The Protestant Churches on Abortion:
Complex, Contradictory, and Challenging
By Kathleen Sweeney
The history of the Protestant churches' witness on the abortion issue in the last 30 years has been complex, contradictory, and challenging. In the early 1970s, there was a sudden capitulation to the secular pro-abortion persuasion on the part of several mainline Protestant denominations. This has been a scandal to the many pro-life believers who found themselves at odds with their denominational leadership on a vital issue.
This unfortunate reversal led to the founding of pro-life groups within those denominations. As the timeline on page 16 indicates, these churches - - with the notable exception of the Southern Baptists - - have not yet come back to their life- affirming position. However, pro-life resolutions continue to gain increasing support. (The vast majority of these pro-life groups are members of the National Pro-Life Religious Council. See below and story, page 8.)
At the same time, other Protestant churches, such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, maintained strong pro-life policies.
Some of this complicated and ongoing battle within Protestant churches is captured in the timeline and the story that follows.
Early Reform Christian Leaders Established Pro-Life Tradition
There are ample examples of Reform Christianity's consistent teaching that abortion is a serious and unconscionable sin. Here are some of the statements from the Reform tradition:
John Calvin, 16th century Reformation leader, wrote in his commentary on Exodus 21:22:
...the unborn, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb before it has come to light.
Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church, spoke out several times on behalf of the child in the womb:
Surely at such a time [conception], the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.
More recently, Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrote during the years of Holocaust in Germany:
The unborn child is from the very first a child. It is still developing and has no independent life. But it is a man and not a thing, nor a mere part of the mother's body.... He who destroys germinating life kills a man.... The fact that a definite NO must be the
presupposition of further discussion cannot be contested, least of all today.
The Contradictions Begin
Until the late 1960s, Protestant churches were virtually unanimous in opposing abortion. The child in the womb was surrounded with protection. As an example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) stated in 1962 and reaffirmed in 1965 the following statement:
The fetus is a human life to be protected by the criminal law from the moment when the ovum is fertilized.... [A]s Christians, we believe that this should not be an individual decision on the part of the physician and couple. The decision should be limited and restrained by the larger society.
Despite this strongly pro-life 1965 statement, the Presbyterian Church (USA), in every statement and resolution since 1970, has supported free and open access to abortion without legal restriction. Almost simultaneously, the United Methodists (1970), the Lutheran Church in America (1970), the United Church of Christ (1971), the Disciples of Christ (1971), and the Southern Baptist Convention (1971) adopted policies allowing abortion as a decision of the woman or the couple. (Fortunately, the Southern Baptist Convention has now come back to a strongly pro-life position.)
For example, the Episcopal Church at its 1964 General Convention stated, "The Church continues to condemn non-therapeutic abortions...." Yet its 1967 General Convention approved abortions where "the physical or mental health of the mother is threatened seriously," and in cases where the child would be born with disability or was conceived in rape. In 1976, the Episcopal General Convention reaffirmed this statement and went further. It expressed "unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter and to act upon them."
However, in 1988 a resolution passed which declared that "All human life is sacred...from inception until death....We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension....We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience...."
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), formed in 1988 through a merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, issued a statement in 1991 which speaks of the sanctity of human life. However the statement provides three cases for allowing abortions: rape and incest, fetal disability, and threat to the life of the mother. In addition, the ELCA leadership has interpreted these cases to be "illustrative, not all inclusive" and opposes laws that "deny access" to abortion. Moreover, the church's health care plan for pastors and for church workers pays for elective abortions.
A turnaround in a pro-life direction occurred in 1980 in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The SBC expressed opposition to use of tax money for non-therapeutic abortions and favored legislation "and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother." Resolutions in 1982 and 1984 strengthened pro-life policies; its 1988 resolution states that most Southern Baptist churches opposed Roe v. Wade. From 1987 on, the Christian Life Commission (now known as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) of the SBC made opposition to abortion, except to prevent the death of the mother, a firm policy, and encouraged churches to develop crisis pregnancy ministries.
One mainline denomination which did not falter is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). In 1971, despite the collapse of so many other Protestant churches' pro-life policies, LCMS resolved that willful abortion is contrary to the will of God. Since then this pro-life denomination has worked to develop alternatives to abortion and pastoral approaches to help women and families in this matter. The LCMS has also supported legislative efforts to obtain protection for unborn children. In the Lutheran family of churches, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS Lutheran) has also been strongly pro-life, as are a number of smaller denominations.
Many evangelical, fundamentalist, and independent Bible churches are very pro-life in their views. They oppose abortion on demand and would support pro-life legislation. However, these churches do not usually have a national or regional denominational structure for making resolutions or policies on the abortion issue.
Denominational Pro-Life Groups Bear Witness
Concern about liberalized abortion policies in their churches led pro-life clergy and lay members to form pro-life groups within denominations. The Episcopalians for Life was one of the first. Founded by Bishop Joseph M. Harte of Arizona in 1966, it subsequently incorporated under the name National Organization of Episcopalians for Life (NOEL) in 1983. NOEL's work to change the church's stance on abortion succeeded in getting the 1988 resolution passed. (See graphic above.) This resolution represented a substantial change in tone from the earlier position endorsing abortion on demand as a woman's "right." NOEL continues to be an active pro-life presence at Episcopal conventions, supporting numerous pro-life activities and pro-life legislation.
Presbyterians Pro-Life (PPL), formed in the 1970s, has been a consistent and strong voice in the Presbyterian church seeking to move church policies in a more pro-life direction by submitting resolutions to each General Assembly and by organizing PPL chapters in local churches and regions. It was good news for PPL when the Presbyterian Church (USA) at its 1997 General Assembly became the first mainline Protestant denomination to come out in opposition to partial-birth abortions.
Lutherans for Life (LFL) is a pan-Lutheran organization begun in 1976. Its mission is to witness to the sanctity of human life through education based on the Word of God. To that end, LFL has developed a network of state affiliates and local chapters in order to provide avenues to educate the Lutheran community about the sacredness of God's gift of life and also to call Lutherans to action and service. LFL produces resources covering a wide range of life issues. It also promotes acts of love such as its Healing Hearts hotline for post-abortive women, Place of Refuge for those in crisis pregnancies, and the Campus Life Project, which reaches out to young men and women on college campuses. LFL publishes the quarterly magazines Lifedate and Living.
In 1987, nine United Methodist pastors and lay people formed the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS) to be an educational ministry to work with clergy, laity, and congregations concerned with protecting unborn children and their mothers from abortion. TUMAS hopes to see the United Methodist Church return to the "way of life" instead of choosing the "way of death." It has submitted numerous pro-life resolutions to the General Conference, which revises church law and teaching every four years. In 1991, a statement known as The Durham Declaration set forth a Methodist scriptural position on the sanctity of human life and was signed by hundreds of Methodist clergy and laity. TUMAS and its publication, Lifewatch, continue to provide strong witness and action, out of the church's tradition, on behalf of the Gospel of Life.
United Friends for Life (UFFL) in 1985 called together members of the United Church of Christ (UCC) to make an effort to open the eyes of UCC leadership to the biblical truth on abortion. Yet the resolutions forwarded to the General Synod were defeated and the denomination continued to affirm support for Roe v. Wade and a woman's "choice" for abortion. As the UCC appeared to stray far from God's laws, many pro-life members and churches left the affiliation or remained independent from it. In consequence, UFFL opened its membership to those in other churches outside of the UCC who wished to support pro-life witness and ministry. UFFL continues, under the leadership of Rev. John Brown, to support pro-life legislation and resolutions, and to encourage crisis pregnancy work, pro-life networking, and opportunities to speak out on pro-life issues.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention is involved in several issues important to Christians and has been particularly strong in support of pro-life legislation. This commission has been an organized entity for most of this century. Formerly known as the Christian Life Commission, it was restructured in 1953 and again in 1997 when it took its present name. Dr. Richard Land has served as president and CEO of the commission since 1988, and strengthened its pro-life outreach. The ERLC publishes two magazines: Salt and Light. It maintains a full-time office in Washington, D.C., to interface with national government on issues vital to Christians.
Groups Supporting Denominational Pro-Life Organizations
The National Clergy Council, formed in 1988 as an association of church leaders from all Christian confessions, joined together to give a moral and biblical witness to public policy makers in Washington, D.C. It supports pro-life legislative efforts and is involved in a variety of pro-life activities. The council sponsors an annual National Memorial for the Pre-Born service.
Formed in 1987, the National Pro-Life Religious Council (NPRC) is a coalition of the denominational and church-based pro-life groups whose goal is to strengthen their witness and effectiveness both within the churches and outwardly to the secular society. This ecumenical unity has fostered mutual understanding and support and enabled joint undertakings, such as the pastors' conference, Building a Ministry for Life, which took place last October. (See pages 8 and 11.)
These efforts represent a dedicated, faithful work which bears fruit in many ways which do not necessarily make headlines, but which do contribute to a vibrant pro-life movement. They are a beacon that facilitates the ministry and witness necessary to recall our country to full protection for unborn children and to healing for those families victimized by abortion.