A. Whereas abortion is a theological and ethical issue;
Whereas members of our churches are not clear what a Christian position on abortion might be;
Whereas some members have and/or may request guidance from the church on the morality of abortion;
Whereas several states have been revising abortion laws;
Whereas medical science has achieved great competence in performing abortions and detecting prenatal deformities and other abnormalities;
And whereas the 1964 Annual Conference Statement on “Family Planning and Population Growth” does not give guidance for such circumstances as rape, mental health of the mother, and fetus abnormalities;
We, the District Board of the Church of the Brethren, Southern Ohio District, request the Annual Conference assembling June 23-28, 1970, in Lincoln, Nebraska, to appoint a committee to draft and recommend to the Annual Conference a position statement on abortion. We suggest such committee include both sexes and professionals in theology, medicine, psychology, and civil law.
Gale D. Crumrine, Chairman of District Board; Opal DeVilbiss, Clerk
B. Whereas statutes regarding abortions are being changed by the legislatures and challenged in the courts in many of our states; and
Whereas, the question of abortion is essentially a moral issue relating to the nature of human life; and
Whereas, the Church of the Brethren has never stated its position on the question of abortion;
We, the Mid-Atlantic District Board, taking into consideration the urgency of the issue, petition the Annual Conference to study and provide guidance on the question of abortion for the membership and congregations of the Church of the Brethren.
Duane Ramsey, Chairman of the Board; Ralph McFadden, Secretary
Action of 1970 Annual Conference
The two queries were referred to a study committee composed of five persons elected by Annual Conference and one person appointed by the General Board and one appointed by Bethany Theological Seminary. The conference-elected members are: Terry Murray, Nancy Rosenberger Faus, Marianne Pittman, Lauree Hersch Meyer, and Sonja Griffith. Dr. Dennis F. Rupel is the Board appointee and Dr. Donald E. Miller the Seminary appointee.
1971 Report of the Committee
The report is not reprinted here.
Action of 1971 Annual Conference
The paper was recommitted to the committee for rewriting for more conciseness, with instructions to include specific suggestions on prevention of unwanted pregnancies, with emphasis on such areas as the spiritual and psychological aspects of sex.
A Christian ethic regarding abortion begins with the biblical teaching about the sacredness of life and about love for persons, two of the central themes of scripture. Abortion as used hereafter refers to any intentional interference with embryonic or fetal human life that results in the termination of that life prior to birth. When considering the biblical teaching about abortion one should remember that there are few scriptural passages directly related to the question and that the direction of scripture is not so clear that anyone can be dogmatic in his interpretation. No biblical passage condemns or approves of abortion as such. Nevertheless the Bible teaches that God is the creator of human life in its biological form as well as its distinctly personal qualities. Therefore we turn first of all to passages about life and then to passages about love and compassion.
The Bible teaches that human life is a sacred gift from God. This does not mean that human beings have no part in the creation of new life, for God has clearly entrusted the cultivation and propagation of human life into the hands of persons (Genesis 1-2). Nevertheless, it remains a sacred gift from God and is at center a mystery beyond definition. Science can describe the development of the fetus, but it cannot penetrate the mystery and uniqueness of the person who is brought into being by the hand of God.
The mystery of the creation is heightened by the fact that it is difficult to prove from the scriptures just when personal existence begins. Many passages seem to suggest that personal existence begins long before the time at which a fetus may be born and live. Heart, blood, mind, and breath are all signs of personal life. Biblically the “heart” refers to the center of personal being. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 12:23). The mind and the strength, thinking and moving, are evidence of personal life. Soul and breathing are closely associated, suggesting that full personhood comes with breathing. Body and personhood are so joined that the latter does not exist without the former. Thus the Bible seems to suggest multiple signs of personal human life, many of which are present long before viability.
At the same time it is difficult to prove from the scriptures that conception is clearly the beginning of personal human life. While in Psalm 51:5 the psalmist speaks personally about his own conception (“In sin did my mother conceive me”), Jeremiah 1:5 speaks of being called of God before conception (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”). Reference to “conception” in scripture is nearly always accompanied by reference to “bringing forth” as in the phrase “conceive and bear.” Although the growing fetus may occasion personal reference, the beginning of personal existence remains shrouded in the mystery of God’s call.
In the Bible the creative act of a loving God and the response of a caring community is decisive in calling forth personal human life. The announcement of a child to be born is normally a time of joy and thankfulness. Signs of quickening and movement within the womb heighten expectancy for the coming child (Luke 1:44). Sensitive persons are moved with reverence in the presence of a growing fetus (Psalm 139:13-16). Thus many passages suggest that the growing fetus is precious in God’s sight and that the bodily signs of personhood are distributed throughout fetal development.
A comparison of the value of fetal life and the life of the mother seems to be implied in Exodus 21:22-25. There one who accidentally hits a pregnant woman and causes a miscarriage may have a fine imposed upon him by the husband. Should the expectant mother die, the guilty party may be required to compensate by giving up his own life. Interpretations of the passage vary, but it would seem to suggest that while the life of the fetus is precious, it is not so precious as the life of the mother, and therefore an accidentally caused miscarriage is not necessarily treated as manslaughter. We must remember however that the passage is not considering voluntary abortion. We must also remember that Jesus tremendously heightened the commandment not to kill, even including an admonition against anger (Matthew 5:21-23).
Everything we know of Jesus from the scripture indicates his love and compassion for persons. He did not consider that the law was to be applied without regard for the persons involved. For this reason Scribes, Pharisees, and Saducees considered Jesus to be a lawbreaker. An important example is that of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). Her sin was so serious that she was on the point of being stoned to death. Jesus did not abolish the high requirements of the moral law, but suggested that those without sin carry out the punishment. He then forgave her, asking her not to sin again. From Jesus we learn that when we espouse high moral principles with harsh consequences for many, we must be ready to forgive such persons and to offer them every opportunity to make their own responsible decisions. Jesus did not weaken the moral law against adultery; he rather set it within a context of compassion for persons.
Over the years Brethren sought to follow the example and teaching of Jesus that religion and morality are ultimately voluntarily decided before God. Believing that the heart and soul of morality is the free choice of persons who love other persons, Brethren generally have been unwilling to rely upon military force, police force, capital punishment, religious inquisition, or punitive legislation. Brethren have sought rather to develop helping institutions and service for those who suffer, to introduce a note of compassion.
The biblical affirmation that human life is sacred does not easily resolve the ethical dilemmas concerning the quality as well as the fact of human life. Such a dilemma is obvious when the life of a mother is threatened by her pregnancy. Most Brethren have been willing to allow that a fetus may be aborted to save the life of the pregnant woman. This seems to be within the direction of biblical teaching, although we marvel at the love of a mother who voluntarily risks her life in order that her child might be born. Surely no one should be required to do so.
The dilemma is posed in another form when the threat of world overpopulation is considered. Various population estimates indicate that the world will be intolerably overpopulated within two or three generations if present population trends continue. The human reproductive potential is increasingly coming into conflict with the lives and quality of life of those already born. Is the threat of overpopulation with attendant starvation and death sufficient reason to resort to abortion? Reverence for human life should lead Christians to use medically safe and effective contraceptive methods rather than resort to abortion.
The moral dilemma of abortion is complicated by the fact that abortion is not so available to the poor as it is to those who are not poor. It is hardly just to retain strict abortion laws that are only enforceable against those who cannot afford to do anything but comply. The dilemma is also complicated by the fact that abortion is so prevalent, even in the face of great danger and degradation. Thousands of women each year willingly risk their lives and many die because of self-induced or illegally obtained abortions. Their decisions to abort could hardly have been made for the sake of mere convenience or whim, but must rather have been accompanied by severe mental anguish and despair. Even though abortion is not an acceptable means of solving problems, there are many situations in which a woman finds no alternative that she feels she can bear. In such cases, condemnation is destructive and does nothing to relieve misery; it only makes a woman less capable of coming to a rational decision.
Merely condemning abortion is self-defeating. In our concern for the well-being of the fetus, we may add to the despair that has already driven the mother to seek a “way out” of her problems rather than find a constructive solution. On the other hand, merely condoning abortion is equally self-defeating. In our concern for the mother, we run the risk of encouraging her too easily to make a decision that is callous of all human life in its destruction of the unborn. We must not allow ourselves simply to voice a position and then be satisfied that we have met our responsibility. Rather, as Christians we must actively and compassionately share in the burdens that lead women to seek abortions.
In seeking to preserve the life of a woman and the fetus she carries, we need to understand the life-destroying situations that drive her to abortion. Her family may already be so large and so poor that they are starving. The fetus may be defective and require expense and care, both emotional and physical, that she and her husband are unable to give. Faced with these and other difficulties, a couple must sometimes make an extremely difficult decision. When they prayerfully and maturely wrestle with all available alternatives and choose personal sacrifice for the sake of their unborn child, we celebrate God’s compassionate spirit.
Medical and Counseling Considerations
The range of individual choice regarding pregnancy and family planning is much broader than it used to be and modern medical developments promise to make it even more so. Modern contraception has made pregnancy a relatively deliberate and free option for many persons in our society. The risk to life and physical health of the mother as a consequence of pregnancy and delivery is now small; the physical risk accompanying medically ethical abortion procedures in the first trimester of pregnancy is much smaller. This risk increases, however, as pregnancy progresses. By way of contrast, the risk to health and life due to clandestine, unhygienic, often desperate abortion procedures at the present time is exceedingly high, and there are many hundreds of needless deaths yearly. Further technological advances in the utilization of intrauterine devices (IUDs), the “morning-after” pill, and the seemingly imminent appearance of effective oral medication that will abort by chemical means in the earliest stages of pregnancy promise to make it increasingly difficult to delineate contraception from abortion. Existing public laws with respect to abortion, therefore, may well become increasingly irrelevant and unenforceable.
Technical discoveries about the genetic and congenital abnormalities of human development have increased the possibility of detecting carrier states of defective genes and chromosomal defects and of predicting such disease in potential offspring. Such conditions may occasionally be diagnosed as early as midpregnancy. Genetic counseling considers the degree of risk involved, the seriousness of the possible defect, the parents’ willingness to care for a defective child, the possibility that a defective child might be helped by medical or surgical procedures to achieve a more nearly normal life, the possible result of the defect on the life of the child, on other members of the family, and on society.
Psychological studies of women who undergo abortion by acceptable medical procedures have not supported generally held beliefs regarding the emotional stress of such an experience. In the majority of cases, general relief or a brief and mild depressive reaction is reported. Rarely do more severe disturbances appear. The emotionally disturbed woman who undergoes abortion seems to experience no loss of stability and, sometimes, even improves. Frequently expressed beliefs regarding the occurrence of involuntary infertility, difficulty in sexual functioning, as well as depression, are not substantiated by the presently available evidence. There is, however, continued expression of concern by psychiatrists and psychologists about adverse effects, short-term or long-term, individually or collectively, of repeated resort to abortion.
Effective research has yet to be done to clarify the real psychological and social efforts of changing social codes regarding abortion and the response that large numbers of persons are making to these changes. Clinical experience with persons who have sought illegal abortion, usually in a context fraught with tension, secrecy, fear, and real risk to life and health, reveal frequent important emotional trauma and suffering from the experience.
It appears that condemnatory attitudes, compassionlessness, profound in sensitivity, and lack of understanding in ourselves and those around us lie at the heart of this distress. Even when no longer expressed in legal prohibitions, these attitudes tend to be preserved in the larger community, and often in the church as well, by keeping distant from the problem and by isolating responsibility within the hands of the medical profession. Professional people, as well as their patients, have need for persons of compassion and insight who will undertake to share the burden of moral decision and thereby bring a fuller humanity into the lives of all. The meeting of minds, whenever possible, of caring persons most involved and most to be affected by any decision brings dignity, moral sensitivity, and support to persons in crisis.
Psychological studies of children and of family life have brought a new and increasing concern of behavioral scientists for the problems of the “unwanted child.” Nearly everyone agrees that being unwanted in early childhood is devastating to the development of personality and is the cause of many behavioral and emotional problems.
The physician is committed to the preservation of life. When faced with a request for abortion, he is placed in a position of felt conflict that is often keen. Along with his commitment to life he and other counselors are also called upon to care about and relate to individual persons in their choices, conflicts and needs. He is asked to care enough that instead of controlling, dominating, or manipulating he seeks rather to set persons free to grow and to discover their own highest purposes.
A Position Statement
Brethren oppose abortion because it destroys fetal life. Let it be clear that the Brethren ideal upholds the sacredness of human life and that abortion should be accepted as an option only where all other possible alternatives will lead to greater destruction of human life and spirit.
However, we confess that we are part of a society that contributes to abortion by denying parents the support and assistance they need. We further confess our lack of compassion, our condemnation of those who differ with our view of morality, and our need to coerce and compel others to our way of thinking.
Thus, our position is not a condemnation of those persons who reject this position or of women who seek and undergo abortions. Rather, it is a call for Christlike compassion in seeking creative alternatives to abortion.
We support persons who, after prayer and counseling, believe abortion is the least destructive alternative available to them, that they may make their decision openly, honestly, without the suffering imposed by an uncompromising community.
We oppose any action, direct or indirect, by parents, physicians, the state, or anyone that would compel a woman to undergo an abortion against her will.
All who seek abortions should be granted sympathetic counsel about alternatives available as well as the health and safety of publicly available physicians and hospital care.
Implications and Recommendations
It is vital to the spiritual and social well-being of the Brotherhood that it educate its members about the sacred spiritual quality of human life and human sexuality, family planning, and the meaning and practice of responsible parenthood. This effort should be both an individual and collective responsibility. The Brotherhood should also support organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Clergy Consultation Service in their educational efforts.
Christian parents must seriously consider limiting family size, since over-population poses a very real threat to the whole of human life. However, this should be achieved by contraception and voluntary preventive measures, such as male or female sterilization, rather than by abortion.
The Brotherhood should do everything it can to assist and encourage mothers and fathers to want and care for all their children. For example, Brethren can show their concern and compassion by providing homes for unwanted children or by giving of their time and resources to families who cannot afford the care of another child or cannot bear the physical strain of an additional infant.
For many Brethren, situations such as threat to the life and health of the mother, rape, incest, or possible fetal deformity are considered sufficient to warrant abortion. However, such situations need not necessarily lead to abortion unless they threaten serious destruction of the life or spirit of the family. The precise definition of circumstances must be left to the mother, father, physician, pastor, and other significant persons who are well informed and in whom the mother and father have confidence.
Counseling should encourage the mother and father to work through the decision in view of the value of human life, the options available, including adoption and foster care, the consequences of options, and the well-being of those most directly affected.
Physicians are urged not only to consult with their medical colleagues, but also to seek other ways to share the burden of moral responsibility so frequently thrust upon them. They are encouraged to resist the inclination to shoulder the weight of decision in isolation from others who are involved and concerned. Any physician or attendant who, because of personal moral conviction, chooses not to perform or participate in an abortion, however legal, should be free to do so in good conscience, and should receive the full support of the church. We urge a physician with such convictions to refer patients who may desire an abortion to another competent certified doctor.
Laws regarding abortion should embody protection of human life, protection of freedom of moral choice, and availability of good medical care. Brethren should work for laws that uphold these principles, even though there is differing opinion as to how such principles may be achieved. Brethren are asked not to try to enforce their highest ideal of morality by strict civil law.
Donald Miller, Acting Chairman; Nancy Faus; Sonja Griffith; Lauree Meyer; Terry Murray; Marianne Pittman; Dennis F. Rupel
Action of 1972 Annual Conference
The report was adopted and referred to the General Board for implementation of the three recommendations.