Abortion is one among several issues over which the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) is divided. But to many within the denomination, it is the most important one.

The denomination’s press describes the church’s current stand on abortion as “prochoice.” (See “What Others Have Said” for various denominations’ statements on abortion.) In 1983, the PCUSA’s highest lawmaking body, its general assembly, affirmed “women’s ability to make responsible decisions, whether the choice be to abort or carry the pregnancy to term.” It was a position that abortion opponents, led by the organization Presbyterians Prolife (PPL), found appalling.

Two years later, the general assembly stated that abortion “should not be used as a form of birth control.” But it did not spell out the specific implications of the statement, leading some to observe that the church’s stand is at least ambivalent if not contradictory.

The general assembly in 1987 approved a proposal calling for dialogue on the issue. That dialogue finally came to pass November 17–19, as over 200 delegates convened in Kansas City, Kansas. The dialogue called for a major presentation on each of four views on abortion, and a pro and a con response to each.

The planning committee outlined the four views as follows: (1) Abortion is justified only when pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life; (2) It is justified additionally in cases where pregnancy results from rape or incest, or when the fetus is so deformed it cannot be considered human; (3) Abortion is justified also when the “socio-economic conditions into which the child would be born would threaten provision for the care and feeding of the child”; and (4) Abortion is justified any time the pregnant woman decides, after consultation, she has “sufficient reasons.”

Fundamentally Divided

Opponents at the dialogue, as in society at large, were divided at the point of framing the question. Prochoice spokespersons cast it primarily as an issue of a woman’s right to reproductive choice. Prolife speakers emphasized that the central issue is the life of the unborn child. Major presenter Harold O. J. Brown asked, rhetorically, “How can I say that my personal freedom is of greater value than the very life of another human being?”

The prolife contingent found reason to be pleased with some of the statements from those representing a prochoice view. Presbyterian pastor Louise Lawson, for example, called abortion “an action of last resort,” adding that it “should never be sought lightly, thoughtlessly, or cavalierly.”

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PPL president Teri Schlossberg said she was encouraged that no one challenged the prolife assertion that human life begins at conception. In fact, Lawson at one point affirmed the appropriateness of a funeral service for a life lost through miscarriage.

There was, however, disagreement on the question of when the fetus should be treated as a person. Major presenter Beverly Harrison, a theologian, argued that personhood is social, that it begins at birth.

Harrison said that the criteria for determining whether “human genetic material is a full human person” are debatable. She said it is her view that, while personhood begins at birth, the fetus should be treated as a person at about 25 weeks of age. A woman, she said, should thus have no compunctions about ending an early pregnancy, for example, to finish a college degree. It is after the second trimester, she said, that abortion becomes a dilemma, adding that the more advanced the pregnancy, the “weightier the moral reasons” should be for ending it.

Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, another major speaker, took issue with the view that the less-developed fetus should be considered less of a person. By that standard, she said, “the newborn is far from a completed human being.” Hull added, “Consider how often we say of someone much farther along the continuum, such as a teenager, ‘She has yet to reach her full potential,’ or of an elderly person, ‘He never reached his potential.’ ”

Hull observed that prochoice people reason that the more a fetus looks like a human being, the more it should be regarded as a person. She suggested this view is based on “sentimentality,” not on what the Bible has to say. The prolife contingent, however, was generally uncomfortable with Hull’s argument that abortion can be the best choice among “nongoods,” such as in cases of rape and incest.

Various participants made statements urging those on opposite sides of the issue to work together to eliminate conditions that contribute to unwanted pregnancy and abortion. This includes a commitment to support women with problem pregnancies.

There was never a plan for an official statement to come from the meeting. A task force working to develop a new denominational policy statement on abortion is due to complete its work by 1991.

By Randy Frame in Kansas City.

What Others Have Said

National Association of Evangelicals (NAE): The NAE has not specifically addressed abortion by resolution since 1973, when it deplored Roe v. Wade, which, the organization held, “made it legal to terminate a pregnancy for no better reason than personal convenience or sociological considerations.” The statement recognizes “the necessity for therapeutic abortions to safeguard the health or the life of the mother.” It states that pregnancies resulting from rape or incest “may require deliberate termination,” but only after adequate counseling.

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National Council of Churches (NCC): The NCC takes no stand, citing a lack of consensus among its constituents.

Presbyterian Church in America: The church has passed several abortion-related resolutions opposing abortion in virtually all circumstances. In cases in which the life of the mother is endangered, the church urges that “all medical wisdom, judgment and skill [be] used to preserve the life of the child as well as the life of the mother.”

United Methodist Church: The statement in the church’s book of Social Principles affirms that unborn human life is sacred, while adding, “[W]e 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.” The statement recognizes “tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion,” but adds, “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.”

Southern Baptist Convention (SBC): The SBC has passed several resolutions opposing abortion in all cases except to save the “physical life” of the mother, over which there is disagreement. Southern Baptists have stated that human life, both “born and pre-born,” is “not subject to personal judgments as to ‘quality of life’ based on such subjective criteria as stage of development, abnormality, intelligence level, degree of dependency, cost of medical treatment, or inconvenience to parents.”

African Methodist Episcopal Church: A 1976 paper identified abortion as a result of the “slackening of moral standards within the whole sphere of human sexuality.” The paper opposes abortion as birth control, and urges women with problem pregnancies to seek spiritual guidance. However, John Adams, senior bishop of the denomination, said more recent resolutions set forth the position that while “abortion is never desirable,” it is ultimately “a matter of choice for women.”

American Baptist Churches: The denomination first addressed abortion in 1968, calling it “a matter of responsible personal decision.” But the current statement on abortion, adopted in 1988, opposes abortion “as a means of avoiding responsibility for conception,” “as a primary means of birth control,” and “without regard for the far-reaching consequences of the act.”

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Church of the Nazarene: A 1989 statement opposes “the use of induced abortion for personal convenience or population control” as well as “liberalizing the laws which allow induced abortion on demand.” Decisions to “terminate life by abortion because the life of the mother is endangered,” according to the statement, “should be made only on the basis of adequate medical and spiritual counseling.” The statement does not specifically address situations where pregnancy results from rape or incest.

Conservative Baptist Association: A 1987 statement reaffirmed Conservative Baptists’ conviction that “human life begins at conception,” while opposing abortion on demand as the “illegitimate taking of human life.” In previous statements the church has urged support for “legislative, executive and judicial means” to “curb this monstrous evil in our society,” and has called for active participation in the caring for unwanted children. It has not specifically addressed rape and incest.

Church of the Brethren: In its policy statement, the denomination holds that the “rejection of unborn children violates the love by which God creates and nurtures human life.” The statement recognizes that “society contributes to unwanted pregnancies in many ways and gives too little care to those who must bear the consequences,” adding, “We hold in love and will support those who choose to give birth to children … as well as those who believe conscientiously they must terminate pregnancy.”

The Episcopal Church: In its official statement, the church affirms that all human life “is sacred from its inception until death.” While acknowledging the legal right to abortion, it adds, “We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.” The statement encourages the consideration of alternatives to abortion, including adoption, while adding that abortion-related legislation “must take special care to see that individual conscience is respected.”



March Counters Gay Parade

Several thousand Christians gathered in the streets of Sydney for the “Cleansing March of Witness for Jesus,” held last October along a route taken eight months earlier by the Homosexual Mardi Gras Parade. According to organizer Fred Nile, national coordinator of the Australian Festival of Light Movement, the purpose of the event was to “intercede with God” to forgive the “blasphemy and obscenity” and to “cleanse the streets of Sydney from the moral pollution” of the Mardi Gras parade.

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According to the Christian Daily News, Christians from more than a dozen denominations marched, sang, and prayed under banners proclaiming “Jesus Is Lord.” Crowd estimates ranged from 4,000 to 10,000. In addition, several thousand homosexuals and their supporters lined part of the parade route to heckle the marchers.


Veils Prompt Debate

The right of Muslim girls to wear their veils in public schools has touched off intense debate in France. The issue spread rapidly after three girls were sent home from their suburban Paris school for wearing the chador, a scarf that covers the hair, ears, and neck.

Almost every French political and religious leader has spoken on the issue. School and union officials have argued against any signs of religion in education, which has been officially secular for most of this century. Jewish and Christian leaders have joined Muslims in supporting religious expression. Education Minister Lionel Jospin said if discussion with the parents and children concerned did not resolve the problem, the veils should be accepted.

With 2.5 million followers, Islam is the second-largest religion in France, following Roman Catholicism.


Missionaries Detained

Six American medical missionaries, a Briton, and a South African, held for one week by the government of Mozambique, were released without charges on October 30 amid allegations that Mozambican soldiers had forced them into the country from neighboring Malawi.

The Americans were all members of the Carlsbad, California-based Christian Emergency Relief Team (CERT). Military officials claimed the group was traveling with right-wing Renamo guerrillas, which have battled Mozambique’s socialist government for more than a decade.

Founded in 1974, CERT has conducted medical and relief work in Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and Latin America. Its founder, David Courson, has been criticized for the group’s alleged support of contra troops in Honduras and Nicaragua. A CERT spokesman said that while most members are politically conservative, its work is strictly humanitarian.


Temples and Mosque Burned

Methodist young people on the Pacific island of Fiji have been accused of setting fires that damaged three Hindu temples and a Muslim mosque in October. Officials of the World Methodist Council denounced the arson. Joseph Hale, general director of the council, said such actions were “out of character” with the multiracial character of Methodist schools in the country.

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The immigration of Muslims and Hindus primarily from India has brought cultural and religious tensions to the island nation of 750,000. The Methodist Church claims approximately 80 percent of all Fijians.


The ‘Restricted’ World

About two-thirds of the world’s population live in nations that restrict the church in some way, according to a recently published study by Issachar Frontier Missions Strategies, as reported by Pulse. Saudi Arabia leads the list of 54 “restricted-access nations,” ranked according to 15 criteria, which include a country’s accessibility to missionaries, freedom to publish Christian literature, and freedom of religious assembly.

Some missions experts disagree with some entries on the list. Notably, India and Indonesia are included, despite the fact that these countries allow some missionary activity. Without those populous nations, closed countries include some 44 percent of the world’s population. Issachar experts said they expect the list to grow during the next 10 years to include as many as 85 percent of the population.


Briefly Noted

Expelled: Southern Baptist missionary Roger Hesch, from Uganda, after officials said he had entered a military base without authorization. Hesch, who has worked in Uganda three years, said he gave a Ugandan soldier a ride to his barracks. He was detained the next day and held for one week. Embassy and mission officials are appealing.

Delayed: Plans by Jewish activists to lay a temple cornerstone on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. More than 100 Arab students rioted near the site. Many leading rabbis expressed shock at the plans.

Printed: The one-millionth Chinese Bible by Amity Press in Nanjing, China. Printing was not interrupted by the Communist party crackdown earlier this year, said Peter MacInnis, manager of Amity Press.

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