Abortion in the Teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church
The Holy Bible tells us that Almighty God created man in His image and likeness. (Genesis 1:26) and because He wanted the humans to reproduce and fill the earth, He gave them holy matrimony. Since then, marriage has been the source of new lives in this world. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church teaches that matrimony is God-given sacrament by which a man and a woman live in unison and harmony to give birth to children. In other words, marriage is the field where the seed of life is sowed.
The command God gave us to ‘multiply and fill the earth’ is fulfilled through lawful holy matrimony. Every person is made of the blood of his/her parents. Job the tolerant says “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 and favour, and thy visitation hath preserved my spirit.” (Job 10:8-12). This shows that the semen from the father is sent to the mother’s womb to give out new life.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria, one of the church scholars of the fourth century AD, taught the following:
“O You, Who takes a child from his father’s waist to the woman’s womb,
Who clots him after he is formed as fluid,
You breathe out the breath of life into him
On the fortieth day, you designate him for wealth or poverty, for honour or condemnation
You then take him out of there
You open his eyes and show him his grave
You open his throat and let him cry
You move his hands and feet so that he reaches out to his mother’s breast
O You, Who brings him up to adulthood and old age.”
(Liturgy of Athanasius, No. 113-115)
These words show us the means God created for humans to reproduce and perpetuate their race. St. David restates this fact saying “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalms 100:3)
St. Athanasius’s words are explained in our church as follows:
Athanasius makes reference to the forty days after fertilization not to mean that God determines whether the individual becomes rich or poor, righteous or wicked. Rather, it means that until the fortieth day, the embryo remains in a fluid state, almost invisible. On the fortieth day, the embryo takes the shape of a tail and acquires all its organs. After birth, the individual will enjoy wealth and righteousness or suffer poverty and condemnation depending on how he uses his body which is created on the fortieth day. That’s why St. Athanasius mentioned the forty days.
Church fathers further elaborate the matter saying that after the baby is born it opens its eyes and throat; an angel reveals to it its burial ground and let it test the soil from the grave; the baby then cries bitterly without shedding any tears. It will later shed tears at its death.
According to the teaching of our church, man is made of both body and soul. The church believes that both the body and the soul are created simultaneously; none is created before the other. (Genesis 1:26) This implies that children acquire both body and soul concurrently from their parents.
Just as fire ignites when two stones collide, the human soul also comes into existence through sexual intercourse between parents. And just as butter resides in milk, the human soul is also embedded in the body.
Termination of Pregnancy (Abortion)
Abortion is practiced in different parts of the world and there are different viewpoints regarding the practice. Let’s now discuss the stance of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church regarding abortion.
According to the teachings of our church, termination of pregnancy (abortion) is totally prohibited. The church condemns any attempt to hinder pregnancy (fertilization) during sexual intercourse let alone abortion of a living foetus. Based on the story of (Awnan) Onan recorded in the Holy Bible, the church teaches that abortion is punishable by God. (Genesis 38:8-10)
Our church elaborates the story of Onan as follows:
Judah took a wife named Tamar for his firstborn son. But Judah’s son was unhappy because Tamar was a Canaanite, from gentiles with no prophesy told for them. He, therefore, stayed away from her and was unwilling to have sexual intercourse with her. God slew the first born for his arrogance and jealousy. Judah then told Onan to marry his brother’s wife. However, Onan knew that a child born from Tamar will not be regarded as his own son. So, when he slept with Tamar, he spilled his semen outside her womb. God also slew Onan for his envy and evil act.
As we discussed earlier, if fertilization takes place after sexual intercourse, new life is conceived in the woman’s womb. Specially, on the fortieth day, as the foetus takes a human form, its right for life are supposed to be recognized. The church teaches that couples should suspend sexual intercourse since the time when the mother knows that she has conceived a baby.
As the foetus takes the human form on the fortieth day, its rights are recognized by the church. Our church believes that the foetus will rise from its grave at the end of the world just as its parents do. In the interpretation of the Gospel, the church teaches that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ fasted for forty days and nights to atone for the sins of all who took the human form on the fortieth day of their conception.
Our church also teaches that God visits humans even when they are in their mothers’ wombs. When St. John the Baptist was visited by the Holy Spirit before his birth, he prostrated for St. Virgin Mary and Our Lord Jesus Christ Who was in the virgin’s womb. (Luke 1:41-45) God also said to Jeremiah " Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5)
Therefore, the church condemns abortion because it believes that the foetus is a living human being though it is not born yet because it has not completed its period in the womb. It considers any attempt to abort the embryo as an act of killing a human being. In Exodus 20:13, God commanded us not to kill: "Thou shalt not kill." This applies to the unborn foetus as well.
The issue of tampering with pregnancy is further elaborated in Fitiha Negest. In chapter 24, it explains that couples who are interested in sexual intercourse alone try to abort the foetus using different tools and drugs. It also mentions that people might want to avoid pregnancy to keep the woman’s posture intact or due to fear that they might not have the resources to raise a child (children). However, all these are un-Christian assumptions and acts.
The book goes on to explain that killing a foetus could be worse than killing a born person. Unlike those of us living in this world, foetuses are pure and have never had sinful experiences. Besides, no one knows their destinies. They can end up being popes or leaders.
Fiteha Negest also issues a verdict on anyone who terminates a woman’s conception through witchcraft. It says “If a man terminates a woman’s conception through witchcraft and engages in sexual misconduct with her, let him repent throughout his life. When he is sick or he is on the verge of death, let him partake from the Holy Communion for he has committed three grave sins: sexual misconduct, murder and witchcraft."
The book also adds a related verdict of church fathers: "If women abort children conceived through sexual misconduct and conceal their sins let them depart from their fellow believers throughout their lives." But then it rules that the time be shortened to ten years for the sake of God’s love for us.
Abortion as a ‘ Right’
In some countries, terminating pregnancy is viewed in light of women’s rights. However, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church does not accept this point of view. People who are tied together in holy matrimony are unified into one being and hence are supposed to have one will. (Mathew 19:6) The man has power over his wife’s body, and vice versa. (1 Corinthians 7:4) Both are responsible for what happens in their marriage. Hence, the church encourages consensus and tolerance between couples. It teaches that both parents share the same rights and obligations in giving birth to children and raising them.
Plus, the church firmly teaches that children, though not born yet, have the right to life once they are conceived. None of the parents should consider abortion as their rights. The church never accepts abortion even if the parents might be in favour of it. And in any discussion on such matters, father confessors always rule out the option of abortion and reflect the church’s stance as they are its ambassadors.
As the church has a firm stance on the right of the unborn child to life, the only option couples are left with to avoid pregnancy is abstinence. If couples decide not to engage in any sexual intercourse, they have the right to do so.
However, it is highly likely that married couples engage in sexual intercourse though they might not give serious thought to the prospect of giving birth to children. They usually engage in such intercourse to satisfy their bodily desires. None of us can analyse how God uses this intercourse to bring out new life out of it.
In Psalms 27 verse 10, St. David says "When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up." This shows that parents engage in sexual intercourse primarily to satisfy their sexual appetite, and that God, in His boundless wisdom, makes life out of that. St. David also mentions that God protects children starting from their days in their mothers ‘wombs. (Psalms 116:6)
Source: This article appeared in one of the editions of ‘Hamer’ magazine published monthly by Mahibere Kidusan. The content of the article is taken from a study conducted by Deacon Zena Birhanu and presented at a symposium Mahibere Kidusan convened in 1995 E.C /2002 G.C at the Postgraduate Hall of Addis Ababa University.
Note: Fetha Nagast translated as "Law of the Kings") is a book of law that has been in use in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido church since at least the l6th. cent. The first part of Fetha Nagast deals with mostly ecclesiastic affairs. The second part, concerning issues pertaining to the laity, such as family law, debt, civil administration etc. It was compiled from the Bible, writings of early Church fathers including St. Basil and St. Hippolytus, and various canons adopted at the Council of Nicaea, the Council of Antioch, and others.
Translation: Tsegaye Girma & Kassa Nigus