Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” In Luke chapter 1, Saint John the Baptist is recognized as a person before his birth: Saint Elizabeth cried “the baby leaped in my womb for joy” when the Mother of her Lord came to visit her. But, unless I’ve missed something, that’s about it. Explain it as you will, abortion is nowhere explicitly condemned in the Holy Scriptures.

So when modern Protestant “Bible alone” Christians are militantly anti-abortion, I don’t believe they getting it from the Bible! It’s coming from somewhere else.

Orthodox Christianity is not based on “Bible alone”. Nevertheless, we do believe that the Holy Scriptures are the first and primary witness to Apostolic Faith, and the Scriptures are not focused on the subject of abortion. So as we consider this topic, I’d like to suggest that we try to keep some Biblical perspective and balance about abortion.

The Teaching of the Church about Abortion

Please don’t misunderstand what I just said. From the first century on, the Orthodox Church has said that abortion is a grave evil. In one early Christian document after another, abortion is condemned. This was a new thing in the ancient world. I think it must have been based on prayer and contemplation on the meaning and value of human life in light of Something new: the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the womb of his Mother.

In the Didache, the very early Teaching attributed to the Apostles, various moral directions are given. In addition to Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear grudges, Do not be greedy or arrogant, it adds “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant”.

The Epistle of Saint Barnabas directs, “You shall not kill the child by abortion or destroy him after he is born”. When Christians in the second century were accused of murdering and eating infants *, here was the defense given by Athenagoras of Athens. “…when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For [if we] regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, [how] when it has passed into life [could we] kill it?”

* Rumor among pagans was that Christians immersed children in water where they were said to die, and then it was known that they ate somebody’s body and blood. so the conclusion was obvious… Imagine what today’s  internet rumor mongers would do with this one!

There is always the danger of taking quotations out of context or neglecting the fact that the Fathers weren’t infallible – and that they may have changed their approach as time went on. However, it appears that this teaching about abortion was taken for granted by early Christians.

Saint Basil wrote: “Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not” (First Canonical Letter, canon 2 [A.D. 374])

He and Saint John Chrysostom both held that abortion was the equivalent of murder.

However later Saint Augustine of Hippo (who is on our Orthodox Church calendar of saints) believed that abortion was less serious before the “ensoulment” of a child, which took place at an undefined time after conception. And still later in the West Thomas Aquinas held that abortion before quickening was not so bad as murder.

However, it is worth noting that the Church has never at any point in history authorized a funeral service for unborn babies who have miscarried, even in late term. Why not? In very recent years, some priests have unofficially offered memorial services as a pastoral comfort for the parents. But that’s all.

Here are recent statements by the American Orthodox Assembly of Bishops:    http://orthochristian.com/119079.html   /   https://oca.org/news/headline-news/assembly-of-bishops-issues-common-statement-on-sanctity-of-life    They condemn abortion and urge social services for expectant women, but nowhere do they define abortion as murder. Is this because to say that in our legalistic society would require criminal prosecution of women who have abortions?

On January 21, 2022, Archbishop Elpidophoros, primate of the Greek Archdiocese of America, said: “We affirm the gift and sanctity of life—all life, born and unborn… Every life is worthy of our prayer and our protection, whether in the womb, or in the world.” He also said: “At the same time, we also affirm our respect for the autonomy of women. It is they who bring forth life into the world.”

If you want my opinion, I think Archbishop Elpodophoros was stating the obvious. Women do control their bodies, both before and during pregnancy, and it is their choice whether to have abortions, whether legally or illegally.

In response, a statement was issued on March 25, 2022 by four American Orthodox heirarchs (representing the Antiochian, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian jurisdictions) specifically calls abortion “murder”, and asks civil authorities “to treat all humans equally under the law, and thus to forbid the evil practice of abortion”. * Do they mean that women who have abortions should be arrested, tried, imprisoned (and in some places executed) for murder?

  • https://pappaspost.com/four-orthodox-christian-hierarchs-in-usa-target-elpidophoros-controversial-remarks-on-abortion-rights/
  • https://www.antiochian.org/regulararticle/1184

Scientific Knowledge about Abortion

Is it relevant that in ancient times it was believed that the entire human being was contained in the male seed? that women were only receptacles? Now we know that the baby is the product of both man and woman.

We now know that before implantation (and apparently for a short time after) the zygote, the un-implanted cells, can sometimes merge and divide. This suggests that during this time the individuated person does not yet exist. Does this leave room for discussion about certain means of birth control which some consider to be abortion? And also about fetal stem cell research, which can save the lives of persons who have already been born? Fetal cells are now used less and less for research, thank God, for even the un-implanted cells are human life. The Church teaches us to treasure the person from before the beginning to after the end. That is why we don’t even permit cremation, except in the most extraordinary circumstances with the bishop’s permission. The person (soul, mind and body) is the gift of God, to be reverenced and honored, not destroyed.

We now know that from implantation, at least, the individual baby has his or her own unique DNA, and that by about day 15 the baby’s heart begins to beat. How can it be argued that this is not a human being? How can people not be horrified by abortion? Actually, I think most people are.

But what if the woman is alone and desperately poor, with no health insurance (hospital childbirth in America today costs about $3500), with no way to support herself while also taking care of the baby, feeling trapped? Maybe she shouldn’t have got herself into this situation, but she did and there she is… What then?

Next Week: Abortion, Part Two – 1 How the Orthodox Church deals with Abortions, 2 How should we apply Orthodox principles to Society, Being consistently Pro-Life  



9 thoughts on “105. Abortion, Part One

  1. Hi Father Bill, if the woman is desperately Poor Medicaid fully pays the bill. There are a multitude of organizations to help. (I think you waffled a bit there) I think we must realize it is evil that wants the children dead for they are our blessing a burden only for a short time. Compassion & healing for all of us are sinners but must repent, & change our sinful ways. God bess you & thank you for your insights.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I’ll try to “waffle” my way out in Part Two. I’m no expert on this, having never personally had to face either motherhood or poverty. But I wonder if, even for a a poor mother who loves her baby, 20 years of trying to raise the child seems like a “short time”. And I don’t understand bureaucratic gobble-de=gook – but as nearly as I can figure it out, here in Wisconsin (which has rejected Medicaid expansion) this is the sort of maze poor pregnant women need to find their way through. Am I correct that eligibility and coverage keep changing?







  2. Following with great interest….Thank you. Timely and needful article on the issue before our Nation.

  3. “Please tell me if I have got any of this wrong.”
    Nope, not a thing Father. Thank you for taking the time, enduring the grief, to write about abortion. For to write about it, it is necessary to contemplate, to examine it. It is far more easier not to think about it.
    Certainly abortion is a moral, not a political, issue. Neither has it anything to do with liberalism or conservatism, a polarizing construct as a result of state enforcement of individual “rights” and “freedom” as the new morality, rather than a universal moral “good”.
    When you began to write this piece, had New York state passed the revised abortion law which would allow full-term abortion under certain circumstances?

  4. Hi Father Bill, I looked it up with resources you provided & internet. Federal Proverty Level for one person family is $1011.66 a month. At that income a poor woman would qualify for BadgerCare which is WI Medicaid. If they went along with Obama Care that income limit be multiplied by 1.33 I believe. Food stamps are paid to single individual making 2X the poverty level. With the additional person in the family, the baby all these income levels go up. I think it is unfair to suggest justify abortion for the sake of prosperity. The help is simply available, it is bad public policy black & white, not grey. God Bless!

  5. This is somewhat beside the point of your article, but I greatly appreciate the people who DO something rather than yelling/politicizing about abortion. In the city where I live there is a catholic organization that has several homes for women who are pregnant with nowhere to go. The women can live there for their entire pregnancy and until their baby is 6 months old. During that time they receive counseling and work on a plan for what happens afterward. The organization is also working on support systems for the kids born to those moms and other kinds of follow-up. It’s a really beautiful thing and is an alternative to abortion that might actually be attractive to a desperate mother. There is not an orthodox equivalent in our city, and I couldn’t find any Protestant ones either, though I may not have known how to look.
    This of course does not address the situation of those women who have no financial hardship and simply just don’t want a baby right now. Prayer is the only remedy I can think of for such a woman…

    1. “I greatly appreciate the people who DO something rather than yelling/politicizing about abortion.”
      I hear you Mama V. Especially some men….it just sits wrong with me. This is an issue that largely involves women and the child. There are things that women experience that men can not comprehend. And I’m not saying we don’t need them….
      I can not find the words, but Mark here is a bit annoying….

  6. Father Bill, does Exodus chapter21 have any relationship with abortion? Starting in verse 22 talking about men fighting and hurting a pregnant woman. It seems to say that the harm that is done to the baby is also to be done to the man, including life for life. Does this mean that God considers the life of an unborn baby to be equal to a full grown man? Thanks, Gary

    1. Obscure. There is no specific reference to the value of the unborn child apart from the woman. In any event, this is in the context of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, which Christ superseded (Matthew 5:38ff).

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