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Compelled by the Gospel, PPL equips Presbyterians to champion human life at every stage

The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, recently issued a statement (called a “reminder” by the Office of the General Assembly), supporting the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which decision vastly expanded the abortion and infanticide industry from that point forward.  This “reminder” mischaracterizes the PC(USA)’s current position on the issues tangential to abortion and also misrepresents the authority of the Stated Clerk to speak on behalf of all who claim a Presbyterian identity.  The comments of the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) do not represent the thousands of pro-life minded members of the PC(USA), nor do they represent the views of the ARPC, BPC, Cumberland, ECO, EPC, OPC, PCA, RPCNA, or other Presbyterian denominations.


For over four decades, Presbyterians Protecting Life (formerly Presbyterians Pro-Life) has worked tirelessly as a grassroots counter-movement to the drift away from biblical standards of morality in the PC(USA) branch of the Presbyterian traditions.  In recent years PPL has expanded its ministry and mission to equip Christians in all Presbyterian denominations, to champion human life at every stage across the spectrum from fertilization to natural death.  Out of its rich body of historical knowledge, PPL responds to the Stated Clerk’s “reminder” with these reminders of the broader historical context:


Extra-biblical Christian documents beginning in the second century and continuing to the early 1970’s, demonstrate that the wider Christian community – including Presbyterians - has unanimously and universally condemned abortion.  John Calvin condemned abortion as “an almost monstrous crime”[1]; and the Presbyterian Church later called abortion “a crime against God and nature.”[2] As recently as 1962, the Presbyterian Church stated that, “the fetus is a human life to be protected by the criminal law from the moment 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.”[3]


The great retreat of the PC(USA) from its biblical and historical roots began in 1970, when abortion was re-characterized from a criminal act to “an act of compassion.”[4] The 1983 action, to which the Stated Clerk referred in his “reminder,” was a reference to a position paper adopted by the 195th General Assembly, entitled “The Covenant of Life in the Caring Community and Covenant and Creation: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion.” With this report, the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States began to support free and open access to abortion without legal restriction. 


However, the Stated Clerk misrepresents the current position of the PC(USA) by implying that the “most important action” on the matter of abortion was taken by the 195th GA in 1983.  The 1983 action is no longer the position of the PC(USA), which has moved increasingly closer to a pro-life position with actions approved by subsequent General Assemblies, until its current position was ratified in 2002, amended in 2006 and incrementally revised in subsequent years. 


Following a 1988 PPL-sponsored address to GA commissioners by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the GA acted to restudy its position on abortion.  Thus, in 1992 the Task Force declared the membership to be “in disagreement over the use and interpretation of Scripture…and over abortion.”  It affirmed, however, that abortion should be a “choice of last resort” – a far cry from the 1983 view of abortion as an “act of compassion.”  In 1997, the GA declared partial birth abortion to be of “grave moral concern” (amended in 2002 to add exceptions to preserve the woman’s health in circumstances of serious risk, untreatable fetal life-threatening medical anomalies, incest and rape).  In 1999, the GA approved an overture to actively support adoption,[5] and in 2001 the GA approved a voluntary adoption fund.  In 2002 the GA recognized that there are women and men in local churches who suffer from adverse spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical effects of abortion.[6]


In 2003 the GA revised the 214th GA’s statement on late-term abortions by affirming that “In life and death we belong to God.  Life is a gift from God…life is precious to God, and we should preserve and protect it.  We derive our understanding of human life from Scripture and the Reformed Tradition in light of science, human experience and reason guided by the Holy Spirit.”  The amendment further promotes life in its language for difficult decisions:  “When it is deemed necessary to end a pregnancy to protect the mother’s life or health in the later months of pregnancy when the baby [note the Assembly’s language] may be able to live outside the womb, a procedure should be considered which gives both the mother and the child [again, the Assembly’s word] the opportunity to live.”


In 2004, the 216th GA rejected an effort to urge the FDA to approve over-the-counter sales of the “morning after” pill.  In 2006 the following revision on late-term abortion was adopted:


"We affirm that the lives of viable unborn babies – those well-developed enough to survive outside the womb if delivered – ought to be preserved and cared for and not aborted.  In cases where problems of life or health of the mother arise in a pregnancy, the church supports efforts to protect the life and health of both the mother and the baby.  When late-term pregnancies must be terminated, we urge decisions intended to deliver the baby alive. We look to our churches to provide pastoral and tangible support to women in problem pregnancies and to surround these families with a community of care.  We affirm adoption as a provision for women who deliver children they are not able to care for, and ask our churches to assist in seeking loving, Christian, adoptive families. [Emphasis supplied].


Also in 2006, the GA “recognize[d] that the policies concerning problem pregnancies and abortion are not clearly understood by the public and media, and in an effort to help clarify and interpret the current PC(USA) policies, the 217th GA…calls upon its agencies to ensure an even-handed and fair representation of its current policies” – advice that the Stated Clerk chose to ignore in his “reminder.”


In 2008, the 218th GA gave added emphasis to the wide variance of opinions among PC(USA) membership, approving a resolution directing the “development of congregational resource materials on the subject of reproductive options, to more adequately reflect the full spectrum of biblical, theological and pastoral counsel…”


Further, the “reminder” of the PC(USA)’s Stated Clerk speaks of “nurturing the life among us,” while dismissing the fact that the unborn child is already a member of “the life among us.”  It is especially troubling that while the GA has called for materials that “adequately reflect the full spectrum of biblical, theological and pastoral counsel,” the Stated Clerk’s statement lacks any biblical or theological underpinning, instead standing on the imagined “infallibility” of the General Assemblies and the Supreme Court.


We note also that while the GA has called for “even-handed and fair representations of its current policies,” the Stated Clerk’s statement fails in that regard.  The current policies of the PC(USA) neither reflect an undivided, unanimous position on matters tangential to abortion, nor do those policies reflect the conclusions of Roe v. Wade, or their unrestricted effects.  While the actual position of the PC(USA) remains problematic, to say the least, it is far more nuanced than the Stated Clerk suggests. 


It is clear that the Stated Clerk himself needs a “reminder” of what an accurate summary of the current PC(USA)’s positions should reflect, and that more in keeping with the role of his office.  Presbyterians Protecting Life – and countless Presbyterians with us – believe a much better summary would be the affirmation that “in life and in death we belong to God.”[7]


[1] Commentary on Exodus 21:22

[2] Presbyterian Church in the United States, Committee on Bills and Overtures, response to Overture 44, 1869.

[3] 1962 General Assembly, “Responsible Marriage and Parenthood” report.

[4] 1970 “Sexuality and the Human Community” report.

[5] 209th General Assembly approved 390 yes to 217 no.

[6] 214th GA instruction to Office of Theology and Worship.

[7] Psalm 139:13-16; John 1:1-3; Romans 14:8; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1; PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith.

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