Thou shalt not kill - Abortion

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Thou shalt not kill.


Abortion is a burning issue in the contemporary United States. A ruling of whether to permit or not to permit abortions, in the opinion of many of the country's social and political figures, strikes a blow at the pluralistic system of the United States, which evolved to allow rather diverse considerations of moral and ethical questions.

The abortion controversy has two camps. Opponents of legalized abortion argue--on the basis of religious morality--that abortion is cessation of the life of the foetus, murder of an unborn person, and violation of the Sixth Commandment of God's Law, Thou shalt not kill. The advocates of legalized abortion may argue that each woman must have a free choice to abort or not to. Advocates argue that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to forbid this choice would infringe the right of a woman to control her own body in whatever way she thinks best for herself.

In most states in the 1960's, it was still illegal to perform an abortion, or difficult to get permission for it. Well-off women who decided to have an abortion traveled abroad, most often to Europe or Mexico. Women less well-off turned to poorly qualified obstetricians who performed abortions illegally for much money. Many of these abortions had harmful medical consequences. Then in 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled to legalize abortion, deciding that each woman had the constitutional right to undergo an abortion without any limitation during the first three months of pregnancy, with only certain limitations during the second three months.

This Supreme Court decision immediately provoked a powerful negative reaction from some jurists, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens. This reaction has not subsided despite of subsequent Supreme Court decisions on abortion that limited its original breadth somewhat. Thus, in 1981 the Supreme Court decided that individual American states may require that physicians inform the parents of minors who request them to perform an abortion.

Since 1973, the number of abortions performed each year in the United States has doubled, to more than 1.5 million. In the (former) USSR, from 7 to 20 million abortions are performed each year. The Supreme Court decision and the rising number of abortions in America have provoked something akin to a crusade against abortion. This movement, Right to Life, is considered by many one of the most powerful in the contemporary American political life.

On the other hand, the organization called "Planned Parenthood" holds that the government must not interfere in the moral and religious concerns of the family. The organization "Planned Parenthood" favors preventing pregnancies, if they are not wanted, and it fights for the right to interrupt an unwanted pregnancy. Adherents of this organization consider the decision to undergo an abortion to manifest a personal freedom under attack by the opponents of abortion.

Abortion opponents, including the members of Right to Life, say that they respect freedom of choice, but that they oppose abortion, which see as murder. At times they organize noisy protests at abortion clinics, and explain that they so not to cause unpleasantness for women, but to defend the right to life of children yet unborn. In the controversy, the opponents are convinced that the main question is life. Their concern is not to define life and when it begins: life is life. One must not approach life casually. Instead society must revere life as sacred for the person born as well as unborn.

When does human life begin? From the scientific point of view, biological life begins at the moment of conception, when the egg unites with the sperm. It may be hard to see a tangle of biological cells as the beginning of human life. But some biologists think that conception really does signify the beginning of human life because the fertilized egg constitutes a definite and unique genetic individual. An embryo conceived by two human beings is a human being. Human life matters more than just life. This reasoning is advanced by Christian churches and other opponents of abortion in the argument against abortion.

Others would say that life beings roughly at a week after conception. After conception physicians already can determine the condition and activity of the embryo. Some others think that life begins four months after conception, when the heart of the foetus begins to beat. Still others hold the view that life begins two months after conception, with the foetus developed fully with external features of a human being easily identifiable. One should add that in recent years science has proven that human features appear much earlier in the foetus than previously supposed. Therefore, many believe that the unborn child is a human being well before the end of six-month period during which the current law now allows it to be destroyed.

Scientists in favor of abortion, however, may consider human life as beginning only when the foetus is developed enough for it to exist independently outside the mother's womb. The U.S. Supreme Court understood this argument in 1973 when it legalized performing abortions. It thought that the foetus could first live outside the mother's womb at a time between the 24th and 28th weeks of pregnancy. However, thanks to improved medical technology, physicians now can support the life of the foetus outside the mother's womb a full eight weeks earlier, that is, at the 20th week of pregnancy. Certain scientists even think that the day will come when the foetus can be supported outside the mother's womb at any stage of its development.

To the ethical question of abortion, Christian theologians also add the question about the human soul, which, although it is an independent substance separate from the body, nevertheless exists side by side with the body. Can one undergo an abortion without taking into consideration the soul of the foetus? We can get partial answer to this question from antiquity and Christian patristic literature.

The origin of each individual human being's soul is not fully revealed in Sacred Scripture. This is a mystery, according to the words of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, known to God alone. Therefore, the Church does not strictly define an answer to this question. The church decisively rejected the view of Origin (an ecclesiastical writer of the first Christian centuries) inherited from the philosophy of Plato concerning the pre-existence of souls, according to which souls come to earth from the world above. This teaching of Origin and his followers was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

In the view of some of the Church Fathers -- Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Ephraim the Syrian and others -- each soul is created separately by God. Moreover, some fathers timed its joining with the body to coincide with the 40th day of the formation of the body. In the view of other teachers and fathers of the Church--Tertulian, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Macarius of Egypt and others, both substances--soul and body--receive their beginning and perfection simultaneously: The soul is created from the souls of the parents, just as the body is created from the bodies of the father and mother. In this way, creation here is understood in a wide sense, as the participation of God's creative power, which is everywhere existent and necessary for every soul.

Concerning the soul, Saint John of Kronstadt, in his diary My Life in Christ, reflects thus:

"What are human souls? They are one and the same soul or one and the same breath of God, which God breathed into Adam, which from Adam till now extends to the whole human race. All people, therefore, are as one person or one tree of humanity. Hence, the most natural commandment, founded on the unity of our nature, is: Love the Lord Thy God [Thy Prototype, Thy Father], with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor (for who is closer to me than the man who is like me, who is akin to me), as thyself."

The Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic and some other Christian confessions have a consistent answer. Conception is a sacred gift of God; anyone who encroaches on this gift, anyone who destroys it is, is criminally breaking God's law. The Church has always condemned abortion, trying with all Her powers to keep Her children from it. In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great, in his 8th canon, called those people murderers who by whatever means terminate the life of the foetus. We also find this prohibition in the 91st canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

The Church confesses that God creates each life, that human life is the supreme gift of the Creator. Human life, according to Church teaching, is not given unconditionally by God, but is given to man under the condition that he preserve it. The testimony that God respects life above all else is contained in the words of the Gospel: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). The incarnation of the Second Person of the All-Holy Trinity, that is, the assumption of human flesh by the Son of God--the Logos--forever, unto the ages of ages, has sanctified the life of man, both his physical as well as his spiritual nature.

God created Man in His image and likeness of God. The fall of Adam broke the image and destroyed the likeness of God in man, but by the coming of Christ--the Second Adam--to the earth, by His Life, Death and Resurrection, the image and likeness of God were restored with even greater brilliance. In His humanity, Christ restored the life of Adam, that is, the life of the whole human race. Human existence is a reflection of God's existence, for each man possesses the potential to become like God till he attains unity with Him. This change, transfiguration, deification, encompasses a man's whole being, his soul and body, as we see in the transfigured and incorrupt body of the Resurrected Christ.

Finally, in so far as God's perfection is beyond our understanding, the process of becoming like God, the process of developing our person is unending. It begins from the moment of conception and continues until the very hour of death. In this way, no one can say that he is a person or that he has become fully man, in the full spiritual sense of the word, so long as he has not attained the complete Divine Likeness. But each man possesses the potential to become a God-like person at whatever stage of physical development he is found in his mother's womb, in the prime of life, or on his deathbed.

We can be certain that the potential is present in the embryo to become a person to the fullest extent, not only by proceeding from the Church's concept concerning psychosomatic unity, but likewise if we turn to Sacred Scripture. The Church teaches that the Divine Logos--Christ became flesh at the moment of conception; and the Virgin Mary's relative, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, testified to the Virgin Mary, For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my for joy (Luke 1:44). In other words, the fruit of Elizabeth's womb sensed the approach of the Divine Foetus in the womb of the Virgin Mary and reacted to this approach with a joyful leap.

As we have already said, one of the most widely disseminated arguments in favor of performing abortions is that each woman has the right to control the functions of her body, in whatever way she finds necessary, right up to terminating the life of an unwanted foetus.

The Church rejects this argument. First of all, She points to the sacredness of God-given life, and likewise points to the fact that if it is forbidden for the Christian to raise his hand against his own life, all the more so does a Christian not have the right to terminate the life of another, even if this life has the appearance of a still not completely formed embryo.

Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, as the Apostle Paul teaches; this means that the cessation of the life of any other person is considered to be a crime not only in regard to that person, but likewise in regard to the Holy Spirit.

Can we allow the cessation of the life of the foetus, if the life of the mother is threatened by the pregnancy? From the ethical point of view, this is a very difficult question. Many theologians think that in such instances the termination of pregnancy is allowable. Such situations are tragic, especially for the mother, because they force her to make the difficult choice between preserving her own life or the life of the child. In these especially difficult instances, it is necessary to take into account possible negative consequences for the family. For example, if there are other children in the family, in the case of the mother's death, who will take responsibility for the orphans? It is necessary to approach similar situations in the spirit of Christian love and sacrifice. It would be completely senseless and irresponsible to preserve the pregnancy if it threatens the loss of both lives, both the mother's and the child's.

In the case of rape or incest, the Church urges the victim, first of all, to free herself from false modesty and as soon as possible to take the necessary measures to prevent the fertilization of the female egg. Another difficult question is the probability that the foetus will be born deformed or retarded. The Church teaches that such children are also created in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, it is not allowed to terminate their life.

In general, the Church calls upon all of society to make sacrifices in helping mothers who in one way or another are faced with difficulties connected with bearing children. Each family is a living unit of society; each cell is answerable for the well-being and health of the whole. The whole of society must also take care of each individual member. Bear ye one another's burdens, teaches the Apostle Paul, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). It is with special compassion that the Church regards the mother already after having an abortion, frequently performed under pressure from family, society, poverty, etc. Such unfortunates should not be beaten further, but compassionately supported and saved.

©Archpriest Victor Potapov

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