Presbyterians have struggled with the issue of abortion for more than 40 years, beginning in 1970 when the General Assembly, the national governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), declared that “the artificial or induced termination of a pregnancy is a matter of careful ethical decision of the patient … and therefore should not be restricted by law …”(1) In the years that followed this action, the General Assembly has adopted policy and taken positions on the subject of abortion.
In 2006 the 217th General Assembly approved language that clarified the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) position on problem pregnancies.
When an individual woman faces the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy, the issue is intensely personal, and may manifest itself in ways that do not reflect public rhetoric, or do not fit neatly into medical, legal, or policy guidelines. Humans are empowered by the spirit prayerfully to make significant moral choices, including the choice to continue or end a pregnancy. Human choices should not be made in a moral vacuum, but must be based on Scripture, faith, and Christian ethics. For any choice, we are accountable to God; however, even when we err, God offers to forgive us.(2)
The 217th General Assembly (2006) reiterated the role of the church in individual and families lives as they face problem pregnancy issues.
The church has a responsibility to provide public witness and to offer guidance, counsel, and support to those who make or interpret laws and public policies about abortion and problem pregnancies. Pastors have a duty to counsel with and pray for those who face decisions about problem pregnancies. Congregations have a duty to pray for and support those who face these choices, to offer support for women and families to help make unwanted pregnancies less likely to occur, and to provide practical support for those facing the birth of a child with medical anomalies, birth after rape or incest, or those who face health, economic, or other stresses.(3)
The church also affirms the value of children and the importance of nurturing, protecting, and advocating their well-being. The church, therefore, appreciates the challenge each woman and family face when issues of personal well-being arise in the later stages of a pregnancy.(4)
“In life and death, we belong to God.” Life is a gift from God. We may not know exactly when human life begins, and have but an imperfect understanding of God as the giver of life and of our own human existence, yet we recognize that 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. Because we are made in the image of God, human beings are moral agents, endowed by the Creator with the capacity to make choices. Our Reformed Tradition recognizes that people do not always make moral choices, and forgiveness is central to our faith. In the Reformed Tradition, we affirm that God is the only Lord of conscience — not the state or the church. As a community, the church challenges the faithful to exercise their moral agency responsibly.(5)
In regard to problems that arise in late pregnancies, the 217th General Assembly (2006) adopted the following position:
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.(6)
This General Assembly holds this statement as its position on a Christian response to problems that arise late in pregnancies. We find it to be consistent with current General Assembly policy on Problem Pregnancies and Abortion (1992), and supersedes General Assembly statements of 2002 and 2003 on late-term pregnancies and abortion.(7)
The 204th General Assembly (1992) adopted the most comprehensive policy statement on pregnancy and abortion. The “Report of the Special Committee on Problem Pregnancy” addressed a myriad of issues in order to help guide individuals and families who face problem pregnancies and abortion. The following are excerpts from the 1992 policy:
There is [both] agreement and disagreement on the basic issue of abortion. The committee [on problem pregnancies and abortion] agreed that there are no biblical texts that speak expressly to the topic of abortion, but that taken in their totality the Holy Scriptures are filled with messages that advocate respect for the woman and child before and after birth. Therefore the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) encourages an atmosphere of open debate and mutual respect for a variety of opinions concerning the issues related to problem pregnancies and abortion.(8)
Areas of Substantial Agreement on the Issue of Abortion
The church ought to be able to maintain within its fellowship those who, on the basis of a study of Scripture and prayerful decision, come to diverse conclusions and actions.
Problem pregnancies are the result of, and influenced by, so many complicated and insolvable circumstances that we have neither the wisdom nor the authority to address or decide each situation.
We affirm the ability and responsibility of women, guided by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, in the context of their communities of faith, to make good moral choices in regard to problem pregnancies.
We call upon Presbyterians to work for a decrease in the number of problem pregnancies, thereby decreasing the number of abortions.
The considered decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy can be a morally acceptable, though certainly not the only or required, decision. Possible justifying circumstances would include medical indications of severe physical or mental deformity, conception as a result of rape or incest, or conditions under which the physical or mental health of either woman or child would be gravely threatened.
We are disturbed by abortions that seem to be elected only as a convenience or ease embarrassment. We affirm that abortion should not be used as a method of birth control.
Abortion is not morally acceptable for gender selection only or solely to obtain fetal parts for transplantation.
We reject the use of violence and/or abusive language either in protest of or in support of abortion …
The strong Christian presumption is that since all life is precious to God, we are to preserve and protect it. Abortion ought to be an option of last resort …
The Christian community must be concerned about and address the circumstances that bring a woman to consider abortion as the best available option. Poverty, unjust societal realities, sexism, racism, and inadequate supportive relationships may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely.(9)
The previous excerpts and the areas of substantial agreement on the issue of abortion have been the cornerstone for “the atmosphere of open debate and mutual respect for a variety of opinions” during the past 40 years.
(1) Minutes of the 182nd General Assembly (1970), United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., p. 891
(2) Minutes of the 217th General Assembly (2006), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 905
(3) Minutes of the 217th General Assembly (2006), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 905
(4) Minutes of the 217th General Assembly (2006), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 905
(5) Minutes of the 217th General Assembly (2006), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 905
(6) Minutes of the 217th General Assembly (2006), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 905
(7) Minutes of the 217th General Assembly (2006), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 905
(8) Minutes of the 204th General Assembly (1992), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 367-368, 372-374
(9) Minutes of the 204th General Assembly (1992), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 367-368, 372-374