Where Do the Churches Stand?

by Ernest L Ohlhoff
National Right to Life Director of Outreach
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The following is a review of some of the major denominations and their positions and activities on abortion and related issues. Some are based on official church documents and some are based on observable activities and statements of some church leaders.

It should be noted that prior to the 1960s virtually all religious denominations in America opposed the legalization of abortion and considered abortion except to save the life of the mother as a grievous sin.

While some denominations may have a strong position one way or the other on the abortion issue, individual pastors and regional church bodies may have an entirely different position. Some pastors and congregations in pro-abortion denominations are staunchly pro-life. Almost all denominations listed have independent, quasi-independent, or internal pro-life groups which work within their denominationís structure to develop or strengthen its pro-life position.

As a result of the dedicated work by denominational pro-life groups and growing pressure from grassroots congregations, virtually all denominations who still espouse a pro-abortion position are inching slowly toward a more "pro-life" position. This office is not aware of a single denomination that has moved toward the pro-abortion side in the last 15 years.

For the names and addresses for pro-life groups working within specific denominations, please write or call the Outreach Department at NRLC.

The Roman Catholic Church
has continuously and steadfastly opposed the legalization of abortion and has supported virtually all meaningful pro-life legislation and public policies. The bishops have testified before Congress on numerous occasions pleading for restoration of respect for all human life. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has prepared several pastoral letters clearly defining the Catholic Churchís pro-life position. Most dioceses have active respect life offices and parish pro-life committees.

Many dioceses are beginning to establish Project Rachel programs to assist women (and men) who are recovering from postabortion syndrome. And a large number of dioceses also maintain hotlines and provide services to help women with problem pregnancies.

The Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod (LCMS)
has passed a series of resolutions beginning in 1971 opposing abortion on demand and supporting the restoration of legal protection to the unborn child. It has urged all agencies of the LCMS to "continue to give testimony to its pro-life stance to all levels of government in the U.S." The LCMS has called for development of pro-life educational material for all age levels. The LCMS has vehemently opposed the so-called "Freedom of Choice Act" (FOCA) and strenuously supported the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (PBA Ban Act.)

The United Church of Christ (UCC)
has strongly supported the legalization of abortion since 1971. The UCC supported FOCA and strongly opposed the PBA ban to the point of joining the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARRAL) in a statement affirming President Clintonís veto of the PBA Ban Act in 1996. The UCC has also called for the church to support abortion in any national health care bill.

The Southern Baptist Convention
initially called for legislation in 1971 that would allow for the possibility of abortions under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe to fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother. In 1976, the convention changed its position to oppose abortions used as a means of birth control. In 1980, the convention strengthened its position by supporting legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother. In recent years the Southern Baptist Convention has taken an active leadership role in supporting pro-life legislation, including backing the PBA Ban Act and opposing FOCA and other pro-abortion measures. The convention has also developed a broad range of pro-life educational material for all levels, including a comprehensive pro-life Sunday school curricula and materials for Sanctity of Life Sunday in January.

American Baptist Churches
leaves abortion policy to local churches and individuals. A resolution adopted in 1988, updated in 1994 and accepted as current policy, "acknowledges diversity of ... convictions within our fellowship," making no distinction between those who believe that human life begins at conception (with the consequence that abortion is immoral), and those who believe it can be morally acceptable based on "compassion and justice." This relativism gives no protection to the unborn child, and little guidance to women and men who must live with the consequences of their choice.

Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
"has taken a very strong pro-life position, believing that the unborn child is a human being whom God is creating." The position paper of 1978, which is also accepted as the current position, expresses a clear understanding of the sanctity of human life. "Abortion is the intentional killing of an unborn child between conception and birth. ... Scripture leaves no doubt about the continuity of personhood that includes the unborn child, and therefore, under the Sixth Commandment, prohibits shedding innocent blood." At the 1996 General Assembly, PCA strongly condemned partial-birth abortions "as a murderous and horrifying practice and a grave offense against almighty God," and petitioned the President and Congress "to act in accord with this Biblical standard."

The Presbyterian Church (USA)
historically opposed abortion. As recently as 1965, it said, "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 the couple. ..." In 1970 the PCUSA issued a study report which regarded abortion as help for unwanted pregnancies and in 1972 language regarding "personal choice" and "responsible decision" regarding abortion began to appear in church documents.

In 1983, the PCUSA General Assembly adopted a policy which affirmed abortion as a "stewardship responsibility." PCUSA today actively supports the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC, formerly known as the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, or RCAR). In 1992, after restudying the issue, the General Assembly adopted a new policy which states that "there is a basis in our tradition not only for a womanís difficult choice for abortion, but also for the preservation of the lives of the unborn because they are human beings made in Godís image." In 1997, the PCUSA broke with other pro-abortion churches to become the first major mainline denomination to take a position expressing "grave moral concern" about partial-birth abortions.

The United Methodist Church
began in the early 1970s to view abortion as a "choice". The United Methodist position in favor of abortion has been so strong that two of its institutions helped organize and affiliate with the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. For many years RCAR used office space in the United Methodist Building which is located across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court. In both 1996 and 1997 the United Methodist Church publicly supported President Clintonís veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. While the 1996 United Methodist Churchís Book of Discipline still maintains a strong pro-abortion position, it now includes wording recognizing the "sanctity of unborn human life." It further states, "We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection."

The Episcopal Church
as late as 1958 held a strong pro-life position, stating, "Abortion and infanticide are to be condemned." In 1967, the 62nd General Convention of the Episcopal Church supported abortion law "reform," to permit the "termination of pregnancy" for reasons of life, rape, incest, fetal deformity, or physical or mental health of the mother. In 1982, the 66th General Convention condemned the use of abortion as a means of gender selection and non-serious abnormalities.

By 1988, the 69th General Convention had developed a position that stated, "All human life is sacred. Hence it is sacred from its inception until death." The statement goes on to call for church programs to assist women with problem pregnancies and to emphasize the seriousness of the abortion decision. In 1994, the 71st General Convention expressed "unequivocal opposition to any ... action ... that [would] abridge the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of her pregnancy, or that would limit the access of a woman to a safe means of acting upon her decision." In 1997, at the 72nd General Convention, the delegates approved a resolution that did not condemn partial-birth abortions but expressed grave concerns about the procedure, "except in extreme situtions."

The Evangelical Lutheran of Church in America (ELCA)
is a union of three smaller Lutheran denominations which merged in 1988. Each had different views on on abortion. In 1990, the ELCA adopted a statement that accepts abortion but only as a "last resort" in the most extreme circumstances. The statement goes on to say that it opposes abortion ist except in the cases of "clear threat to the life of the woman", "extreme fetal abnormality" incompatible with life, and in cases of rape and incest. Beyond these cases "this church neither supports nor opposes" other abortion-restricting legislation. At the ELCA's 1997 convention, a resolution to restrict ELCA funding of abortions to the three cases stated above was rejected 70%-30%. The ELCA funds elective abortions in the churchís health care coverage for pastors and professional church workers, and some Lutheran-affiliated hospital perform elective abortions.

Orthodox Churches
have consistently maintained strong opposition to legalization of abortion and support virtually all pro-life legislation. Various bishops and of priests have testified at hearings ty, and have attended pro-life conventions, rallies, and marches. The Orthodox Church in America made a public statement opposing President Clintonís veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

Independent Bible Churches and Evangelical Churches
have usually maintained a pro-life position based on biblical teaching. Since these churches are not part of formal associations or structures, they do not have denominational statements or resolutions on the abortion issue. But the great majority would support pro-life legislation and oppose continued abortion on demand.
For more information, contact:
NRLC Outreach Department
419 7th St, NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20004

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Posted 12 Sep 2000.

Copyright 1998 by National Right to Life
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