In the autumn of 1978 the Washington Association of Churches and the Washington State Catholic Conference jointly published a six-page pamphlet they called “Abortion: An Ecumenical Study Document.” Their work offers a fascinating snapshot of Christian thinking at the time and raises some equally fascinating questions about what, exactly, has happened in the last 35 years.
The pamphlet does not contain a position statement. Quite the opposite, in fact. From the beginning, the authors explain that such an agreement is impossible: ”Clearly there is no Christian position on abortion, for here real values conflict with each other, and Christian persons who seek honestly to be open to God’s call still find themselves disagreeing profoundly.”
At the time, five years had passed since the Rove v. Wade decision, and the Church, broadly, was wrestling with ethical and spiritual complexities the decision brought to the surface. WAC, which existed “to express and strengthen the unity Christians have in Jesus Christ” had asked member denominations to create a study group because strong feelings on the question of abortion were threating that mission. In the absence of an agreement, the study group articulated a set of shared values and then assembled statements on abortion from member denominations.
Some of the contents would come as little surprise to anyone aware of today’s struggles over abortion ethics and rights. For example, the Catholic Church pronounced that even when pregnancy threatens a mother’s life, abortion “increases the overall tragedy.” Catholicism has wavered over the centuries about when a fetus becomes a person with a soul, but the hierarchy has been consistent in its opposition to abortion after ensoulment, which is now proclaimed to happen at conception. Furthermore, the Catholic hierarchy has long sought to enforce its ethical judgments via civic and criminal codes, and 1978 was no exception: “A legal context in which abortion is presented as a legitimate way of resolving tragic situations creates an atmosphere that reduces respect for the value of life. Ultimately, such an atmosphere dehumanizes the lives of all who live in it.”
What might be surprising is how little the other denominations represented in the 1978 study group agreed with them. Consider the following statements:
Because Christ calls us to affirm the freedom of persons and the sanctity of life, we recognize that abortion should be a matter of personal decision. —American Baptist Churches
The ALC recognizes the freedom and responsibility of individuals to make their own choices in light of the best information available to them and their understanding of God’s will for their lives, whether those choices be in regard to family planning or any other life situations. —American Lutheran Church
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) believes that the mother has an overwhelming stake in her own pregnancy, and to be forced to give birth to a child against her will is a peculiarly personal violation of her freedom … . The fetus is seen as a potential person, but not fully a person in the same developed sense in which the mother is a person with an ability to think, to feel, to make decisions, and choices concerning her own life… . That prior right however, carries with it a tremendous responsibility, for human life, even potential human life is valued. —Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Abortion should be accepted as an option only where all other possible alternatives will lead to greater destruction of human life and spirit… . 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. —Church of the Brethren
Christians have a responsibility to limit the size of their families and to practice responsible birth control… . .where there is substantial reason to believe that the child would be deformed in mind or body, or where the pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest … termination of pregnancy is permissible. —Episcopal Church
The status of the fetus is the key issue. That status is affected by consideration of the fact that it is the organic beginning of human life. Further, its status is defined by its stage of development, its state of well-being, and its prospects for a meaningful life after its birth.
—Lutheran Church in America
Human life develops on a continuum from conception to birth. At some point it may be regarded as more “personal” and higher in “quality.” At some undesignated time, the value of this life may actually outweigh competing factors; e.g., the vocational and social objectives of the family, etc. —United Church of Christ
Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion. —United Methodist Church
The artificial or induced termination of pregnancy is a matter of the careful ethical decision of the patient, her physician, and her pastor or other counselor and therefore should not be restricted by law … —United Presbyterian Church
Today when we think of Christianity and abortion what comes to mind may be clinic picket lines; or “personhood” zealots who insist that microscopic fertilized eggs merit the same hard-won civil rights as walking, talking, thinking, breathing men and women and children; or even the fanatics who have now murdered eight doctors in the name of life.
The picture of Christianity revealed in the 1978 study document is very different. Mind you, across the board we do see an ancient religious tradition that treats life as sacred and human life as the pinnacle of creation. Outside of Christianity, these are not points of universal agreement. A secularist might treat the loss of early embryonic life with pragmatic acceptance—more than half of fertilized eggs self-abort; human reproduction is a funnel designed so that lots of false starts produce a few healthy adult offspring.
The Protestant denominations involved in the ecumenical study group were mainline traditions that today are considered theologically liberal. Most continue to affirm quietly that abortion decisions are best trusted to a woman and her understanding of God, with spiritual council and community support. It may be more surprising to many people that at the time many biblical literalists similarly saw abortion as a matter of individual decision. Jonathan Dudley, CNN commentator and author of Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, lays it out:
In 1968, Christianity Today published a special issue on contraception and abortion, encapsulating the consensus among evangelical thinkers at the time. In the leading article, professor Bruce Waltke, of the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, explained the Bible plainly teaches that life begins at birth:
“God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: ‘If a man kills any human life he will be put to death’ (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense… Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”
The magazine Christian Life agreed, insisting, “The Bible definitely pinpoints a difference in the value of a fetus and an adult.” And the Southern Baptist Convention passed a 1971 resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother, but to protect her emotional health as well.
The WAC members sought to discern God’s will through a combination of scripture, tradition, reason and experience, but evangelical Christians claim to speak from the authority of the Bible alone, a Reformation principle known as “sola scriptura.” Consequently, one striking feature of their shift on abortion is that biblical authority now must be invoked to support an anti-abortion stance.
Culture warriors who think they speak for God—the new God, the one who hates abortion in any form at any point in gestation for any reason—are hoping that young American Christians won’t go to the trouble. That is why, even as they keep the focus visual, they carefully avoid images of early abortions, in which the actual tissue removed may look downright boring. They avoid indicating size, since at six weeks, the gestational sac is about the size of a dime. They also avoid images of fetal anomalies, which could remind viewers that occasionally a fetus has no viable path to becoming a person and might even raise questions about whether God guides pregnancy more than any other natural process.
To date this strategy has worked, but technology may be changing the conversation once again. As the evangelical consensus against abortion has grown, the procedure itself has become a shrinking target.