Orthodoxy & Abortion
What Is the Church's Position on Abortion?
An Interview With Fr. Thomas Hopko.
Peter and Helen Evans
We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss this very important subject with the Very Rev Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood, New York.
Peter: Some abortion advocates claim the fetus isn't really a human being, so we ask what scientific facts do you have that say that human life begins at conception?
Fr. Tom: I don't have any. I'm not into science and I think, from the Christian perspective, it's besides the point. Those kind of nitpicking questions that suggest it's not a human don't even apply from a Christian perspective.
Helen: Isn't there some sort of person-hood or human-hood distinction that the Church has?
Fr. Tom: I think those are the nitpicking questions that are from the devil. You know that a human person is a person. You know that a person who is brain-damaged is a human being. You know that an elderly person is still human. You know that what is conceived in the womb -- IF it is not attacked and destroyed! -- will be a human being. Believers in Christ and in God are protecting that reality, and caring for it, and loving it and affirming it. It think that has to be the approach.
Peter: Assuming that the fetus is a human, wouldn't a compassionate God want an unwed mother to terminate the pregnancy so as not to waste her life caring for a baby? Shouldn't she get to have some fun in life before being burdened by a child?
Fr. Tom: Life isn't given to us to have fun with. Anyone can say "I'd rather have a new couch or a vacation than have a baby" or "I don't want to put up with people at all." People can have that view if they want to, but they shouldn't have it and claim that they believe in God -- certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus. There is just no way that someone can believe in the God of Jesus Christ and have that approach to reality. "Unless you hate your mother, father, brother, sister, children and lands you cannot be my disciple." But then the minute you become His disciple you have a whole different approach to your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your children, your lands and even your own life in this world
So many Christians want to discuss these issues without even reading the New Testament. I recently gave a lecture on the teaching of the New Testament; it was very simple and basic. After the lecture, an elderly woman who has been a Christian her whole life said, "Oh, Father Tom, you really took the gloves off on that one! Boy that was really rough and tough." I had to say to her, "Friend, just read the New Testament. I didn't put on gloves or take gloves off, all I did was refer to the teaching of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount."
Helen: So often we hear the popular notion that God doesn't want us to suffer, God wants us to be happy all the time.
Fr. Tom: That's not the New Testament teaching. There is not a word in the New Testament about being happy. Jesus said, if you be my disciple, you'll deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me. That's the way to get the joy that surpasses human understanding, the joy that no one can take away from you. The choice for Christians is not between joy, fun and happiness on one side and suffering on the other. There will be suffering. Either the suffering will be redemptive, Godly and filled with the joy that comes from God, or it will just be misery. That would be a neurotic suffering that, you might say, is simply the suffering of Hell. Jesus never promised anybody a good, happy life in this world.
Take the Apostle Paul. When he had to boast that he really was an Apostle, what did he boast in? He didn't boast that he had a wonderful human lineage. He didn't boast even in his mystical experiences. He claimed to have had a vision of the risen Christ but, when he boasted, he boasted in what he had suffered. He boasted in how much he was beaten and rejected for the sake of truth, for the sake of God, for the sake of how God really is. I think we have to read the New Testament again.
Helen: True, but for people who haven't read the New Testament but hear someone tell them that "God is compassionate" couldn't that be understood as "we shouldn't suffer in this life"?
Fr. Tom: If someone said to me "God is compassionate," I'd remind them that the word "compassionate" means co-passionate or co-suffering. The God who is compassionate is the God who suffers with us. He's not the God who takes our suffering away in the fallen world. Never forget that the ultimate revelation of God on the planet earth is in the bloody corpse of a dead Jew hanging on a cross in front of the city of Jerusalem, put to death by Gentiles between two thieves, in the most horrible, vile, wretched method by which a person could die, which, according to Mosaic Law, was even cursed. That's the Christian faith.
Peter: The "Man of Sorrows."
Helen: When we talk about the Christian faith, we talk about a forgiving God. We hear on the radio and TV, even from people coming back from out-of-body experiences, saying God is all-forgiving, when we die all will be forgiven.
Fr. Tom: God is all-forgiving. God doesn't hold the sins of anybody against anyone. In fact, the "Gospel" is, the glad tidings are -- because of the perfect love of God toward us in Jesus and the perfect love of the human being toward God in the same Jesus, the same person, is the same act, is the same life -- that every sin is forgiven. Every mercy is shown, without discrimination, upon everyone. That is the Gospel. However... a person has to accept it.
Helen: OK, they have to accept it. So let's take someone who has an abortion and says, "Well, that was a mistake but I know God forgives me, so that's fine."
Fr. Tom: Then they don't know the God of Jesus. "I know God forgives me... that's just fine" -- I would go so far as to say that's a blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
Helen: In what way?
Fr. Tom: Because the person is saying "I know I'm forgiven by God for doing an evil, heinous, murderous act, but I blow off that murderous act because God is forgiving." That person should weep for the rest of their life and hope that they would be worthy of the forgiveness of God, and not take it for granted.
Helen: There is another idea out there that God won't give us more than we can handle.
Fr. Tom: That's not just 'out there.' It's in St. Paul.
Helen: This boils down to the assumption that there's only one power in the world -- God -- and it's interpreted as, "God got me into this situation, so God will get me out of it."
Fr. Tom: I don't know what kind of God that is. It sounds sort of like a magician. First of all, God didn't get me into this situation. I got myself into this situation. The human race got itself into this situation. The whole point of the Genesis story is that God did not create evil and did not want suffering and death. If we have it, it's because of us.
Peter: Because of our misuse of the freewill that was given to us by God.
Fr. Tom: Exactly. Because of the misuse of our humanity. We thought we could be God without God. We thought we could break the laws of God, which are, in fact, the laws of nature itself. You drop an apple and it falls. You sin and you die. That's the logic, the theologic and the metaphysics of Christian faith.
Peter: Perhaps in anticipation of their own future sinfulness, some people rationalize that it might be more compassionate to abort a baby, or "send that baby to God," since God will take better care of it than the unwilling mother. Could that be considered as Christian compassion?
Fr. Tom: I think that's almost a Satanic blasphemy. Who am I to say how God ought to be God?
Peter: The notion that "God will do a better job than me" seems to be the thread that runs through a lot of these rationalizations.
Fr. Tom: If God is going to take care of it, doesn't he ask us to take care of it, too? The whole commandment of Jesus was that we should love one another... "as I have loved you." So, if God is lovingly compassionate to a suffering being, so we ought to be, too. However, God does not show His compassion by killing that person. In fact, God dies Himself for the sake of the life of that person.
Peter: The next question is sort of another way to get around this moral issue, but we hear it a lot. If the mother finds out through ultrasound or other tests that the baby is deformed, wouldn't it be compas-sionate to 'terminate' the pregnancy to 'save' the child from having a life of suffering, as well as to relieve the family, the community, the taxpayers of the burden of caring for this 'damaged' child?
Fr. Tom: That's not our business.
Peter: So you would consider that to be just a rationalization, then?
Fr. Tom: Of course it is. That's just not our business.
Helen: So let's get to the bottom of it. The basic false premise here is that it's Christian to prevent suffering.
Fr. Tom: There is no way to "prevent suffering." In fact, all the saints teach us; the greater the knowledge, the greater the love, the greater the suffering. Because, once you know what is goodness and truth and beauty and then look around you, and even look inside your own self, all you can do is weep. Then, you can really trust in the mercy and forgiveness of God.
Helen: So Christianity tells us to try to alleviate the suffering of others, but not to think that suffering is wrong in the world.
Fr. Tom: It depends on what kind of suffering you're trying to alleviate. If there is a person in really agonizing pain and I could give them some medication to ease the pain, or a person lying on the street being trampled on and I ease their suffering by dragging them into my home, putting them into a bed and feeding them; then that's obviously alleviating the suffering. But if I see someone who says "I'm suffering so I have to take narcotics to ease the suffering" or "I have to get drunk to ease the pain" and I say to them, "OK, here's a bottle of vodka, don't suffer so much," I'm just adding to their suffering. It depends on what kind of suffering, there is suffering that is redemptive and there is suffering that is just the consequence of sin.
Peter: So it would be better to avoid the suffering by avoiding the sin, but not as OK to just palliate the suffering brought on by sin.
Fr. Tom: That's in the New Testament, too. In the letter attributed to Peter, it says, if you suffer as a good person, who is suffering for the sake of what is really right and good and true, the claim is that that suffering is really blessed and that that suffering will even bring you a joy that the world cannot give. But if you are suffering as an evil-doer, in other words, because you are rebelling against God and nature, there is no particular merit or value in that suffering. That suffering is simply insane. It's like beating yourself with a whip.
Peter: So the best way to understand that second kind of suffering is as an indicator that you are doing something wrong and you should repent.
Fr. Tom: Yes, and the scripture is very, very clear. One of the earliest Christian hymns in 2 Timothy says that, if we have died with Him, we shall live with Him. If we have patiently endured suffering with Him, we shall reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful because He cannot deny Himself. The Christian faith teaches that, in this fallen, sinful world, if a person tries to live a Godly life, every evil-doing being, whether they are human or spiritual or Satanic or demonic, will be against that person. And that person will, in fact, end up being crucified, one way or another. That is clearly the Christian thinking.
Jesus didn't come to take our crosses away, he came to give us the power of the Holy Spirit to bear them.
Helen: So, the main confusion is that people look at their problems from a secular attitude, saying to themselves, "My life should be happy here on earth" rather than looking toward the life after this one. Is that so?
Fr. Tom: Yes. I would also say that not only do people look at life secularly, which I guess would mean with no relationship whatsoever to God, but I think it's also true to say, especially nowadays, that many people look at the world, falsely religiously. Not necessarily just secularly. People think that God exists to make our earthly life 'happy,' to take away all suffering and pain, to do whatever we want Him to do, that all we have to do is "name it and claim it" and God will give it to us, no matter what it is -- health, a good job, a good sex life or, for example, how the human genome project is described. I read it recently on the front page of the New York Times. The director of the project said, "Our purpose is very clear, to live a longer happier, more pain free, healthier human life before we inevitably die." Well, many people think that's a good program. Many religious people think that's what God is trying to do, too -- to make us live a longer, happier, healthier, better and easier life...
Helen: ... and then retire to Florida!
Fr. Tom: ... because we're going to die and go to heaven anyway. Well that's not the New Testament, that's certainly not the Bible. It's certainly not the teaching of Christian scriptures. The Christian Saints all suffered immensely. The quintessential Christian Saint is a martyr. A martyr is a person who dies, gets killed while actually forgiving the person who killed them. Just as God forgave the persons who sinned against him. In fact, Jesus even forgave the people who sinned against him and crucified him. He said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." The forgiveness of God and the compassion of God is guaranteed... absolutely!
Helen: Don't we have to repent first?
Fr. Tom: I don't think we have to repent first. God gives us his mercy and forgiveness whether we want it or not, whether we repent or not. But if we repent and we want it, then that mercy is just glory and happiness and a blessed life. But if we resist it... it's Hell! In fact, the fire of Hell is not God punishing people. The fire of Hell is the presence of God's love, His mercy and His compassion on people who don't want it, don't accept it, don't think they need it and don't even care about it.
Peter: They take it the wrong way, in other words.
Fr. Tom: Exactly. You can prove this by human relations. If you love me and I hate you or I don't care about you, then your presence around me is a pain. I'd like to get rid of you if I could. Whereas, if you love me and I love you, too, then that communion is a total joy. I think it's as simple as that.
Peter: Still, there is a sense that suffering is something beyond our control, it's something we have to be passive to. Not that we choose suffering, but that when we suffer it is something happening to which we are passive.
Fr. Tom: I think you're right there. Suffering, according to the dictionary, means being acted upon adversely and painfully in a way that we did not choose and did not want. On the other hand, you have to go a step further because there is definitely a human phenomenon called masochism where people simply make themselves suffer. I know people who cut themselves with knives and things like that. That person is being acted upon by some powerful 'drive' or 'compulsion' or 'demon' or whatever you want to call it that is forcing them to do this self-inflicted pain.
Peter: Well, let's move along. Is it the Church's view that abortion is always wrong? The mitigating circumstance might be when there is a forced choice between the life of the mother and the life of the child.
Fr. Tom: There is a pretty common teaching of Christian understanding, as well as agreement from some ethicists, that, in this fallen world, we can often be forced to choose the lesser among evils. That doesn't make the lesser evil 'good'--just lesser. I think the problem with a lot of people is that they want to feel right before God, to feel justified. Excuse me for saying this, but I think that was the problem for Martin Luther. We always want to feel right before God so we always want to justify what we do. Here, I'll quote another Lutheran, Kierkegaard, who said that, if you are a human being living in a corrupted world, you are practically always wrong before God. We've got to learn to live being wrong before God and without justifying the wrong, but then counting on the mercy of God to forgive us. A lot of times we don't really want forgiveness -- we want justification. We don't want God to forgive us -- what we want is for God to tell us that we really didn't do anything wrong!
Peter: Is it just our imagination, or do you see an increasing tendency among people to want to avoid moral responsibility?
Fr. Tom: I honestly believe there are some folks right now, in the Western world particularly, who have fulfilled the dire warning of the great English writer C. S. Lewis. He wrote a great book in 1944 called "The Abolition of Man." He said in that book that, if the educational process continued as he saw it going, then we will come to the point where human beings no longer have the faculty to discern what is good, true and beautiful and, therefore, will cease to honor it, to be thankful for it, and to adore it. We would just cease to be human beings in the usual sense of the term. In other words, we would lose the faculty that allows us to have conversation, to do logical constructions and to think, because that's what provides the axioms, it provides the first principles, and that will be so eroded that human reason would, ultimately, be annihilated. Going a little beyond the phrases of C. S. Lewis, but I think it's the same idea, you would have human beings that are no longer human in the real sense of the term, so there would be nothing but brains and bodies, minds and matter. Their brain is a computer or calculator and their body is a consumer or copulator. They would be constructors or re-constructors or de-constructors or cloners or whatever, but no longer human beings.
Helen: We're told often enough that we should not judge, that it's not up to us and, anyway, "who are we to know right and wrong?"
Fr. Tom: We must not judge anyone for anything -- certainly not in the sense of condemning. Only God does that. It is not our business. That's the Christian teaching. However, we still do believe that there is such a thing as right and wrong, true and false, beautiful and ugly and good and bad. Our task is to cling with all our might to what is good, true and beautiful; to know that we have to suffer for that to the last breath. We will be crazy tempted to give it up. And, in that process, we don't judge anyone for anything.
Helen: Along those lines, just about everyone anymore has a friend or family member who has had, or is contemplating, an abortion and, trying to be non-judgmental, we say stuff like, "Oh well, it's your choice" or we just don't comment on it at all. What is the Christian teaching?
Fr. Tom: The Christian's point of view would be expressed by word and by deed. One must say to that person that, "What you are doing is egregiously wicked. It is really bad. You are destroying a life. God doesn't want you to do that and I don't want you to do it. Therefore, I am ready to help you. I will give you money. I will take you in. I will do anything I can to protect that unborn baby even if it's the product of a sperm bank, a donor's egg or even if it's in another womb. I will do everything I can to protect that life. But I'm telling you, if you destroy it, you are doing something wrong."
Helen: When we tell someone they are doing something wrong, they automatically assume we are judging or condemning them.
Fr. Tom: I know... but that's their problem, not ours.
There is a great story of an Orthodox saint called Maximus the Confessor who had disagreed with the Emperor and some Bishops. His accusers cut off his tongue because they didn't want him to speak, they cut off his arm because they didn't want him to write and they threw him jail. Less than 25 years after he died, a council of Bishops met and concluded that Maximus had been right after all. That council is now known as the Sixth Ecumenical Council. The council posthumously condemned both the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople for teachings contrary to the Gospel. When Maximus was being tortured his accusers said to him "are you saying that the Emperor and all these Bishops are bad, wicked people and are going to burn in Hell?" Maximus the Confessor answered -- before they cut his tongue off -- "I didn't say that. You're saying that. I don't know. God will have to judge them. One thing I do know is that I cannot agree with what they are teaching and enforcing. I will never agree to it. I believe it is wrong. What God does to them is His business. I also hope I'm not wrong. Maybe I am, but I cannot lie and I don't think I am wrong."
But he did no evil. Then he went on, referring to the three young men in the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel. "I didn't hear them say one condemning word about Nebuchadnezzar" They said, "live forever, O King, but we will never worship the idol that you are forcing us to worship. Never." Then the King said to the three boys, "Do you think your God is going to come and save you if we throw you into the furnace?" The boys didn't say, "Sure, we believe in God and He'll do whatever we tell Him." They said instead, "We have no need to answer you in this matter, O King. Our God will do whatever he wants, but whether he comes to save us or not, we will never worship your idol." I think that's the Christian attitude. You don't condemn them. You put them in the hands of God. You even pray to God for their forgiveness. You should tell them, "I think you're wrong and I'm not going to go along with what you're doing."
Peter: So, whether it's wrong for them or not is not for me to judge, but I know that I'm not going to do that?
Fr. Tom: No, no, no. You have to say to them that, "I believe.. that.. it.. is.. wrong.. for.. you." You have to be incredibly clear. "I think you are doing evil." However, three things. 1) "You have to decide for yourself." 2) "Only God is going to judge you... not me." 3) "You're not going to get me to do evil because of it." That's the Christian approach.
Peter: I wanted to talk about C. S. Lewis and the downward spiral that he envisioned in "The Abolition of Man." It seems pretty obvious that the time is coming when we will no longer be moral beings or fully human in that moral sense. When that day arrives, will abortions still be morally wrong?
Fr. Tom: Of course they will be morally wrong because they are objectively wrong. It doesn't matter what people think about them. When Lewis's imaginary interlocutor says to him, "Are you saying that these are wicked men?" Lewis replies, "No, you don't understand me. I'm not saying they are wicked men. I'm saying that they are not men anymore. They have lost their humanity."
Peter: However, even in that case, there is no guarantee that the unborn child will not be a human.
Fr. Tom: Are you claiming that if we think that people around us not human we should bless their abortions because they are producing inhuman beings? No, never go that route.
Peter: No, I'm speculating that, although the parents, or mother, might not be considered a human being, her unborn child might still be human because the kind of degradation Lewis was talking about is more a product of environment than genes.
Fr. Tom: Well, it's both, because genes are environment. I definitely believe we transfer our evil through DNA, cells, brains and hormones. We're not angels. We're not a combination of a ghost and a corpse. We're a psycho-somatic being. However, I believe, even with C. S. Lewis's dire (and dour) warnings, there are some things Orthodox Christians would definitely have to hold. It is not up to us to decide who is human or who is not human. I know people who would have killed communists because they said they were not human. You can't do that. You can't do that for several reasons. First, it's not our business -- it's God's. The other thing is this, we always hold out the hope of conversion. We don't believe the image of God can be totally and completely obliterated in a person. So as long as we have the breath of life in us, we Christians are supposed to witness to the love of God to everybody in the hope that maybe they would come to see the light, the love, the truth and the beauty of God. So, you never give up on a person, you always live in hope. Especially you don't give up on people's children or their unborn babies. You have to hope that the child will be brought into the world, and it will run into something that is really good and true and beautiful, and that it will meet loving people... and be saved.
Helen: Does the Church consider birth control to be abortion?
Fr. Tom: No.
Helen: Does it allow birth control?
Fr. Tom: I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Church 'allows' birth control. I think it's one of those lesser evils. In any case, I do not believe you can 'control' conception by killing the fetus. Any abortifacient or any birth control that kills the fetus is absolutely unacceptable. However, for whatever reason the people want to express their love sexually without actually creating a conception in the first place, it may be blessed as a lesser evil, under certain circumstances. For example, you have a man and a woman in prison and they are both going to be killed or they are both going to suffer; and they are married and they want to express their love for each other, they might do something that prevents conception. You can't say that's a heinous sin. I knew a young couple who came to the theological seminary where I was a professor. They came with three little kids, the youngest about four years old. They sold their house in order to come. They spent all their money in order to come. They were disowned by their parents for deciding to come. Do you think we would tell them, morally, that they can't make love with each other in the seminary except that they want to make another child? That doesn't seem to be sensible at all from even the deepest Christian perspective. However, should the wife find out she's pregnant, then she cannot abort the child
Helen: Can that sort of argument be used for unmarried couples?
Fr. Tom: No, unmarried couples cannot engage in sexual activity, period.
Helen: Is it the Orthodox Christian teaching that sex is only for procreation?
Fr. Tom: No, the teaching is that the sexual expression of love is between a man and a woman who have committed themselves to each other totally, forever, no matter what. They offer their relationship to be blessed by God and they want their relationship to be a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Helen: When you say forever, isn't there a "til death do you part" in there?
Fr. Tom: No. The expression "til death do you part" doesn't even exist in the Orthodox service. In fact, the opposite is true. The prayer is that you will receive your crowns into the Kingdom. Then they will enter into the Kingdom faithful to each other through death itself. Saint John Chrysostom wrote a letter to a young widow and he said to her, "If you were faithful to your husband when he was alive on earth and did not share your bed with any other man, why would you share your bed with another man now that your husband is at the right hand of the Father in the Risen Lord?" So we believe we're supposed to be faithful to our spouses right through death and we will be reunited with them in the age to come.
Peter: So there is no diminishment in the bonds of fidelity. Perhaps it's even augmented.
Fr. Tom: Yes, according to the Christian view, that's accurate. The Christian marriage is supposed to mirror the fidelity of God to His creation, Yahweh to Israel and Christ to His Church. That commitment is complete and total and unbending and exists right through death.
Helen: Are there any ideas about abortion that you've encountered in your many travels that you'd like to address?
Fr. Tom: Having been a professor at Seminary -- I didn't teach ethics, I taught dogmatics and spiritual life and prayer -- and having been a priest for 44 years and being a church teacher and traveling around, I would say that my position would simply be that of the Church and the Scriptures and of the saints. Abortion is a sin. It's condemned in the Mosaic law and by the early Christian saints.
Peter: In the Sixth Mosaic law that says, "Thou shall not murder"?
Fr. Tom: Killing in the womb is also forbidden in Leviticus. And we have canons that say that any attempt, by any means, to kill the child in its mother's womb is equal to the crime of murder.