EPC GA debates revision of abortion statement PDF Print E-mail

Revising their abortion statement was on the agenda of The Evangelical Presbyterian Church as representatives from their now 400+ churches met at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, CO last week (June 18-22, 2013). Debate was surprisingly vigorous, but centered on words chosen to express their pro-life position regarding abortion and not because they have disagreement about their position on abortion.

A few years ago, the permanent Theology Committee was asked to write a position statement addressing the bioethical issue of stem cells. Because the topic involved scientific developments that are rapidly changing they opted instead to send a pastoral letter to EPC congregations. During their process of study they found the original writing of the abortion statement to be archaic and in need of updating. Both the pastoral letter and the revised abortion position paper was approved at the 2012 Assembly, but a clerical error left out some of the changed language to the abortion paper. In order to avoid confusion the omitted language was re-submitted to this year’s assembly for another vote.

The proposed abortion statement was referred to the General Assembly’s Theology Committee. The Rev. Don Elliott, former President of PPL, introduced his concern about the broad and vague language in a parenthetical list of examples appearing in two places. The language--(e.g., life-threatening; physical health; or valid medical reasons)” was deleted in the first instance so that the text of that item read instead:

  1. “A woman facing a problematic pregnancy or an unwanted pregnancy should expect to receive support, love, acceptance and wise counsel from her pastor(s), counselor(s), physician(s) and fellow Christians.” Regardless of the woman’s decision, the Church should always provide compassionate biblical and spiritual guidance to that individual.”

The Rev. Matthew Everhard, author of Abortion: The Evangelical Perspective, stated that he was more concerned by the use of the same language in another place in the document where it stated:

“Christians should individually and corporately oppose abortion (except under the most extreme of circumstances e.g., life-threatening; physical health; or valid medical reasons), and do everything in their power to provide support groups, para-church ministries and sponsoring agencies which offer viable alternatives to abortion.”

Rev. Ken Thomas moved an amendment to strike the wording in the parentheses replacing it with (e.g. “those which endanger the mother’s life”) After several minutes of discussion and multiple amendments to the amendment the final language adopted read as follows:

“Christians should individually and corporately oppose abortion (except under the most extreme of circumstances that endanger the life of the mother), and do everything in their power to provide support groups, para-church ministries and sponsoring agencies which offer viable alternatives to abortion.”

Additional changes were made to substitute more pastoral language in other paragraphs expressing support for women choosing life for her child and support and care for those children. The report of the Theology Committee including the amended language presented to the plenary (right column in the chart) can be found here.

The amended language was then considered by the entire Assembly on Friday afternoon.

(a webcast of Session 4 of the GA is available here.) Not all commissioners were comfortable with the language of an exception for abortion even for circumstances endangering the life of the mother. Some expressed concern that adding any exception opened the door to abortion. An amendment inserting the word ‘physical’ before “life of the mother” was approved and the new language was adopted by voice vote with a few ‘no’ votes scattered across the gathering. From the debate it was easy to surmise that those voting against the language felt there were no circumstances that warranted abortion including when the physical life of the mother was endangered.

Additional edits to the document changed “give up a child for adoption” to “place a child for adoption,” and wherever the document referred to “unwanted pregnancy” the phrase was changed to “unexpected pregnancy.” As one commissioner explained, “Every child is wanted by God.” Language was altered in a section about reminding men of their responsibility and obligation to care for their children to make it more pastoral and supportive.

New language was added to the statement calling the church to “actively oppose the killing of human embryos through the extraction of stem cells for medical research or treatment” and to “oppose the practice of producing more embryos by in vitro fertilization that would be implanted in utero, which would either be destroyed immediately or stored frozen with the strong practical likelihood of later destruction.”

For Presbyterians newly transferred from the PCUSA it was refreshing to participate in substantive debate on the nuances of wording in a gathering where there was clearly essential unity about standing against abortion and acknowledging that every human life is sacred and precious to God. Commissioners were clearly intent on giving careful attention to the pastoral expression of the pro-life position they hold. Refreshing indeed for this pro-life Presbyterian who remains a member of the PCUSA where abortion is condoned, choice to abort is advocated, and abortions are paid for with member tithes! 

 

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