Are Denominational Positions on Abortion Changing?
The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in the abortion question. The passage of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (including its successful review by the Supreme Court in Gonzalez v. Carhart) and the public discussions of the gruesome nature of this type of abortion have raised society’s consciousness on the issue and have renewed a national discussion on the sanctity of human life.
The high incidence of abortion in the United States, with an estimated 1.2 million being performed every year, has also raised concerns as to the wisdom of our current national policy of abortion availability with few restrictions. Even many social moderates have begun to question whether the legalization of abortion, which was touted in the 1970s as a humane way to handle crisis pregnancies (those resulting from rape or incest, or involving fetal deformities or threats to the mother’s life), has become instead a vastly overused means of dealing with any unwanted pregnancy.
Ethical questions on controversial issues have traditionally come within the purview of the church, so the question of abortion is one that has been hotly debated among the leaders of nearly all Christian denominations in the United States. These denominations have typically crafted written policy statements regarding the morality of the procedure, which have been approved at their denominational conventions (usually held every three or four years).
The only exceptions to this pattern are those denominations with a non-centralized or congregational structure. These church bodies are able to leave the question of whether abortion is ethical or not up to each local church congregation. An example of such a church body is the National Baptist Convention, the largest African American denomination in the United States, which has no written position on abortion.
But for the most part, policy positions have been completed, so that religious leaders can respond to their members’ questions about abortion. The stances held by church bodies range from the strictly pro-life Roman Catholic Church to the strongly pro-choice United Church of Christ (UCC).
A denomination’s position on the procedure is of vital importance, since it drives the church’s activities in either a pro-life or pro-choice direction. For instance, a denomination with a pro-life statement is more likely to educate its members in a pro-life worldview, and to allow organizations, such as crisis pregnancy centers and denominational pro-life organizations (like Lutherans for Life, Presbyterians Pro-Life, and so forth) to give presentations and solicit funds at local parishes.
On the other hand, churches that have pro-choice statements are more likely to support such pro-abortion groups as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), and also to include coverage for abortion in their church worker health insurance plans. Needless to say, the clergy in these denominations will also be much more likely to counsel a pregnant woman to have an abortion.
The disparity of views between denominations on the abortion question did not exist until the early 1960s. Before that time, all Christian denominations in the United States were pro-life.
But this changed in 1962, when the United Presbyterian Church, now part of the Presbyterian Church USA, called for the reform of abortion laws. The American Lutheran Church, now part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), made a similar shift in teaching in 1963. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, nearly all the Protestant mainline denominations followed suit, including the American Baptist Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Episcopal Church.
But despite the predominance of the pro-choice position in mainline Protestantism, a few pro-choice denominations have made significant comebacks towards a pro-life position since the late 1970s.
The Southern Baptist Convention
The reversal of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) position on abortion is the most radical reversal of abortion views of any major US church body. The SBC originally approved of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in all fifty states, calling it an advance in the efforts for “religious liberty.” During the following decade, the denomination was doctrinally polarized, with conservatives advocating adherence to biblical inerrancy, while moderates sought to maintain the inclusion of critical biblical scholarship within the denomination. But in 1979, the Southern Baptists elected a conservative slate of officers, and passed a resolution supporting the passage of the Human Life Amendment, a proposed amendment that would codify the right to life from the moment of conception into the US Constitution.
Today, the SBC is at the forefront of the pro-life movement, issuing numerous statements to educate its members and the public at large on the sanctity of life in the womb. One of the most outspoken Southern Baptists on the national stage has been Richard D. Land, the president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land has written extensively on the subject of abortion, defended the sanctity of life on his weekly radio programs, and actively lobbied Congress to enact pro-life laws. For example, he lobbied for the removal of abortion coverage from bills associated with the plans to institute a government-run national health care system in 1994.
The United Methodist Church
After the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has probably made the greatest strides towards regaining a pro-life position. For instance, at its recent 2008 conference, the church added to its statement on abortion a clause concerning the necessity for its members to “respect . . . the sacredness of the life and well-being” of the unborn child, where previously it had only mentioned the “life and well being” of the mother. It also added the following sentence: “We support parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood.”
The denomination also stated that it “affirm[s] and encourage[s] the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.” It also reduced previous callous language that described some crisis pregnancies as “unacceptable” to the mother.
Many of these changes can be attributed to the patient, long-term work of Lifewatch, also known as the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS). This organization has consistently preached about the sanctity of human life to a denomination that had essentially abandoned it.
This is not to say that the denomination is now fully pro-life, since its statement still includes the sentence, “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures,” but its 2008 changes have made a difference in the way abortion is viewed.
The UMC also voted at the convention to maintain its membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), but only by a 32-vote margin, the smallest in the denomination’s history. And the vote was taken only after many of the more conservative African delegates to the convention had left. This is obviously encouraging, since it indicates the growth of pro-life sentiment within the denomination and signals the likelihood of further movement in the pro-life direction in the future.
The Presbyterian Church USA
As mentioned above, the United Presbyterian Church (UPC) began calling for the reform of abortion laws in 1962. In 1970, another Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) passed a statement at its convention liberalizing its views on abortion. In 1983, the PCUS and the UPC merged, forming the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), and the new denomination’s 1983 statement on abortion, was, according to former Presbyterians Pro-Life president, the Reverend Ben Sheldon, “the most radical [abortion] position of any U.S. denomination.”
The consistent efforts of Presbyterians Pro-Life and other pro-life activists within the PCUSA have resulted in some small movements toward the pro-life position. For instance, at its General Assembly in 1997, the denomination included the following statement about the gruesome practice of partial-birth abortion: “The 209th General Assembly (1997) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) offer[s] a word of counsel to the church and our culture that the procedure known as intact dilation and extraction (commonly called “partial-birth” abortion) of a baby who could live outside the womb is of grave moral concern and should be considered only if the mother’s physical life is endangered by the pregnancy.”
At its 2002 convention, the PCUSA also acknowledged that an abortion performed after fetal viability (the time when a child could be expected to survive outside the womb) “is a matter of grave moral concern,” though it still claimed that such abortions were justified “in the rarest of circumstances and after prayer and/or pastoral care, when necessary to save the life of the woman, to preserve the woman’s health in circumstances of a serious risk to the woman’s health, to avoid fetal suffering as a result of untreatable life-threatening medical anomalies, or in cases of incest or rape.”
Crunching the Numbers
These examples of trench battles between pro-choice and pro-life delegates at denominational conferences should not lead one to lose sight of the fact that Christian churches are still predominantly pro-life. Utilizing data from The World Christian Encyclopedia and Adherents.com, I performed a statistical analysis of the world’s Christian denominations with respect to their position on abortion. Applying a methodology in which denominations whose position was unknown were categorized as pro-choice—that is, a methodology that would yield the most conservative estimate of pro-life denominations—I still found that 72 percent of the world’s approximately two billion Christians worship in pro-life denominations.
Taking into consideration the large number of unaffiliated pro-life churches that exist in the world, it is highly likely that more than 75 percent of the world’s Christian churches are pro-life, or, in other words, that pro-life churches outnumber pro-choice ones by at least a three-to-one margin. So the usual media message that gives the impression that Christians are evenly divided on the abortion issue is simply not true. The numbers reveal that Christians are overwhelmingly pro-life.
No Place for Abortion
Michael Gorman, author of Abortion and the Early Church, once told me that the Bible presents a worldview in which abortion simply has no place. It just doesn’t fit in with the biblical stories. For instance, can we really imagine a woman in the first century walking up to Jesus, and after revealing her “unplanned” pregnancy to him, being given the equivalent of $300 by him and then advised to quickly have an abortion? Even though abortion was practiced in the first century, this scenario just doesn’t fit the picture of how the Church was then or should be today.
Ultimately, the abortion question comes down to how the Church, as the Body of Christ, chooses to live. It seems that even in many of our Christian churches today, the first reaction is often to take the easy way out: to keep it quiet, and get rid of the problem. But this creates more problems than it solves: death for the unborn child, suffering and regret for the mother, and a betrayal of what it truly means to live in Christian love. Shouldn’t each church congregation redouble its efforts in Christian charity to assist each mother to have her baby and raise that child to be a beloved disciple of Jesus?
Obviously, such a change in attitudes won’t occur overnight in some churches, but pro-life position statements can help turn the tide against these tragic attitudes. Often, such changes can be started by a single church congregation, which can usually submit a pro-life statement for consideration at a denominational conference. Congregations can also encourage parish support of local crisis pregnancy centers, and can allow a foot in the door for organizations like Lifewatch and Presbyterians Pro-Life, who work so diligently to educate their fellow Christians on God’s plan for human life. Efforts like these can affirm that a denomination’s members are filled with God’s love and the desire to nurture humanity’s most vulnerable members.
Dennis Di Mauro is the secretary of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, and a doctoral student in Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of A Love for Life: Christianity’s Consistent Protection of the Unborn (2008).
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