Problems of Bioethics
Abortion, Contraceptives, Cloning, Homosexuality, Etc.
The following is an excerpt from the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. Bold emphases original.
XII. Problems of Bioethics
XII. 1. The rapid development of biomedical technologies, which have
invaded the life of modern man from birth to death, and the impossibility of
responding to the ensuing ethical challenges within the traditional medical
ethics have caused serious concern in society. The attempts of human beings to
put themselves in the place of God by changing and «improving» His
creation at their will may bring to humanity new burdens and suffering. The
development of biomedical technologies has outstripped by far the awareness of
possible spiritual-moral and social consequences of their uncontrolled
application. This cannot but cause a profound pastoral concern in the Church.
In formulating her attitude to the problems of bioethics so widely debated in
the world today, especially those involved in the direct impact on the human
being, the Church proceeds from the ideas of life based on the Divine
Revelation. It asserts life as a precious gift of God. It also asserts the
inalienable freedom and God-like dignity of man called to be «the prize of
the high calling of God in Jesus Christ» (Phil. 3:14), to be as perfect as
the Heavenly Father (Mt. 5:48) and to be deified, that is, to become partaker
in the Divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).
XII. 2. Since the ancient time the Church has viewed deliberate abortion
as a grave sin. The canons equate abortion with murder. This assessment is
based on the conviction that the conception of a human being is a gift of God.
Therefore, from the moment of conception any encroachment on the life of a
future human being is criminal.
The Psalmist describes the development of the foetus in a
mother's womb as God's creative action: «thou hast possessed my reins:
thou hast covered me in my mother's womb
My substance was not hid from
thee, them I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest part of
the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance» (Ps. 139:13, 15-16). Job
testifies to the same in the words addressed to God: «thine hands have
made me and fashioned me together round about
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 by spirit
Thou brought me forth out of
the womb» (Job 10:8-12, 18). «I formed thee in the belly
before thou comest out of the womb I sanctified thee», says the Lord to
the Prophet Jeremiah. «Thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit
infanticide» this order is placed among the most important
commandments of God in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, one of the
oldest Christian manuscripts. «A woman who brought on abortion is a
murderer and will give an account to God», wrote Athenagoras, an apologist
of the 2nd century. «One who will be man is already man», argued
Tertullian at the turn of the 3d century. «She who purposely destroys the
foetus, shall suffer the punishment of murder
Those who give drugs for
procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the foetus, are
subjected to the same penalty as murder», read the 2nd and 8th rules of
St. Basil the Great, included in the Book of Statutes of the Orthodox Church
and confirmed by Canon 91 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. At the same time,
St. Basil clarifies: «And we pay no attention to the subtle distinction as
to whether the foetus was formed or unformed». St. John Chrysostom
described those who perform abortion as «being worse than
The Church sees the widely spread and justified abortion in contemporary
society as a threat to the future of humanity and a clear sign of its moral
degradation. It is incompatible to be faithful to the biblical and patristic
teaching that human life is sacred and precious from its origin and to
recognise woman's «free choice» in disposing of the fate of the
foetus. In addition, abortion present a serious threat to the physical and
spiritual health of a mother. The Church has always considered it her duty to
protect the most vulnerable and dependent human beings, namely, unborn
children. Under no circumstances the Orthodox Church can bless abortion.
Without rejecting the women who had an abortion, the Church calls upon them to
repent and to overcome the destructive consequences of the sin through prayer
and penance followed by participation in the salvific Sacraments. In case of
a direct threat to the life of a mother if her pregnancy continues, especially
if she has other children, it is recommended to be lenient in the pastoral
practice. The woman who interrupted pregnancy in this situation shall not be
excluded from the Eucharistic communion with the Church provided that she has
fulfilled the canon of Penance assigned by the priest who takes her confession.
The struggle with abortion, to which women sometimes have to resort because
of abject poverty and helplessness, demands that the Church and society work
out effective measures to protect motherhood and to create conditions for the
adoption of the children whose mothers cannot raise them on their own for some
Responsibility for the sin of the murder of the unborn child should be
borne, along with the mother, by the father if he gave his consent to the
abortion. If a wife had an abortion without the consent of her husband, it may
be grounds for divorce (see X. 3). Sin also lies with the doctor who performed
the abortion. The Church calls upon the state to recognise the right of medics
to refuse to procure abortion for the reasons of conscience. The situation
cannot be considered normal where the legal responsibility of a doctor for the
death of a mother is made incomparably higher than the responsibility for the
destruction of the foetus the situation that provokes medics and through
them patients, too, to do abortions. The doctor should be utterly responsible
in establishing a diagnosis that can prompt a woman to interrupt her pregnancy.
In doing so, a believing medic should carefully correlate the clinic
indications with the dictates of his Christian conscience.
XII. 3. Among the problems which need a religious and moral
assessment is that of contraception. Some contraceptives have an abortive
effect, interrupting artificially the life of the embryo on the very first
stages of his life. Therefore, the same judgements are applicable to the use of
them as to abortion. But other means, which do not involve interrupting an
already conceived life, cannot be equated with abortion in the least. In
defining their attitude to the non-abortive contraceptives, Christian spouses
should remember that human reproduction is one of the principal purposes of the
divinely established marital union (see, X. 4). The deliberate refusal
of childbirth on egoistic grounds devalues marriage and is a definite sin.
At the same time, spouses are responsible before God for the comprehensive
upbringing of their children. One of the ways to be responsible for their
birth is to restrain themselves from sexual relations for a time. However,
Christian spouses should remember the words of St. Paul addressed to them:
«Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that
ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that
Satan tempt you not for your incontinency» (1 Cor. 7:5). Clearly, spouses
should make such decisions mutually on the counsel of their spiritual father.
The latter should take into account, with pastoral prudence, the concrete
living conditions of the couple, their age, health, degree of spiritual
maturity and many other circumstances. In doing so, he should distinguish those
who can hold the high demands of continence from those to whom it is not
given (Mt. 19:11), taking care above all of the preservation and
consolidation of the family.
The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in its
Decision of December 28, 1998, instructed the clergy serving as spiritual
guides that «it is inadmissible to coerce or induce the flock to
refuse conjugal relations in marriage». It also reminded the pastors of
the need «to show special chastity and special pastoral prudence in
discussing with the flock the questions involved in particular aspects of their
XII. 4. New biomedical methods make it possible in many cases to overcome
the infirmity of infertility. At the same time, the growing technological
interference in the conception of human life presents a threat to the spiritual
integrity and physical health of a person. A threat comes also for
interpersonal relations on which the community has been built from of old.
The development of the above-mentioned technologies has brought about the
ideology of the so-called reproductive rights, widely propagated today on
both national and international levels. This ideological system assumes that
the sexual and social self-fulfilment of a person has a priority over concern
for the future of a child, the spiritual and physical health of society and its
moral sustainability. There is a growing attitude to the human life as a
product which can be chosen according to one's own inclinations and which can
be disposed of along with material goods.
In the prayers of the marriage celebration, the Orthodox Church expresses
the hope that childbirth, while being a desired fruit of lawful marriage, is
not its only purpose. Along with «a fruit of the womb to profit», the
Church asks for the gift of enduring love, chastity and «the harmony of
the souls and bodies». Therefore, the Church cannot regard as morally
justified the ways to childbirth disagreeable with the design of the Creator of
life. If a husband or a wife is sterile and the therapeutic and surgical
methods of infertility treatment do not help the spouses, they should humbly
accept childlessness as a special calling in life. In these cases, pastoral
counsel should consider the adoption of a child by the spouses' mutual consent.
Among the admissible means of medical aid may be an artificial insemination by
the husband's germ cells, since it does not violate the integrity of the
marital union and does not differ basically from the natural conception and
takes place in the context of marital relations.
However, manipulations involved in the donation of germ cells do violate
the integrity of a person and the unique nature of marital relations by
allowing of a third party to interfere. In addition, this practice
encourages the irresponsible fatherhood or motherhood, admittedly free from any
commitment to those who are «flesh of the flesh» of anonymous donors.
The use of donor material undermines the foundations of family relationships,
since it presupposes that a child has, in addition to the «social»
parents, the so-called biological ones. «Surrogate
motherhood», that is, the bearing of a fertilised ovule by a woman who
after the delivery returns the child to the «customers», is
unnatural and morally inadmissible even in those cases where it is realised
on a non-commercial basis. This method involves the violation of the profound
emotional and spiritual intimacy that is established between mother and child
already during the pregnancy. «Surrogate motherhood» traumatises both
the bearing woman, whose mother's feelings are trampled upon, and the child who
may subsequently experience an identity crisis. Morally inadmissible from
the Orthodox point of view are also all kinds of extracorporal fertilisation
involving the production, conservation and purposeful destruction of
«spare» embryos. It is on the recognition of the human dignity even
in an embryo that the moral assessment of abortion by the Church is based
(see, XII. 2).
The insemination of single women with the use of donor germ cells or the
realisation of the «reproductive rights» of single men and persons
with the so-called non-standard sexual orientation deprive the future child of
the right to have mother and father. The use of reproductive methods outside
the context of the God-blessed family has become a form of theomachism carried
out under the pretext of the protection of the individual's autonomy and
wrongly-understood individual freedom.
XII. 5. Hereditary diseases comprise a considerable part of the
totality of human infirmities. The development of the medical genetic methods
of diagnostics and treatment can contribute the prevention of these diseases
and the alleviation of the suffering of many people. It is important to
remember, however, that genetic disorders often stem from the disregard of
moral principles and the vicious way of life, which result in the suffering of
the posterity. The sinful erosion of the human nature is overcome by spiritual
effort; but if vice dominates in life from generation to generation with
growing power, the words of Holy Scripture come true: «Horrible is the end
of the unrighteous generation» (Wis. 3:19). And the reverse: «Blessed
is the man that feareth the Lord, that delighteth greatly in his commandments.
His seed shall be mighty upon earth: the generation of the upright shall be
blessed» (Ps. 112:1-2). Thus, genetic research only confirms the spiritual
laws revealed to humanity in the word of God many centuries ago.
While drawing people's attention to the moral causes of infirmities, the
Church welcomes the efforts of medics aimed to heal hereditary diseases. The
aim of genetic interference, however, should not be to «improve»
artificially the human race or to interfere in God's design for humanity.
Therefore, genetic engineering may be realised only with the consent of a
patient or his legitimate representatives and only on the grounds of medical
indications. The genetic therapy of germ cells is extremely dangerous, for it
involves a change of the genome (the set of hereditary characteristics) in the
line of generations, which can lead to unpredictable consequences in the form
of new mutations and destabilise the balance between the human community and
The progress made in the deciphering of the genetic code have created real
pre-conditions for comprehensive genetic testing with the aim to
discover information on the natural uniqueness of every human being and his
susceptibility to particular illnesses. Genetic screening,
provided the information obtained is used reasonably, could help to rectify
timely the development of illnesses to which a particular person is prone.
However, there is a real danger that genetic information will be abused for
various forms of discrimination. In addition, the possession of information on
one's genetic susceptibility to severe illnesses may become for one a spiritual
burden beyond one's strength. Therefore, genetic information and genetic
testing may be possible only with respect for the freedom of the individual.
Ambiguous are also the methods of prenatal diagnostics making it
possible to identify a genetic illness on the early stages of the intrauterine
development. Some of these methods may present a threat to the life and
integrity of the embryo or foetus under test. The detection of an incurable
or severe genetic illness sometimes compels parents to interrupt the life
conceived; there have been cases of pressure brought to bear upon them to this
end. Prenatal diagnostics may be viewed as morally justifiable if its aim is
to treat an illness detected on an earliest possible stage and to prepare
parents for taking special care of a sick child. Every person has the right
to life, love, and care, whatever illnesses he may have. According to Holy
Scriptures, God Himself is «a God of the afflicted» (Judith 9:11).
St. Paul teaches «to support the weak» (Acts 20:35; 1 Thes. 5:14).
Likening the Church to the human body, he points out that «much more those
members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary», while
those less perfect need «more abundant honour» (1 Cor. 12:22, 24). It
is absolutely inadmissible to use methods of prenatal diagnostics with the aim
to choose a more desirable gender of a future child.
XII. 6. The cloning (production of genetic copies) of animals,
realised by scientists, raises the question of the admissibility and possible
consequences of the cloning of the human being. The realisation of this
idea, protested against be many people, can become destructive for society.
Cloning opens up an even greater opportunity than some reproductive
technologies do for manipulations with the genetic component of the personality
and contributes to its further devaluation. Man has no right to claim the role
of the creator of his likes or to choose their genetic prototypes, thus
determining their personal characteristics at his discretion. The conception
of cloning is a definite challenge to the very nature of the human being and to
the image of God inherent in him, the integral part of which are the freedom
and uniqueness of the personality. The «printing» of people with
specified parameters can appear welcome only to adherents of totalitarian
The cloning of human beings can corrupt the natural foundations of
childbirth, consanguinity, motherhood and fatherhood. A child can become a
sister to her mother, a brother to his father or a daughter to his or her
grandfather. The psychological consequences of cloning are also extremely
dangerous. A human being, who came to being as a result of this procedure, can
feel not like an independent person but only «a copy» of someone who
live or lived before. It should be also considered that experiments with human
cloning will inevitably produce as «by-products» numerous unfulfilled
lives and, most probably, the emergence of a numerous unsustainable posterity.
At the same time, the cloning of isolated organic cells and tissues is not
an encroachment on the dignity of the personality and in a number of cases has
proved helpful in the biological and medical practice.
XII. 7. The modern transplantology (the theory and practice of the
transplantation of organs and tissues) makes it possible to give effective aid
to many patients who were earlier doomed to death or severe disability. At the
same time, the development of this sphere of medicine, increasing the need for
necessary organs, generates certain ethical problems and can present a threat
to society. Thus, the unscrupulous propaganda of donoring and the
commercialisation of transplanting create prerequisites for trade in parts of
the human body, thus threatening the life and health of people. The Church
believes that human organs cannot be viewed as objects of purchase and sale.
The transplantation of organs from a living donor can be based only on the
voluntary self-sacrifice for the sake of another's life. In this case, the
consent to explantation (removal of an organ) becomes a manifestation of love
and compassion. However, a potential donor should be fully informed about
possible consequences of the explantation of his organ for his health. The
explantation that presents an immediate threat to the life of a donor is
morally inadmissible. The most common of all is the practice of taking
organs from people who have just died. In these cases, any uncertainty as to
the moment of death should be excluded. It is unacceptable to shorten
the life of one, also by refusing him the life-supporting treatment, in order
to prolong the life of another.
The Church confesses, on the basis of Divine Revelation, the faith in the
bodily resurrection of the dead (Is. 26:19; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:42-44, 52-54;
Phil. 3:21). In the Christian burial, the Church expressed the reverence that
befits the body of a dead. However, the posthumous giving of organs and tissues
can be a manifestation of love spreading also to the other side of death. Such
donation or will cannot be considered a duty. Therefore, the voluntary consent
of a donor in his lifetime is the condition on which explantation can be
legitimate and ethically acceptable. If doctors do not know the will of a
potential donor, they should, if necessary, find it out the will of a dying or
dead person from his relatives. The so-called presumptive consent of a
potential donor to the removal of his organs and tissues, sealed in the
legislation of some countries, is considered by the Church to be an
inadmissible violation of human freedom.
A recipient assimilates donor organs and tissues entering his personal
spiritual and physical integrity. Therefore, in no circumstances moral
justification can be given to the transplantation that threatens the identity
of a recipient, affecting his uniqueness as personality and representative of a
species. It is especially important to remember this condition in solving
problems involved in the transplantation of animal organs and tissues.
The Church believes it to be definitely inadmissible to use the methods
of so-called foetal therapy, in which the human foetus on various stages of
its development is aborted and used in attempts to treat various diseases and
to «rejuvenate» an organism. Denouncing abortion as a cardinal sin,
the Church cannot find any justification for it either even if someone may
possibly benefit from the destruction of a conceived human life. Contributing
inevitably to ever wider spread and commercialisation of abortion, this
practice (even if its still hypothetical effectiveness could be proved
scientifically) presents an example of glaring immorality and is criminal.
XII. 8. The practice of the removal of human organs suitable for
transplantation and the development of intensive care therapy has posed the
problem of the verification of the moment of death. Earlier the criterion for
it was the irreversible stop of breathing and blood circulation. Thanks to the
improvement of intensive care technologies, however, these vital functions can
be artificially supported for a long time. Death is thus turned into dying
dependent on the doctor's decision, which places a qualitatively new
responsibility on contemporary medicine.
Holy Scriptures treats death as the separation of the soul from the body
(Ps. 146:4; Lk. 12:20). Thus it is possible to speak about a continuing
life as long as an organism functions as a whole. The prolongation of life
by artificial means, in which in fact only some organs continue to function,
cannot be viewed as obligatory and in any case desirable task of medicine.
Attempts to delay death will sometimes prolong a patient's agony, thus
depriving him of the right to «honourable and peaceful» death, for
which the Orthodox Christian solicit the Lord during the liturgy. When
intensive care becomes impossible, its place should be taken by palliative aid
(anaesthetisation, nursing and social and psychological support) and pastoral
care. All this is aimed to ensure the true humane end of life couched in by
mercy and love.
The Orthodox understanding of an honourable death includes preparation for
the mortal end, which is considered to be a spiritually significant stage in
the life of a person. A patient surrounded with Christian care can experience
in the last days of his life on earth a grace-giving change brought about by a
new reflection on his journey and penitent anticipation of eternity. For the
relatives of a dying man and for medical workers, an opportunity to nurse him
becomes an opportunity to serve the Lord Himself. For according to the
Saviour's word, «inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of
these my brethren, ye have done it to me» (Mt. 25:40). The attempt to
conceal from a patient the information about the gravity of his condition under
the pretext of preserving his spiritual comfort often deprives a dying person
of an opportunity to be consciously prepared for death and to find spiritual
consolation in participation in the Sacraments of the Church. It also darkens
his relations with relatives and doctors with distrust.
Death throes cannot be always effectively alleviated with anaesthetics.
Aware of this, the Church in these cases turns to God with the prayer:
«Give Thy servant dispensation from this unendurable suffering and its
bitter infirmities and give him consolation, O Soul of the righteous»
(Service Book. Prayer for the Long Suffering). The Lord alone is the Master of
life and death (1 Sam. 2:6). «In his hand is the soul of every living
thing, and the breath of all mankind» (Job 12:10). Therefore, the
Church, while remaining faithful to God's commandment «thou shalt not
kill» (Ex. 20:13), cannot recognise as morally acceptable the
widely-spread attempt to legalise the so-called euthanasia, that is, the
purposeful destruction of hopelessly ill patients (also by their own will).
The request of a patient to speed up his death is sometimes conditioned by
depression preventing him from assessing his condition correctly. Legalised
euthanasia would lead to the devaluation of the dignity and the corruption of
the professional duty of the doctor called to preserve rather than end life.
«The right to death» can easily become a threat to the life of
patients whose treatment is hampered by lack of funds.
Therefore, euthanasia is a form of homicide or suicide, depending on
whether a patient participates in it or not. If he does, euthanasia comes under
the canons whereby both the purposeful suicide and assistance in it are viewed
as a grave sin. A perpetrator of calculated suicide, who «did it
out of human resentment or other incident of faintheartedness» shall
not be granted Christian burial or liturgical commemoration (Timothy of
Alexandria, Canon 14). If a suicide is committed «out of mind», that
is, in a fit of a mental disease, the church prayer for the perpetrator is
allowed after the case is investigated by the ruling bishop. At the same
time, it should be remembered that more often than not the blame for a suicide
lies also with the people around the perpetrator who proved incapable of
effective compassion and mercy. Together with St. Paul the Church calls us:
«Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ» (Gal.
XII. 9. Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Church unequivocally
deplore homosexual relations, seeing in them a vicious distortion of the
God-created human nature.
«If a man lies with mankind, as he lieth with a woman,
both of them have committed an abomination» (Lev. 20:13). The Bibles
relates a story about a heavy punishment to which God subjected the people of
Sodom (Gen. 19:1-19) precisely for the sin of sodomy. St. Paul, describing the
moral condition of the Gentiles, names homosexual relations among the most
«vile affections» and «fornications» defiling the human
body: «Their women did change the natural use into that which is against
nature: and likewise the men, leaving the natural use of women, burned in their
lust one towards another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and
receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet»
(Rom. 1:26-27). «Be not deceived: neither effeminate, nor abusers of
themselves with mankind
shall inherit the kingdom of God», wrote the
apostle to the people of corrupted Corinth (1 Cor. 6:9-10). The patristic
tradition equally clearly and definitely denounces any manifestation of
homosexuality. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, the works of Sts
Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa and Blessed Augustine and
the canon of St. John the Faster all express the unchangeable teaching
of the Church that homosexual relations are sinful and should be condemned.
People involved in them have not right to be members of the clergy (Gregory the
Great, Canon 7; Gregory of Nyssa, Canon 4; John the Faster, Canon 30).
Addressing those who stained themselves with the sin of sodomy, the St. Maxim
the Greek made this appeal: «See at yourselves, damned ones, what a foul
pleasure you indulge in! Try to give up as soon as possible this most nasty and
stinking pleasure of yours, to hate it and to fulminate eternally those who
argue that it is innocent as enemies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and
corrupters of His teaching. Cleanse yourselves of this blight by repentance,
ardent tears, alms-giving as much as you can and pure prayer
unrighteousness with all your heart, so that you may not be sons of damnation
and eternal death».
The debate on the status of the so-called sexual minorities in contemporary
society tends to recognise homosexuality not as a sexual perversion but only
one of the «sexual orientations» which have the equal right to public
manifestation and respect. It is also argued that the homosexual drive is
caused by the individual inborn predisposition. The Orthodox Church proceeds
from the invariable conviction that the divinely established marital union of
man and woman cannot be compared to the perverted manifestations of sexuality.
She believes homosexuality to be a sinful distortion of human nature, which is
overcome by spiritual effort leading to the healing and personal growth of the
individual. Homosexual desires, just as other passions torturing fallen man,
are healed by the Sacraments, prayer, fasting, repentance, reading of Holy
Scriptures and patristic writings, as well as Christian fellowship with
believers who are ready to give spiritual support.
While treating people with homosexual inclinations with pastoral
responsibility, the Church is resolutely against the attempts to present this
sinful tendency as a «norm» and even something to be proud of and
emulate. This is why the Church denounces any propaganda of homosexuality.
Without denying anybody the fundamental rights to life, respect for personal
dignity and participation in public affairs, the Church, however, believes that
those who propagate the homosexual way of life should not be admitted to
educational and other work with children and youth, nor to occupy superior
posts in the army and reformatories.
Sometimes perverted human sexuality is manifested in the form of the
painful feeling of one's belonging to the opposite sex, resulting in an
attempt to change one's sex (transsexuality). One's desire to refuse the
sex that has been given him or her by the Creator can have pernicious
consequences for one's further development. «The change of sex»
through hormonal impact and surgical operation has led in many cases not to the
solution of psychological problems, but to their aggravation, causing a deep
inner crisis. The Church cannot approve of such a «rebellion against the
Creator» and recognise as valid the artificially changed sexual
affiliation. If «a change of sex» happened in a person before his or
her Baptism, he or she can be admitted to this Sacrament as any other sinner,
but the Church will baptise him or her as belonging to his or her sex by birth.
The ordination of such a person and his or her marriage in church are
Transsexuality should be distinguished from the wrong identification of the
sex in one's infancy as a result of doctors' mistake caused by a pathological
development of sexual characteristics. The surgical correction in this case is
not a change of sex.