336. Abortion Revisited: Part One

Well, I certainly timed this right, inasmuch as Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, just as I am preparing to send out this Post.

Originally I wrote and published these two articles in this Blog in February 2019. If you read them then, some of what you find here will be familiar. Some will not. Last time I carefully avoided expressing my own opinions. I will not be so careful this time.

In Part One we’ll cover:  1 What is a Person?  2 Scriptural teaching about Abortion,  3 The Teaching of the Church about Abortion,  4 What Science tells us about the Unborn Child.

In Part Two next week we’ll look at: 1 The Church’s disciplines for her members regarding abortion,  2 How should we apply Orthodox principles to society? about which I have done considerable re-thinking since last time. 3 Being consistently Pro-Life.

In what follows I’ve tried to choose my words carefully. Please read carefully.

But before we get to the subject:

Do not forget Ukraine! This brutal, unnecessary, evil war of aggression continues, bringing shame upon the Orthodox world. Pray often for the people of Ukraine. Please give to Ukrainian relief. I recommend International Orthodox Christian Charities. Here’s their latest mailing:  https://support.iocc.org/site/Donation2?df_id=7543&mfc_pref=T&7543.donation=form1

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Abortion: Part One

Introduction

A good friend of mine just told me that while he and his daughters are liberal about most issues, they are conservative about abortion. Why? They all three were adopted and… I don’t have to tell you the rest.

The old man is now about to speak: Why in the world should being pro-life make a person a political “conservative”? Why should being pro-choice make one a  “liberal”? Why must people have to choose between these two absolute categories? Once we had different categories and different choices. Not so long ago (by my standards) it was entirely acceptable to be a pro-life Democrat or a pro-choice Republican. Till at least 1975, liberal Democratic hero Ted Kennedy declared that life begins at “the very moment of conception,”.  Barry Goldwater, the very conservative Republican nominee for President in 1964 was firmly pro-choice, and his wife founded a chapter of Planned Parenthood.  Even in 2021 former Democratic President Jimmy Carter said “I never have believed that Jesus Christ would approve of abortions…”

I wonder: Is it possible to be both pro-life and pro-choice? to value both human life and personal freedom?

Today, on almost every issue, the two American political parties are lined up in opposing camps, pushing each other into ever more extreme positions, where nobody thinks or reasons or debates or listens. For the most part they just yell and scream at each other. This is particularly true about abortion. From what I read this morning, I fear even the U.S.Supreme Court has fallen into this. Pitiful.

As we look at this issue, please let’s try to leave politics and labels behind (not easy this morning), and instead try to learn and think.

What is a Person?

I find the following thoroughly confusing. Perhaps you will too.

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 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 there are no limits on free speech, * there can therefore be no limits on political contributions. This means that, acting as “persons”,  wealthy corporations can legally drown out the speech of most actual individual persons like me, and probably like you.

  • So I can yell “Fire!” in a theater any time I feel like it?

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. (I keep thinking surely I must be misunderstanding much of the above.)

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 are not 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 ability, if born at that stage, to do everything actual persons do.

No wonder people are so confused. Is this part (not all) of what lies behind many peoples’ seemingly casual attitude towards abortion? as if it were only a legal or political issue?  Whatever the cause, since 1973 there have been over 60 million abortions in the United States – out of a total population of about 330 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, one way or another, will not solve the abortion problem, and possibly might even make things worse.

Just for the record: I noted three years ago that Norma McCorvey (the real name of the Jane Roe in the Roe v. Wade decision) was for a while pro-choice, then came out as anti-abortion, and was arrested some years ago while protesting abortion. It turned out there was more to the story: In 2020, just before her death, she confessed that she had needed money and had been paid by “Right to Life” people to come out in opposition to abortion – but that in fact she had not changed her mind. She died pro-choice. * So there we are. “All’s fair in love and war”, I guess, including moral corruption for a good cause.

  • See: https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2020/05/21/aka-jane-roe-fx-norma-mccorvey-paid-speak-against-abortion/5236476002/
  • More information about the sad case of Norma McCorvey: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/02/books/norma-mccorvey-roe-wade.html?

Scriptural Teaching about Abortion

I should leave this section blank, because there isn’t any.

In the ancient world abortion and infanticide were common. So why was abortion not a big issue in the Old Testament Jewish tradition? in the words of our Lord Jesus? in the writings of the Apostles? If they thought it an important moral issue, why didn’t they say something about it?

There are a few Scriptural references which assume personal life in the womb. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Jeremiah 1:5  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. Certainly it’s taken for granted that our Lord Jesus Christ was fully present in the womb of the Virgin Mary from the moment of the Archangel’s visit.

So why the silence about abortion?

Explain it as you will (and I can’t), killing of the unborn is nowhere condemned in the Holy Scriptures, while a multitude of other sins are many times forbidden. Like the killing of “born” persons, for example.

Did you know: After Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, Evangelical leaders at first saw little or no problem with abortion for just that reason. Billy Graham refused to take an anti-abortion stand. The Southern Baptist Convention was pro-choice as late as 1976. * See:  https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/05/10/abortion-history-right-white-evangelical-1970s-00031480

So when today’s “Bible alone” Evangelicals are militantly anti-abortion, they’re getting it from somewhere else, not from the Bible.

Orthodox Christianity is not based on “Bible alone”. Nevertheless, we do believe that the Holy Scriptures are the first and primary witness to Jesus Christ and the Apostolic Faith. So as we consider this topic, I’d like to suggest that we try to keep a 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 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 the Virgin Mary.

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 that one.

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

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. Still later in the West, Thomas Aquinas held that abortion before quickening was not so bad as murder.

However, so far as I know, the Church has never authorized any sort of baptismal or burial service for unborn babies who have been miscarried, even in very late term. Why not? In recent years, some priests have offered unofficial memorial services as a pastoral comfort for the parents. But that’s all.

Here is a statement on the Sanctity of Life, passed by our American Orthodox Assembly of Bishops, only last Sunday, June 19.  It wisely places the subject of abortion in context of many other kinds of wrongful taking of human life: war, suicide, capital punishment and the like. They say abortion is murder, but allow there are extremely exceptional cases when it may be accepted, though it must never become the norm. Read it for yourself: https://www.assemblyofbishops.org/news/2022/human-life-sacrednes

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 added: “At the same time, we also affirm our respect for the autonomy of women. It is they who bring forth life into the world.”

This caused a reaction among some Orthodox who thought Elpidophoros was compromising on the issue. For myself, I think he was just stating the obvious. Except in cases of rape and incest and sexually abusive personal or working relationships, women do control their bodies, both before and during pregnancy, and they do choose whether or not to abort a baby..

Apparently in reaction, a statement was issued on March 25, 2022 by four American Orthodox heirarchs (representing the Antiochian, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian jurisdictions) in which they ask civil authorities “to treat all humans equally under the law, and thus to forbid the evil practice of abortion”. * Are they saying they want women who have abortions to be arrested, tried, imprisoned and in some states 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

You know, something has been nagging at me here, and finally I know what it is: All these above decisions about women are being made by old bearded celibate men (on which I qualify on three counts). Should not women have something to say here? should not women, who understand the situation from inside (literally) have some part in making these decisions?

Scientific Knowledge about the Unborn Child

Here is a simple description of the various stages the unborn baby goes through in the womb, with much knowledge unavailable to us till recent times. (It’s written by a man who eagerly expects to be a father within a few days.) So far as I can see, he doesn’t try to score points, only to describe.. * https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2011/09/14/140397576/when-does-life-begin

  • Yes, I listen to NPR, even though I disagree with some of the things I hear. I disagree with some of the things I hear almost everywhere!

Here is a day by day description of the development of the baby in the womb. (The process is so remarkable and beautiful that it made my eyes go all teary.) https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002398.htm

We now know that from implantation, at least, the individual baby has his or her own unique DNA, and that by about the seventh week the baby’s heart begins to beat. How can it be argued that this, tiny as it is, is not a human being?

However, if I understand this right, before implantation  the zygote (the un-implanted cells) can sometimes merge or divide. This suggests that during this short period the individual person does not yet exist. Does this leave room for discussion about certain means of birth control which some consider to be abortion?

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 human person (soul, mind and body) is the gift of God, to be reverenced and honored, not destroyed.

However, what if a woman gets pregnant and is alone and poor, with no health insurance? Mayo Clinic says that today “the average cost of having a vaginal delivery is between $5,000 and $11,000 in most states. The numbers are higher for C-sections, with prices ranging from $7,500 to $14,500.” (That’s enough to bankrupt some working couples who have no insurance.) What if she has no way to pay for this? What if she has no way support herself while also taking care of the baby? She knows she shouldn’t have got herself into this situation, but she did and there she is. She’s desperate. She feels trapped.

So what does she do?

As of today, my state of Wisconsin is bound by an 1849 law (never repealed) that criminalized abortion, making it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion, even if it was the result of rape or incest, unless the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. However, exactly what endangers “the life of the mother” and who decides it – this is very unclear in the statute. So most doctors probably won’t touch it with a ten foot pole, for fear of losing their license.

So what does she do?

I’ve heard some say that government pre-natal and post-natal assistance is easily available. It isn’t that simple, guys. Except for those of us over 65, our American health care system is often convoluted, complex and expensive. Wisconsin “Badgercare” for those without health insurance looks pretty good, as nearly as I can tell – a carryover from previous legislatures, not the present one. However, many states which now criminalize abortion provide very little support for poor mothers.

So what does she do?

Next Week: Abortion, Part Two.

Week after Next: Why is religion in America declining? You tell me.

One thought on “336. Abortion Revisited: Part One

  1. Fr Bill,
    I thought your blog exceptionally well written in coming at this subject from four perspectives, each one making substantive contributions for thoughtful consideration. If the conservative justices on the Supreme Court think this is the end of the abortion matter, I say not. The decision may well deal with abortion and an unborn child, tbut the moral ambiguities that still envelope the Pro-Life issue remain. We have no cause to celebrate when gun violence and its deadly consequences seem ascendent. We have no cause to celebrate when large numbers of citizens, rural and urban, live in poverty without access to those things that enhance life—good social services, medical care for whatever reason, quality education, good afforable housing, not to mention hope itself.

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