I once came across a “health video” of a body-builder explaining his secret to the best nutrition. For breakfast he would eat fertilized chicken eggs. He then cracked open the egg to reveal a living, developing chicken fetus. Immediately it began dying. He popped it in his mouth and laughed as he described his delight over the crunching bones.
I found this horrifying. All I could see was an innocent animal who never even got to take its first breath. The complete disregard for the life of another creature repulsed me. Surely there was something immoral about this.
It’s hard to tell what causes people to chastise me more: when they find out that I am a vegan or that I am pro-life. Both positions elicit an outpouring of eye-rolling. So I rarely mention these facts in polite conversation. Nonetheless, as an Orthodox Christian my conscience compels me to both.
There is a long Orthodox tradition of vegetarianism. Consider this 4th-century hymn before meals:
Far from us that hungering lust that craves a bloody feast, and tears apart the flesh of beasts. Such wild banquets, made from slaughtered flocks, are fit only for barbarians.
In modern times, St. Paisios criticized modern farming practices for being cruel to animals, and wondered how anyone could eat such meat. While such a position is not mandatory in the Church (which, following the abolition of kosher laws, has shied away from dietary legalism), vegetarianism is preserved as a “counsel of perfection” practiced in monasteries and during seasons of intense prayer. Nonetheless, all Christians are called to love whatever God has made. In the words of Dostoevsky:
Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.
For many saints, this meant not eating animals.
But this article is not about vegetarianism, it’s about abortion.
However, by reflecting on the Christian vision of all-embracing love, we can contextualize the Christian defense of life. One of the earliest Christian statements on abortion occurs in the second century as St. Athenagoras attempts to contextualize Christian nonviolence. Christians were accused of cannibalism and murder because of the Eucharist. Athenagoras notes that Christians oppose violence:
When struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.
Later, turning directly to the charge of cannibalism, Athenagoras says:
We cannot eat human flesh till we have killed someone…[but] we cannot endure to see a man being put to death even justly, who then can accuse us of murder or cannibalism?… We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him. So we have given up [gladiatorial] spectacles…. What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion…will have to give an account to God for the abortion? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it…. But we are altogether consistent in our conduct.
Athenagoras’ argument is that, since Christians oppose killing the human fetus, of course they oppose killing human adults. It would be inconsistent to oppose abortion and then commit infanticide, or to oppose infanticide and then kill the adult. For Athenagoras, Christians oppose abortion, infanticide, capital punishment, and gladiatorial games for the same reason: Christians are consistently nonviolent, consistently pro-life. They should not contribute to death in any way, and abortion is just one part of that.
One question that occasionally comes up in the vegan community is: “Can a vegan be pro-choice? Is abortion vegan?”
My challenge in this article is to fellow vegans who might answer yes to that question. I likewise challenge those non-vegans who tolerate or respect the vegan position, but do not respect the pro-life witness. I challenge those who likely are suspicious of violence and capital punishment already, who are revolted by the eating of an animal fetus, but have no problem with the death of a human fetus. Consider the Christian pro-life witness, which holds that all life is sacred, and that we should have universal compassion. Whether it is the life of a criminal, a handicapped person, a desperate expecting mother, an enemy, or an innocent animal, every life has value. Is this such a radical and repulsive view?
My plea is this: If my conscience revolts at the death of a chicken fetus, then how can I support the death of a human one? If we vegans cannot stomach the death of an animal, how can we allow the death of a human? Are we, in the words of the saint, “altogether consistent in our conduct?”
Let me close with the story of a saint, the patron saint of single mothers, rape victims, victims of abortion, and vegans, the 6th-century St. Non. As a young, unwed maiden, she was raped by a local chieftain, causing her to conceive a child. Not wanting a competing royal heir, the authorities tried to capture her to induce an abortion. But she fled and hid, giving birth in secret and raising her son David as a single mother. Non believed in the sacredness of life.
She also believed that it was her Christian duty to refrain from animal products. She taught this value for all living creatures to her son, who went on to become the beloved St. David of Wales. St. David is the patron of vegetarians, for he taught it as a Christian duty. To this day, the notably carnivorous people of Wales celebrate his feast by eating leeks, a simple vegan dish.
The beloved David was able to live only thanks to the courage, and consistency, of his mother, a model Christian woman.
Nicholas Sooy is a doctoral student in the philosophy department at Fordham University. He works for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship & In Communion.