Frederica Here and Now:
I’m recording this on January 22nd, 2008, the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion all through America—through all 50 states, through all nine months of pregnancy. People question that sometimes, because the Roe decision says that abortion should be available to a woman under any circumstances, until the point of viability. It said that, after that, states can begin to have some laws protecting the unborn child, after viability. But there’s a companion decision to Roe v. Wade, called Doe v. Bolton. It came down the same day, and it governs how that proposed post-viability period can be legislated in the states. It says that states may do nothing to restrict a woman’s access to abortion if she wants the abortion for some aspect of her health. Well, the result is that you can have a legal abortion at almost any point in pregnancy if you are willing to travel for it. There are specialists who go into these post-viability late-term abortions, that’s what they specialize in offering.
And I think that the outcome has been not at all what I expected, when I was a college student back at the time of Roe v. Wade, when I was not a Christian and was very much in favor of abortion law repeal. I thought that abortion should be available to anyone who wanted it under any circumstances; and at the time my friends and I thought that it would be used only in the most extreme and most terrible circumstances. I thought that abortion would be very rare because clearly it’s so horrible; who would want to go through this? And we thought we would make it legal just for those few cases where it truly seemed to be the only alternative.
And something very different happened. It seems that once abortion becomes available, it begins to look like the most convenient solution, if not to the woman who’s pregnant, to the people around her. To her boss, it looks like it would be better for her to go ahead and have an abortion, then you wouldn’t have her leaving on maternity leave and coming back again. If she has a scholarship, an athletic scholarship to college, again, how crazy would she have to be not to have an abortion in that circumstance?
When I wrote my book Real Choices, 14 years ago, I interviewed women who had had abortions, and most of the time they told me that the reason they had an abortion was because somebody that they cared about, usually the father of the child, but in many cases her own mother, really pressured her to have the abortion. They kept telling her, “This is the right thing to do, this is what you ought to do.” That kind of pressure really is influential to a pregnant woman. It’s an open question whether abortion really is what women choose, or whether it’s what they feel they have to choose, because the alternatives look so bleak.
Well, far from being rare, there have now been over 48 million abortions in America since the Roe v. Wade decision. And at present about one in every four pregnant women has an abortion. About one out of every four pregnancies is aborted.
This is nothing like what we imagined. One in four pregnancies: it’s astounding. And so it just goes to show you that there are unintended consequences, and that people’s behavior is not always something that you can predict.
In retrospect, though, I can see how the availability of abortion, the fact that it’s in the yellow pages—you know, if you haven’t done this, look in your local yellow pages under “A” and see. How do abortion providers advertise? What kind of little pictures do they put in their ads? How do they phrase things? It’s chilling to think that this is actually a business, a multi-million dollar business that can advertise in the yellow pages.
Well, one of the things I had been looking at recently was the attitude of the early Church toward abortion. Rodney Stark wrote a wonderful book a couple of years ago called The Rise of Christianity. And one of the points he made was that the early Christians opposed abortion, and that was one of the reasons that Christianity was attractive to women. Because in the Greco-Roman culture, it was not the woman’s choice whether her pregnancy continued or her newborn child was allowed to live, but rather the choice of the father of the child. And he could wait until the child was born and then decide whether or not he wanted it. Is it a boy or a girl, does it have any deformity that would be unsightly? Sometimes these children were strangled after birth; other people, who considered themselves pious, would instead practice exposure of the child, that is that they would take the newborn baby and just put it outside somewhere, telling themselves, comforting themselves with the thought that surely some compassionate person will pass by and take up this child and raise it as his own. And sometimes that did happen, sometimes these babies were picked up, taken home and raised, and then put into service as prostitutes in their early adolescence. Not a very happy outcome for them.
And that’s perhaps still all little bit better than what happened most of the time, which is that nobody would take up that child, and the first to find it would be dogs or other wild animals or birds, and the child would be killed and eaten. So this was a pretty horrible thing for young women and mothers to endure in that society, to know that the child which they nurtured under their heart could be taken away and fed to dogs, and they had no say about it. Well, the fact that Christians forbade abortion made Christianity very attractive to women; that was the kind of faith that they wanted to be part of.
As I was saying, Christians stood very strongly in opposition to the accepted cultural norms of the time, when it came to abortion and infanticide. It goes right back to the beginning, to the Didache, which is one of the earliest Christian documents. Some scholars think maybe it was written about 70 or 80 AD, so it was about the same time as the Gospels. And in the list of things describing what Christians do and don’t do, one of the sentences in the Didache is,
You shall not murder a child by abortion.
A little bit later, around 125 or so, a text called the “Letter to Diognetus” describes what Christians are like and what Christians do. And one of the points it wants to make is that Christians aren’t totally weird, they act a lot like normal people do, no matter what the culture or country that they live in. The letter to Diognetus says,
They marry, as do all others. They beget children, but they do not cast away fetuses.
That is, they do not cast the unborn child out of the womb; they do not practice abortion.
On the other hand, what are the pagans like? Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200, says that pagans keep parrots and curlews, pagans keep these exotic birds,
Although keeping parrots and curlews, pagans do not adopt an orphan child. Rather, they expose children who are born at home. And yet they take up the young of birds. So they prefer irrational creatures to rational ones.
Clement also pointed out that some of these children that do survive are raised only to be put into prostitution. Clement says,
Fathers, forgetting about their children that have been exposed, unknowingly have intercourse with a son who has debauched himself or with daughters who are prostitutes.
That’s a particularly horrible twist there.
Basil the Great, who is of course the author of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, one of the heroes of our Orthodox Church, Basil the Great wrote,
The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. The hair-splitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us.
Now let me say something about that. It was Aristotle’s theory, and in fact the best scientific knowledge of the time, that as far as they could tell from women who had miscarriages, that up to a certain point the fetus looks unformed; you don’t really see a baby there. But after a certain point, you start seeing a baby. Aristotle’s theory was that it’s not really human and alive until it was formed. There couldn’t be a human soul, in it until it had a human shape to retain that soul.
And this, in fact, became the general opinion in the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries, that up until 40 days—this was Aristotle’s thesis—40 days for a male child, 80 days for a female child, that it did not yet possess a human soul. And so to lose a child before that time would not be an abortion, and would not be the death of a human being. Of course, there was no way to tell whether it was male or female, so there was no way to apply this practically, if you wanted to have an abortion. And it was not an excuse for abortion, which was never approved by the Church, East or West.
But we do see that the Eastern Fathers disagreed with the Western perspective that it is not really a human being before the 40 or 80 days. As Basil says, “The hair-splitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us.”
So you look at all these things together, and you see that we in Christian Orthodoxy have had an unbroken tradition of recognizing that the being in the womb is completely human, from the very beginning. It is completely alive, fully alive. And it is unique. It is a precious, unique individual from the very moment of conception.
And one of the signs that you can see that this has always been our belief is in feasts like the feast of the Annunciation. That’s March 25, the feast when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive a son. From March 25 count exactly nine months and there you are at December 25. Early Christians believed that life, that a new human being begins at the very beginning of that nine months. It doesn’t begin some later time when the mother first feels the baby moving, or when the body of the fetus is fully formed.
We see this, too, in the feast of the Conception of the Theotokos on December 9. The Theotokos is conceived on December 9 and she is born on September 8, again, practically down to the wire, nine months. And the icon of the Conception of the Theotokos shows St. Joachim and St. Anna, embracing in their bedroom in front of their bed. I mean, there is no confusion among our fathers in the faith about where new life comes from, or how it is achieved. So there wasn’t this fuzzy idea of some 40 or 80 day span where it wasn’t really human yet. We’ve always been clear about when life begins.
The kind of arguments that people make in favor of abortion, it’s hard for me to believe people living in a scientific age can actually believe that the life in the womb is not a living human being. Because we know so much more than medical people of early centuries did. We know that at the moment that sperm dissolves in the ovum, that that is a being that is alive. When life begins, there’s no debate about this, scientists know when life begins. Life begins when the sperm dissolves in the egg, and it is alive from then on. If it was not alive, you wouldn’t need to have an abortion to kill it. You know? If it was not alive, then a natural miscarriage would set in. It’s definitely alive. For people who are in favor of abortion, that’s the whole problem, is that it is alive. It is alive and it continues to grow. It’s alive and it has a heartbeat from 21 days. So it is very much a living human being.
It is human, too. If you would look at a cell from the growing unborn child under a microscope, you would say, “Yes, that’s human. That’s not chimpanzee, it’s not watermelon. It is human.” This is a human. A living human in there.
And the third point to make is it is a *unique* living human. That if you could take a cell from the mother, a cell from the father, and a cell from the unborn child, that if you could look at all three of those and analyze the DNA, you would say, “There are three individuals here.” This unborn child may be dependent on its mother for sustenance at this point in its life; after it’s born it will still be dependent on her for milk. It will dependent on the father and the mother to provide shelter and food and care. It will be dependent for a long time. But it is not a part of the mother because it does not have her DNA. It is a separate human being.
So we know that from the very beginning this unborn being is alive. It is human. It is unique. And that has been the basis of the Orthodox belief that abortion is wrong from the very beginning.
Now having said all that, I always need to say that a lot of women who’ve had abortions didn’t want to have them. Or they wanted to at the time because they were terrified, and in the years afterward they regret it, they wonder if they did the right thing, they may feel very miserable. And there is quite a conspiracy of silence, that if you’ve been through this harrowing experience, there’s really no opportunity to talk about it.
When I was writing my book Real Choices, I remember one woman who, at the time of her abortion she was pro-choice. And then afterward she felt terribly sad, and she felt ambivalent about being sad. She said to me, “I couldn’t tell anybody how I felt. I couldn’t tell people that I felt distressed after this abortion, though I didn’t really know why.” She said, “If I’d told my pro-choice friends that I felt so depressed, I feel so miserable, I’m not sure I did the right thing, they would say to me, ‘Are you a traitor? It was your choice. You had your choice; now you should be happy with it. Having your choice is the only important thing.’ ”
She said that she knew they would not recognize that you could choose something and then be in despair about it afterwards, sometimes for many years afterwards. She said, “So I couldn’t tell my pro-choice friends that I had grief after my abortion. I couldn’t tell my pro-life friends because if they found out that I had had an abortion, they would say, ‘Well, you’re a murderer. We won’t have anything to do with you.’”
So there are many, many, many millions of women in our country, and certainly some must be Orthodox Christian women, who have this in their past and it’s a burden or grief for them, and they feel like they’re not free to talk about it. I would urge you please to talk to your priest about it. Believe me, there’s nothing you can say to a priest that he hasn’t heard somewhere before. He’s never going to be shocked. And as priests often say when they hear a confession it makes them admire the people more, who love God so much that they’re willing to share so intimately. So please don’t keep this in. If you hide this grief inside it feels even bigger and more overwhelming than it is.
So please go to your priest. Schedule a talk or schedule a confession, if that’s what you’d like to do. And begin to find that support that can help you be freed from this guilt, because God has forgiven you. You know, you weren’t able to erase that child’s existence. It may not have had much of an earthly life, maybe only a few weeks within your womb, but its eternal life will go on forever. One of the Psalms says,
Though my mother and my father reject me, you will take me up.
And God the Father has taken that child up. And if you persevere on the path of theosis, on the path of holiness, one day you’ll be reunited with that child in the place where all sorrow and sighing has fled away, and the tears have been wiped from every eye.
I know at this year for women who have had abortions, all the messages they hear about how terrible abortion is can wound very deeply. And so that’s why I wanted to conclude my podcast by urging you to seek the healing that you deserve. To lay this burden down. Go to your priest. Go to your spiritual father or your spiritual mother.
And even when you look in the yellow pages, look below the abortion clinics, look at abortion alternatives. And you will find there pregnancy care centers, which are not there just help to pregnant women, but to help women who have had abortions. Nearly all of them offer some kind of abortion grief counseling, so that they can help you work your way through this and resolve it and move on in joy.
Abortion sure has torn up our nation for a long time. Like the argument that led to civil war 150 years ago over slavery, it’s a very similar thing because we’re arguing about the full right to life, the full personhood of a living human being. At that time there as a Supreme Court decision that said that African-Americans were not the equal of a regular white person. They only represented two-fifths of a person. And that was a Supreme Court decision; that was the law of the land. And it took awhile for that to be overturned. But this is the situation we are in with the abortion issue, that this Roe v. Wade decision declared that these living, unique human beings aren’t really persons.
And it sounds almost like a religious opinion to say they can be alive, they can be human, they can be genetically distinct—no other life ever seen on earth like that before—but somehow they’re not persons, whatever personhood means; it’s almost like a philosophical or theological concept. I don’t think that we can write laws based on private religious interpretations. Let us look just at what science tells us: it is alive, it is human, it is unique. As a result it deserves protection.
I hope that by the time the next Roe v. Wade anniversary rolls around, we will see the abortion numbers dropping and dropping further every year. Until finally we get to the point where we realize, we really don’t need this. We don’t need to kill our own children in order to be liberated. We can do better than that.