Do Unborn Humans Have Human Rights?

I have been interested in the issue of whether unborn children should have human rights for quite some time. For me personally, this issue was settled before it ever arose: the position of the Russian Orthodox Church on abortion, which is fundamentally similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, is based on the premise that human life is inherently valuable, and that unborn human children are no different in their possession of human life than their born counterparts.
Priest Sergei Sveshnikov | 23 February 2009


            I have been interested in the issue of whether unborn children should have human rights for quite some time.  For me personally, this issue was settled before it ever arose: the position of the Russian Orthodox Church on abortion, which is fundamentally similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, is based on the premise that human life is inherently valuable, and that unborn human children are no different in their possession of human life than their born counterparts.  The value of human life in Russian Orthodoxy is asserted through that which has been given for it—the life of the Son of God; and through the purpose of human life—theosis.  Thus, taking human life is seen as both rejecting the salvific act of the kenosis of God and the synergic act of the theosis of a human.

            Living in a secular society, however, I often find myself navigating my way through pro- and against-life debates, especially around election time.  Indeed, neither in Russia nor in the United States abortion is illegal; and the debate here in America really focuses on whether children should be able to get abortion without their parents’ knowledge—not any longer around the possibility of somehow outlawing abortion (although, there is still a very active “religious right” that is holding out the hope of reversing Roe v. Wade). 

            The usual Republican pre-election rhetoric about their opposition to abortion appears to be nothing but a smokescreen: five out of seven Justices who voted for “Jane Roe” in 1973 had been appointed by Republican Presidents.  Little has changed since: seven out of nine Justices currently serving on the U.S. Supreme Court have been nominated by Republican Presidents, and a Republican President has been in office for the last eight years, yet abortion rights seem as much a reality to stay in the American society as they have ever been.  The only thing that I can see as having a reasonable chance of making any difference in the situation is defining an embryo and a fetus as a human being and a human person, a move that would place unborn children under at least some of the protection common to humans.  And it is this very issue of the rights of human embryos and fetuses that I wish to explore in this paper.



            In the U.S., much of the debate surrounding the rights of unborn children was sparked by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the case of Jane Roe (real name—Norma L. McCorvey) vs. Henry Wade, Dallas County District Attorney, representing the State of Texas; and Mary Doe (Sandra Cano) vs. Arthur Bolton, Attorney General of the State of Georgia.  While the following trivia adds little to whether unborn children have rights, it has, nonetheless, become a prominent part of the debate: both Norma McCorvey and Sandra Cano now describe themselves as pro-life—Norma recanted her earlier views and joined the Roman Catholic Church (McCorvey and Thomas), while Sandra insists that she has always been pro-life, and that her attorney lied to her (White).  Since the time of these landmark decisions, both the pro- and anti-life movements have been invigorated and motivated to fight for rights: the former—of the unborn children, the latter—of women.  Now, in 2008, this issue appears to have played a prominent role in some voters’ decision of which Presidential candidate to support: according to, Barack Obama clearly supports legalized abortion, while John McCain is now officially against it.

            It would, of course, be incorrect (to say the least) to think that the abortion debate began in our time or in the United States.  Abortion and the debate over the personhood of unborn children may be as old as conscious human reproduction itself.  While many faith traditions assert that life is created by a god, humans have just as traditionally felt that they too have something to do with the mechanics of it, at least when it comes to their own children.  Interesting in this respect is the contrast of the birth from the will of man to that from the will of God highlighted in the Gospel of John (1:13).  Thus, it was important in many traditions, including Christianity, that the hero or the son of god be born of a virgin—to clearly state that we had nothing to do with the birth, that it was from God.

            The jump from the belief that a child is created by us or through our will (not merely through the use of our physical bodies) to the assertion of authority over the child’s life appears natural.  Consider, for example, the famous scene by Gogol’s Taras Bulba:

“Stand still, do not move! I gave you life, I will also kill you!” said Taras, and, retreating a step backwards, he brought his gun up to his shoulder. Andrii was white as a sheet; his lips moved gently, and he uttered a name; but it was not the name of his native land, nor of his mother, nor his brother; it was the name of the beautiful Pole. Taras fired. (Gogol)

It must be noted that it is Taras in this scene who is the protagonist and Andrii is the traitor.  Gogol, a devout Christian himself, clearly showed that some considerations can and should trample the right to life, which then is not seen as absolute.  Whether one may see faithfulness to one’s country or to one’s military oath as more important than the right to life, in this case the immediate rationale that Taras gives before shooting his son is that of the parental right.  Of course, this scene can be interpreted in several different ways, including within the paradigm of a military conflict.  The work Taras Bulba was well received both by the audience in 1835 and by the Russian Orthodox Church.  Of course, this example is very different from killing children who are not only defenseless, but also innocent of anything that may be seen as a crime to be punished or an evil to be rooted out.

            Elimination of unwanted children dates at least to prehistoric times.  A Greek god Kronos is reported to have used an interesting form of birth control: he ate his children as soon as they were born.  More civilized ways of addressing the problem had not yet been invented, and abstinence, apparently, was not an option for him.  Despite such compelling examples in their mythology, the Greeks are not known for following in Koronos’ footsteps; they preferred herbal remedies, specifically, silphium.  Historical evidence shows that at least some Greek schools of thought (specifically, the Stoics) considered unborn children to be essentially plant-like and found abortion morally acceptable (Hornblower).  Even Hippocrates, whose Oath is sometimes seen as prohibiting abortions, lists some recipes that a prostitute who became pregnant can be used to induce a miscarriage (Lefkowitz and Fant).

            In Christian culture that gradually replaced the earlier pagan one, however, prostitution was no longer morally acceptable and neither was abortion, although both have survived Christian Europe and continue to thrive now that Christianity is no longer a state-sponsored or even a prevalent faith in many formerly Christian countries.  Nonetheless, Tertullian describes an abortion procedure, and a rather brutal one at that, as an acceptable practice in cases when the mother’s health is in danger (Tertullian).   St. Augustine appears to have held a view that a human soul cannot exist in an unformed body, thus, he denied that an abortion early in the course of pregnancy was murder (see On Exodus 21:80).  Similarly, St. Jerome wrote: “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs” (Epistle 121:4).  It light of these texts, it is interesting that priests in the Russian Orthodox Church may be instructed to baptize only those newborns who are human in form, while those who do not resemble humans are left without baptism (providing that they are born alive) and proper burial (Bulgakov 2:987 n.1).  Implicitly, this may be seen as a statement in line with the teaching of St. Augustine.

            Other early Christian writers offer a different view on abortion, arguing that it is worse than murder.  The Russian Orthodox Church in defining the basis for its social concept chose statements that specifically criminalize abortion (section XII.2 of the Basis for the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church).  One of the earliest references comes from Athenagorus who wrote ca. 177 A.D.: “A woman who induced a miscarriage is a murderer… because the embryo in the womb is a living being of whom God takes care” (Basis).   Thus, Athenagorus derives the value of the life of an unborn child directly from the fact that God cares about him or her, presumably, in a way that is fundamentally different from the way that God cares about other living beings.  Likewise, Tertullian states that “he who will be human is already human” (qtd. in ibid.), asserting the realization of God’s intentionality in the present moment and outside of the material notion of time—a concept that was to be developed later within Christian sacramentology.  Basil the Great in statements known as rules 2 and 8 that were confirmed by the 91st ruling of the Sixth Ecumenical Council calls “murderers” both those who make abortifacients and those who take them.  St. Basil does not differentiate between “formed” and “unformed” child: “We do not make a distinction between the fetus that is formed and still unformed” (qtd. in ibid.).  This last statement shows that St. Basil was rejecting the “mechanical” notions of ensoulment and placed the full value of human life at the very moment of conception.

            Contemporary Christian movements differ in their position on abortion, but generally split along the usual pro- and anti-life lines.  Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant Churches (more specifically, Evangelicals) are against abortion due to the commonly held belief that human life begins at conception, and that human life is inherently sacred.  Most so-called “Mainstream” Protestant churches, on the other hand, are mostly pro-abortion, and many are represented in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which was “founded in 1973 to safeguard the newly won constitutional right to abortion” (Veazey).  In other words, the two positions may be described as focused either on the right of an unborn child to life or on the right of a woman to choose not to give birth to that child.

            Consequently, with respect to the debate over rights, two positions emerge: some assert human rights based on the inherent value of human life, while others give more weight to the gained value, such as self-awareness, life experience, life expectations, etc.  It appears to me that the debate between the two positions involves the difference in understanding of what it is to be a human.  Indeed, what constitutes humanity?  What is a person?  Is every human a person?  Is every person human?  Where does the value of human life come from?  Why should humans have rights and who gives them?—In this paper, I shall try to address these and other similar questions, albeit in a very limited way.  I do not pretend to have uncovered anything new—these issues have been debated for a very long time, by both men and women, educated and illiterate, religious and not—I am not the first one to think and to write.  But the issue continues to be relevant as we live our lives and try to make the best choices.



            The main points of contention that usually constitute the debate are whether or not a human soul is given at conception, whether human rights belong to human beings or to human persons, and whether specific rights of women are more important than specific rights of unborn children. 



            This question is not one that can be easily answered for two basic reasons.  First, it is nearly impossible to give an adequate definition of a soul; and without knowing what the soul is it is difficult to know whether one has it.  Second, opinions on this matter largely depend on one’s faith tradition, and it is only in the absence of a tradition or in the absence of a clear answer within one’s tradition that one begins to contemplate this matter in a hermeneutical way.  The definitions of “soul” range from “self-awareness” or “consciousness” to the “immortal essence of a human.”  Some also confuse the soul and the spirit as being one and the same, while others (myself included) distinguish between the two.

            Of course, it is hardly possible to know whether an unborn child possesses the faculty of self-awareness; although, it is equally impossible to completely deny such a faculty to an unborn child with any degree of certainty.  Mary Ann Warren, for example, argues that children up to one year after birth lack most of the qualities of a person, including self-awareness, and thus infanticide, according to Warren, is not murder (M. A. Warren, Postscript on Infanticide).  This view will be further discussed in section III.2 below.

            The Russian Orthodox Church, to whose spiritual and theological tradition I belong, understands the soul in terms of the immortal essence of a human, that which comes from God in the synergetic act of conception of human life.  This is a sacrament and a mystery, but we can speak of it in images:

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Gen. 2:7[1])

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. (Eccles. 12:7)

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.  My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.  Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Ps. 139:14-16)

Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about… that thou hast made me as the clay… Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, and hast fenced me with bones and sinews… Thou hast granted me life… (Job 10:8-12)

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee… (Jer. 1:5)

            All of the scriptures cited here have been quoted in paragraph XII.2 of the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church which specifically deals with abortion.  The verses provide a context for a belief that “the conception of a human being is a gift from God”[2] (ibid.).  Thus, destruction of human life is seen not in terms of the destruction of merely a living organism, but as violation of the “immortal essence of a human,” rejection of God’s gift, and destruction of God’s handiwork.  In other words, if one chooses to define a human soul as a sacred essence, a breath of life that comes from God, something that is precious in the eyes of God, then the Russian Orthodox Church asserts that this value is inherent to a human from the time of his or her conception.  

            Possession of a human soul by a creature conceived by a human does not depend on any particular stage in physiological development of a child.  The soul is equally present whether or not the brain is developed, or whether or not the child is viable (see Bulgakov 2:987 n. 1).  Saint Basil the Great, for example, intentionally avoided the distinction between the abortion of an embryo and a fetus, asserting that either act constitutes murder (see ibid. 2:971).  Nonetheless, Saint Basil ruled that the punishment for aborting a child should only be half of what he prescribed for killing an adult, “perhaps, as some say, due to the fact that the unborn child does not yet have full human life” (ibid.).  Thus, it may be argued that the category of personhood, while not affecting the general prohibition of abortion in the Orthodox Church, does present an argument that may affect how abortion is viewed within the ethical system of the Church.



            In my opinion, the claim that human persons, rather than human beings, possess inherent value is far more interesting and could be substantiated with a greater number of arguments.  Both, however, are based in some form of religious or philosophical belief.  On a purely biological level, neither belonging to the homo genus, nor personhood as such carry any inherent value beyond what could be seen as advantages within the paradigm of the survival of the fittest.  Of course, there exists such a phenomenon as “specieism,” but as a system it is based on sentiment, rather than rational operations.  Jeffrey Alan Gray, for example, quite properly notes “that the view that human beings matter to other human beings more than animals do is, to say the least, widespread” (Gray).  Indeed, faced with a dilemma of two lives being in imminent danger—that of a human and that of an animal—most people are more likely to try to save the human and to allow the animal to die, as sad and unfortunate as this may be.  This is, certainly, a clear example of placing greater value in one life compared to another regardless of any factors and characteristics of the two beings, other than the purely biological (or zoological) ones.  This form of specieism is not only widespread, but also is supported and institutionalized within many social and legal systems, including those of the United States.  At its core, however, specieism fails to be relevant within the framework of the debate over the rights of the unborn: placing more value in the life of an unborn child does not necessitate the preservation of this life if there is a compelling reason to destruct it.  Thus, we must speak not of relative, but of absolute values.

In order to introduce the category of absolute value into this debate, it appears absolutely necessary to ascent into the disciplines in which this category exists: philosophy and theology.  Furthermore, since secular philosophy appeals to the human as its highest authority, any discussion of those humans who are not present nor are able to intervene on their own behalf is inevitably flawed and one-sided.  To put this issue into its context, it may be noted that all definitions of a person as well as all views on the value of a person have been postulated by reasoning adults.  This approach usually works well enough, unless we begin to use our definitions to exterminate those who do not fit them.  The definitions provided by Ariosophy, for example, are objectionable only in so far as they are used to slaughter or enslave those outside of the ideal defined to fit the very people who came up with this definition.  Similarly, defining a person as endowed with all or most of the following qualities: consciousness (at least the capacity to feel pain), reasoning, self motivation, the ability to communicate, and self-awareness (M. A. Warren, Moral Status 458), appears to exclusively reflect the healthy adult point of view.  Not surprisingly, those who do not fit this definition are pronounced non-persons (the unborn and infants up to one year of age) and the termination of their life is not considered murder in this ageist paradigm.  Other humans who may or may not fully fit the definition of a person include those with various medical or gerontological conditions.  As the degrees of these conditions and of their impact on the life of healthy adults vary, so can the value placed on the lives of the “non-persons” or the “not-fully-persons.”  A 1938 German propaganda poster[3] implies just such a “sliding scale” with respect to human life.  Note that it is also implied from the message on the poster that the handicapped person is dependent upon others and is not viable on his own.  Such “scales” and reasoning eventually and quite predictably slide toward eugenics.  A similar thing appears to be happening with respect to the unborn: they do not meet the standards set by those who had the opportunity to develop the necessary faculties. 

This definition of personhood and the rights associated with it, including the right to life, is not without its inner logic and integrity.  If the process of evolution is seen as beneficial to the survival and development of a species, then the fact that humans have learnt to care for one another and to help one another survive circumstances that in a natural environment would have been detrimental to survival may be seen as having potentially negative consequences.  By increasing survival rates of the handicapped, humans increase the “pollution” of their own genetic pool and endanger their own species.  This argument does not apply to the abortion of the healthy unborn children, but if personhood is to be seen in relative terms of definitions based on a number of things that some people notice when they look in the mirror, then the value associated with a human person is only as high as the moral state of the secular philosopher and cannot be taken as absolute.

            The religious view on personhood varies by tradition, but in general it involves the absolute category of the divine.  Whether a human is seen as the image of God or a chosen one of God, the very introduction of the absolute value of God raises the relative value of a human person to include at least some absolute categories.  And as such, these absolute categories do not depend on the sliding-scale analysis of a particular person’s fitness in various moral, physiological or sociological respects; the value of a human person becomes absolute through communion with the Absolute.  Of course, because of the vast differences between various religious traditions, it is practically impossible to speak in generalities.  Additionally, it is equally as difficult to possess enough deep understanding of the many traditions represented in the United States in order to appreciate their respective positions on personhood. 

            For Orthodoxy, specifically in the way that the Russian Church professes it, “personhood” is not essential in declaring value of human life, nor has it received a precise definition.  Regardless of how the term “personhood” is being defined or whether a particular human is found to possess all or any of the characteristics of a person, the issue of the value of human life mostly avoids references to this term, and is seen in the context of the value that God places in the descendants of Adam.  If God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone may have eternal life (cf. John 3:16), then the value created through this special sacrificial act equally endows all of the recipients of the sacrifice.  Putting this concept into more pronounced capitalist terms, value is created by the demand and roughly equals that price that someone is willing to pay for the item in question.  Thus, if One is willing to pay an infinite price for human life—God gave His own life in exchange for that of man—then the relative value of human life is raised infinitely.  To put the same concept into more religious terms, a creature born of a human necessarily has human soul and is, therefore, infinitely valuable, even if it lacks the very human form according to physiology and is incapable of developing or even remaining alive for long (see Bulgakov 2:987 n. 1).



            One of the most contested issues within the pro- and anti-life debate is the question of whether the right to life of the unborn child is more important than the right of the woman to choose not to be a mother.  Very little progress can be achieved in this discussion as both sides use discussion-stopper slogans.  The pro-life advocates maintain that each child has the right to life—a statement with which it is difficult to argue without losing moral ground.  The only two possibilities of for an argument are to deny an embryo the status of a child—a tactic that is routinely employed by the anti-life movement but never impresses anyone who is pro-life, or to redefine rights of children not to include the right to life—a move that may be possible in some societies that customarily deny this right to some children (girls, for example), but is unthinkable in the U.S.

            The anti-life side, on the other hand, argues for the “reproductive rights” of women—also an argument that usually commands overwhelming support, unless it is explained that these rights include killing a child.  Certainly, any pro-life advocate will grant any woman a right to conceive or not to conceive a child; thus, the point of contention is whether the right of a woman not to be a mother remains viable after conception has taken place, and whether this right is primary to the child’s right to life. 

            The Orthodox position can certainly be seen as clearly and definitely pro-choice: every woman has the right not to engage in sexual intercourse and not to conceive a child.  Even with respect to birth control, the Russian Church parts ways with Rome and allows its use as long as the chosen form is not based on killing a child that has already been conceived.  The difference in attitudes toward birth control measures between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches is due to the difference in the understanding of marriage.  Unlike the Catholic Church, Orthodoxy sees the primary purpose of marriage not in childbirth but in mutual salvation of the spouses; thus, the use of birth control is not encouraged, but allowed as something that does not necessarily violate God’s divine institution of marriage.

            If a life is conceived, however, Orthodoxy insists on its infinite value due to the presence of a human soul.  As stated above, the value of human life is approximately based on the price that God paid for it in the act of salvation.  The approximation factor has to be accounted for because Christianity proclaims the kingdom that is not of this world (John 18:36) and resurrection into life (John 5:29) and life after death (John 11:25).  In other words, the value of the temporal life is immeasurably smaller compared to that of the eternal life.  Nonetheless, Orthodoxy believes in an organic connection between the temporal and the eternal, as it exists between the body and the soul.  It is not my intention to discuss Orthodox soteriology in this paper, but it may be generally postulated that a human soul must incarnate in a body in order to be saved.  The destruction of the physical body or the interruption of the physical life, therefore, can be seen as having profound affects upon spiritual matters.

            Because of the intrinsic value of human life measured in the absolute terms of the price that God paid for us, it is then a matter of comparison to establish that the right of a woman to control her reproductive health, her financial status, her education or career aspirations or any number of other similar things located within the temporal realm, cannot outweigh the right of a child to actually have a life which, as we have said above, has a profound effect upon things spiritual and eternal.  Additionally, if God is believed to be the “owner” of a child’s life because He paid a price for us (1 Cor. 7:23), then we cannot have a right to take that which does not belong to us.  Of course, this is a crude way of speaking about salvation, but the simplicity of this parallel allows for ease of understanding.  In light of the two considerations—the intrinsic absolute value of human life and God’s divine right to it—Orthodoxy views the relationship between the child and the mother not in terms of the rights of the child vs. the rights of the mother, but in terms of the rights of God vs. the responsibility of the mother.  This responsibility for the life of a child, however, is understood to be not exclusively the mother’s, but equally the father’s.

            However, there is the unrelated question of whether the mother’s right to life is more important than that of a child in cases when the two enter into a conflict.  It is quite interesting to observe that all sides appear to be in agreement when the mother’s life is in danger.  The child’s life in this case is understood as secondary to that of the mother and may be sacrificed to save the mother.  The official document of the Russian Orthodox Church cited above recommends “pastoral condescension” in cases when the mother’s life is placed in direct danger if the pregnancy is continued.  In other words, the Church abstains from making a direct recommendation for an abortion in these cases, but officially recognizes that such a step may be necessary, prudent, and excusable under some circumstances.  In this context, it is, perhaps, helpful to consider the typical Judaic justification for such abortions: a child is seen as one pursuing the mother or an assailant against the mother’s life.  The mother, on the other hand, is then considered to be defending herself.  This approach justifies abortion to save the mother’s life in the interpretation of many Jewish rabbis.  



            There are three prominent positions on the issue of the rights of unborn children.  In the first view, unborn children have no rights independent of the mother’s.  The strengths of this position is in the fact that it is the currently accepter legal position of the United States.  Any woman is free to terminate her pregnancy almost at any time (in most cases, not after the age of viability of the child) and for any reason.  This position not only fits in with the generally secular nature of the United States, within which talks about the sanctity of life are meaningless, but also follows the general pattern developed by the society that denies full rights to children: the right to vote, for example.  It is clear that such denials are based purely on ageism, since, if they were based on some objective qualifications, many unqualified adults would lose their right to vote while many highly qualified 16-year-olds would gain it.  Presently, however, only the age of a person is considered when granting full rights, and, by extension, only the age is considered when depriving persons of their full rights.  Thus, extending this logic to the time before birth, it is easy to justify the reduction of rights which includes the right to life.

            Another undeniable strength of this position is the complete freedom of any woman to follow her conscience.  Despite the fact that abortions are legal, no woman is forced or compelled to kill her own child.  In my opinion, this freedom to choose is one of the factors that make this position incomparably more appealing to many people than any other point of view.  It is a powerful argument that those who believe that abortions are bad are also free not to have them.  

            This very powerful argument, however, appears to discount the human need to belong to a group.  Not all people are happy to be individualistic, but instead insist that their values should be reflected within the values of the society.  People who believe that it is morally wrong to kill unborn children want not only the right not to do this, but also want the practice banned on a societal level to reflect their value system. 

            In my opinion, this argument has its validation beyond just the need or the want to belong to a group.  The interdependence of groups and individuals within those groups in undeniable and must not be overlooked.  Merely having the right not to have sexual intercourse at the age of twelve does not work “as advertized” for some tweens.    Similarly, having the right not to drink alcohol or not to be dependent on alcohol does not appear to be enough for 9.35% of 18-29-year-old white U.S. males who abuse alcohol (Grant, Dawson and Stinson).  One may argue that one in ten simply freely chooses substance abuse as a way of life, but other reasons for substance abuse may be envisioned.  Of course, abortion is not the same as substance abuse, but arguably some of the same factors may influence both teen drinking and teen pregnancy.

            The second position may be identified as the overwhelming secular respect for the life of an unborn child.  Under this approach, all abortions would be illegal except for the cases of rape, incest, or danger to the health of the mother.  The strength of this position is in the fact that it is a compromise that works for many religious conservatives and the newly-secularized Americans who lack any strong religious convictions, but continue to be carried by the inertia of their ancestors’ moral code. 

            The weakness of this position is in the lack of any moral basis that allows this view to be sustained.  It makes relative the value of an unborn child’s life, by placing it in relation to things that are considered objectionable at the present time and within this culture, but are not objectionable absolutely.  Incest, for example, can have various definitions in various cultures, and is not always objectionable in all circumstances.  Nineteen states and the District of Columbia in the Unites States permit marriage between first cousins without any restrictions, while twenty-four states criminalize such behavior and impose penalties (both jail time and fines) on those who commit this “crime.”  A similarly nuanced and complex problem exists with respect to rape, statutory rape, the nature of consent, the absence of objection, and many other debatable issues.  In some jurisdictions, for example, marriage implies consent thus making rape without personal assault impossible between spouses; while in others it does not, and an assault is not necessary to constitute rape within marriage.

            All of these problems rise from the lack of an absolute moral basis for this position, which fact effectively makes it similar to the first position.  The social element present in the second position and absent in the first one, will inevitably be challenged in a system based on individual rights being primary to group rights, which will lead to the deterioration of the social element as lacking any solid foundation.  Other suitable justifications for killing an unborn child can indeed be easily found, or the present ones expanded to include other circumstances that may gain priority in the value system of a large or small group.  While this indeed may satisfy the anti-life proponents, it is not likely to become a workable model for those pro-life.

            Finally, the third model may be identified as the religious belief in the sanctity of life and a rejection of any form of violence against an unborn, most certainly, murder, with the exception of when the mother’s life is in danger.  This position is founded on as solid a foundation as religious belief can provide.  It can be characterized by relative rigidity that can usually help it last for many generations, yet also by certain flexibility which can help it remain relevant throughout history.  Among its other strengths are voluntary acceptance of this position by large groups of individuals who are willing to support it and comprehensiveness of the moral system that provides the foundation to this position, due to the fact that a religious belief usually permeates one’s life to a great degree.

            The weakness of the religious position is in the obvious fact that not everyone in the U.S. follows the same religious tradition.  If a religious view is prevalent among the citizens of the Republic, then their wishes may enforced through a democratic process, barring judicial involvement.  Yet, just as obviously this position cannot be held by all people in the U.S., unless all people were to convert to just one religious tradition.  Since this is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, any imposition of a particular stance through legislation is sure to be viewed as forcing others to conform.  While violent enforcement has become a hallmark of Western Christianity—from the Spanish Inquisition in the Old World to the Protestant witch-hunts in the New—it has always created both a contemporary opposition and a lasting negative legacy.  It is not surprising or unexpected then that even people who themselves would never consider an abortion as an acceptable option for themselves, choose to support the right to abortion as their personal opposition to the secular enforcement of religious beliefs.



            In the secular moral system of the American society, no objective basis can exist to support the rights of the unborn.  In fact, no absolute or objective moral basis can exist to support any human rights.  Just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nothing but a convention, and, as such, is authoritative only to those who choose to subscribe to this convention, any local convention is relative, and can and will be challenged.  A society may decide that it is beneficial to support or ban abortion rights, to allow or ban euthanasia, or to mandate or discourage eugenics, but all of the decisions are open to challenges as lacking any objective moral basis.  This, however, does not necessarily present a problem to a society, as some have successfully existed with moral codes significantly different from ours.

            The Orthodox position, on the other hand, finds a solid and easily definable moral foundation in its religious texts and tradition.  It gives the unborn children most of the rights that it affords to all humans, including the right to life independent of the mother’s wishes.  The religious position also places the responsibility for the unborn child’s life upon both of the child’s parents, thus changing the question from whose rights are greater to that of whose responsibility is greater.

            The value that a religious tradition places on human life is objective, usually absolute, and is based on the value that God gives to human life.  And this absolute quality of the value of human life in the eyes of religious people creates a feeling of responsibility for all human life and a desire to protect all unborn children regardless of their parents’ beliefs.  This moral obligation felt by religious people cannot be sufficiently addressed by a system that allows anyone to choose between abortion and life.  In a way of analogy, if one’s neighbors can found to be getting ready to kill their child, a sense of moral obligation will compel most people to intervene on the child’s behalf, despite the parents’ explanations that the pregnancy was not planned, or that the mother needs to finish college, or that the child eats too much.  Similarly, if an unborn child is given the same moral status as a child that has been born, which is the case in most traditional Christian Churches, including Russian Orthodox, then a Christian can be expected to have a sense of moral obligation to protect that child from getting murdered.

            It must be said, therefore, that the secular and religious worldviews are incompatible, and a struggle between the pro-life and anti-life movements is unavoidable.  While it is not entirely impossible that legislation may be swayed one way or another to further afford or deny unborn children human rights, the system as it exists in the United States is inherently unstable due to the mandated secularization of the State, while many people living in it are very religious. 

            Predicting the trajectory of the current trend, however, it is possible to assume that the traditional Christian value system can be and is being changed for many Americans, and that those who subscribe to this system will find themselves in a significant minority.  Most likely, when this happens, the pro- and anti-life debate will cease to exist, as minorities are usually satisfied with their own counterculture and do not expect the larger society to adopt the minority group’s value system.  Early Christians may have wanted to convert the whole world, but they did not expect the Roman Empire to change their laws to reflect Christian values any time soon.  Until conservative Christians are convinced that they are at or below that critical minority status, however, we may expect the continuation of the debate with all of the accompanying political and social posturing, maneuvering and drama.



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[1] Due to the non-exegetical nature of this paper and to the beauty of the language in the eyes of this beholder, I shall use the King James Version of the Bible.

[2] Here and elsewhere translation from Russian is mine—S.S.

[3] The use of this poster in this paper fits the definition of the fair use rationale as its purpose is to provide critical commentary on the topic of the paper, not solely for illustration—S.S.



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