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The Church and Abortion: Signs of Consensus

by Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, former professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, is a Lutheran pastor, and author of The Ecumenical Movement (Augsburg). This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 3-10, 1990, pp. 12-15, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The abortion debate is heating up once again and the issues are familiar, or so we think. Our stereotypes -- especially of the churches’ debate -- are well entrenched. However, a study of official church statements on abortion challenges many of these stereotypes. Theological or denominational differences are not at the core of the dispute. Rather, the primary issue at stake among the churches is a philosophical question what is the nature of human life and which philosophical concepts most adequately depict it? Considered collectively, official church statements on ethical questions seem to point to a possible solution to this issue in the abortion debate, a solution that may even point toward a broader social consensus on abortion.

Among the large number of official church statements on abortion issued since the early 1960s, there are three main alternatives: (1) total opposition to abortion, (2) an openness to abortion’s legitimacy because the fetus is not a human being, and (3) a mediating position which regards abortion as legitimate in certain exceptional circumstances, but largely rejects the practice because it involves taking a human life. One alternative that seems ruled out by all of the churches’ statements is the secularist’s pro-choice argument that abortion is simply a matter of the mother’s right to control her own body. Granted, the language of "freedom of choice" does appear in two 1971 United Church of Christ pronouncements and in a 1975 Disciples of Christ resolution, but most churches that support abortion are far more concerned about fidelity to the Christian tradition and humanitarian concerns than they are about endorsing women’s rights.

Informed observers of the church’s abortion debate discard the popular notion that abortion is largely a Protestant -- Roman Catholic debate. The Protestant Religious Right, they argue, has become a coalition partner with Catholicism in the struggle against abortion. However, the Catholic Church’s position on abortion is distinct from that of the rest of the Christian church. Its position is one of total and unequivocal opposition to abortion. Some Catholic statements, like the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, condemn the practice on grounds of the created order, which is thought to be structured in such a way that all sexual expression must be open to procreation. Other statements, notably various declarations issued from 1969 to 1989 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the U.S. and a 1984 statement by the Chinese Catholic bishops, appeal instead to the nature of the human person and the idea that life begins at conception. Abortion must be rejected, such statements argue, because it terminates a human life. Yet a third subgroup can be identified. Statements like the NCCB’s well-known 1983 pastoral on peace and the Catholic bishops of France’s 1979 declaration do not emphasize the doctrines of creation and human persons but argue against abortion by granting priority to the gospel.

Such diversity undercuts the notion that official Catholic statements are uniform. Such diversity also calls into question the widespread assumption that disagreements on abortion inside the Christian community stem from theological differences. At least inside the Catholic Church, distinct theological perspectives can result in a common abortion ethic.

The Catholic Church is not alone in its critical attitude toward abortion. Several Protestant statements -- for example, the Mennonite General Conference’s 1977 statement, the Church of the Brethren’s 1984 declaration and perhaps the Lutheran Free Church in Norway’s 1979 declaration -- have condemned abortion. However, these statements do not unequivocally reject abortion in all circumstances. They more properly belong to the second and increasingly familiar type of church statement -- those that regard abortion as legitimate in certain circumstances, but largely reject the practice because it involves taking a human life.

Proponents of this mediating position in American and Western Christian circles may soon command a majority in the Christian world, if not in the political constituency. Among the most prominent American church statements of this genre include a 1980 United Methodist Church document, a 1979 Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod statement, 1979 and 1980 American Lutheran Church statements, a 1989 Southern Baptist Convention resolution, a 1988 American Baptist Churches statement, and a 1971 National Association of Evangelicals resolution. From outside the U.S. borders have come similar resolutions by the Church of England in 1983, the Church of Norway in 1973, 1977 and 1985, the Evangelische Kirche in Rheinland in 1986, and the Anglican Church of Canada in 1973 and 1980.

These statements employ a wide variety of theological arguments. Some, like the 1971 Assemblies of God and 1977 Norwegian church resolutions, fail to provide any coherent theological rationale. A few statements, notably the Anglican Church of Canada’s 1980 resolution, authorize their conclusions by appealing to the gospel or Christology. But virtually all of the statements belonging to this genre argue the case for their critical position on abortion from the doctrine of creation -- the nature of human life. Like the Catholic position, these statements tend to assume that human life begins at conception. It is little wonder, then, that despite their differences on abortion as an emergency measure, American Catholics, evangelicals and some mainline Protestants have been able to forge a "pro-life" Christian coalition.

The fact that the mediating Protestant statements on abortion appeal to the same theological arguments that Catholics do and yet disagree with Catholic statements concerning exceptional circumstances illustrates once again that theological disagreements are not at the root of the abortion debate.

Why, despite similar authorizations, do they differ? The Catholic position is eminently logical. If the created order demands that all sexual expression lead to procreation, then abortion, which interrupts the fulfillment of sexual expression, must be rejected. Furthermore, if the fetus or embryo is a human life, then abortion must be rejected because it terminates that life.

Because the mediating Protestant statements share the latter supposition concerning the fetus, the logic behind their permissibility seems strained. Their statements countenance murder in certain extraordinary circumstances without offering any theological or philosophical warrants. Perhaps the case has best been made by the Church of Norway in a 1971 statement. The Norwegian Lutherans argued that in some circumstances we must accept the lesser evil if suffering and destructive consequences would ensue from a birth.

Such logic is frightening, however. If we can murder an unborn infant who unwittingly threatens a woman’s life, what prevents us from terminating other individuals or groups that cause us or our society undue suffering? Given the logical consequences of such an argument and the American churches’ general failure to articulate convincingly their reasons for countenancing abortion occasionally while still deeming the fetus a human life, it is surprising that this mediating position on abortion has gained so much support in American Protestantism and among the American public.

In view of the stronger logic behind the Catholic perspective, it is hardly surprising that feminist critics of the American pro-life movement see in it the Catholic agenda of restricting artificial birth control and genetic engineering. To the extent that the logic of the mediating Protestant position is faulty, it is reasonable to assume that in this prolife coalition with the Catholic tradition, the Catholic logic might come to prevail.

The third alternative is the more radical Protestant position. Such statements endorse abortion’s legitimacy and do not consider the fetus or embryo a human being. Among the most prominent of such statements are ones in 1977 and two in 1979 by the UCC, in 1976 by the UMC, in 1979 by the Episcopal Church, in 1975 by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) , in 1974 and 1982 by the Moravian Church, Northern Province, in 1970 by the Lutheran Church in America, and in 1976 by the Methodist Church of England. Again the statements by these groups cannot be classified unambiguously as pro-choice. Though two speak of "freedom of choice" and a few give no real theological rationale for their position, virtually all the statements of this type are concerned not with human freedom or women’s rights, but with articulating solid theological and philosophical reasons for the position they take. (They also tend to reject abortion as an ordinary means of birth control.) Ultimately, though, philosophical, not theological, commitments account for disagreements between the third and first two groups. These more radical Protestant statements appeal either to Christology (especially the UCC, Disciples and UMC statements) or to the doctrine of creation (especially the Lutheran, Moravian and one of the UCC statements) -- the very same theological appeals that authorized both the Catholic and mediating Protestant positions.

Denominational differences cannot be said to have the final word in the abortion debate. Different positions on abortion can be authorized by the same theological argument. The real dispute between these more liberal statements and the pro-life Christian coalition is ultimately a philosophical matter -- the question of when human life begins.

Given the latest medical data concerning the distinct characteristics of the fetus and its ability to survive outside the womb at a startlingly early age, it is little wonder that in the past few years several of the denominations that once took a more open position on abortion have retreated somewhat: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is now studying the issue; in a 1980 statement on social principles, the UMC moved to a more qualified position; the Episcopal Church and the recently formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seem to be in the process of toning down their earlier positions (or those of a predecessor body) The Lutherans defeated a resolution in their 1989 Assembly which would have been consistent with the liberal position of the LCA predecessor body, and a 1988 Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue report refers to the fetus as "embryonic humanity" with claims on society.

This retreat may be influenced by the most recent hypotheses of medical science as well as the general conservative turn of American society. But medical science should not have the definitive word in determining the status of the fetus or embryo. It is also a philosophical, psychological and social-scientific question.

Several church statements which argue for an open position on abortion sketch a view of humanity that may validly continue to authorize these churches’ position even in face of the new scientific hypotheses. In fact, it is a view of human beings around which an ecumenical and social consensus may be evolving.

This view is sketched most clearly in the LCA’s 1970 statement and the Methodist Church of England’s 1976 statement which take a "relational" view of people. The human being is understood as necessarily related to and largely influenced by its interactions with others and with its environment. The British Methodists made this claim explicit: "Man is made for relationships." The American Lutherans state that "a qualitative distinction must be made between [the fetus’s] claims and the rights of a responsible person made in God’s image who is living in relationships."

The correlation between their relational view of human beings and their position on abortion is clear. Because the nature of being human is to be in relation, to affect and to be affected by others, the unborn fetus cannot be considered fully and properly a human being. It may be in relation to the mother and it may affect other people, but regardless of its potential to sustain itself outside the womb, the unborn fetus functions more like an object for our projections. It does not function in relationships as an independent "I" which relates to a "Thou," not even to the extent that infants and the severely disabled do. Thus it follows that terminating pregnancy through abortion is not terminating a human life.

Very different philosophical suppositions about the nature of human life underlie both the moderate Protestant and the conservative Catholic positions on abortion. In presupposing that human life begins in the womb, they deny humanity’s essentially relational character. Rather, the embryo is human merely by virtue of this physical and spiritual substance created by the union of sperm and egg (or at least by virtue of its purported ability to survive physically outside the womb)

The difference between the most radical statements on abortion and the more conservative statements seems to reflect the difference between a relational-activist view of human beings and a view of human beings as static substances, akin to the anthropology of classical philosophy.

It is interesting to note a global, ecumenical pattern emerging in official church statements on ethical questions. Whenever these statements portray humanity their language invariably suggests the relational-activist view. The sole exceptions are those church bodies which take conservative positions on abortion and genetic engineering. But among American church bodies at least, the relational view is employed in a whole variety of statements. (Examples, in addition to the statements on abortion cited above, include a 1970 LCA statement on ecology, a 1979 UCC statement on human rights and at least two statements by the National Council of Churches -- a 1979 statement on energy and a 1986 statement on genetic science.) On the international scene, a large number of statements issued by Protestant church bodies in Latin America, Europe and Africa reflect a relational anthropology. Even the Catholic Church uses this anthropology in a few of its official statements like the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, and statements by national bishops conferences in Peru and the Netherlands, as well as the Vatican’s 1986 Instruction on Liberation Theology. Significantly, these same philosophical commitments have even been very much in evidence in statements of the WCC’s past three assemblies.

Perhaps more important than ecumenical consensus is the potential for a social consensus on abortion that this relational-activist view offers. For in almost all realms of American society’s cultural elite, the classical anthropology which undergirds the more conservative positions on abortion has lost credibility. In the humanities, among sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and political theorists, the relational character of human beings, their dependence on their interactions with their environment, is simply assumed. Why should these common social assumptions not be applied to the abortion debate? A position on abortion that is logically connected with this view of human beings offers the best chance for a long-term social consensus.

Christians should proceed to clarify the nature of being human. Because disagreements about the nature of the Christian faith are not at stake in the abortion controversy, this task could be undertaken ecumenically, aiming at transdenominational consensus. It may be that the relational view of humanity embedded in the social statements of so many traditions already offers that kind of convergence.


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