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

Today the Presbyterian Church holds a position on abortion that is of two minds. The General Assembly's most recent policy document (1992) says, on the one hand, that

The considered decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy [by abortion] can be a morally acceptable, though certainly not the only or required, decision.

On the other hand, the same policy document affirms that

The strong Christian presumption is that since all life is precious to God, we are to preserve and protect it.

In the final analysis, however, the policy puts the full weight of moral decision making on the individual woman, declaring that the church "[has] neither the wisdom nor the authority to address or decide each situation."

Ambiguity is an innovation in church history
The church was not always so ambiguous about abortion. Abortion was one of few issues on which the Christian Church historically maintained unity throughout the centuries. The disagreement emerged only in the latter half of our own century when the church fell prey to changes in the culture.

Orthodox scholar Alexander Webster writes that while it is often difficult to discern the patristic conscience on modern moral questions, there is no such difficulty when it comes to abortion. "It is one of only several moral issues on which not one dissenting opinion has ever been expressed by the Church Fathers," he says. "Even a cursory reading of the patristic literature (A.D. 330 to 1453) reveals a relentless campaign against the inhuman sin of abortion."

One example of the early church's documents, the Didache, which probably dates from the early second century A.D., commands, "Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion," linking it to the second great commandment of the New Testament, "Love your neighbor."

Unity on abortion was retained in the Reformation...
Even in the great division that became the Protestant Reformation, views on abortion remained unified. Martin Luther wrote, "...those who have no regard for pregnant women and who do not spare the tender fruit are murders and infanticides." John Calvin wrote that it was "atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb before it has come to light."

The Presbyterian Church General Assembly in 1869 said:

This Assembly regards the destruction by parents of their own offspring, before birth, with abhorrence, as a crime against God and against nature....

...And into the twentieth century
In our own century numerous Protestant theological leaders inveighed against the practice of abortion. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Destruction in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life....And that is nothing but murder.*

Karl Barth wrote in 1961:

The unborn is from the very first a child. It is still developing and has no independent life. But it is a man [a human being] and not a thing, nor a mere part of the mothers body....He who destroys germinating life kills a man....

Helmut Thielicke wrote in 1964:

The fetus has its own autonomous life, which, despite all its reciprocal relationship to the maternal organism, is more than a mere part of this organism and possesses a certain independence ....These elementary biological facts should be sufficient to establish its status as a human being....This makes it clear that here it is not a questionas it is in the case of contraceptionwhether the proffered gift can be responsibly accepted, but rather whether an already bestowed gift can be spurned, whether one dares to brush aside the arm of God after this arm has already been outstretched.

The Presbyterian Church in 1965 reaffirmed a statement it made first in 1962 when it expressed its approval of the use of contraception in a paper entitled, "Responsible Marriage and Parenthood":

The fetus is a human life to be protected by the criminal law from the moment when the ovum is fertilized....As Christians, we believe that this should not be an individual decision on the part of the physician and couple. Their decision should be limited and restrained by the larger society.

Only a few years later, the Presbyterian Church would find itself caught up in a cultural sexual revolution and the rejection of Christian teaching that would produce a change in its own moral standards.


*Quote taken from Bonhoeffer's book, titled Ethics, published by Macmillan in New York in 1955 (p. 131).

This short summary of the history of the church on abortion is taken largely from Michael Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (IV Press, 1982). Other references and additional material on the subject are available from PPL upon request. The history will continue with Part II in the next issue of PPL News.