Pro-life and Pro-choice? PDF Print E-mail

Is it possible to be both pro-life and pro-choice?:
Pastoral care and public policy in the abortion issue

by Herbert Schlossberg

Common Ground - Occasional papers from Presbyterians Pro-Life
No. 5 - October 1989; revised May 1993

Christians often fail to recognize two separate issues in the abortion debate

Stung by the phrase pro-life, referring to those who oppose abortion, many people favoring easy access to abortion have begun calling themselves both pro-life and pro-choice. This further confuses the terminology which I believe has already been muddled by people on both sides of the abortion issue. The confusion comes from failing to recognize that there are two separate issues being addressed: a pastoral issue and a public policy issue. The first asks what moral position regarding abortion should be taken by reformed Christians. The second asks about the public policy that leads to justice. The current policy of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is (1) that abortion is a moral option that is allowable by our theology and, (2) that abortion should be supported by public policy. Presbyterians Pro-Life believes the policy is wrong on both counts.

Missing from most discussions is the position that says abortion is morally wrong but should not be prohibited by public policy. This combination of positions provides a way for many additional Presbyterians to work together with PPL to restore a biblical pastoral position to our denomination.

Christians should distinguish between moral issues and issues of public policy

In the church we need to be able to distinguish between moral judgments and public policy issues. We understand instinctively that there are things that should be avoided as a matter of morality or prudence while not making them matters of legal constraint, even though we often disagree on what belongs in each category. Among people who disapprove of smoking cigarettes on health or public safety grounds, for example, we can find those who want to make this a matter of legal restriction and those who want to rely on education and persuasion. Mothers Against Drunk Driving wishes to avoid the misuse of alcohol (for the sake of the analogy let's call that a pastoral decision) without bringing back prohibition (a public policy decision).

When we make the pastoral decision we're not discussing what public policy should be. Rather we're concerned as reformed Christians with what Scripture and theology says to the church. As we deal with this the word choice--in the sense of the absence of legal constraint--does not enter into the question. To be sure we all make choices on moral issues, but in the abortion controversy the word is used in a specialized sense; it contrasts the individual's own decision (the choice) with the government's role in constraining the action.

In the pastoral sense, on the other hand, we assume that the person is going to make the decision one way or another--that is, make the choice--but we want to provide the biblical and theological content that goes into the discussion in such a way that the decision can be made rightly. And to be made rightly the decision has to be made in accordance with the standards of the faith. As Presbyterians we believe that all of life comes under God's sovereignty and we want to help men and women make their decisions on that basis. In that sense, abortion is like any moral issue; we humble ourselves before God and seek the guidance of the Scriptures and the Spirit. It is the pastoral role of the church to help us do that, and it undertakes this role in a different sense than it does in addressing public policy issues. That difference is the factor that has largely been missing from the debates in our denomination, and that is one reason they have been so divisive.

The current position of our denomination is more than "pro-choice"
Most of those calling themselves pro-choice but pro-life hold a position which is anything but pro-life. They want the title pro-life while advocating the killing of the unborn baby. A genuine pro-life, pro-choice position would require the protection of developing human life, and would make it economically, psychologically and spiritually possible for the pregnant woman to do the right thing and bring her baby to birth--that is the pro-life component of this position. At the same time it would not prohibit abortions as a matter of public policy--that is the pro-choice component.

That is very different from the church's current policy on abortion. This policy advocates the pro-choice position, but combines it with a pro-abortion component. After giving a nod to a reformed theological position, our present document fails to consider the ethical outcome of that theology in the development of its policy. It does not affirm the biblical position on sexual responsibility, does not say to pastors, women, and families affected by unexpected pregnancies that God's grace is sufficient to provide for the needs of all who trust in him and for their children also, and does not give guidance on how to do the right thing in the midst of difficult circumstances.

Rather our policy finds the circumstances of problem pregnancies "complicated and insolvable." The church, it says, has "neither the wisdom nor the authority to address each individual situation." Thus the church is unable to give moral guidance in problem pregnancies and leaves each woman on her own to determine whether her own circumstances warrant the killing of her own unborn child. This is not only bad teaching with respect to abortion, but it is disastrous with respect to any ethical difficulty. It is not coincidental that we are facing the possibility of serious moral collapse in other areas as well: specifically our policies with respect to sexual morality and homosexual behavior.

Moral Failure is associated with decline

It is also no coincidence that sexual issues should loom so large in the decline of our denomination, and not only ours. That happens because sexual life is closely allied with so many other things. That is why the apostle Paul used marriage as an analogy between Christ and the church. Arnold Toynbee, perhaps the best-known historian of the twentieth century, concluded in his ten-volume study of the rise and fall of civilizations that sexual lawlessness has been for five thousand years an inescapable part of the scene when a civilization is in a state of incipient collapse.

Surely one of the church's functions is to stand against this kind of collapse, to speak prophetically in the midst of the decline and to stand for the kind of moral standards that uphold God's law. When the church--the one institution in the best position to resist the tide because it draws its life and doctrine from the eternal--caves in and lamely baptizes the current lawlessness, we must wonder if there is any human hope. Our present policy is not a mistake--that would be an unfortunate euphemism--but rather something that participates actively in one of the more serious evils of our society. Pastorally, it encourages people to do what is evil. It helps blind them regarding the difference between right and wrong and assists them to justify their choosing of the wrong.

Public policy is a legitimate area of debate among reformed Christians who are pro-life

The public policy debate is a legitimate issue in a church like ours because as reformed Christians we are not part of the pietist tradition that sees little or no connection between Christian faith and public life. Those who agree that abortion is a moral evil may legitimately differ among themselves and try to influence each other on the public policy implications of that insight. But we should not make the error of allowing a debate on public policy to become a failure to face the pastoral implications of this important aspect of our faith.

There are many people who are genuinely troubled about the compulsive aspects of a public policy that restricts abortion even though they are persuaded of the evil nature of abortion. Among these people, many mistakenly think that this allies them with the present denominational policy. Rather they ought to join with other Presbyterians--their natural allies--in changing the present pro-abortion stand. Let us all work together to bring our denomination to repentance and change its policy of encouraging people to kill their children, even while we disagree (and talk to each other) about the public policy implications. We can then bring about not only a needed change in the PC(USA)'s pastoral policy toward abortion, but also be more effective in ministering to women and families in our midst.

Herbert Schlossberg, Ph.D., is a Presbyterian elder, and author of Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and its Confrontation with American Society.



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