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Rachel’s Lament: In Communion on Abortion

Rachel’s Lament: In Communion on Abortion

8 thevisitationicon Lament

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is pro-life but not exactly in the way the term is typically used. Pro-life movements are normally associated with particular political agendas that differ across countries where they are active, but within our fellowship we simply self-identify as children of the Orthodox Church who seek to have our worldviews shaped therein. We recognize the inherent impotence of political ideology in transforming lives and would rather bring our Orthodoxy to our political activities than the other way around. The life of the unborn was cherished by Christians long before modern political realities came into being and will be long after they, as they inevitably will, fade into the past.

In 2000, In Communion published a special issue dedicated to the topic of abortion that was introduced by a letter written by Jim and Nancy Forest:

“Jaroslav Pelikan, distinguished Christian scholar and longtime professor at Yale University, also a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship advisory board, speaks of abortion as “the great human rights issue of our time.” Sadly, many do not see it that way. Even in some parts of the Christian community, traditional opposition to abortion has slowly been transformed to toleration or even abortion advocacy.”

No less surprising, those active in peace organizations—people who might be found protesting at military bases or at prisons where executions are about to occur—are rarely found engaging in efforts to make abortions less common. (On the other hand, it must be noted that many who campaign for the right to life of the unborn child often seem much less disturbed by war and executions.)

For the vast majority of feminist groups, endorsement of abortion has been a litmus test. Anyone troubled by abortion, who speaks of an “unborn child” in the womb rather than using Latin terms with a dehumanizing effect—embryo or fetus—is someone to be denounced. At all costs, the unborn must not be recognized as human beings with as much claim on social respect and protection as their parents. (Yet how readily an unborn child is recognized and celebrated as human by those who look forward to any child’s birth.)

In this issue, we follow with a few paragraphs from Michael Gorman’s excellent essay surveying the early Church Fathers’ view of abortion, which itself succinctly states our pro-life attitude. Next we offer an excerpt from an article by Frederica Mathewes-Green. The section finishes with an article by Nancy Forest.

Michael Gorman

The earliest specific written references to abortion in Christian literature are those in the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas. The Didache combines a code of Christian morality with a manual of church life and order, while the Epistle of Barnabas is a more theological tract on Christian life and thought. While both of these probably date from the early second century, they most likely drew on Christian sources which had their origins in the late first century.

Both these writings also contain a section based on a Jewish oral and written tradition known as the “Two Ways.” This tradition contrasts the two ways of Life or Light and Death or Darkness. Athanasius notes that it was used extensively in the early church, either as a separate document or as part of the Didache , especially for the training of catechumens and new converts.

The Didache maintains that there is a great difference between these two ways. In an exposition of the second great commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) as part of the Way of Life, the author makes a list of “thou shalt not” statements obviously modeled on, and in part quoting, the Decalogue of the Septuagint. Literally, it declares: “Thou not murder a child by abortion.”

Similarly, the Epistle of Barnabas, in its practical section on the Way of Light, repeats the same words in a list of “thou shalt (not)” statements including, just before the abortion prohibition, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thy own life.” The fetus is seen, not as a part of its mother, but as a neighbor. Abortion is rejected as contrary to other-centered neighbor love.

Frederica Mathewes-Green

A woman with an unplanned pregnancy faces more than “inconvenience”; many adversities, financial and social, at school, at work, and at home confront her. Our mistake was in looking at these problems and deciding that the fault lay with the woman, that she should be the one to change. We focused on her swelling belly, not the pressures that made her so desperate. We advised her, “Go have this operation and you’ll fit right in.”

What a choice we made for her. She climbs onto a clinic table and endures a violation deeper than rape—the nurse’s hand is wet with her tears—then is grateful to pay for it, grateful to be adapted to the social machine that rejected her when pregnant. And the machine grinds on, rejecting her pregnant sisters.

It is a cruel joke to call this a woman’s “choice.” We may choose to sacrifice our life and career plans, or choose to undergo humiliating invasive surgery and sacrifice our offspring. How fortunate we are—we have a choice! Perhaps it’s time to amend the slogan: “Abortion: a woman’s right to capitulate.”

If we refused to choose, if we insisted on keeping both our lives and our bodies intact, what changes would our communities have to make? What would make abortion unnecessary? Flexible school situations, more flex-time, part-time, and home-commute jobs, attractive adoption opportunities, safe family planning choices, support in handling sex responsibly––this is a partial list. Yet these changes will never come as long as we’re lying down on abortion tables 1,600,000 times a year to ensure the status quo. We’ve adapted to this surgical substitute, to the point that Justice Blackmun could write in his Webster dissent, “Millions of women have ordered their lives around” abortion. That we have willingly ordered our lives around a denigrating surgical procedure—accepted it as the price we must pay to keep our life plans intact—is an ominous sign.

For over a hundred years feminists warned us that abortion is a form of oppression and violence against women and their children. They called it “child-murder” (Susan B. Anthony), “degrading to women” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), “most barbaric” (Margaret Sanger), and a “disowning [of] feminine values” (Simone de Beauvoir). How have we lost this wisdom?

Abortion has become the accepted way of dealing with unplanned pregnancies, and women who make another choice are viewed as odd, backward, and selfish. Across the nation, three thousand crisis pregnancy centers struggle, unfunded and unrecognized, to help these women with housing, clothing, medical care, and job training before and after pregnancy. These volunteers must battle the assumption that “they’re supposed to abort”—especially poor women who hear often enough that their children are unwanted. Pro-choice rhetoric conjures a dreadful day when women could be forced to have abortions; that day is nearly here.

More insidiously, abortion advocacy has been poisonous to some of the deeper values of feminism. For example, the need to discredit the fetus has led to the use of terms that would be disastrous if applied to women. “It’s so small,” “It’s unwanted,” “It might be disabled,” “It might be abused.” Too often women are small, unwanted, disabled, or abused. Do we really want to say that these factors erase personhood?

A parallel disparaging of pregnancy itself also has an unhealthy ring. Harping on the discomforts of pregnancy treats women as weak and incompetent; yet we are uniquely equipped for this role, and strong enough to do much harder things than this. Every woman need not bear a child, but every woman should feel proud kinship in the earthy, elemental beauty of birth. To hold it in contempt is to reject our distinctive power, “our bodies, ourselves.”

Nancy Forest-Flier

In a recent letter, a friend explained his reluctant acceptance of abortion with the statement: “I also believe that the human race is overrunning the planet and destroying our Mother the Earth.” While recognizing abortion as a moral problem, he saw it as the lesser of two evils. The cost of saving the planet is to reduce the human population. This is a widely accepted notion, and there are many who have succeeded in making us believe that over-population is the problem and that birth control and abortion are the answers.

Population control is often an attempt by Western, wealthy nations to impose their values on poor, usually non-white nations, and these countries are not happy about it. At a 1998 Population Consultation of the UN NGO Committee on Population and Development in New York, the ambassador from the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez, shocked the audience with a speech in which she sharply criticized groups such as Zero Population Growth and Planned Parenthood for trying to reduce fertility in countries that don’t want it (and thinking that it’s for their own good, etc.). She accused the West of targeting poor and darker-skinned countries, such as her own. “It used to be,” she pointed out, “that older women could depend on their adult children to care for them in old age. In 1960, for example, a Jamaican woman had an average of six children; by 1990 she was likely to have fewer than three. Now typically she has two. Who will supply the support system for this mother when she is old?”

Even more amazing was the speech by Dr. James McCarthy, Head of the Center for Population at Columbia University, who called himself a “recovering demographer” and told the audience that “population doesn’t matter.”

In her book Sex and Destiny, feminist Germaine Greer comments, “we [should] abandon the rhetoric of crisis for we are the crisis. Let us stop worrying about a world crammed with people…stop counting the babies born every minute…use our imagination to understand how poverty is created and maintained…so that we lose our phobia about the poor. Rather than being afraid of the powerless, let us be afraid of the powerful—the rich, sterile nations who have no stake in the future. More ‘unwanted’ children are born to us, the rich, than to them, the poor.”

Although there are clearly some over-populated places in the world, this does not mean that the world is over-populated. There are many, many factors involved. Someone told me recently that the entire population of the world, if it agreed to live at the same density as New York City, could fit into the state of Texas. Not a very savory prospect, but interesting.

Justifying abortion by the population-control argument boils down to saying that we should encourage the use of abortion as birth control. But there are already countries that use abortion as birth control—Russia and other former East bloc countries—and the women there are in despair. Some women have several abortions in their lifetime because the birth control possibilities are so limited, and they are urgently demanding better conditions so that they don’t have to resort to abortion just to limit births. So this argument just doesn’t hold water. Not only do the poor countries not want population control, not only is the whole over-population argument questionable, but individual women who are forced to control births through abortion are crying for help.

I would be surprised if any woman ever had an abortion for the sake of the planet or because of her concern for over-population. Among the women I have known who had abortions, none of them, at that terrible point in their lives, cared a hoot about over-population. Women have abortions because they feel cornered, abandoned, hopeless, scared, manipulated. At least my friends all felt this way and, after the abortion, mourned deeply. They may still be mourning. Frederica Mathewes-Green, in her book Real Choices, explains the psychological after-effects of abortion: if they had it to do over again, most women admit that they would choose not to abort.

My personal feeling is that abortion is just as much a feminist issue as it is a pro-life issue. I think women have been sold a very shoddy bill of goods. Radical feminist leaders have played right into the hands of Hugh Hefner types: abortion is a wonderful solution for both of them. Women are expected to make the “right” choice as soon as a problem pregnancy comes along (at least the playboy philosophy hopes they will).

The other argument one hears is that abortion is a more merciful solution for the children of the poor than growing up in destitution. My friend asked: “Isn’t poverty and isolation a slow, cruel death as opposed to an operation that deals with the new life before it can actually think and breathe?”

Not necessarily. That’s implying that poor people should consider abortion when they get pregnant, because it’s sure better than raising children in poverty and isolation. But there are lots and lots of poor women who curse their poverty, and then on top of it all they feel driven to the abortion clinic when they get pregnant, just because society has few other options.

With all our collective intelligence, with all our social science, with all our money, society in the West should be able to come up with a better solution for dealing with problem pregnancies (not medical problems) than abortion. Abortion leaves far, far too many psychological scars. But it’s the cheap way out. What abortion does is pressure the most vulnerable—scared pregnant women—into “getting rid of the problem” so that society doesn’t have to deal with it.

My friend wrote: “I shudder to think of our making common cause with the so-called ‘Christian’ right who are militantly against abortion but endorse war, sexism, and capital punishment.” But must we be inconsistent simply because others are inconsistent? Just because the far-right seems to have co-opted the pro-life argument doesn’t mean that nobody else can endorse it. This calls for a little bit of courage. I urged my friend not to let the agenda of the far right limit his agenda. If you think abortion is wrong, oppose it bravely!

Here in the Netherlands we have the lowest abortion rate in the entire Western world. And, says the Minister of Health, “we’re proud of it.” Proud to have a low abortion rate? That must mean that lowering the abortion rate, or trying to, is a thing worth doing. What I’m saying is, let’s try to lower the abortion rate everywhere. Let’s not abandon women to their own private darkness where they have to make these impossible decisions alone (and then face a society that shrugs its shoulders).

William Styron’s book Sophie’s Choice is about such an impossible choice. On one level it’s about the Holocaust, but on another level it’s about the pressure to decide which of your children you will allow to live and which you will abandon to the hand of violence. Sophie could not live with her choice and finally took her own life.

One can find women who are no more troubled about an abortion they had than they are troubled about a missed bus, but for every woman who is blasé about having abortions you will find many more who wish they hadn’t had to do violence to their unborn children and to their consciences. I’m not insisting that the laws be changed (although it would be good if it did eventually happen), or that all women be forced to go through with their pregnancy no matter what (even if their health is at risk), or that we abandon women to back-street butchers. I’m saying, let’s work from the other side. Let’s try to create a society in which abortion is unthinkable. A society that forces the weak and frightened to shoulder the burden of a social problem should be ashamed of itself.

How do we do it? That’s a good question. My hope is that peace organizations will at last begin to explore rather than ignore the problem, to start some dialogues, to try to cut through the rhetoric and terrible division and to address a problem that everybody can rally around.  IC

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas: When Ideology and Theology Meet

by Fr. John Garvey

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When I was involved in draft counseling during the war in Vietnam, I had a liberal friend who knew I was anti-war and was also opposed to the death penalty. She was shocked when I said I was also opposed to abortion. When I told her I thought I was being pretty consistent, she didn’t get it. As she saw it, I was violating a kind of liberal package deal.

A couple of years later I met a man who was not at all liberal. He was very much in favor of both the death penalty and abortion rights, and saw no inconsistency. I found myself sadly agreeing with him: he was consistent.

What made him consistent was a total absence of any sense of the sacred. He didn’t think of life at any point as sacred. He wasn’t liberal in any sense of the word. He had a kind of heartless sense of the convenient: get rid of murderers and other unwanted criminals and also get rid of unwanted unborn children––anything or anyone who might interrupt his life was fair game.

My liberal friend was a more complicated case. She did have a half-baked sense of the sacred, of some value that should attach to a woman’s right to choose whether to give birth to or kill the life in her womb, and she knew that innocent people might be mistakenly con-victed, and that even guilty people should not be killed.

But neither had a sense of life as truly sacred. Nor, I think it must be said, do those who call themselves pro-life and defend capital punish-ment based on the argument that the murderer has forfeited the right to life by taking the life of another. In both cases—one side often secular and the other side often ostensibly religious––there is a sense that a life’s value depends somehow on our end of the deal, our sense that a life is of value (because completely inno-cent, as in the case of the child in the womb) or that a life has forfeited its sacred status (because it violated the sacred status of another life, as in the case of a murderer).

This makes us too important, and God’s role as creator a wimpy cameo. How I regard the life of a child in the womb––whether I want it to be born or not––does not matter in the face of the fact that this unique being exists. To argue that it is a tiny collection of cells and therefore unimportant is not far from arguing that it is not so grave a matter to murder a dwarf as it is to murder a giant; it makes my attitude toward a life more important than that life’s existence, its God-givenness.

To argue that the life of a murderer can be taken because the murderer has violated the life of his victim is to say that the murderer gets to define the limits of the sacred. The terrible fact is that the murderer’s life is sacred, because God has willed that life, and none of us has the power to cancel the holiness of having been called into existence from nothingness. We may wish to cancel our vocation; in the horror of some lives it may be an overwhelming desire. But we cannot. And Christians have to bear witness to the sacred character of all human beings, no matter how innocent or how guilty, all of them people for whom Jesus Christ died. We are not our own. This applies to the newly conceived baby, and to any murderer on death row.  IC

Pro-Life Resources

Romanesque carving of Christ with Cain after the murder of Abel. Autun, France. (photo: Jim Forest}
Romanesque carving of Christ with Cain after the murder of Abel. Autun, France. (photo: Jim Forest}

From the early days of Christianity, the protection of human life — from the womb to old age — has been a major priority for the Church. Safeguarding unborn children is a topic that has often been addressed in the pages of In Communion. A partial list of articles and essays on this topic follows.

Abortion and the Early Church

by Michael J. Gorman

Contemporary Christians neglect the teachings of the Church Fathers on key moral and theological issues to their own peril. The earliest specific written references to abortion in Christian literature are those in the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas. The Didache combines a code of Christian morality with a manual of church life and order, while the Epistle of Barnabas is a more theological tract on Christian life and thought. While both of these probably date from the early second century, they most likely drew on Christian sources which had their origins in the late first century.

Both these writings also contain a section based on a Jewish oral and written tradition known as the “Two Ways.” This tradition contrasts the two ways of Life or Light and Death or Darkness. Athanasius notes that it was used extensively in the early church, either as a separate document or as part of the Didache, especially for the training of catechumens and new converts.

The Didache maintains that there is a great difference between these two ways. In an exposition of the second great commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) as part of the Way of Life, the author makes a list of “thou shalt not” statements obviously modeled on, and in part quoting, the Decalogue of the Septuagint. The list of prohibitions includes murder, adultery, sodomy, fornication, theft, the use of magic and aphrodisiacs, infanticide and abortion. Literally, it declares: “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion.” Similarly, the Epistle of Barnabas, in its practical section on the Way of Light, repeats the same words in a list of “thou shalt (not)” statements including, just before the abortion prohibition, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thy own life.” The fetus is seen, not as a part of its mother, but as a neighbor. Abortion is rejected as contrary to other-centered neighbor love.

On the other hand, the Way of Death, according to the Didache, is full of cursing, murders, adulteries, idolatries, robberies and hypocrisies. It is also filled with people who are “murderers of children,” an echo of the prohibition against abortion (though it may also refer to infanticide), and “corrupters of God’s creatures,” rendered as abortuantes in a third century Latin version, reflecting knowledge of the use of the Greek term phthoreus for abortionists. The Epistle of Barnabas uses the same two phrases in its description of the way of “death eternal with punishment.” In both writings the immediate context includes both personal vices and more socially oriented evils such as turning away the needy and oppressing the afflicted.

Both texts regard abortion as murder and provide an ethical context within which abortion should be viewed. “Thou shalt not abort” becomes a sub-commandment of the commandment not to murder. It has a status almost on a par with the Decalogue itself. Use of the commandment form provides a succinct continuation of the Jewish condemnation of deliberate abortion. There is no formed/unformed distinction, no elaboration. Abortion is presented also as an offense against humanity, a defiance of the second great commandment — “Love thy neighbor” — which the Epistle of Barnabas has expanded to say “more than thyself.” Furthermore, abortion is depicted not only as a sin like sexual immorality, but as an evil no less severe and social in scope than oppression of the poor and needy and no less dishonorable than the use of poisons.

The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas were extremely important in two other respects. First, the widespread use of their “Two Ways” teachings among early Christians assured the disseminating of their position on abortion. Second, later writings appropriated the murder definition, the commandment form, the elevation of the status of the fetus and the context of personal and social evils found in these two early works.

Contemporary with or just after these earliest documents was the Apocalypse of Peter, the most important of the noncanonical apocalypses. It was held in great esteem by the early church and was given canonical status by Clement of Alexandria and by the oldest list of the New Testament canon, the Muratorian Fragment, although it was rejected from the canon in the fourth century. Probably under the influence of oriental and Orphic-Pythagorean eschatology, the author of this apocalypse paints a graphic portrait of hell’s population, which includes this scene:

And near that place I saw another gorge in which the discharge and excrement of the tortured ran down and became like a lake. And there sat women, and the discharge came up to their throats… And these were those who produced children outside marriage and who procured abortions.

Such texts are important for their powerful presentation of the destiny of aborters and the aborted. It is evident that this picture is drawn, even with apocalyptic imagination, from deep ethical and emotional convictions. The theological basis for the entire text must be seen as an understanding of abortion as the culpable murder of a human being. Unborn children are viewed as living beings destined for immortality, and both men and women responsible for aborting them are guilty and worthy of eternal punishment. Methodius of Olympus and Clement of Alexandria were later inspired by this apocalyptic perspective.

Clement of Alexandria (ca 150 — ca 215), in his Prophetic Eclogues, quotes an anonymous writer of the mid-second century, perhaps a Christian Platonist, who argues that the fetus has a soul and is a living person. His argument is based on the idea that angels place the soul in the womb at the time of conception and the new embryo has a soul immediately. The main significance of this text, however, is not in its philosophical and theological speculation but in its connection of questions about the life of the fetus to the New Testament. Clement records that this writer’s proofs that the embryo is alive are the references in Luke 1 to John the Baptist and Jesus in their mothers’ wombs. He makes particular use of Luke 1:41: “And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb.” Though the writer focuses on the Baptist and does not even mention abortion, he laid the groundwork for subsequent theological links between abortion and the Incarnation.

In his own writings Clement brought both theology and ethics face to face with contemporary pagan society. In The Tutor (Paedagogus), written about 190-200, Clement addresses Christians concerning the goal of virtue to which the Logos, their tutor, could bring them. In book two, he pictures Alexandrian life in detail in order to warn Christians not to participate in all its luxury and vice and to provide them with a substitute moral code, calling them to extend the Christian spirit throughout the city. In the context of Christian marriage, the goal of which in Clement’s opinion is procreation, he writes:

Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings.

Clement continues the main themes of the Christian community:

Abortion is killing human life that is under God’s care, design and providence.

That he considered the unborn to be a human being is clear from the clause “if we do not kill” and is also implicit elsewhere in his thoughts on childbirth and the immortality of the soul. Clement was greatly influenced by the Stoics, but his concern for the child itself goes beyond the Stoic concern for doing what is right and in accord with nature. Clement’s own personal and sensitive contribution to the Christian position can be seen in his last clause, where he speaks of the aborting of human feeling.

The Apologists

In the ancient world, the new Christian faith had two unavoidable tasks: self-definition and self-defense. Though these two needs were intimately intertwined, the writers we have just examined were concerned principally with self-definition. There was also a need for self-defense, for giving an explanation of and justification for Christian beliefs and practices. As the Christian faith encountered the world around it, there were natural tensions and conflicts due both to real differences and to mutual misunderstandings. The group of Fathers known as the Apologists arose to answer the pagan criticisms of their religion.

Athenagoras (mid to late second century), the ablest of the Greek apologists for Christianity, addressed the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Lucius Aurelius Commodus in 177. Athenagoras was concerned to answer three frequent charges made against Christianity — atheism, incest and cannibalism — and thus to uphold Christian belief and moral standards. To the charge of cannibalism, stemming from a misunderstanding of the Eucharist, Athenagoras responded that cannibalism implied murder and that Christians would not even watch a murder, for example, a gladiator fight, much less perform one. His defense continues:

What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God’s care [and then kill it]… But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it.

[Athenagoras, Legatio 35]

If Athenagoras’ position were not the accepted Christian attitude, his argument would lose all its force. The three important elements in the Christian position appear already in explicit form in this late second century document: abortion is considered murder; the guilty must give account to God; the fetus is a living being, the object of God’s care. Athenagoras’s contribution is to set the issue of abortion in an argument for Christian practice based on the Christian view of the sanctity of life. He writes that Christians have renounced murder in all its forms — mentioning the common Roman practices of gladiator contests, animal fights, exposure and abortion — in order to avoid becoming polluted and defiled. It is this absolute abhorrence of bloodshed in any form which drives them away from even looking at practices such as gladiator fights and criminal executions. This view stood in stark contrast to the prevailing Roman lifestyle.

The most eloquent apologist in the West was Tertullian (ca 160-ca 240), who ranks second only to Augustine for his Latin contributions to the church. His most important work is the Apology, written in 197 and directed to governors of Roman provinces and to the emperor Septimus Severus. Like Athenagoras in the East, Tertullian sought to defend Christianity against charges of immorality, atheism and treason. In refuting accusations of secret crimes (chapters 7-9), he dismisses as a rumor the charge that “we are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it.” Later, to strengthen his case, he adds:

That I may refute more thoroughly these charges, I will show that in part openly, in part secretly, practices prevail among you which have led you perhaps to credit similar things about us.

After citing mythological and historical cases of child sacrifice and exposure in the Greco-Roman world, Tertullian writes:

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed.

His comparison of the seed and the fruit conveys with imagination the universal Christian concern for life. It also has a parallel, probably independent but coming from the same ethical roots, in Philo’s comparison of the embryo to a statue ready to be removed from the artist’s studio.

Tertullian reveals that the basis of the early Christian position on abortion was the commandment not to murder. Like earlier Christian writers, he considers the fetus a human being, though still dependent on the mother. Speaking for the Christian community, he consequently condemns abortion as “speedier” homicide. For Tertullian, dependence on the mother did not mean, as it did for pagan thought and for Jewish and Roman law, that the fetus is merely a part of the mother. In another work he appeals to the mother — not to the father, the philosophers or Roman law — to make the pronouncement about a fetus’s status:

In this matter the best teacher, judge, and witness is the sex that is concerned with birth. I call on you, mothers, whether you are now pregnant or have already borne children; let women who are barren and men keep silence! We are looking for the truth about the nature of woman; we are examining the reality of your pains. Tell us: Do you feel any stirring of life within you in the fetus? Does your groin tremble, your sides shake, your whole stomach throb as the burden you carry changes its position? Are not these moments a source of joy and assurance that the child within you is alive and playful? Should his restlessness subside, would you not be immediately concerned for him?

[De anima 25. 3.]

Writing in about 210-13, in this essay Tertullian attempts to refute all the misunderstandings of the soul which he perceived in pagans and Christians alike. Among these were ideas of the pre-existence of the soul, God’s creation of the individual soul at conception, and the infusion of the soul after birth. Tertullian had a notion of the soul as material and argues throughout chapters 23 to 37 that the act of procreation produces both soul and body and that life, therefore, begins at conception. He adduces arguments from medicine, logic and Scripture — including references to Luke 1:41 and 46 and to Jeremiah 1:5:

They [John and Jesus] were both alive while still in the womb. Elizabeth rejoiced as the infant leaped in her womb; Mary glorifies the Lord because Christ within inspired her. Each mother recognizes her child and each is known by her child who is alive, being not merely souls but also spirits.

He continues:

Thus, you read the word of God, spoken to Jeremias: “Before I formed thee in the womb, I knew thee.” If God forms us in the womb, He also breathes on us as He did in the beginning: “And God formed man and breathed into him the breath of life.” Nor could God have known man in the womb unless he were a whole man. “And before thou camest forth from the womb, I sanctified thee.” Was it, then, a dead body at that stage? Surely it was not, for “God is the God of the living and not the dead.”

Tertullian is the first Christian to make the explicit connection between these biblical passages and the issue of abortion. Though his main purpose is to prove his particular view of the soul, one of the motives for so doing is to criticize the practice of abortion and to show that even therapeutic abortion is the taking of a human life. For Tertullian, the witness of the Incarnation and of Scripture is to the humanity of the fetus.

Minucius Felix was the only third-century apologist which the West produced. His Octavius (ca 200-225), written in Rome in a period of persecution, is in the form of a Ciceronian dialogue in which a lawyer mediates between a proponent of Christianity and a proponent of paganism, the latter eventually being converted. After demonstrating the falsehood and immorality of paganism, the Christian addresses himself to the charge that Christian initiations take place by slaughtering a baby. His answer parallels Tertullian’s Apology. He protests that no one could kill a “tender and so tiny” baby, and that whoever thinks someone could do such a deed must be capable of it himself. Minucius Felix proceeds to accuse the pagans of infanticide and abortion:

And there are women who swallow drugs to stifle in their own womb the beginnings of a man to be — committing infanticide before they give birth to the infant.

The Latin word translated “infanticide” is parricidium, the Roman legal word for intentional killing, especially of a relative. Abortion, of course, was not considered parricide in Roman law; Minucius opposes his culture’s legal view of abortion. His subsequent assertion that Christians do not procure abortions is necessarily apologetic, but it must have been an accurate generalization of Christian practice to have been of any value to his defense of Christianity.

Abortion in the Church

Although all Christian writers opposed abortion, pagan influence on the church was unavoidable, and abortion was not unknown among “so-called Christians” (the term is Origen’s). The situation was recognized as a serious problem by Origen, Hippolytus and Cyprian.

While the apologists praised Christians’ refusal to imitate pagan practice, Hippolytus (ca 170-ca 236) was aware of subtle Roman influence on the church and of the church’s failure to criticize that influence. Pope Callistus himself approved of a Roman law allowing concubine marriages, even though such marriages often resulted in unwanted pregnancies. Sometime after 222 Hippolytus wrote about the effect of Callistus’s laxity:

Women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time!

[Refutation of All Heresies (Philosophumena) 9.7]

In the face of growing immorality, especially among wealthier believing women, Hippolytus continued to hold forth the orthodox belief that abortion is murder.

Similarly, for Cyprian (ca 200/210-258), orthodox belief and practice were closely related. This popular writer was not at all surprised to learn that Novatian was not only schismatic but also immoral, abusing widows, orphans, his, father and even his wife:

The womb of his wife was smitten by a blow of his heel; and in the miscarriage that soon followed, the offspring was brought forth, the fruit of a father’s murder. And now he dares to condemn the hands of those who sacrifice, when he himself is more guilty in his feet, by which the son, who was about to be born, was slain?

[Cyprian, Letter 52.2, numbered 48 in some editions]

The theme of guilt and judgment reappears in apocalyptic texts of the third century. Methodius of Olympus alludes to unnamed “inspired writings,” probably the second-century Apocalypse of Peter, which promise life to infant victims of abortion and infanticide, and judgment before Christ to the aborters:

Wherefore have we received it handed down in Scriptures inspired by God that children who are born before their time, even if they be the offspring of adultery, are delivered to care-taking angels . . . How could they have confidently summoned their parents before the judgment seat of Christ to bring a charge against them, saying, “Thou, O Lord, didst not grudgingly deny us the light that is common [to all], but these have exposed us to death, despising thy commandment.”

While the text may refer only to infanticide, a widespread practice among the Romans, the phrase “born before their time” was an idiom for abortion. A theology embodying a high view of life is present in this passage: life is under God’s will and providence from its inception and that are we responsible for the care of life “before the judgment seat of Christ.”

The author is Dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology and Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to many articles on abortion, he is the author of two forthcoming books, The Elements of Exegesis (Hendrickson) and a work on St. Paul’s spirituality (Eerdmans). This is a shortened version of a chapter in Abortion and the Early Church. Citations have been removed in most cases. Originally published by InterVarsity Press and Paulist Press in 1982, Gorman’s book has been reissued by Wipf & Stock, 150 W. Broadway, Eugene, Oregon 97401. The book is available at a reduced price directly from the author for $8.50 including shipping within the US ($10 outside the US with a check drawn on a US bank). Send a check made out to Michael Gorman at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, 5400 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21210. E-mail .

The text is copyright by the author and may not be reprinted without his permission.

Changing a society which has devalued women and de-humanized the unborn

correspondence with the Fellowship of Reconciliation on the issue of abortion

Open letter to members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation National Council

February 1998

Dear National Council Member,

The Fellowship of Reconciliation is not known for avoiding controversial issues. Since its founding it has supported those who refused to take part in war, even during periods when pacifism was regarded by many as treasonable. When racism was far more acceptable than it is today, FOR members launched campaign after campaign on behalf of interracial justice, playing an important and constructive role in changing the way Americans respond to each other. We have opposed executions no matter what the crime, how grim the circumstances and how seemingly unrepentant the murderer was. In nearly every area of life, the Fellowship’s role has never been simply to say no to violence but to seek life-affirming alternatives. Ever since our founding in 1914, we have promoted a vision of a nonviolent culture affecting nearly every area of life.

Yet there has been one notable area of avoidance. If a person knew nothing more about America than could be learned from statements and publications issued by the FOR or its program initiatives, he or she would have only the faintest awareness that the issue of abortion has divided the country for the past quarter century. So far, the FOR response has been to look the other way. The tragic irony is that one of the most pro-life organizations in US history says and does nothing to defend human life while in the womb or to support women under pressure to kill their unborn children.

The reason for this silence and passivity is that abortion is an issue dividing rather than uniting the FOR membership.

But is not passivity and silence in fact consent to abortion? If we had responded to any war or any area of social injustice with silence and without resistance, would anyone imagine we opposed what was happening or had a vision of a nonviolent alternative?

As a member of the FOR National Council, you belong of a community of people helping to give direction to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. We appeal to you to consider ways that the FOR can sensitize its members and friends to understand that, for some members of the FOR, the sanctity of human life, realized at every stage of life, is a constitutive dimension of pacifism. We believe the FOR could play a significant role in looking for ways to support women under pressure to have abortion and in the process help reduce the frequency of abortion. The FOR should promote dialogue, in small groups and via the pages of Fellowship magazine, to try to reach common ground on this critical issue.

Each of us began life in our mother’s womb and no doubt some of our mothers had a lonely struggle on our behalf in bringing us into this world. Let us see what we can do to make it a little easier for pregnant women to find the support and encouragement they need in a society which has de-valued women and de-humanized the unborn.

Yours in fellowship,

William Anderson, Faye Kunce, Shelley and Jim Douglass, Daniel Berrigan, Carol and Dick Crossed, Marie Dennis, Dan Ebener, Marie Dennis, Jim and Nancy Forest, David Grant, Anne McCarthy, Don Mosley, Will O’Brien, Anne Symens-Bucher, Richard Taylor, Jim Wallis [a few other names were later added]

* * *

on the stationery of the
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Box 271, Nyack, New York 10960
(914) 358/4601 / Fax: (914) 358/4924


Jim and Nancy Forest

Dan Ebener

March 5, 1999

Dear Jim, Nancy and Dan:

Last spring we received a letter from you, signed by eighteen persons, asking for FOR to deal with the issue of abortion in a way that seeks life-affirming alternatives and promotes the vision of a nonviolent culture. We are grateful for your concerns.

Your letter has been taken seriously by the National Council. We have entered into discussion at our subsequent Council meetings about this issue. Both in plenary sessions and in committee meetings we have sought to deal with this issue in a sensitive and compassionate way that recognizes the wide spectrum of belief about abortion, the areas of difference, as well as the areas of common concern. We have discovered and reaffirmed that persons in the FOR with varying views on abortion also share many of the same concerns and all are seeking to form opinions consistent with our shared reverence for life.

Attached is a working internal document that developed out of committee efforts over the past few months. It was discussed at the Council meeting February 26-March 1 and has been amended to reflect suggestions coming from further Council discussions. We send it to you and to others that have inquired about this issue to indicate where we are at this time. As we will be bringing it before the Council at our spring meeting in May, after further reflection, we request you not to circulate this but we are sending it to you to indicate the seriousness with which we have taken your original letter.

Yours in fellowship,

Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson
Vice Chairperson FOR National Council

* * *

attached to the letter of Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson:

Working Internal Document! Not for Circulation or Publication (3-3-99)

FOR National Council

On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion

The FOR is an interfaith, international fellowship of women and men who are committed to nonviolence and reconciliation. Coming from a wide variety of religious, national, and ethnic backgrounds, we share a common identity in our reverence for life and the search for nonviolent ways of attaining justice. We oppose killing, whether in war or capital punishment or personal violence.

There is, nonetheless, a wide variety of opinion among committed FOR members on the issue of abortion. Some believe that abortion, from the moment of conception on, is always wrong. They believe that embryonic life is the beginning of human life and therefore should be accorded full human rights. Their belief in nonviolence leads them to protect women and the unborn.

Others, equally committed to nonviolence, do not equate embryonic life with the life of the mother. They believe that, especially in the early months, fetal life should be put in a context that considers such things as the health of the mother, fetal deformity and pregnancy arising out of rape or incest. They believe the pregnant woman should make the difficult decision herself. To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit.

There are many gradations between the above beliefs in the FOR, as there are in the wider society. Many who support either a pro life or a pro choice position do not see a constitutional or legislative solution as the best effort. Amidst our differences there are areas of agreement that we share:

* we are deeply concerned about women and children and lament the tragic dimensions of abortion.

* we believe that men need to be called forth to responsibility on this issue.

* we believe that women who are pregnant deserve health care, adequate nutrition, shelter and freedom from violence.

* we affirm efforts to reduce violence against women and efforts to enhance family planning so that the frequency of abortions will be decreased.

* we see the feminization of poverty as an injustice that must be addressed

* we would all seek to protect women from being coerced into a decision for or against abortion and we believe that women should have adequate support during pregnancy from family and community

* we deplore killing of doctors and the threat of violence against abortion providers and their families and groups providing reproductive services.

We believe that there needs to be space for respectful dialogue and compassionate listening on this issue. Such an endeavor will help recognize the differences among us and enable us to respect one another and reduce the violence and hostility on this issue. This will help further Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community and the call to nonviolence and reconciliation that we have received from our elders Mohandas Gandhi, Muriel Lester, A.J. Muste, Andre and Magda Trocme.

* * *

March 10, 1999

Dear Lou Ann Ha’aheo,

Thank you for sharing with me the draft text on abortion that will be presented to the FOR Council in May.

Unfortunately I find in it no recognition that abortion inevitably involves killing human life and that it thus raises an essential issue for an organization dedicated to protecting human life and promoting nonviolence. I find in it no commitment by the FOR to take any action that would result in there being fewer abortions. It basically says: “Some see it this way, some see it that way, and we in the Fellowship of Reconciliation find both points of view equally acceptable.”

The summation of the views of opponents of abortion is oversimplified. I doubt any FOR member would say there is never a reason for abortion. As far as I know, all anti-abortion campaigners agree that abortion is permissible when the life of the mother is threatened. Thus they would not say that “abortion is always wrong.” I also think that few if any would use the phrase “embryonic life” but rather “life in the womb,” “the unborn child,” or something similar.

In the next paragraph there is this sentence: “To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit.”

Can you not easily think of situations in which this principle would not apply? If someone says he is following his conscience in shooting those who carry out abortions and is doing so at the leading of the spirit, would we not object? I’m sure many racist and anti-Semitic actions have been carried out by people who claimed they were obeying conscience.

The text states: “We believe that men need to be called forth to responsibility on this issue.” I would say yes, of course, but why are not both men and women in this sentence?

Could you explain to me the term “the feminization of poverty”? It’s new to me. Mind you, I live in Holland.

The text states: “We deplore killing of doctors and the threat of violence against abortion providers and their families and groups providing reproductive services.” I’m sure every FOR member, no matter what his opinions on abortion may be, opposes killing doctors, but the last two words are an inappropriate euphemism. In fact we’re talking about abortion services, the opposite of reproductive services.

One last question: When are you sending this draft text to the other 16 signers of the letter which led to the creation of the groups that drafted this text?

Once again, thank you for your efforts on this very tough issue. I hope we meet one day.

friendly greetings,

Jim Forest

cc: Dan Ebener, John Dear

[there was no reply]

* * *

Date: Wed, 24 Mar 1999 15:39:52 -0800
From: Dan Ebener
To: “Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson”
CC: Jim Forest , John Dear , Richard Deats , Bill Ditewig
Subject: Abortion statement

Lou Ann –

Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to our group’s pro-life letter concerning the FOR’s lack of position on abortion. I understand the situation that this issue puts you in is a tenuous one. Clearly, the FOR diversity on this issue seems reflective of the culture we live in. While we may not easily come to an agreement on abortion, it is good and just for us to dialogue about it. I have been actively involved in the most intense efforts at pro-life / pro-choice dialogue in the country, for the past three years. Out of this experience, I offer these reflections / observations:

1. I hope that we could express more clearly a critical understanding of how the search for love and truth can lead toward pro-life pacifism. (Clearly, the draft which we have received is a committee document, and for that, I can only wish you my condolences. My experiences with committee writings is that you get a lot breadth and little depth. This draft certainly reads like a committee document.)

2. The three sentences intended to express the pro-life position are very weak. It is a rather superficial expression of the pro-life position. I would be glad to re-write them completely. Better yet, they could be written out of a dialogue experience. I would be ashamed to show them to my pro-life friends in Iowa; in fact, my pro-choice friends (who are members of the FOR) here would be embarrassed for the FOR. (One of our experiences with the dialogue process is that you must be able to express the other person’s viewpoint to their satisfaction. Some of the pro-choice people here have become so articulate in expressing the pro-life position that we kid them that we want them to speak at our press conferences. Maybe they could write the pro-life section for us.)

3. I know of no pro-life person who uses phrases like “embryonic life” or “fetal life”. This is clearly pro-choice language. In our local Common Ground group, we have recognized that use of the word “fetus” is a pro-choice term, “unborn child” is the preferred description for pro-life people.

4. The 3 sentences describing the pro-life positions are qualified by phrases like “some believe” or “they believe”. The same is true for the pro-choice paragraph until the last sentence, which makes a very bold pro-choice statement without any qualification.

5. It is an over-simplification to assume that pro-life people oppose abortions in cases of rape and incest. In fact, almost every law and regulation governing abortion excludes these cases. That’s not where the real debate is, except among philosophers and theologians. Politically, it is often used as a “wedge” to polarize the issue, not to bring people together. It is the proliferation of “elective” abortions which is the common concern of most good-intentioned people. There is no mention of this in the draft.

6. Even Bill and Hilary Clinton agree that abortions should be rare. But there is no mention of whether the FOR believes that abortions should be rare. Was this considered?

7. To single out men as the only ones who need to be “called forth to responsibility on this issue” sounds like a loaded and un-explained statement. What does it mean? Should not the mother and father of the baby function as a team in responding to the crisis pregnancy? The role of men is often to push for and pay for the abortion, even when the mother does not want to abort. Perhaps what you could say is that abortion provides an easy way for men to act sexually irresponsible and destroy the consequences.

8. While most pro-life people do not promote the Human Life Amendment any longer as a realistic solution to abortion (it is too quick and too drastic), we do promote a range of legislative regulations which might place reasonable restrictions on abortion. The way I see it, the reason for the violence and inflammatory language is the same as in war: We have set up a paradigm where there has to be winners and losers. Right now, the pro-life side is losing. 26 years after Roe, the pro-life movement is stronger than it has ever been. It is not going to go away. It gets stronger every year. (If a Human Life Amendment was passed tomorrow, we would witness a huge growth in the pro-choice movement, along with more violence from the pro-choice side, just as we witnessed in the years just prior to Roe.) For the FOR to deny the possibility of further legislative solutions to the issue is to condemn the pro-life side to a losing future. The only way the pro-life side will rest its passion for this issue is for some progress to be made toward a more pro-life policy. To deny that possibility, as this draft does, is to condemn all of us to more violence.

9. To be consistent, if we are going to condemn violence against abortion providers, as we should, we should also condemn the violence occurring against Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which I would be glad to document for you. (As I’m sure you know, just because it doesn’t get reported in the secular media doesn’t mean it does not exist.) Again, we need to be balanced and fair in our statements. I realize most FOR people are probably unaware of the violence against pro-life leaders and CPC’s, but we all understand that this is becoming a civil war, and once a conflict reaches those proportions, we know that the violence goes both ways. The role of the FOR, of course, is to bridge the gaps and bring greater understanding to both sides of the humanity of the other.

10. Could we consider some action steps in the statement? Perhaps express more directly a call for dialogue and understanding?

The Iowa Common Ground group, which has been featured on ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s magazine, and many other media, would be willing to facilitate a process of dialogue on this issue for the FOR. I understand that it may seem like an overwhelming issue. It is. But I believe that it is the basis for an undeclared civil war in this country, and if the FOR is opposed to war and committed to the search for truth and the resolution of conflict, we need to be willing to step into the middle of this.

I would be glad to be helpful in whatever role you want me to play.

As requested, I have not circulated the letter to anyone. I believe that the signers of our original letter deserve a response directly from Nyack, so I have not contacted them either. They are all members of FOR and the national office would have their current addresses.

Again, thanks for your response.

In peace,

Dan R. Ebener

ph. 319-324-1911 fax: 319-324-5811

[There was no reply.]

* * *

From: Nancy Forest-Flier, [email protected]
To: Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson, [email protected]
Jim Forest, [email protected]
Dan Ebener, [email protected]
Richard Deats, [email protected]
Date: 05-04-1999 5:23 PM

RE: response to FOR statement on abortion

Dear Lou Ann,

As I am one of the three people personally addressed by FOR’s “On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion,” I would like to register my reaction to it. First, I want to thank you for your work in putting this document together and in getting such a dialogue started. It cannot be easy working with a committee to arrive at a single statement on such a divisive issue. But I think it is essential that this work be done and that it continue.

I have read both Jim’s and Dan Ebener’s responses to the statement, and I basically agree with both of them. The section that professes to express the pro-life position is quite weak and almost stereotyped. The first statement about the pro-life position (“Some believe that abortion, from the moment of conception on, is always wrong”) is grossly un-nuanced; in fact I would think that all pro-life people who are FOR members are willing to accept abortion when the life of the mother is at stake. There are loaded words used that pro-life people would never use (“embryonic life,” for instance, in the next sentence).

Finally, as Dan points out, the last sentence of the pro-choice paragraph is made without qualification (“To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit”). The problem I have with this sentence is that actually it applies to both pro-life and pro-choice people, yet you confine it to the ranks of the pro-choice. Pro-life people also believe that women should be free to make a choice; that women who believe in the sanctity of life since the moment of conception should be free to bear their child in a child-supportive, family-supportive, woman-supportive environment. But this is often not the case. It is not uncommon for women to be forced to have abortions by their partners or their parents, even when they sense that it is wrong. They may be young, they may never have thought very much about whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, yet suddenly they are supposed to make this staggering decision. The basically pro-choice society around them does little or nothing to support them. If they decide to go ahead with the pregnancy, they may be rejected by their partner or parents, or worse. They may know nothing about Pregnancy Crisis Centers. For these women, and there are many of them, such a phrase would be nothing but cynical posturing. Like the cynicism inherent in William Styron’s book “Sophie’s Choice,” the word “choice” has a hollow ring to it when it means deciding which of your children you are going to have killed.

You may be familiar with groups such as Pro-Life Feminists. These people see abortion more as a convenient way of society avoiding responsibility for women, children and families and for allowing men to behave in a way that is sexually irresponsible. The question for them is not only whether human life begins at conception, but whether the social problems that abortion represents should be offered only one solution: that woman endure a deeply invasive medical procedure that may have an enormous psychological impact on them for the rest of their lives.

I do not live in America, and the “civil war” that Dan talks about it distant from me. In Holland, where we live, the abortion rate is the lowest in the industrial world. This, the Minister of Health recently said, is something we are proud of. If lowering the abortion rate is enough to make a Minister of Health proud, then it must be worth pursuing. Holland is a country that has excellent sex education for young people, considerable social support for families, good medical coverage for everyone, and a major pro-life organization that prefers to help women in a non-accusatory, non-strident way. Perhaps the abortion rate of a country is a strong indication of that country’s social health. Look at Russia, where the abortion rate is soaring.

Finally, I wonder whether the title of the statement, “On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion,” doesn’t fail to recognize that there is a real problem here. It’s very nice to recognize and respect diversity, but the FOR also probably recognizes and respects diversity on many other issues — vegetarianism, for instance, or spanking your children, or use of alcohol or soft drugs. Should the FOR pat itself on the back for recognizing and respecting diversity on an issue that, unlike these others, is tearing the country apart?

I’d like to know whether the statement has been sent to the other signers of our letter. They should be made aware of how this discussion is progressing.

Finally, I hope that you take Dan Ebener up on his offer to be of assistance in this discussion.

Again, thank you for all you are doing.

Sincerely yours,

Nancy Forest

[There was no reply.]

* * *

On May 24, 1999, the following statement was approved by the Fellowship of Reconciliation National Council:

The FOR and Abortion

The FOR is an interfaith, international fellowship of women and men who are committed to nonviolence and reconciliation. Coming from a number of religious, national and ethnic backgrounds, we share a common identity in our reverence for life and the search for nonviolent ways of attaining justice.

There is a wide variety of opinion among committed FOR members on the issue of abortion and the beginning of human life. We have observed integrity and sincerity in members who are led to very divergent convictions on this issue, and we affirm and respect their place within the FOR.

Amidst our differences there are areas of agreement that we share:

* we are deeply concerned about women and children.

* we believe that women who are pregnant deserve health care, adequate nutrition, shelter and freedom from violence.

* we affirm efforts to reduce violence against women in a society where oppression of women, male domination and the open promotion of the subordination of women continue.

* we support efforts to enhance family planning so that the frequency of abortions will be decreased.

* we see the feminization of poverty as an injustice that must be addressed.

* we believe that women should have adequate support from family and community during and after pregnancy, and that men should be called to responsibility on this issue.

* we deplore murder and bombings directed at women’s health care clinics and their health care providers.

We believe that there needs to be space for mutually respectful dialogue and compassionate listening on this issue. Such an endeavor will help recognize the differences among us and enable us to respect one another and reduce the violence and hostility on this issue. This will help further Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community and the call to nonviolence and reconciliation.


* * *

to John Dear, executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation

June 19, 1999

Dear John,

In January, I wrote to you that I was considering resigning from the FOR because of its unwillingness or inability to recognize abortion as another form of murder similar in character to other acts of killing the FOR has opposed, or to make any initiative that would make abortion less common. You responded by asking me to hang in a bit longer in order to allow time for a dialogue on abortion at the February National Council meeting. You also asked how I could resign when the FOR has “a seamless garment advocate at the helm.”

Last night, after receiving the FOR National Council statement on abortion, it was clear to me that it was impossible any longer to remain an FOR member in the hope that the kind of change might occur which would renew my sense of connection. Thus my letter of resignation last night.

You mentioned in your letter that there would be a process of dialogue. I have to say I have had no experience of such a dialogue. I helped to write and was one of the signers of a letter to National Council members on the subject of abortion in which possible areas of FOR response were proposed — I attach a copy. So far as I am aware, only three of the letter signers (Nancy, Dan Ebener and myself) ever had a personal response to our letter. This came from Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson, vice chairperson FOR National Council. She sent us a draft text of a proposed declaration on abortion. She asked us not to send this to other signers of the letter. All three of us wrote back to her, among other things asking why those other FOR members who shared our concern were not allowed to see the draft. There was no response to this question or any reply to any of the more substantial comments any of us had made.

Did members of the National Council see our responses to that draft? What we said seems, so far as I can tell, to have had no influence at all in the text approved by the NC.

Is this dialogue?

It’s now 38 year since I joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was 20 years old and living on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. I had lately left the US Navy as a conscientious objector and had become part of the Catholic Worker community (a movement that had come into existence in part because of Dorothy Day’s need to repent of an abortion she had had when she was a younger woman, though it wasn’t until I wrote a biography of Dorothy in the mid-80s that I became aware both of her abortion and its later impact on her life).

What drew me to join the FOR in the first place? Partly it was simply friendship with a staff member, John Heidbrink, who had the title Church Work Secretary. In those years membership in the FOR was probably 90-95 percent Protestant Christian. John was actively reaching out to Catholics, people like Merton, Dan Berrigan and Dorothy Day. Somehow he also wrote to me. I was excited to find a Protestant minister with such a warm heart for Catholics, something that wasn’t at all common in those pre-ecumenical years. I also came to appreciate John. He showered me with books and in many ways widened my world. We became good friends, a friendship that has lasted all these years. In 1964, he made it possible for me to take part in a small FOR group traveling to Paris, Rome, Basel, Prague and Moscow, a life-changing journey for me. He played a major role in the creation of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which during the Vietnam War brought many hundreds of Catholics into FOR membership. It was partly thanks to the CPF that the Catholic Church produced so many thousands of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.

But it wasn’t only friendship with John, and later with other staff members, that made me so deeply respect the FOR. Here was an organization that recognized the sanctity of life in a remarkable and consistent way, working tirelessly to overcome all those forces which make people enemies to each other. Agreeing fully with General Sherman’s observation that “war is hell,” the FOR encouraged people not to go to hell. It also opposed capital punishment, even in that less violent time by no means a popular position in the US. It struggled to overcome racial prejudice and injustice. It was not uncommon for Fellowship members to risk imprisonment and even violence against themselves in their effort not so much to force change but to change people. Its nonviolence was not merely something negative but what Gandhi called satyagraha: the power of truthful living.

My involvement with the FOR led me to three periods of FOR employment, first as Interfaith Associate, later as Vietnam Program Secretary, then in the mid-70s (not long after getting out of prison) as editor of Fellowship magazine, a job I left at the beginning of 1977 when I was appointed to head the IFOR in Holland. In the 11 years since leaving the IFOR staff in 1988, I’ve spent a great deal of time helping build the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. (It was experiences in Russia while working for IFOR that led me from an academic interest in the Orthodox Church to become an Orthodox Christian.) I’ve spent most of my adult life working for the FOR or its associated groups. Such a long commitment makes it not so easy to resign.

When I joined the FOR in 1961, I hardly knew there was such a thing as abortion. It wasn’t an issue I can recall people either in the Church or in any peace group discussing. It wasn’t until later in the decade, with the emergence of the women’s movement, that the issue came up. Part of an emerging consensus among feminists at that time was that a woman should not be forced to bear a child. Put that way, I couldn’t help but agree. There was at the same time growing concern about the “population explosion” — the planet and all creation was under threat because of too many human beings. The case seemed to me, as it did to many others, convincing — and it gave another reason to support abortion, not only as a woman’s right but as a way not to overfill the human lifeboat. The Catholic Church was at that time the only loud voice in society taking an opposing view and even I, a Catholic, wasn’t convinced by what the Church had to say on the subject. I was among those smiling at such one-liners as: “If priests were the ones to get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

On the other hand, I would be caricaturing myself if I said that I was an eager supporter of abortion. It seemed to me, at best, a tragic choice. I had to agree with the traditional Christian view that human life begins at the beginning — that we are no less human in the womb than out of it — and that the killing of an unborn human being was never something to cheer about. Nor could I accept the rhetoric that very often was applied to the unborn — “a clump of cells” — or the tendency among the more articulate to use technical words (embryo, etc.) to depersonalize and dehumanize the unborn.

It was only when the FOR was seriously considering expulsion of the Catholic Peace Fellowship from its list of associated groups — this because of a statement it had issued opposing abortion — that I was finally forced, reluctantly, to realize that I was letting peer group pressure get the better of me, overwhelming both truth and conscience. I began to realize that the minimum one could do was to actively look for ways to help those who were under pressure to have an abortion — and quickly discovered how much even the smallest gesture of support could mean to a pregnant woman.

During that period, the war in Vietnam came to its sudden end. Preparing the June 1975 issue of Fellowship, I wrote to a number of FOR members who had played a major role in the movement against the war, asking them to write briefly “on lessons learned … and the ways in which we can better become a peacemaking community within the world’s most violence-prone society.” Among those to respond was Dan Berrigan, your brother Jesuit priest, who had spent part of the war in prison. At the time he was teaching in Detroit and could see, he related, a billboard out the classroom window that read, “Abortions,” and provided a phone number. Dan said that whenever he looked at this sign, he recalled a question Bonhoeffer had asked: “How are the unborn to live?” The billboard made abortion seem as normal an activity as delivering groceries or selling used cars. At the time, Dan wrote, “nearly two-million nearly-born people in our midst have been so disposed of.” He went on to ask a series of questions, one of which was what can we do to “help everyone walk into the full spectrum and rainbow of life, from womb to old age, so that no one is expendable?”

Would that the National Council statement on abortion had opened with such a question and attempted to answer it!

For the last few years I have in various ways tried to raise this issue once again within the FOR, chiefly through correspondence with members of staff, finally joining with other FOR members in writing to members of the National Council, asking them “to consider ways that the FOR can sensitize its members and friends to understand that, for some members of the FOR, the sanctity of human life, realized at every stage of life, is a constitutive dimension of pacifism.” We expressed our belief that “the FOR could play a significant role in looking for ways to support women under pressure to have abortion and in the process help reduce the frequency of abortion.” We made a few modest suggestions for what the FOR could do, such as “promote dialogue, in small groups and via the pages of Fellowship magazine, to try to reach common ground on this critical issue.” In the spectrum of pro-life writings, our observations and suggestions could hardly have been more mild. But none of them have made their way into the NC statement.

I have been asked, “Isn’t it enough that we agree about certain things — let us hold together with our areas of agreement and not concentrate in our disagreements.” In general I am prepared to say yes. But for a fellowship of reconciliation (the lower case letters are intentional) not to be shocked at abortion and to fail to respond to it in a constructive way, undercuts the most basic point of all: that at no stage in life are human beings appropriate targets of violence, least of all in the womb.

This also raises the question as to whether the Orthodox Peace Fellowship should remain an associated group within the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I believe it should not and will be propose to our officers and board of advisors that we end this alliance.

This is already too long a letter. Let me end it simply by slightly revising Bonhoeffer’s question: “What can we do to help the unborn –and their mothers — to live?”

in Christ’s peace,


PS Though this is a letter first of all to you, John, I hope you don’t mind that I will be sharing it with other FOR members, hoping that it will help them better understand my reasons for resigning.

attachments: 1) group letter to the FOR National Council 2) draft text on abortion from NC working group 3) responses to that draft from myself, Nancy Forest-Flier and Dan Ebener 4) the text issued by the NC on May 24

[No reply was received.]

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to Richard Deats
editor of Fellowship magazine and senior FOR executive staff member

From: Nancy Forest-Flier, forest_flier
To: Richard Deats, [email protected]
cc: John Dear, [email protected]
Date: 20-06-1999 11:22 PM
RE: abortion statement

20 June 1999

Dear Richard,

Thank you for sending the FOR statement “The FOR and Abortion”. You already have Jim’s response. I have been struggling with the contents of the statement and my own response to it for a few days now. I have been surprised with the depth of emotion that this exercise has revealed. I joined the FOR in 1974 — 25 years ago — and I recently turned 50, which means I have spent half my life as an FOR member. Jim and I met at the FOR in Nyack. Our first years here in Alkmaar were deeply entrenched in the FOR community both here and abroad. So trying to deal with the impact that this statement has had on me has meant some long, hard thinking about how much the FOR has been part of my life.

I understand that the statement on abortion is an attempt to search for areas of agreement. This is certainly admirable. At least now we know what the foundation is. But as I read down the list of articles, I realize that there is nothing in any of them indicating a courageous support of the “reverence for life”, which the first paragraph claims to be a basic part of membership in the FOR. Who indeed could not fail to agree with any of these points? You don’t have to be an FOR member, or even a pacifist, to agree with them. Having “concern” for women and children is something we expect of any normal person. The same is true for the rest of the statement. Is there any special way that the FOR, because of its “reverence for life” and aspiration for Martin Luther King’s “beloved community”, has something new and courageous to say to the world about this most important subject?

If the FOR’s aspirations were any less (say, like those of an environmental organization like Greenpeace), I would say, certainly the membership is divided on the issue of abortion. And I could live with that. But FOR’s aspirations are profound and very broad. They are nothing short of the search for truth, the establishment of a “beloved community” based on nonviolence, respect and justice.

Again, if abortion were any less of any issue (say, like vegetarianism), I would say every person is free to follow his or her own conscience. But whether you believe the unborn child is actually a child or simply a clump of cells, abortion is violent. It is profoundly violent. And no matter how I turn it, I cannot reconcile FOR’s high aspirations with this violence. I cannot. I cannot relativize the issue and say, it all depends on how you look at it. We are talking about violence and death here. Something (whatever it was) was once alive, and now it is dead, and it is dead because it was intentionally destroyed.

When I work all this into my own spiritual development, I realize that I cannot be part of a group that relativizes this issue. I cannot say on the one hand that abortion is a grievous sin, and on the other hand say “but it’s only a sin for me, because I’m an Orthodox Christian, it may not be a sin for you.” I must throw the weight of my entire life, my entire soul, my mind and my strength behind this truth and say it is a sin for everyone, no matter who they are. Otherwise my pursuit of truth is a joke, my prayers are empty, my confessions are hollow.

This is hard for me to get around. It has hit me right between the eyes these past two days. I fear that you will receive this news from me and from Jim and will say, they didn’t get what they wanted so they’re picking up their marbles and going home. But I implore you to realize that this is not the case. The fact is that I cannot be a member of an organization that claims to revere life on the one hand and then says that abortion has nothing to do with universal truth.

Richard, I am so, so saddened by this. I have felt myself growing further and further from the FOR in the last ten years. Even so, to make a definitive break, which almost seemed inevitable, is very hard. Yet I cannot continue with my membership.

love and peace,


[There was no reply.]

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John Dear
Executive Secretary
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Box 271

Nyack, NY

December 4, 1999

Dear John,

This is not a letter I have been looking forward to writing but no doubt you have been expecting it.

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship will be ending its formal association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation as soon we have a US account operating, which seems almost certain to occur by the end of the month.

This follows a decision made within OPF not to affiliate ourselves with organizations which do not promote a consistent pro-life ethic. This would include attention to the unborn and their mothers, who often resort to abortion not so much from choice but under intense social or, in some countries, even legal pressure. The recent FOR National Council statement made it clear that the FOR and OPF take a very different view on this matter, which for us is central to our reason for being: protection of human life at every stage of development, from the womb to the death bed.

We will welcome opportunities to cooperate with the FOR on specific projects of common interest, insofar as we are able. The informal link is unbroken. We greatly admire many areas of FOR achievement and activity.

in Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest
Orthodox Peace Fellowship

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