By Fr. Anthony Mourad – Parish Priest from St. George & St. Anthony Coptic Orthodox Church, Ottawa, Canada.
The perspective and the stance of the church are neither to condemn people nor make them feel guilty for any past choices or any choices they are contemplating on making today. This is an extremely difficult choice for many people and the church recognizes that. The church recognizes also that in some very extreme situations these decisions are extremely hard to make.
However, to be clear, the perspective of the church is not one to be politically correct or where we attempt to make amends for very emotional situations. The church attempts at all times to shed light on very dark situations.
To answer the question on hand properly we need to recognize how severe this situation is now worldwide. According to certain statistics, on a global level, 40-50 million abortions are performed yearly across the globe. This equates to 125,000 abortions every day.
To understand the magnitude of this we are not going to discuss the rights of people, whether or not they have the choice to abort because the church is not attempting to overstep people’s choices.
However, what the church attempts to do is to try to understand how it is that God defines life and what is the true meaning of the sanctity of life that God has given us.
If you search out the word abortion in all of scripture, you will not find it. The word itself is not clearly defined. This poses the question of why does the church have an opinion on a matter not even referenced in scripture?
It is important that we know that despite the fact that the act of abortion is not mentioned explicitly in scripture, the taking of an innocent life is clearly condemned in scripture.
Examples of this in the Old Testament are in Exodus 20:13, or in Leviticus 24:17. In the New Testament, Christ Himself condemns the taking of an innocent of life in John 8:12 and Matthew 26:52
Scripture is full with the understanding that life belongs to God and no one should take a stance where they take life from another.
Orthodox Christians do not simply look at scripture but take a look at Holy Tradition.
When we look at holy tradition, we see that the fathers of the church had quite a lot to say about this. Not only the fathers of the church but also the teachings of the disciples (the Didache) themselves.
In the Didache we see in Chapter 2 passage 1 where it clearly mentions “You shall not procure an abortion, nor destroy a new born child”
St Basil the Great, in his first Canonical letter in Canon 2 clearly writes to the church in the 4th century and says: “Let her who procures abortion undergoes ten years penance whether the embryo is perfectly formed or not”.
The early mind of the church, whether it is the 1st century, 4th or even until now, had an understanding that an innocent life should not be taken even if it is within the confinement of the concept of abortion.
Taking this further, to understand the importance and the sanctity of life in the eyes of God we must understand when does life begin in His eyes?
To understand this we have to attempt to understand the notion of personhood.
In the liturgy of St Gregory the theologian, he talks about how it is that “God brought him into existence out of none existence.” So we recognize by this that God is truly the life giver. He is Life and from him precedes all those things that exist (including Human Beings). He breathes life into that person that He created.
Knowing this about God, at what point can we say life begins? We cannot limit this notion to the moment where a child is born and brought to the world through delivery.
To us it’s not a matter of when it is we enter into the world physically when we exit the womb of our mother but rather we ask the question at what point did God will us into existence? At what point did He breathe life into us?
Here are a few examples from Sceipture: the church celebrates and recognizes life in the womb even before the moment of delivery. This is seen in the passage where St John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb is greeted by our Lord Jesus Christ who is in the womb of St Mary, the Theotokos. The child LEAPS for joy from recognizing the presence of the Lord God and Savior. In this case we see life is demonstrated in 2 ways:
1) In the fact that the Lord, is very much the Word incarnate while He is still in the womb of His mother
2) In the fact that the life in Elizabeth is a living person as he leaps for joy when the Lord comes into his presence.
We also have examples in the liturgical life. The church celebrates the moment of conception of the Lord, in the feast of the annunciation when the angel Gabriel announces that the Holy Spirit will descend on the Holy Virgin Mary and she will conceive and give birth to the child who will be the Savior of the world.
We also celebrate the annunciation of the Holy Virgin Theotokos herself and through all of these things the Church demonstrates that life exists and willed by God at the moment of conception and not necessarily at a specific moment that science tries to define.
It is not up to science or the medical world to tell us at what point a life is alive. It is up to the life giver himself who demonstrated to us that when He wills a life into existence that life truly does exist.
This is seen clearly in the book of Jeremiah 1:5 “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”
This reveals that even before the forming in the womb, the Lord God knows you and me because He has willed us into existence. We are first and foremost the work of His handiwork.We are molded by Him in the womb. This is not limited to a specific time frame.
Because of this the church stands firmly saying that the taking of an innocent life through abortion is not something that it can stand for or defend. On the contrary, we desire that every life that is brought into existence by God may be able to see light.
This statement doesn’t undermine or disregard that there are some situations that are very difficult.
For now the standard is set, in the eyes of God the life giver, every life He has willed into existence should not be taken for any reason.
In situations where someone has in the past committed an abortion, the Church calls you to a life of repentance. Through the mysteries/sacraments God can forgive and absolve all transgressions; however we must first come to Him in repentance acknowledging our sins.
In cases where someone is contemplating an abortion for any reason, the church encourages you to not act hastily but to speak to a Spiritual father in the Church who can guide and inspire you to make the right decisions.
Remember, know your faith, live your faith and teach your faith.