In 1993, Betty Achtemeier, one year following the rejection by the General Assembly of the minority abortion report that she had crafted, returned to the Assembly as a member of the PPL board of directors and as our featured General Assembly speaker. The following was her address to commissioners and others who attended our event.
Address by Elizabeth Achtemeier, Ph.D.
at the Presbyterians Pro-Life Event
General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA)
June 3, 1993
I have a quotation I want to read you. It will be published in an upcoming issue of the Daily Delivery, but I think it bears being read here too. It is by Pamela Maraldo, who is the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. This is what she was quoted in the news as saying:
Abortion is where the rubber hits the road, the line in the sand for women to become fully equal citizens.
I find that a shocking statement. Ms. Maraldo thinks women gain their equality and freedom by killing their unborn children. Her presupposition is that women now have the same sexual freedom as men and if an unplanned pregnancy results, well, then it can be taken care of by having an abortion.
It's a sad commentary on our time, isn't it? But it is not unusual these days. Everything in our society seems to be favoring the abortion forces. It is enough to make groups like this feel very, very discouraged. Certainly many were very upset after the Minority paper was rejected at last year's General Assembly. And yet, dear friends, I hope we will remember that the one thing we are called to do is to be faithful to the Gospel and to our God. And because we were faithful in 1992, we won a victory. The only real defeat comes when we betray our Lord. Faithfulness to Jesus Christ is always a victory. And you in this room, and almost one-third of the commissioners last year, and all of our other supporters, were faithful. And in that I rejoice, and I hope you will rejoice also.
In fact, dear friends, I think there is a very real sense in which we could join with St. Paul in saying that "we rejoice in our sufferings" (Rom. 5:3). For "suffering produces endurance," he says, and we have in fact dedicated ourselves to this fight for the long haul. And "endurance produces character," he continues, and we are indeed learning and growing and being deepened in our faith by this battle we are going through. We carry in the body the death of Christ, good Christians--dying to ourselves and our own desires to be comfortable and accepted and praised by everyone--that the life of Christ, his new life for the church and for unborn children and for all Christians everywhere, may become a reality.
Certainly the worst thing we could possibly do as we look to the future would be to give up the battle against abortion. For then, you see, if we just withdrew and lapsed into silence, then the pro-abortion people would win by default, wouldn't they? God could not use our work and voices in his church, and there would be no one to say "No" to the killing, no one to proclaim that our God is the God who affirmed life and not death in the resurrection of his Son, no one to tell that God wants so much for all of his children to live. Evil takes over when good people do nothing, good Christians, and we shall not let that happen.
All right, then, how should we proceed?
First of all, let us be very realistic and look squarely at what we are up against. If you're going to win a battle, you have to know what the weapons of your opponents are; we need to know precisely what we are confronting. Our church has adopted a Majority paper that deplores abortion, but that has left the door open for the special cases, labeling abortion in such circumstances as a morally acceptable solution. The difficulty with that is that every woman thinks her case is special. As someone wisely said, "People are against abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, and my situation." Everyone sees her situation as special, and that accounts for 95% of the abortions in this country--everyone's situation. And so the Majority paper is going to do nothing to stop the killing.
With that mindset on the part of many people, however, very few arguments are going to make any difference. We can tell people, "If you abort a child, you are committing murder," and the answer comes back, "No, I'm not. It's just a fetus; it's not a person; we don't know when human life begins." We can argue, "This child has a right to life," and the answer will be, "Well, so does its mother, and if she has this child, it will totally destroy her life." We can preach, "The Bible says, 'You shall not kill,'" and the response is, "Well, isn't it worse to have unwanted children, who end up abused or starved to death?" You see, dear friends, we can argue until we're blue in the face--we've been doing it for years--but what we're finally up against are some basic beliefs and presuppositions that determine how the argument comes out. And until we get at those basic assumptions and turn them around, our arguments will inevitably fall on deaf ears.
Now one of the basic assumptions of our society, of course, is that the woman with a problem pregnancy rarely has anyone to whom she can turn for help and so it's necessary for her to have an abortion. And despite the fact that there are crisis pregnancy centers in this country, for most women facing difficult choices connected with unwanted pregnancies, that assumption is true--to the ongoing shame of the Christian Church. You see, our approach to the problem of abortion has been largely theoretical, hasn't it? We have said that abortion is a sin against God. We have deplored the fact that there are 1-1/2 million abortions every year and that most of them are obtained by white women under the age of 25 who have never been married and never had a child. But when it has come right down to it, most of our churches have not established or supported counseling centers for pregnant women. Most have not set up adoption alternatives. Most have not offered to support a woman through nine months of pregnancy. Most have not become sheltering churches and provided the means to enable a woman to keep her child or received that woman and her child into the congregation as valued members. No, for all practical purposes, we Presbyterians have simply said to a woman in difficulty, "Abort your child." And if we're going to win this battle, that has got to change. We've got to get to work, establishing practical means to help those women with problem pregnancies who so desperately need our help, and frankly I think that's one of things that PPL chapters across the country should be doing. In other words, we've got to start putting our action where our mouths are.
A second basic assumption of many people, including most pastors and church members, is that abortion is a fringe issue. As we searched for support for the Minority Report before the last General Assembly, we found time and again that many clergy and theologians and leading laity had never really thought about abortion in connection with their faith. It was not their problem, they thought, because it did not concern those primary responsibilities of the church to preach the Gospel and pastor the sheep and teach the faith. As the wife of one clergyman remarked after the Majority report was adopted last year, "now we can leave this behind us, and get back to what the church is supposed to be doing." Abortion is a fringe issue for many people, an isolated issue, and it does not concern the heart of their faith.
In our particular society, of course, that is just sheer blindness to what is happening, because increasingly we are being treated to the cheapening and careless disregard of human life. Of what are we reading in the newspapers these days?--of euthanasia and assisted suicide, of medical care withdrawn from the elderly, unproductive members of society, of teenage murderers given slaps on the wrist and turned back on the streets. Human life is very cheap in our time. You can get killed in any one of our big cities just because someone wants your sneakers or the new jacket you are wearing. And yes, an unborn child can be killed in the womb, because it interrupts someone's comfortable lifestyle or a college student's plans for the future. Human life is growing cheaper and cheaper, and the church ignores that at its peril.
But more than that--more than that--abortion is not a fringe issue, because it concerns the very heart of our faith. What are the theological issues at stake in the abortion debate? Certainly it concerns the doctrine of creation, doesn't it?--the basic confession of the church that God in Jesus Christ is the Maker of heaven and earth, and that therefore all persons have been fearfully and wonderfully made by him--knit together with bones and sinews in their mothers' wombs by the loving hands of their Creator. We are not just chance happenings in the evolution of the universe. We were made by our Lord. And since that Lord does not do things just for no reason, we each were made for a purpose--and what is that purpose?: "to glorify God and enjoy him forever," reads the catechism of our church. But abortion, you see, is a fundamental challenge to that basic doctrine of our faith. It says that no, God has no interest in that child in the womb, and it does not matter one whit to him if that child dies before birth. It says that it does not concern God a bit that that tiny voice will never be raised in prayer and in praise. O yes, abortion is a basic challenge to the Christian doctrine of creation.
But abortion is also a challenge to the Christian doctrine of redemption. To whom do we belong, dear friends? To whom do our children belong? According to St. Paul, we belong to God. "Do you not know," he writes to the Corinthians, that "you are not your own?" Rather, he says, "you were bought with a price" (I Cor. 6:19-20)--namely, with the redemption price of the death of Christ on the cross. And that, you see, is what the church symbolizes when it baptizes a child. Baptism is a sign and seal of the fact that we no longer belong to the world and its evil. Rather, we belong to God. We are not our own any more. We belong to God. And nothing, nothing in all creation, says the New Testament, can take us out of his loving hand.
Now the human race has been trying to deny that for a long time, of course. "Come," we have heard said to us from the first in that paradise garden of Eden, "you can be like god, knowing good and evil." You can decide what is right and wrong. You can run your own lives. You can do what you like with your bodies; they belong solely to you. You can be the masters of your future, and the captains of your destiny. And for almost 2000 years, up until 1970, the Christian Church replied, "No, that is not true. We belong to Jesus Christ. He created us in the first place, and when we fell into captivity to sin and death, he bought us back and made us his own. He ransomed us from our captivity to ourselves and our sin and death. He redeemed us, purchased us with his sacrifice from our awful slavery. But now, you see, the abortion forces in the church are whispering, "Don't believe a word of it. You belong to yourself, and your body is yours alone. You can do what you like with that child you carry in your womb." Oh no, good Christians, abortion is not a fringe issue. It has to do with the heart of our faith--with the Christian doctrine of redemption by the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In short, abortion has to do with the lordship of Jesus Christ and with everything we say about the nature of Christ's lordly rule. Abortion says that Christ was wrong when he commanded "Do not kill" (Mark 10:19). Abortion says that we can make up our own rules for our sinful selves, and totally ignore the fact that apart from Christ, we can do nothing, except wither and dry up like branches that are good only to be tossed into a fire (John 15:5-6). Abortion says that Christ is not Lord, but rather that we are our own lords instead. And so abortion argues against and denies the church's earliest, central, most enduring confession, that Jesus Christ alone is Lord over all in heaven and on earth.
And so you see, I think we need to point out these things to people. We need to say in our congregations, "Look friends, there is a movement afoot in our churches--a pro-abortion movement--that is a denial of everything we believe in our Christian faith. It is as serious a threat to the Christian Church as is atheism or idolatry. Indeed, it is a form of both of those evils, and we need to think through the theological issues involved in abortion and take our stand and speak out." I shall never forget the woman on our abortion task force who, after almost 3 years of meetings, was still saying, "I have no position." A lot of pastors and laity in our churches share that ignorance, and we need to educate them about just what is involved.
But how do you crack the resistance to the discussion? How do you get past the feminist view that abortion is a woman's right? Or how do you wake up those souls who are totally indifferent to the question? And how do you break down the barrier of sinful self-will that wants to be comfortable or autonomous and solely guided by individual choice?
In their paper on problem pregnancies, which one group of women (Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options) wanted the General Assembly to adopt last year, the women maintained that nothing should interfere with a woman's right to exercise her own conscience. For the individual's conscience was the supreme authority. They forgot that the doctrine of our church says that conscience is always subordinated to the Word of God. Because, of course, conscience--even the conscience of good church women--often goes astray, doesn't it? I've always liked the remark by Paul Scherer, one of the great preachers of the past generation. "Sure," he said, "follow your conscience. Burn the witches."
But how do you overcome the opposition of those who believe that their individual judgments about right and wrong are all supreme? Well, frankly, I think you tell them the Gospel. The church has always said that the good news of Christ alone is sufficient to overcome our sin and to lead us to repent and to transform our lives. We have always said that Jesus Christ alone has the power to make us new creations. And in fighting abortion I do not think we should suddenly desert that Gospel message and simply start quoting prooftexts or simply enter into secular arguments about how abortion ruins women's lives or about how it destroys the moral fiber of the nation. After all, we have always said that only God's divine love in Jesus Christ can lift a person out of her selfish ways and make her glad to serve her Lord.
And so proclaim the love and the lordship of Christ, you preachers and teachers and lay people. Tell how God in Christ has created each one of us as his treasured possession. Announce the good news, over and over and over again, that Christ has made us his own by buying us back from sin and death by his cross and resurrection. We're not on our own, friends. Thank heaven, we are not on our own. But claimed and watched over and guided and forgiven, judged and corrected but always loved, by a God who in Christ even knows when we sit down and when we get up, and who numbers the very hairs on our heads, and has our names engraved on the palm of his hand.
Proclaim the Gospel, friends! Proclaim the joyful, comforting message, but then don't stop there. Apply the message, spell out its implications for abortion. In sermon illustrations, in elaboration of points, in explanation of doctrine's meaning, from the pulpit, in Sunday School classes, in discussions and publications, tell how the Gospel undercuts every abortion argument. Show how the Christian cannot possibly claim to be self-ruled. Spell out how our children belong not to us, but to God. And yes, while you are doing that, preach and teach and talk and write also about the Christian sexual morality, about Christian family life as the most revolutionary lifestyle in the world, that shines out like a light in the darkness of our society's broken homes and faithless marriages.
Surely in a society like ours every church should be conducting educational series on Christian marriage and family, starting with the kindergarten kids and reaching every age level. Surely every congregation should hear about sexual morality, holding up the faithfulness and purity of Christ to challenge the media's smut. For far too long, the church's attitude towards society's ways has been, "Oh, what's the use. They're going to be immoral anyway." But had that been God's attitude, there never would have been a resurrection.
But then, once you have said all that, put it into practice. Establish centers in your own town or city or presbytery where women with problem pregnancies can go to find alternatives to abortion. And welcome those women and then their children as precious members into your congregation, as every time we celebrate a baptism, we say we will do.
Preach and teach and talk the Gospel, friends, that can transform even our society, and turn us into a church that deserves the name of Christian.
You know, the abortion forces seem so strong in our day, and yet, they really are so vulnerable to the glad good news of the Gospel. What's the slogan of the abortion movement? "My body is my own and nobody can tell me what to do with it. I am an autonomous, self-governing individual, who can make my own rules and guard my own future. I am supreme authority."
Have you ever realized what a lonely philosophy that is? It acknowledges nothing and no one beyond itself--no God, no Creator and Judge, no beloved community of the church, no forgiveness, no need for redemption. It's the same philosophy spoken by a character in one of John Osborne's plays: "We're alone in the universe," he says. "There's no God. It just seems that it all began by something as simple as sunlight striking a piece of rock. And here we are. We've got only ourselves. Somehow, we've just got to make a go of it."
And so try to make a go of it we do. And half of the time that's not too bad. We do have to acknowledge, I think, that left to our own devices, we human beings are capable of marvelous creations--of art and music, architecture and literature, scholarship and learning, friendships and deepest passions and loves. Even the most godless woman yet cuddles her infant to her breast in overwhelming mother-love.
And yet, how prone we are to distort or destroy all those marvelous gifts. Our vast skills turn into instruments for outdoing the competition or for devising better ways to kill one another. Our art and literature become the outlets for obscenity, pornography, trash. Our friendships and loves are betrayed by indifferences, faithlessness, selfish deceit. And try as we will to find joy in it all, we are haunted by our insecurities--anxiously restless in our beds at night until perhaps the Sominex pill gives a troubled sleep. The good that we would do, we too frequently do not do, and we cry out in our captivity to evil, "Wretched one that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24)
For death comes inexorably, inevitably to the autonomous individual, doesn't it? A couple of years ago, my husband built a new dock for our boat at our summer place, and when it was done, we both agreed that it would last the rest of our lifetimes. After all, the old one had lasted twenty years. But as I thought about that, it came as something of a shock. For I suddenly realized that the rest of my lifespan could be measured in terms of a wooden berth for boats. Death approaches, inevitably, inexorably. And if we are autonomous, self-governing individuals, unconnected to any lasting goal or purpose, then we cannot help wondering what has been the point of it all. Our little labors and loves and lives will trickle out and disappear. No one a generation or town from now will remember or really care that we were here. And our tombstone in the cemetery will be simply a troublesome obstacle for the caretaker to mow around. "All flesh is grass/and all its beauty is like the flower of the field./ The grass withers, the flower fades . . ./surely the people is grass." Yes, it is a lonely philosophy that autonomous, self-governing individuals have constructed for themselves.
But you see, to combat that terrible loneliness that our individualistic, relativistic society has got itself into, we in the Christian Church have some marvelous good news. And we should announce that good news every time we baptize a child, and every time we sit down at the Lord's Supper. We should proclaim that Gospel every time we teach a church class and every time we stand up in a pulpit. We have a Gospel to fight abortion and its lonely claim that we are just our own. For the Gospel says, we are not our own! O thanks be to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are not our own!
We are not meaningless little accidents of evolution, interrupting the flow of centuries, destined to appear and then disappear, with no significance to us. No, we are the planned creations of a loving God, who has an eternal purpose for us.
We are not stumbling, oft mistaken, erring little actors on the stage of time, burdened ever more heavily by the guilt we accumulate. No, we are the forgiven, loved, reconciled, redeemed children of a heavenly Father, who has lifted the burden from our backs by sending his Son to carry it all in the shape of a cross.
We are not dying deities, who must run the world by ourselves, only to wither and become dust in a final grave--our plans, our hopes, our dreams come to naught but equal dust. No, we are creations, creatures of a Creator of life, who wills only life for us, and who gives us that life in his Son, guiding our feet by his accompanying Spirit and preparing us for eternity in the company of that risen Son.
We are not lonely, isolated, self-enclosed little egos, turned in upon ourselves, with our neighbors but an obstacle to our own self-fulfillment. No, we are valued participants in a beloved community, headed by a Lord who has wiped out the barriers of sin and death that would separate us from one another, and who has given us the power by his Spirit to care and to love.
The Christian Church has a marvelous message--a miraculous message--given to no other body. And it has been empowered by the Spirit of Christ to carry that message to every hamlet and town and city and nation, to the very ends of the earth. So preach and teach and talk and live the Gospel, good Christian friends. For that message, that good news, is the answer, the final answer, to the slaughter of abortion.