A short history of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on abortion: Part II Print

The fall 1999 issue of our newsletter gave a short history of the Presbyterian Church on abortion. The history begins before the Reformation because the church maintained its teaching against abortion from its beginnings. Reformers who divided from Rome on matters of theology and ecclesiology, nonetheless continued the church's teachings on moral issues including abortion. Both Luther and Calvin wrote explicitly in opposition to abortion. And the Christian Church was united on this issue until the second half of the twentieth century.

There is no simple answer to the question about why the mainline Christian denominations began to shift ground on abortion. But it is clear that change did not come about because of theological debates. Literature carrying the culture's language of women's rights and implying the moral good of abortion choice began to appear in the 1970s. The Presbyterian Church formally changed its stand at the 1983 reunion General Assembly by adopting a policy document titled Covenant and Creation: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion.

A lack of theological integrity in the reversal of the church's stand on abortion

In spite of its title, the new policy could not stand up to theological challenge. It built its defense of abortion on changing the meaning of words like covenant and stewardship responsibility. At a time when abortions were rising to 1.6 million each year, the document said,

The decision to terminate a pregnancy may be an affirmation of ones covenant responsibility to accept the limits of human resources. Because we understand the morality of abortion to be a question of stewardship of life, the responsible decision to choose abortion may arise from analysis of the projected resources for care-giving in a specific situation.

And it misrepresented John Calvin, who had spoken explicitly against abortion, as a supporter of abortion:

There is a tendency to feel that it is more virtuous to continue a pregnancy without considering the possibility of abortion. However, Calvin asserts, we cannot reduce stewardship to a kind of wonder or awe in the face of the natural world.

The Church's concern for human life was transformed into concern for "reproductive choice"

As a result of the 1983 policy, the formation of the newly merged denomination excluded any voice representing the historical position of the church. The Women's Ministry Unit, the Social Justice and Peacemaking Unit, and the Washington Office published materials and advocated for abortion as a woman's right and responsibility. The offices began to give financial support to an interfaith organization called The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (now The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice), and to distribute that coalition's materials in the denomination. In 1989 a "Choice Network," which later became Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options (PARO), formed under the auspices of the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association. PARO is also supported with denominational funds.

The G.A. calls for a new policy

Overtures poured into General Assemblies following the publication of the 1983 reversal of the church's stand. In 1988 the General Assembly called for a study process "to formulate a new policy statement for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)...." The task force charged with the study delivered its report to the 1992 General Assembly where it was adopted.

The primary difference between the 1983 and 1992 policies was that the newer policy acknowledged the historical position of the church. While continuing to support abortion rights, it said

The strong Christian presumption is that since all life is precious to God, we are to preserve and protect it....[A]fter human life has begun, it is to be cherished and protected as a precious gift of God.

The new policy also said,

The church ought to be able to maintain within its fellowship those who, on the basis of a study of Scripture and prayerful decision, come to diverse conclusions.

It directed that the alternative positions on abortion be expressed officially in the denomination. The 1992 policy has been ignored by denominational staff and entities charged to carry out G.A. policy.

Attitudes are changing

The 1992 policy made a distinction between the church's moral position on abortion and a public policy position. The moral section of the policy raises concerns about abortion--such as the high numbers, the reasons abortion is chosen, and the churchs responsibility to seek alternatives to abortion--that have no bearing on the public policy section which says flatly: "No law or administrative decision should limit access to abortion."

Attitudes about abortion have been changing since the 1970s. Approaching the third millennium would be a good time for the Presbyterian Church to take a fresh look at the morality of abortion, an issue whose roots extend back to the beginning of the Church.

Note: PPL has pamphlets that give a more complete history of the church on abortion. Click here.