The recent “March for Life” in Washington, D.C. has me reflecting on the issue of abortion and the stance the Orthodox Church takes concerning this very polarizing problem. Some unfortunate exceptions withstanding, the general goal of those who adjoin themselves to the Pro-Life movement is to speak out for and take peaceful action in defense of, the sacred gift of life, with emphasis on human populations seen as undeserving of life. The population most visible in the media is that of unborn children. Indeed the unborn are widely undervalued, and even viewed as threats to the wellbeing of others. In fact, they are so devalued in our culture that “tragically, since the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that eviscerated legal protection for unborn children, more than 61 million babies have been… aborted—a death toll that equates with the entire population of Italy.”
The question I am asking and attempting to partly answer in this reflection is “Why?” What exactly is at the heart of the way we deem some human beings more valuable - more fully human - than others? Why do we despise certain groups and see them as threats to our wellbeing? Why do we see our own children as enemies waiting to steal our lives from us? Perhaps partly, it’s because we have been taught to have such inclinations…
Unmasking the Wolf
Too many loud and persistent voices are succeeding in drowning out the voice of the Good Shepherd, “to deceive if possible, even the elect…”(Matt 24:24). Abortion comes to us dressed in sanitized, crisp, white coats. It exists in clinics designed to look like healing hospitals. Doctors and nurses formally trained to aid in the healing of human bodies now serve these clinics. Such professionals have come to symbolize help and healing for our society for centuries. They are seen as protectors of pregnant women seeking abortions from the alternative unsanitary, back-alley abortionists frequented when abortion is illegal.
The wolves in sheep’s clothing also come to us in pleas designed to appeal to our sympathetic heartstrings. They cry, “Why bring a child into this world of pain and suffering? Why subject a child who has health issues to a difficult life? Why should a rape victim have to live with a life growing inside her when she did not consent to the violent act that led to the pregnancy? Why perpetuate a cycle of poverty and abuse for a child when it seems there is no end to that cycle?” The sensitive, and I would suggest, naïve, heart hears these sorrowful notes and starts to beat in rhythm with them.
As once did I.
More questions than answers come to mind in order to dismantle the disguise of the sheep’s clothing and expose the wolf: Who will protect the babies from the likes of aforementioned “healing” professionals? Who will speak out on behalf of those who have been silenced by death? And an equally, if not more important question is, who will protect and provide healing for the parents’ and abortionists’ souls from the tragic effects of ending human life? When a person takes steps within his or her power toward support of life, pro-Life, he has answered these questions with, “Here I am (Lord), send me…” (Isaiah 6:8).
There may be complex reasons at work in the decisions to abort that include a myriad of “becauses”, and the Church is not blind to these difficulties. The Church is particularly exceptional in only one case: when a pregnancy places the mother’s life at risk. Priests may carefully exercise Economia, using discernment in such situations to help guide parents’ decisions to most fully honor life. Also noteworthy is the greater compassion offered pastorally in cases where parents desired to have a child but out of naivety were led to abort by medical professionals, or mental illness served to cloud decisions, or women were raped or coerced into abortions.
That said and the great mercy of the Church immutable, every abortion ends a unique life - fully human and unrepeatable – regardless of his/her ability to thrive outside of the womb. The teaching of the Apostles and witness of the Saints through the ages does not try to lighten the sting of what happens in an abortion.
St. Basil writes, “Those who give potions for the destruction of the child conceived in the womb are murderers, as are those who take potions which kill the child.” (Letters, CLXXXVIII, Canon 8)…John Meyendorff, writes, “…the nature of the act of abortion being killing, and as such a very grave sin. Because killing is evil . . . ” (“The Orthodox Church” [Newspaper] October 1972).
To some modern, desensitized ears these words may ring harshly, but they must be proclaimed for us to see the wolf for what it really is.
Back to “Why?”
Commonly, couples see their unborn baby as “less than” fully human because of a genetic anomaly or health issue, or they may think the baby is an obstacle preventing them from having an abundant life. For our society, abundance and life have been deceptively defined as power, accolades, high intelligence, prestige, physical beauty, acceptance in certain social circles, or simply an easy, comfortable existence. “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly…” (John 10:10) Jesus says, but many times the abundant life seems so out of reach because our understanding of what “abundance” and “life” are is so warped. We either despair for life or we attack it as if it’s something to be conquered, rather than accept it as a precious gift. We do not really love any life when we see it this way. In fact, we do not know Him “Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life” at all (John 14:6).
At the heart of this problem of seeing another person – any person – as an enemy, is the failure to value our own life properly. We do not realize our true worth, and we project that self-evasion onto other people, especially our children. It is a very subconscious thing that happens more deeply in parenthood, this identifying of our children with ourselves. Psychologists note that abusers of children are not merely repeating behavior they have received, but are just as deeply acting out in self-loathing when their children mirror their own weakness. If we saw our own lives the way God does, believing He endowed us with intrinsic beauty and value, we would believe the same of every person He has created.
We are not alone when we fail to see the true meaning of life. This pericope from the Gospel of Matthew shows that Jesus’ original disciples also had skewed understandings of what gives a person value:
At that time, Jesus and his disciples came to Capernaum, and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, "If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:33-35).
If expectant parents, indeed all people would recognize and practice the truth that he or she “would be first if he or she would seek to be servant of all,” this world would exist in the harmony and peace most of us long for. Each would understand their own life’s value as becoming more precious when shared for the purpose of helping others to have life - all others.
Just to be clear that His disciples understood that He identifies with each human person regardless of their societal position or contributions, Christ lifts up a certain life – of a child - among the most needy of any life stage, and says in effect, ‘I am this one, the one you count most insignificant’:
“And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”(Mark 9:36-37)
In His incarnation Christ bestowed infinite value upon humanity. Already the “crown” of God’s creation made in His image, the Son of God’s union with human flesh gifts us with the highest honor of being members of His very Body. We really matter. Every. Last. One.
What Would Happen if We Prayed?
In her memoir, “Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian”, Sarah Williams describes the difficult choice she and her husband were faced with when they learned of their unborn child’s skeletal disease. It would render her unable to breathe at birth because the baby’s chest cavity was too small for her lungs to grow. A Christian woman, she found herself surprised that her initial desire was to abort her baby.
I sat in the living room cuddling my knees. Once I would have been quick to register my opposition to abortion but now I was shocked to find that the only thing I wanted was to get the fetus out of my body as quickly as possible…”It’s the kindest thing to do, isn’t it?”…I remember the desperation in Paul’s face as he suggested we pray.
I’ve often heard people use the phrase “God said to me” but I never understood what it meant until that evening in May when I can only say that we felt God speak a message to our hearts as clearly as if he had been talking with us in person.
“Here is a sick and dying child. Will you love this child for Me?”
The question reframed everything. It was no longer primarily a question of abstract ethical principle but rather the gentle imperative of love. Before we finished praying, the chasm between the principle and the choice had been filled.
Sarah and Paul Williams chose to let God set the span of their baby Cerian’s life, and to love the “sick and dying child” for Him. Sarah tries to describe the love she realized God had for her baby, but struggles to convey the depth of it. She simply knew with all surety that God loved her baby completely and immeasurably. God loved her “imperfect” child who was “perfectly human”.
I have to wonder how many other stress-filled pregnancies would come to full term if the parents would take their fear and confusion to God in prayer. Before making an irreversible decision to end life, they would open themselves up to the belief that life belongs in Life’s hands. Once touched by God in prayer, a person is changed. Fears vanish and love wells up in its place, for ”God is Love, and Perfect Love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:18).
These arguments are not meant to gloss over the stark reality of poverty, oppression, shame, and fear in this fallen world. The circumstances many pregnant women find themselves in can be wrought with distress, violence, and abuse. This is why I believe we as the Body of Christ, the Church, need to rise up and provide networks of support for the unborn and their parents who simply cannot see a way out of their situations. Are we speaking out on how valuable their lives are to us? Are we really meaning it? Do we reach out to unwed mothers or families in crisis pregnancies with the gentle imperative of God’s love… “Will you love this child for (Him)?” Do we love the parents and not make them subject to guilt trips and shame? Do we make options manifest for God’s love to express itself through adoption connections, continuing education, job opportunities, and the like? We have largely failed to do so, and that must change if we really want to be a part of Promoting Life.
Promoting Life can start one person at a time, most importantly through prayer and communion with the Triune God. Bound to Him, we will receive the power of Love to reach out to others in need. We will be able to love, because “He first loved us”(1 John 4:19). We will reach out to single parents organizing baby showers and providing childcare. We will support the married couple facing news of their unborn baby’s genetic challenges by sharing their grief, while encouraging them to treasure the life God has blessed them to care for - with our help. We will love their baby with all his or her “imperfections”. We will love the baby’s parents with all his and her imperfections.
Through prayer, we will become more aware of the sacredness of life and make holiness our aim. This will translate into marriages that exemplify healthy sexual boundaries, and raising our children to save the expression of sexuality for their future husbands and wives. We will teach them it is possible to live chaste lives, because we will believe it. We won’t give in to the wider culture’s ways of cheapening life because we will know Life intimately, and our eyes will be opened to the sacredness of His gift. This will largely render the desire for many abortions pointless as consecrated, committed unions in Christ replace casual sexual encounters.
Through prayer we will communicate to the woman and man who opted to abort their baby that they are not doomed to a lifetime of guilt and shame. There is a deep fount of forgiveness and mercy beckoning them to return to their Father’s loving embrace. We, the Church, will invite them to Reconciliation with Christ and reunite them to His true Life through the Sacraments.
Through prayer we will love our family, friends, neighbors and ourselves the same way – despite each one’s capacity for wretched behavior - trusting that God loves us more than we are capable of comprehending and treasures us as His own dear children. He knows we are imperfect, but He has created us all perfectly human. Every. Last. One.
 Smith, Chris (2020, January 24) The March for Life to Defend the Weakest and Most Vulnerable.https://chrissmith.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=406333
 Purpura, Archpriest Joseph F. Abortion: from Moral and Ethical Issues: Confronting Orthodox Youth Across North America. http://religiousinstitute.org/denom_statements/abortion-from-moral-and-ethical-issues-confronting-orthodox-youth-across-north-america/.
 Williams, S. C. (2018) Perfectly Human Nine Months with Cerian. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House