Abortion: Case Study of PC(USA)
Today's abortion issue in the U.S.A is very complex. It involves multiple parties such as legal bodies (government or states), religious groups, women (parents) and unborn children and doctors. In fact, this issue is not only about social justice but also about the issue of life and death. The Presbyterian Church (USA) began to express its concerns about this issue and advocate its position to influence public policy in 1970.
Looking back to the social context in the earlier time of abortion debates in this country, the watershed would be the early nineteen seventies when the Supreme Court's decision (1973) so-called Roe v. Wade ruled that "decisions about abortion are a matter of individual conscience and a constitutional right of privacy" (Williams 1990, 39).
Strikingly enough, as medical advancement has been accelerated, the abortion issue has been more controversial because it brought about new chances which might be used both positively and negatively for the women who considered abortions. Owing to this advancement of medical technology, abortion has been easier and safer than before, but at the same time, it has been misused as a means of birth control and of other uses of exploitation such as an easy to unwed teens' pregnancies or unwanted pregnancies. Among youths, abortion is often considered just as taking away a kind of tumor as it is not different from a usual medical treatment. Meanwhile, on the flip side of convenience issue of abortion, there have been other women who are so poor or powerless that they have had no access to that benefit.
As seen above, the issue contains the elements of consideration about religious faith, personal moral decisions, and social justice as well. The complexity of abortion involves society as a whole together with its complex environment. Thus this complexity requires us to answer many questions about human existence and life, God’s providence and God’s relation to creation and human beings, women's rights and the rights of unborn children, human's responsibility to and ability in creation, mission of church, the role of individual Christian and a community, biblical faith or principles to this issue, theological implications, and reflections, and the list goes on and on.
Considering the complexity of abortion and the wider scope of this issue, all the aspects of this issue on which the General Assemblies of PC (USA) have worked cannot be covered in this small paper, partly because of the limit of length and principally because of lack of my capacity to deal with them. In this research I mainly investigate the denomination's position in terms of theological background together with the reasons for the theological position behind. Also, my intention is to see how PC-USA has changed its position, if at all, over the last 25 years or so, together with its formational process in its public advocacy and in its guidance to the whole church.
1) General Review of Struggling History
In view of such big complexity in this issue, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) has struggled with abortion issue since 1972 when the General Assembly statement (184th) declared: "the artificial or induced termination of pregnancy is a matter of the careful ethical decision of the patient, . . . and therefore should not be restricted by law . . ." (Internet PC USA 1998). In this document from the 1972 minutes of General Assembly, "freedom of personal choice in problem pregnancies" was affirmed. Later on, the U.S Supreme Court, in 1973, ruled that the U.S Constitution allows women to have freedom of choice about abortion(Williams 1990, 39). The General Assembly's statement in 1972 clearly stated that abortion is not a matter for the courts but it is a matter personal ethical decision.
On the other hand, women have been oppressed by a patriarchal society in which some were victims of rape and incest, and of other reasons. But under that society, women had to endure their pain caused by unwanted pregnancies and other kinds of oppression. In other words, women's rights and freedom have not been honored. In this sense, this statement sought to strike a balance between women’s rights and the unborn life's. Though the denomination took a pro-choice stance, this stance was conditional as in the cases of problem pregnancies or health problems.
In 1983, the Advisory Council on Church and Society transmits to the 195th General Assembly the following two reports, "The Covenant of Life and the Caring Community" and "Covenant and Creation: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion." Here again, from 1972 statement of the General Assembly, these reports strongly present the conviction about human responsibility as "co-laborers with God" (Williams 1990, 87). Since creation is "not fixed, but on-going", we, humans, should be good "stewards" of God’s creation, "acting with prayerful concern for the value and quality of life as a gift of God" (Williams 1990, 87). As in God’s covenant relationship with the people of God, parents and children are also bound in this relationship. The theological support behind this statement is that God has given humans not only the responsibility of caring for creation but also the ability to share in it. God is concerned about for the quality and value of human life (Williams 1990, 87). In this thought, controlling unwanted pregnancies (problem pregnancies) is human responsibility and it is an act of caring for God’s creation. This conviction about stewardship validates the termination of unwanted pregnancies.
The reunited church (1983) approved the document mentioned above, and after that continued to be reaffirmed by consecutive General Assemblies (1985 & 1986) (Williams 1990, 139). The latest major statement on abortion by the Presbyterian General Assembly appeared in 1992. In this time, it seems that the statement lowered its strong voice with humbleness and openness to a wider spectrum of voices. This document recognizes:
There is both agreement and disagreement on the basic issue of abortion. The committee (on problem pregnancies and abortion) agreed that there are no biblical texts that speak expressly to the topic of abortion, but that taken in their totality the Holy Scriptures are filled with messages that advocate respect for the women and child before and after birth. Therefore the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) encourages an atmosphere of open debate and mutual respect for a variety of opinions concerning the issues related to problem pregnancies and abortion (Internet PC USA 1998).
This statement echoes its moderate position while emphasizing morally acceptable choice for women. In fact, in the face of pluralistic views on this issue, personal choice guided by the community of faith and the Holy Spirit is crucial to moral decision-making. It is noticeable that this statement recognized the multiple views on this issue because the General Assembly does not represent all the churches and members. However, General Assembly speaks for itself and asks members of churches to participate in the said issues. The formational process of ethical issues in PC (USA) is discussed in the fourth section.
Biblical, Theological Background and Reasons
Since there are no exactly-stated biblical texts which speak about abortion, biblical faith or principle had been sought out to apply it to this issue. It is not easy to pinpoint clearly a biblical or theological background, especially when more than last 25 years of involvement by the General Assemblies and their counter-partners is considered. But the strongest background comes from human’s positive role as God’s stewards and from freedom of personal choice as God’s gift. In other words, in God’s creation, humans are also co-workers with God in protecting, caring for, and improving the quality of life (Williams 1990, 91). In light of human’s role as co-workers with God, anthropology, as a corollary, is bright; humans are capable of making good moral decisions in the midst of conflicting values.
The reason why personal freedom is emphasized is that since this abortion issue varies depending on the contexts and that it is an issue of personal ethical matters, legal intervention is not welcomed in these situations. No matter how complex or difficult each case of abortion may be, the responsibility for the abortion decision lies with women who are ultimately accountable to God, and who ask God to give them wisdom and courage to deal with complex situations. Whatever decision would be among available options (rearing, adoption, abortion), God would give hope and empowerment to women. This is basic confirmation of Presbyterian’s mind and theology. In the midst of hard choices and of even seeming failures, God’s forgiveness and grace abound and are sufficient to overcome the times of grief (Williams 1990, 92). So, the key is the faith community’s guidance and support with the Holy Spirit to the women who are faced with making a serious decision.
Major Changes over the period of struggle
Beginning 1970, PC (USA) General Assembly began to express its concern about abortion. At the beginning, the mood was to release women from their agonies caused by problem pregnancies by affirming the importance of personal choice (freedom of women), and this position was later strengthened by the U.S Supreme Court’s decision (Roe v. Wade) (Williams 1990, 93). But later on, this line of thought became more refined theologically, reaching its peak in 1983, when the reunited church approved a document, "The Covenant of Life and the Caring Community and Covenant and Creation" (Williams 1990, 139). At this time, its overtone was so strong that women’s rights were too much emphasized at the expense of the unborn child. But, in the 1992 statement, as mentioned in the previous section, the mood was returning to a moderate position, recognizing various perspectives on this issue, while maintaining minimum rights of women to choose abortion. Also, the change is its attention to the use of language concerning abortion issue (negative or violent uses) and attention to the low-income, oppressed women. Furthermore, it recognizes the tension between pro-life and pro-choice. The recommendation to "open debate and mutual respect" shows its moderate position (Internet PC USA 1998). Also, it is significant to note that in this statement of 1992 abortion is considered as a last resort.
It is very important to know the process of the issue by which this issue was handled and how to make public advocacy. Since the PC (USA) takes its form of government as "Presbyterian", it has its own constitution. One of the benefits of being Presbyterian is to make good use of the whole system of this government stated in the Book of Order. "Shared power" and a balanced function is the core theme in the Presbyterian polity (Book of Order 1997, G-4.0300). There is a two-way communication at large in the PC (USA): Top-down and Bottom-up. The former includes the communications from General Assembly to congregations through Presbyteries and synods, and the other, vice versa.
The issue handling process is "multidirectional"; on the one hand, The Committee on Social Witness Policy of the General Assembly has a "responsibility to foster the prophetic voice of the church in society by developing studies and statements that address the social, economic, political and moral issues facing the nation and the world, and on the other hand, the General Assembly "addresses these concerns corporately through the development, adoption, and implementation of social witness policy" in order to guide and "advise the whole church regarding its public stance and response on current social issues" (Social Witness Policy pamphlet). Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s actions or statements approved by the General Assembly do not necessarily obligate its members, but they are guidelines and recommendations to them (PC-USA Why and How, v). And then, congregation or Presbytery can make overtures against the General Assembly’s statements issued.
As stated before, the Presbyterian polity is based on shared power and check and balance. Multidirectional and multilateral communication are basic tools to address concerns, to debate them and to discern God’s will in working together within a large community of faith. Over the last 25 years or so the Presbyterian Church (USA) has worked to better serve the mission of Christian Church. This still debatable issue of abortion has been handled in the multidirectional system. Because of this system and work, PC
The long history of struggle with this issue of abortion is exhaustive but helpful to be more conscious of the vulnerable existence of human beings and to be dependent on God’s grace and wisdom. The acknowledgment of the complexity of the issue as socio- economic, ethical, religious matters was the bottom line in the General Assembly’s advocacy; the cause of many abortion cases are varied. Recognizing women’s status of oppression, especially in the cases of the powerless and poor women, the situation is more serious than men’s expectation or society-held conviction as I read women’s personal stories about their painful experiences. So, the church at least should stand for the people of oppression and reaffirm personal integrity and freedom as persons standing before God, while resorting to wisdom and courage. In this sense, our denomination’s body, the General Assembly struck a balance between pro-life and pro-choice, leaving God’s realm or work in the midst of difficult situations. Also, the acknowledgment of the complexity of this issue and of humbleness is important because we have "neither the wisdom nor the authority to address or decide each situation" (Internet PC USA 1998). It should be noted that the General Assembly recognized pastoral care and moral guidance to related women who are standing on the brink. Pro-life groups usually pay attention to the unborn baby as the same human being, but not much attention is given to the women’s pain. As I understood in women’s stories, most women who had abortions suffered from double pain. One is the loss of potential life (unborn baby) and another is the loss of her being, a feeling of separation from society, sometimes from their own churches, being treated like criminals. They claim that this pain is greater than the loss of the fetus itself (Eggebroten 1994, 33). What then is the church’s mission? Reconciliation and peacemaking are important. One of the guiding principles of the General Assembly was reconciliation and peacemaking (Reconciliation between women and men, society and church, etc.).
In conclusion, I support the latest statement of the General Assembly (1992). The best way to deal with abortion is to work on removing causes of abortion (caused by unwanted pregnancies) in advance, by returning to Christian way of character formation in the faith community. Once abortion takes place or is considered as an option, each case is to be approached through the lens of love and suffering as our Lord ministered to the oppressed and the poor in this public ministry (Church and Society 1990, 83). Condemnation and judgment are the evil dangers which block us to be included in an inclusive community.
Eggebroten, Anne, ed. 1994. Abortion -My choice and God’s grace.
General Assembly. 1997. Book of Order, 97-98.
Internet PC (USA). 1998. Abortion. http://www.pcusa.org/pcusa/info/abortion.htm.
Presbyterian Church (USA). 1990. Jan/Feb. Church and Society. ed. Kathy Lancaster.
Presbyterian Church (
Presbyterian Church (
Williams, Alex W., compiler. 1990. Abortion: All materials related to Presbyterian