According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, abortion is a sin no different than murder.
Among the non-Orthodox, there has been an attempt in recent decades to reframe the seriousness of abortion as a matter of choice. Rather than speaking plainly that abortion is a form of death, the two sides of the debate are described as either “pro choice” or “pro life.” But for the apostles and our forefathers, there was never any doubt that abortion and infanticide should be treated as murder. An act of death can never be seen as anything but sin (1 Jn. 3:15), for the act itself separates a person from God.
In calling abortion “sin,” then, we must be clear what is meant by this term.
Sin is translated from the Greek αμαρτια (hamartia) and is often interpreted “to miss the mark.” In the context of Christianity, it would be more accurate to say that “to sin” is to “miss” or “fail to achieve one’s destiny”; one’s τελος (telos) or “end,” as a creature created in God’s image (cf. Archim. George of Mount Athos, Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life, p. 85).
For example, St. Augustine writes that God “made us for himself, and our heart is restless until it rests in him” (Confessions 1.1). God himself is our destiny; he is our end and our goal. God is true life (Col. 2:10), and the personification of life itself—the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)—and in him is no darkness at all (1 Jn. 1:5). Therefore, there can be no more direct act of sin than that which results in death, as sin is literally a separation from life itself. Death is of sin (Rom. 5:12), and sin is of death (1 Cor. 15:56). Rather than a legal transaction, “the primary objective of human life is to unite with God; so any action or even thought that estranges us from God is a sin” (Archim. George).
Outside of implications drawn from scripture, the earliest Christian reference to the sin of abortion is found in both the Διδαχη (Didache) or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (ca. A.D. 60) and the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. late-first century A.D.):
But the second commandment of the teaching is this; “Thou shalt do no murder; thou shalt not commit adultery” … thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide; —Didache 2:1–2
Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thy own life. Thou shalt not procure abortion, thou shalt not commit infanticide. —Epistle of Barnabas 19:5
The early Christian philosopher St. Athenagoras of Athens writes in an apology to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus (ca. A.D. 176–7):
And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. But we are in all things always alike and the same, submitting ourselves to reason, and not ruling over it.
—A Plea for Christians 35
Athenagoras treats the murder of an adult and the abortion of a fetus the same, appealing to both “reason” and tradition for his claims.
The fourth century Apostolic Constitutions also forbids abortion as a sin against one’s neighbor:
Thou shalt not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for “everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed” (Ex. 21:23 LXX). —Const. Apost. 7:3
In his 24th homily on Romans 13:14 (“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”), St. John Chrysostom laments:
Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? Where there are many efforts at abortion? Where there is murder before the birth? … You see how drunkenness leads to prostitution, prostitution to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather, to something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being born.
In one of his letters (22:12), St. Hieronymus of Stridonium (Jerome) has a similar lament:
Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder.
Jerome speaks here of “human beings” existing even at the moment of conception.
St. Basil the Great writes plainly:
Women, also, who administer drugs to cause abortion, as well as those who take poisons to destroy unborn children, are murderesses. —Letter 188
And finally, there is a rather shocking description of the Last Judgment in the Apocalypse of Peter (v. 25), which in many places was read at the liturgy before a more refined canon of scripture took shape:
And near that place I saw another strait into which the gore and the filth of those who were being punished ran down and became there, as it were, a lake. And there sat women having the gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born to them out of due time, crying. And there came forth sparks of fire, which smote the women in the eyes. These were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion.
There are numerous other selections from Church writers that could be shared. Sufficed to say, there has never been a teacher in the unified history and tradition of the Orthodox-Catholic Church (East or West) who treated abortion as anything other than murder and sin.
Beyond these writings, there are canons (or “laws”) of the Church from Her councils that reference abortion. For the sake of brevity, I will share just a few.
For example, Canon 21 of the Synod of Ancyra (A.D. 314) declares:
Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees.
This council shows mercy on those who might have been forced into abortion beyond their control (as with prostitutes or slaves), mandating that they serve ten years as penitents before they can return to the Eucharistic fellowship of the Church.
Canon 2 of St. Basil the Great’s first canonical epistle (ca. A.D. 370) rules the same:
Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not.
It is notable that the developmental stage of the fetus does not matter to St. Basil, especially as this is a point upon which the debates today hinge.
And finally, Canon 91 of the Ecumenical Council at Trullo (A.D. 692) states:
Those who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the fetus, are subjected to the penalty of murder.
In this canon, the ecclesiastical punishment for abortion is mandated to be the same as for murder. It is important to keep in mind that ecumenical canons were not merely for the Church alone, but became part of Roman law—and thus the term “ecumenical,” which in this context means “imperial.”
One other example from the life of the Church is a feast day celebrated on December 9, the Conception of the Theotokos.
The parents of Mary were named Joachim and Anna, and they suffered from barrenness, resulting in shame and dejection. One year, when bringing offerings to the temple for a great feast, the High Priest tells Joachim “You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” In the mercy of God, the archangel Gabriel appears to them and promises that they would conceive a child, and that she must be dedicated to the Lord, being destined for great things—even the birth of our Savior.
Not content to honor her birth alone, the Orthodox Church makes plain Her views on the value of even a newly-formed zygote in a mother’s womb.
There is no place for abortion or infanticide in the life of the Church, for the stench of death is never honored among God’s people. Death is contrary to all that is God; to all that is true life and light.
We should be thankful that our fathers before us—and the hymns we sing today to honor even the conception of the Mother of God—aid us in holding fast to a belief in the value of all human life, whether born or unborn; whether seen or unseen.