A Look at Our Church's Past
A look at our church's past can help us to speak words of "grace and truth" to the women and men facing crisis pregnancies.
The Presbyterian Church did not always approve of abortion. Indeed, approval began to appear only in 1970. Just five years earlier the General Assembly had reaffirmed a 1962 report that condemned abortion and affirmed that human life begins at the moment of conception. The change in the seventies broke with the long history of the church on this subject.
John Calvin - - Abortion: An Almost Monstrous Crime
Presbyterians, from their very beginning, considered abortion forbidden by Scripture as the killing of the innocent. John Calvin, in his commentary on Exodus 21:22 wrote:
...the unborn, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb before it has come to light.
1869 - - Abortion: A Crime Against God and Nature
The Presbyterian Church in the United States made its first pronouncement on abortion in 1869 when, in response to "Overture 44," the Committee on Bills and Overtures said:
This Assembly regards the destruction by parents of their own offspring, before birth, with abhorrence, as a crime against God and against nature; and as the frequency of such murders can no longer be concealed, we hereby warn those that are guilty of this crime that, except they repent, they cannot inherit eternal life. We also exhort those who have been called to preach the gospel...that they be no longer silent, or tolerant of these things, but that they endeavor by all proper means to stay the floods of impurity and cruelty.
1962 - - Life Begins at the Moment of Conception
The church's next statement on abortion was made in 1962 in a report adopted by the General Assembly entitled "Responsible Marriage and Parenthood." This report was the result of a special committee working under the mandate of an overture from the 1959 General Assembly which called for the church to speak to what it considered overpopulation in the world.
The focus of the 1962 report was on contraception as a responsible practice by Christians. Abortion was rejected. The report stated:
The fetus is a human life to be protected by the criminal law from the moment when 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.
1965 - - Life Still Begins at the Moment of Conception
The next reference to abortion found in the minutes of General Assembly came in a 1965 report of the Church and Society Committee entitled, "Population Control and the Burgeoning Urban Society." This report reaffirmed the 1962 statement condemning abortion. A clear distinction was drawn between abortion and birth control.
1970 - - The Great Reversal: From a Criminal Act to an Act of Compassion
It was in 1970 that our church's pro-life position began to change. The report "Sexuality and the Human Community" created a tremendous stir within the church and was "received for study" by the General Assembly only after an amendment had been attached stating that the action to "receive" was not to be understood as an endorsement of its content.
On the issue of abortion the report stated, "we do not think that abortion should be relied upon as a means of limiting family size...but when for misinformation, miscalculation, technical failure, or other reasons, contraception fails and an unwanted pregnancy is established, we do not think it either compassionate or just to insist that available help be withheld."
Gone were the condemnations of the taking of a defenseless human life. Gone were the distinctions between contraception and abortion. The unanimous voice of past Presbyterian statements condemning abortion was silenced.
Significantly, the report dismissed the 1962 affirmation that human life begins at conception by asserting that the 1962 report's conclusion was based on a theological position "which is without Biblical support and has neither philosophical warrant nor any wide currency today, except in some Roman Catholic theological circles." The 1970 report, however, offered no biblical or theological argument in favor of its own new and novel view of the beginnings of human life. To throw out our church's traditions in such a flippant way with no effort to support the new view was irresponsible, especially when the issue under discussion was the value and protection of human lives.
Since 1970 - - More of the Same
Since 1970, four more statements have been published by the church dealing with abortion. In 1972 "Freedom of Personal Choice in Problem Pregnancies" appeared. In 1976, "Problem Pregnancies: Toward A Responsible Decision." In 1979 a joint resolution by the council on Women and the Church (COWAC) and the Advisory Council on Church and society entitled "A Religious Statement on Abortion: A Call to Commitment" was issued. Then in 1983 at the first General Assembly of the reunited PC(USA) a position paper was adopted entitled "The Covenant of Life and the Caring Community and Covenant and Creation: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion."
Since 1970 every statement and resolution coming from the General Assembly has supported free and open access to abortion, without legal restriction.
1992 - - The Church in Retreat
Following an address by Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1988, at a meeting for commissioners sponsored by PPL, the General Assembly acted to restudy its change of position on abortion. The task force appointed by that year's Moderator delivered both majority and minority reports to the 1992 General Assembly. The majority report was adopted with little revision. The current position of the church declares our membership in disagreement over the "use and interpretation of Scripture" and "over abortion." It finds the church unable to give moral guidance and leaves the moral decision in the hands of each woman. It opposes any legal restraints to protect the lives of the unborn. But it retreats from its former position which considered abortion "an act of stewardship responsibility," by declaring its concern for the vast numbers of abortions and expressing its hope that it will be a choice of last resort. But the current position is unable to establish when a human life begins.
Our church's former repugnance toward abortion was rooted in a clearly stated biblical and theological position which maintained that from the moment of conception, innocent human life is to be protected. Our church's current acceptance of abortion fails to give us an equally clear statement that human life does not begin at conception and does not require the protection that God wills for all those made in his image.
Presbyterians Pro-Life began in the 1970s as a counter movement to the drift away from biblical standards of morality in the church, and continues to be a strong and growing grass roots effort by churches and church members to reclaim the biblical truth about life.
Some material in this pamphlet is drawn from a history written by the Rev. Trevor H. G. Smith.