Abortion: Christian Doctrine and Public Policy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard John Neuhaus   

MFLphone photos 329web"The question is what, on the basis of the Word of God, does the Church believe, and what are the moral implications of that belief." ---Richard John Neuhaus

The difficulty the churches experience in addressing the abortion question is intensified by a confusion with secular politics. That is to say,we implicitly assume that decision-making in the Church should imitate the pattern of compromise and accommodation in the democratic political arena. The Church should concentrate on what it must say theologically and morally and, only when it is reasonably clear about that, move on to the question of what that might mean for Christian responsibility in the political arena

A Note of Explanation for Presbyterians:
This article was written to Lutherans and uses abbreviations that may not be familiar to Presbyterians.
ALC stands for American Lutheran Church;
LCA for Lutheran Church in America; and
ELCA for the merged churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Presbyterians might readily substitute PC(USA) wherever the abbreviations occur.

The questions column in The Lutheran recently grasped the nettle on that most troublesome question of abortion. The questioner thought the abortion decision should be "based on individual circumstance" and wanted a response from Mount Everest. In response, the Everests cite biblical passages, such as Psalm 139, that underscore God's loving creation of and care for the unborn. They also note the former ALC's affirmation "that human life from conception, created in the image of God, is always sacred" and "that induced abortion ends a unique human life." The ALC, they note, went on to deplore "the absence of any legal protection for human life from the time of conception to birth." In its 1978 convention, the LCA also opposed "abortion on demand," the legal and practical situation that has prevailed since the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. However, both churches, the Everests write, said that health, family, or societal considerations may make abortion a "tragic option" in some circumstances. That tragic option of abortion should not be exercised except after "earnest consideration" and consulting with "physicians and spiritual counselors."

The column accurately reflects the positions of the ALC and the LCA, and those positions will of course have a strong bearing on the position adopted by the ELCA. The statement that abortion ends "a unique human life," it should be noted, is not a theological or moral statement. It is a biological and medical statement on which there is unanimous scientific agreement. It is scientifically inaccurate to say that the embryo or fetus is only "potential" human life, for nothing that is not human life is potential human life, and nothing that is potential human life is not human life. The statement that such life is "created in the image of God" and is "sacred" moves beyond the narrowly scientific to the theological and moral. The moral implications become clearer if we speak not so much about the "sanctity of life" (language that is not found in Scripture) as about our responsibilities of stewardship and love for the neighbor, especially for the least and most vulnerable.

More Important Than Peace
The statements of the ALC and LCA were, everyone recognizes, compromise statements. Compromise statements tend not to be internally coherent. In the civil realm, compromise is frequently a virtue required by politics as "the art of the possible." The ELCA's emphasis on "inclusiveness" imports that mode of thinking into the life of the Church. Inclusiveness is taken to mean that all viewpoints must be represented. It is thereby suggested that the Church should not decide but should walk a fine line of accommodation between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. The model of accommodation and compromise - however appropriate in the political arena - poses severe problems for a community pledged to be faithful to revealed truth as conveyed by Scripture and normatively interpreted by the Church's confessions. The question for the ELCA is not whether the pro-life or the pro-choice side should prevail, nor is the question how to split the difference between them in order to maintain a modicum of institutional peace. The question is what, on the basis of the Word of God, does the Church believe, and what are the moral implications of that belief.

The great majority of ELCA members undoubtedly believe, as the great majority of Americans say they believe, that the unborn are human beings created in the image of God. Mothers and all of us have a solemn obligation to protect and care for such human life. There is also a desire, however, to leave room for exceptional circumstances in which the "tragic option" of abortion may be permissible. In terms of public policy, there is widespread agreement, also among pro-life advocates, that any law would likely allow for abortion in cases of direct threat to the life of the mother, incest, and rape. In terms of Christian ethics, abortion in the case of direct threat to another life may be justified by the same criteria that justify killing in war. Christian justifications for abortion in the cases of incest and rape are somewhat more elusive. The general agreement to the three exceptions (direct threat, incest, rape) in public policy reflects a recognition that, however tragic each abortion may be, this is the most protection that can be achieved in a civil realm where politics is the art of the possible. In any event, those three exceptions are practically irrelevant, since they account for less than one tenth of one percent of the 1.5 million abortions procured each year in this country.

The difficulty the churches experience in addressing the abortion question is intensified by a confusion with secular politics. That is to say,we implicitly assume that decision-making in the Church should imitate the pattern of compromise and accommodation in the democratic political arena. In addition, we move too quickly to the question of what public policy should be. The Church should concentrate on what it must say theologically and morally and, only when it is reasonably clear about that, move on to the question of what that might mean for Christian responsibility in the political arena

To Distinguish, Not Separate
In this connection, the ELCA might find instructive the recent experience of the Episcopal, United Methodist, and American Baptist communions. All three bodies have in the past year moved away from supporting abortion at individual discretion to something closer to a pro-life position. Especially in the Episcopalian instance, this was achieved in part by temporarily bracketing the question of public policy and focusing on what the Church qua Church must say about our responsibility for human life created in the image of God. Of course we cannot separate Christian truth about human life and moral responsibility from public policy. But we can and should distinguish the ways in which the discussion of abortion is conducted in the Body of Christ and in the body politic. Otherwise, the abortion debate in the Church simply reflects the pro-life v. pro-choice battles raging in the large society. The Church, as a community of faith captive only to the Word of God, must first get its own teaching in order. Only then can it have anything very distinctive or helpful to say to the general society.

The ELCA, like its predecessor bodies, will likely say that the unborn child is a human life created in the image of God. The importance of saying this reaches far beyond the question of the unborn. Once we allow calculations of utility, viability, or achievement to enter into the decision of who is and who is not a human being, the consequences become ominous. Among the senile aged, the comatose, the grievously handicapped, the mentally deranged, the drug enslaved, and the millions who are starving, we encounter innumerable people who are not useful to themselves or others, are not viable, and have no claim upon our caring by virtue of their present or potential achievement. In short, any criterion we might employ to exclude the unborn from our field of moral vision inevitably excludes millions of other human beings as well. The Church's moral teaching rests on the proposition that other people do not need to qualify for our love and protective concern. It is enough that they are members of the human community and God's children in need. If we do not care about every human life, it is doubtful that we really care about any human life. In biblical language, of course, the question is: Who is my neighbor? If by some measure we can exclude the unborn as neighbor, can we not by the same or similar measure exclude, for example, the emaciated victims of Ethiopian famine or the "vegetables" in our state hospitals?

When We Need Not Care
We may assume, then, that the ELCA will follow its predecessor bodies in acknowledging that the unborn child is a human life created in the image of God. Then comes the difficult part. Under what circumstances are we not required to care for the neighbor - to protect, nurture, and come to his or her aid? Going a step further, in what circumstances are we not only not required to care for the neighbor but are we permitted to act against the neighbor - to kill the neighbor? As we have seen, there is a strong Christian tradition of morally "justified" killing in the case of defense, and many would add, in the case of capital punishment for those guilty of heinous crimes.

The first circumstance is almost never applicable to abortion, and the second is never applicable. Earlier Lutheran statements say that abortion may be morally justified for reasons of health or personal, familial, and societal consequences. The language about "tragic option" notwithstanding, the statement says that it is morally permissible. The quality of thought, prayer, anguish and consultation that goes into that decision would seem to be rather beside the point. In no other instance would we say that it is permitted to take innocent human life if one has thought and prayed about it enough and consulted with one's "spiritual counselor." On the contrary, anyone who pleaded that excuse for taking an innocent human life would be viewed as a religious fanatic and the spiritual counselor would, if approving of the action, be deemed an accomplice in murder. Clearly, there is a radical incoherence in these earlier Lutheran statements. We cannot speak of the unborn in terms of God's creative purpose and our communal responsibility, and then sign off with a statement of laissez-faire morality that tosses the question to individualistic choice.

If this is a human life created in the image of God, the Church must then provide some reasoning and guidelines that warrant the taking of that life. Otherwise it is not credible that we really believe this is a human life created in the image of God. We should not say it if we do not believe it. Now we know that, of the more than 20 million abortions procured since Roe v. Wade, probably 90 percent are procured for reasons that most of us would not think substantial enough to warrant the taking of innocent human life. In many instances abortion is a substitute or backstop for birth control. In most cases abortion was the answer to an "inconvenient" pregnancy. Admittedly, there is an element of subjective judgment here; one person's inconvenience is another person's disaster. If we are to say that abortion is a tragic option only in the "hard cases," surely we are obligated to provide some guidelines as to what might qualify as hard cases. Not to do so is to cast doubt upon whether we are serious when we say that the solemn question engaged is the justification for the taking of innocent human life. Not to do so is to leave people, especially distressed women, in the cruel uncertainty of whether they have committed a horrible wrong. Not to do so is a grievous abdication of the Church's teaching and pastoral responsibility.

Cost-Benefit Analysis
What then might be such justifications for abortion? When a pregnancy disrupts a young woman's graduate studies? When it interferes with a job or possible promotion? When the father refuses to accept responsibility for the child? When a birth would bring social censure upon the mother and her family? When a couple feels they cannot afford another child (and when "cannot afford" means foregoing a vacation or a new car)? Any experienced pastor can readily add to this list of justifications for abortion that are frequently offered. But note what we are doing; we are submitting moral judgment to cost-benefit analysis. In such thinking, regardless how we distinguish between "hard ccases" and "soft cases," we are establishing a principle. The principle is that, when the burden of a human life outweighs the benefit of that life, we are morally justified in terminating that life. If we say that the burden must greatly outweigh the benefit, or if we argue that in some cases it is all burden and no benefit, the principle is not affected. We are in any event engaged in a calculation of burden-benefit ratios or as they say in business, cost benefit analysis. Note also that we are not weighing burden and benefit from the viewpoint of the life at stake, but from the viewpoint of those who perceive that life as burden and/or benefit to them.

We have thus arrived at a highly problematic moral principle. It is the principle implicitly in some earlier Lutheran statements on abortion. Before the ELCA recommends this principle to its members and to the society, however, we might give some careful thought to its implications. What does it mean with respect to euthanasia and suicide? What does it mean for the "hard cases" of nonviable, useless lives mentioned earlier? If the principle is valid, what do we say to the Christian who refuses to help, but actually wills the death, of hundreds of thousands of starving people in Africa who are, by any rational calculation, all burden and no benefit to anybody else? Coming closer to home, it may rationally be argued that our society would be better off in many respects if, say, three million of the black underclass in our inner-cities were painlessly to disappear. Is that grotesque? Grotesque, yes - and eminently rational by cost-benefit analysis. If anyone had said in 1973 that in the next 15 years our society would kill 20 million of its children, the statement undoubtedly would have been dismissed as grotesque.

We have become a society that routinely kills its children. More than four thousand are being killed the day you are reading this. Some say this is progress. Some of us view it a regression to subpagan barbarity. Among those of us who find it abhorrent, some of us think something can be done about it, others think not, yet others are not sure. Who knows? What Christians should know for sure is that, underlying the practice, is a principle of cost-benefit analysis with respect to human life, a principle that can hardly be squared with the One who said, "inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these..."

Considerations in Formulating a Statement
The ELCA is in the process of developing a statement on abortion. Those involved in the process need the prayer and counsel of all of us. We hope they will keep these six considerations firmly in mind:

    1. 1. It should be a statement by the Church and to the Church. We are not - at least not in the first instance - making public policy. It should be a theological statement, reflecting our best understanding of God's revelation and what it means for Christian discipleship. To be firmly rejected are morality by opinion poll and the idea that inclusiveness means the representative balancing of truth and falsehood. Of this statement the ELCA should be able to say, "Insofar as we can understand the will of God, this is the will of God with respect to the unborn child and our responsibility for the unborn child."
    2. The process should rigorously test the claim that the unborn child is "human life created in the image of God." A serious effort should be made to falsify that claim theologically. Alternative definitions of reality should be explored, and their implications for the treatment of other "doubtful" or expendable" forms of human life should be carefully examined.
    3. If it is determined that we have no choice but to sustain that claim,the statement must not succumb to the radical incoherence of earlier Lutheran statements. The moral responsibilities that attend that claim should be affirmed and explicated unambiguously. The general truth should be clearly emphasized. As hard cases make for bad law, so hard cases make for bad spiritual and moral guidance. If there are exceptions to the moral responsibilities affirmed, they should be explained and the principles underlying them spelled out. Prattle about "tragic option" left to individualistic decision should be rejected as evasive and contemptible.
    4. The statement should highlight the alternatives to abortion in instances of "problem pregnancies." (Ask almost any woman and she will tell you that every pregnancy is a problem pregnancy.) These include prenatal and postnatal care, adoption, and the encouragement of attitudes of acceptance and inclusiveness toward children born outside marriage. The statement should commit the church to programmatic support for such alternatives to abortion.
    5. It must be an evangelical statement. That is, it should be informed by a comprehension of Law and Gospel that enables the Church to understand and forgive, but never to excuse, sinful acts. For the Church to speak believably about the grace of repentance and restoration requires that we say nothing that belittles the reason for repentance and restoration. A statement that speaks candidly about sin and grace would be a great mercy to families, and especially to aborted women, who presently languish in the ambiguities of doubt and self-justification over what they have done. Studies suggest that, for every woman who views her abortion as an easy liberation from a problem, there are others who are haunted by the child who might have been, and by the suspicion of deepest guilt. The statement should address that human reality and pastoral responsibility in unequivocal terms, making clear that the Church is not in the business of rationalization but of absolution.
    6. Only after the above questions are attended to might the statement address the question of public policy. It should powerfully protest the horror of a society that kills its children, and the horror of the attitudes, rationalizations, and laws that support the killing. It should not presume to prescribe the specific measures by which the horror might be ended or reduced. The statement should point to the necessary connections between Christian ethics and civil morality. In the statement, the Church should call upon its members to exercise their citizenship responsibilities in a manner informed by Christian teaching. Finally, the church should promise to encourage, nurture, and sustain its members as they do the best they know how to advance the better ordering of God's world and the protection of all God's children.

"Abortion: Christian Doctrine and Public Policy" is reprinted with permission from the author, from The Forum Letter, September 21, 1988, Volume 17, Number 8, a publication of The American Lutheran Bureau, New York, New York.

About the author. the late Richard John Neuhaus was, at the time of this writing, Director of the Rockford Institute Center on Religion and Society in New York City. He was then editor of the monthly Religion and Society Report and editor in chief of This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life. He served as a Lutheran clergyman and for seventeen years was pastor of a low-income Black and Hispanic parish in Brooklyn, New York. He authored numerous books and articles and was religion editor and columnist for National Review. Pastor Neuhaus was born in Canada and received his formal education in Ontario and the United States and was a graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.



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