Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sacred Life Within the Womb

In America, abortion is often seen as a political issue concerning the competing rights of two individuals: the rights of a woman and the rights of an unborn child. The Orthodox Christian Church views abortion in the light of the sanctity of the mother’s womb and the precious life present within this sacred space.

As Orthodox Christians we should pray for the innocent children, as well as the mothers and practitioners, whose lives have been touched by the terrible act of abortion. To paraphrase our priest’s words, it is not for us to judge anyone, but to pray for everyone. We should pray that everyone finds peace. May we all live the Faith, reaching out to young expectant mothers by showing them the inexhaustible love of God. May we also offer them the practical support they need to care for their children in a stable, loving, spiritual environment.

The following is a prayer we prayed during the Divine Liturgy this past Sunday.

O Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, Who are in the bosom of the Father, True God, source of life and immortality, Light of Light, who came into the world to enlighten it, Thou wast pleased to be conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary for the salvation of our souls by the power of Thine All-Holy Spirit. O Master, Who came that we might have life more abundantly, we ask that Thou might enlighten the minds and hearts of those blinded to the truth that life begins at conception, and that the unborn in the womb are already adorned with Thine image and likeness; enable us to guard, cherish and protect the lives of all those who are unable to care for themselves. For Thou art the Bestower of Life, bringing each person from non-being into being, sealing each person with divine and infinite love. Be merciful, O Lord, to those who, through ignorance of willfulness, affront Thy divine goodness and providence through the act of abortion. May they, and all of us, come to the light of Thy Truth and glorify Thee, the Giver of Life, together with Thy Father and Thine All-Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Selections from early Christian writings and a recent letter from His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip concerning life within the womb and its destruction by abortion are available on the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America website (antiochian.org). A more detailed explanation of the Church’s historic understanding of life before birth and abortion is described in a “friend of the court” brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Holy Orthodox Church. The full text of the brief is available at orthodoxinfo.com.

Selections from the “friend of the court” brief follows:

Among the most highly regarded of ancient Christian writings is the Didache, which dates from the late first century. Its teaching is unambiguous: "Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant." Id. at II, 2. This is echoed in another didactic writing universally esteemed in the ancient Church, the Epistle of Barnabas, from the early second century: "Never do away with an unborn child or destroy it after its birth." Id. at XIX, 5.

The writings of the Fathers of the Church and other authorities further attest to the unanimity with which abortion was condemned. Among the earliest was the philosopher and apologist Athenagoras of Athens, who wrote to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (c.177) to defend Christians against false charges of murder: "What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God?" St. Basil the Great (c.330-379) was unequivocable: "A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder." St. John Chrysostom (c.345-407) who in his famous homilies railed against men who secured the abortions of their illegitimate offspring, called their actions "even worse than murder." Of such men who impelled women to have abortions, he said, "You do not let a prostitute remain a prostitute, but make her a murderer as well."

Among the earliest testimonies that fetal development was irrelevant is that of St. Basil the Great, who wrote that "any hairsplitting distinction as to its being formed or unformed is inadmissible with us." He also condemned suppliers of abortifacients, regardless of the stage of pregnancy: "'Those who give potions for the destruction of a child conceived in the womb are murderers, as are those who take potions which kill the child."

St. Basil's brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-394), saw the fetus as a complete human being from the time of conception, and specifically rejected theories based upon formation or quickening: "There is no question about that which is bred in the uterus, both growing, and moving from place to place. It remains, therefore, that we must think that the point of commencement of existence is one and the same for body and soul." Even Tertullian of Carthage (c.160-c.230), a prominent Latin ecclesiastical writer who seemed to accept the formed/unformed distinction as a biological matter, dismissed its moral importance: "Abortion is a precipitation of murder, nor does it matter whether or not one takes a life when formed, or drives it away when forming, for he is also a man who is about to be one."

Though less specific, Holy Scripture also recognizes that an unborn child's life is sacred, and begins no later than conception: "'Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Jeremiah 1:5, 6. Also noteworthy is St. Luke's use of the same Greek word, brephos (baby), for both the unborn St. John the Baptist (Luke 1:44) and the newly-born Christ child (Luke 2:12). Even more indicative are those examples, in both Old and New Testaments, where God enters into a direct personal relationship with a specific individual before birth, by "consecrating," "appointing," "calling," and //setting apart" the unborn child through His grace. This testifies to the Bible's view that the fetus is not only a human being but a person. That this understanding of an unborn person's receptivity to divine grace extends back to conception is further evidenced by the ancient practice, as formalized in the Church calendar, of celebrating not only the conception of Christ (Annunciation, March 25), but that of His mother (December 9), and St. John the Baptist (September 23).

Historic Christianity recognized conception as the time at which life and soul were united, and regarded abortion at any stage of pregnancy as homicide. Though the Orthodox Church, for historical reasons relating to its organizational and doctrinal continuity with historic Christianity, is more acutely aware of this fact, this should not be taken as sectarian pleading. Rather, it is a unique witness to an older and sounder tradition that is our common heritage. The fact that the theological writings of Christian antiquity were formulated by men with little understanding of biology, but whose views are entirely compatible with our modern understanding, is further testament to their moral perspicacity.

(The Amicus Curiae Submitted to the Supreme Court, No. 88-605, In The Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1988, WILLIAM L. WEBSTER; STATE OF MISSOURI, Appellants,v. REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH SERVICES; PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF GREATER KANSAS CITY; HOWARD I. SCHWARTZ, M.D.; ROBERT L. BLAKE, M.D.; CARL C. PEARMAN, M.D.; CARROLL METZGER, R.N.C.; MARY L. PEMBERTON, B.S.W., Appellees. On Appeal From The United States Court of Appeals For the Eighth Circuit. Orthodoxinfo.com, full text available at http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/abortion.aspx.)

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The 13th century icon is in the public domain.)