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Abortion, Culture, and the Church: Moving from Questions of Viability to Concerns for Vulnerability

[Note: This post follows on the previous post offering primary sources mentioning abortion in antiquity.  It is an edited version of a post that I posted in January this year.]


The following essay offers three things: an analysis of modernity, postmodernity, and post-postmodernity (tribalism) on the issue of abortion; some mainline denominations’ views on abortion (over against the orthodox, early Church’s opposition to abortion—see previous post); and an alternative, Christian perspective of care based not on viability but vulnerability.

Western Culture and the Arguments for Abortion

Unlike postmodern theology, liberal theology was at least able to hold convictions.  Its difference from orthodoxy was in an approval of authorities other than Scripture and Christian tradition.  Reason and experience were accepted as equal to or even more significant authorities than what guided the Church prior to the Enlightenment.  Postmodernity, on the other hand, is uncomfortable with commitment to any conviction—except harbouring an incredulity towards meatanarratives (Francois Lyotard’s famous description of the postmodern condition).  Thus, dialogue, the affirmation of people’s choices whatever they may be, and the cardinal virtue of unity over any orthodoxy govern positions on socially contentious issues.

Forty-four years ago in the USA, the infamous Supreme Court Case of Roe v. Wade (1973) expressed a typically modernist uncertainty about the ‘science’ of when life begins.  The standard of certainty, employing a rigourous doubt, allows very little past the test. In light of this supposed uncertainty (or was it ignorance?), abortion was permitted all the way up until birth—the moment of so-called ‘viability’ of the child (when a child could live on its own).

Over this period, western culture has moved from a liberal, modernist theology of the Enlightenment that championed science as an authority to a postmodern condition.  Mainline denominations that began their support of abortion on liberal grounds continued their support as postmodern denominations concerned not to hold absolute convictions and eager to be ‘pastorally’ supportive of whatever a woman chooses (freedom was the cardinal virtue in modernity) about a problem pregnancy.  Science, however, has not proved to be a reliable friend to proponents of abortion.  It has pushed the point of viability earlier and earlier.  Moreover, science is incapable of making declarations about what constitutes ‘humanity,’ only whether something is living or not.  Thus, ‘human life’ must be determined on more than scientific grounds—grounds that only religious beliefs can define.

Even so, the dominant discipline in the university as postmodernity took hold of western culture was no longer science.  With the postmodern condition, the university took a literary turn.  If truth was now to be discussed in terms of interpretations of narratives, no single view could hold sway.  This change of guard led to championing new virtues, such as tolerance, unity, and listening to diversity rather than winning an argument.  This literary turn, however, was only a process in a move to another cultural position as western culture edged away from science-dominated modernity.  Western culture was on a journey from the objectivity of the sciences, through the subjectivity of the literature department, to the soft or social sciences, sociology in particular.  The new, cardinal virtues were not, in the end, tolerance and diversity but safety from others and preference for the marginal.  Enter the age of a violent domination and tribalism of the politically correct group that prefers action to argument, censorship to liberty, and protection to justice.

Thus, what we witness now in arguments by abortion proponents is tribal language.  The killing of children is all about ‘woman’s health’—not so much personal choice, as in the modernist and postmodernist ‘70’s, but protection of the group—the self-defined group of ‘woman’ that, of course, does not represent all woman but only the group that wants legal abortion.  To be sure, these clear shifts in the culture have not always been clearly defined in people’s minds.  The language of women’s rights in a more modernist era favouring ‘freedom’ as a virtue can still be employed even as the postmodern era interpreted this as tolerance of one group’s views alongside another’s and now a post-postmodernist, tribal era interprets the same language in terms of the empowerment of women.

Some Mainline Views on Abortion

Mainline denominations in the west used to represent Christian orthodoxy.  In the 1900’s, however, and particularly since the 1960’s, they came to be represent the culture.  Their theological centre shifted from Scripture and Church tradition to wherever the winds of culture drove them. They have dutifully mirrored the larger culture, whatever the ethical topic, while encasing it in some religious jargon.  Regarding abortion, they have stood mystified in the face of science as to when life begins, withholding moral judgement because they could not say with scientific certainty when life begins.  As the culture shifted to its postmodern condition, they affirmed the value of ‘unity in diversity’ rather than hold to specific convictions at all.  They have held to the maxim, ‘unity trumps orthodoxy.’  And yet, as the culture moves on to its present post-postmodern tribalism, it champions whatever is perceived to be anti-patriarchal, feminist, and politically correct.  So, too, the mainline denominations.  Ever surprised that their enlightened embrace of culture does not lead to swelling numbers in their pews but rather to dwindling congregations, they nevertheless relentlessly dilute Christian faith with cultural mores.

Several American mainline denominations’ views on abortion are given in what follows.  None of them offer a Biblical ethic of caring for the vulnerable.  Instead, they evince a collection of accumulated arguments over the years.  They vacillate in the face of modernity’s scientific uncertainties (or perceived uncertainties) or postmodernity’s avoidance of convictions or tribalism’s militant protection of political correctness.  Every mainline denomination is losing membership year after year and has likely been losing members for even longer than America has legally permitted abortion (1973). 

Orthodox and Evangelical denominations oppose abortion and affirm care for the vulnerable on either end of life’s spectrum.  They are growing in numbers.  Why, indeed, would people join churches that say, ‘Go to science for your answers to ethical issues,’ or ‘We have no answers, just get along with each other even if you disagree’?  Why would a denomination survive if it simply mirrors the post-Christian culture, championing the ascendant tribe of its day?

The Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA)[1]

This summarizes current teaching (2016) but with reference to the 217th General Assembly (2006) and the denomination’s most comprehensive statement on abortion, the 204th General Assembly (1992).  The PCUSA affirms statements on abortion that allow abortion even though it qualifies this somewhat.  Its views simply reflect the postmodern culture’s uncertainties, value of unity in or despite diversity, and (endless) dialogue.

Open Discussion (from the 204th General Assembly (still affirmed)): ‘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 woman 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.’  Yet the site mentions the following views:

1.    For abortion: ‘Possible justifying circumstances would include medical indications of severe physical or mental deformity, conception as a result of rape or incest, or conditions under which the physical or mental health of either woman or child would be gravely threatened.’

2.    Against abortion: Abortions should not be ‘elected only as a convenience or ease embarrassment. We affirm that abortion should not be used as a method of birth control.  Abortion is not morally acceptable for gender selection only or solely to obtain fetal parts for transplantation.’  ‘Abortion ought to be an option of last resort.’
3.    Contributing Problems: ‘Poverty, unjust societal realities, sexism, racism, and inadequate supportive relationships may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely.’
Personal Choice: ‘Humans are empowered by the spirit prayerfully to make significant moral choices, including the choice to continue or end a pregnancy. Human choices should not be made in a moral vacuum, but must be based on Scripture, faith, and Christian ethics. For any choice, we are accountable to God; however, even when we err, God offers to forgive us.’

Authority and Guidance: ‘We derive our understanding of human life from Scripture and the Reformed Tradition in light of science, human experience, and reason guided by the Holy Spirit. Because we are made in the image of God, human beings are moral agents, endowed by the Creator with the capacity to make choices.’
The Episcopal Church (TEC)[2]

TEC supports abortion in a qualified way.  It has passed 16 resolutions since 1986-2000.

Open Discussion: Resolution 1991-CO21 of the 70th General Convention rejected a resolution to oppose the government’s action to limit a woman’s decision to abort.  The same convention (CO37) opposed legislation that would require parental notification or consent before a minor seeks an abortion.

Opposed: Resolution 1982-AO65 condemned abortion in specific instances: for sex selection or nonserious abnormalities.  While expressing concern over partial birth abortions, it could not even muster the theological fortitude to oppose this form of infanticide.  Resolution 1997-DO65 did not outright partial birth abortions but permitted them in ‘extreme situations.’

The United Methodist Church (UMC)[3]

The United Methodist Church affirms these two sentences in The Social Principles:
Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.
But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. (Book of Discipline ¶161.J)
These sentences opened the gate to diversity of views:

Against Abortion: Use of abortion for birth control, gender selection, or eugenics.  The UMC also states that it is ‘reluctant to affirm absolute perspectives either supporting or opposing abortion which do not account for the individual woman’s sacred worth and agency.’

For Abortion: ‘Tragic conflicts of life with life may justify abortion.  Allow partial birth abortion if woman’s life is in danger or when there are ‘severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.’

Contributing Problems: Need for education, counseling, help with financial, educational, relational, and other circumstances that lead a woman to think she has no other choice.  Adoption should be encouraged as an option in the case of an unwanted pregnancy.  Understanding of and ministry to those who have had an abortion is encouraged.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)[4]

The statement on abortion that still holds in the ELCA is from 1991.  (Note ‘Evangelical’ is used in the German, Lutheran sense, referring to the historical church of Lutheranism and having nothing to do with the Evangelical movement within Protestantism.)

Open Discussion: Unity requires open discussion over disagreements.  That said, ‘A developing life in the womb does not have an absolute right to be born, nor does a pregnant woman have an absolute right to terminate a pregnancy.’  The ELCA’s ‘pastoral care, compassionate outreach, and life-sustaining assistance are crucial in supporting those who bear children, as well as those who choose not to do so. Through these and other means the people of God seek to be truly supportive of life.’

Against Abortion: In most circumstances, the church encourages women with unintended pregnancies to continue the pregnancy while assessing the situation realistically and considering adoption as a positive option.

For Abortion: When considering ending a pregnancy, a woman or couple should consider factors such as unwilling participation in the sexual act leading to conception, threat to the life of the mother, 2 and severe fetal abnormalities. However, “This church opposes ending intrauterine life when a fetus is developed enough to live outside a uterus with the aid of reasonable and necessary technology”.  The statement calls for laws protecting access to abortion.

Contributing Problems: Abortion is a last resort: ‘as a church we seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies” (p.4). We “live out our support for life in all its dimensions” (p.4) through hospitality, keeping sexual intercourse in its proper setting and using contraception, action and education. By contrast, attitudes such as irresponsible sexual activity, individualism and materialism are life-degrading.’

American Baptist Churches[5]

The ABC affirms statements on abortion that allow abortion even though it qualifies this somewhat.  The denomination is clearly divided over this issue, just as it is over Christian faith in general.

Open Discussion: As a congregational ecclesiology, the ABC avoids giving directives but only guidance to churches.  ‘We acknowledge the diversity of deeply held convictions within our fellowship even as we seek to interpret the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.’

Personal Choice:

1. Against abortion‘As American Baptists we oppose abortion, as a means of avoiding responsibility for conception, as a primary means of birth control, without regard for the far-reaching consequences of the act. We denounce irresponsible sexual behavior and acts of violence that contribute to the large number of abortions each year.’

2. Contributing problems: a variety are listed in the document.  Examples are: helping women who give birth to children in difficult situations; use contraception, need for economic justice, social equality, and political empowerment; oppose media’s promotion of sex outside marriage, women, men, and children as sex objects.

Authority and Guidance:

1.     For abortion: ‘Many others believe that while abortion is a regrettable reality, it can be a morally acceptable action and they choose to act on the biblical principles of compassion and justice (John 8:1-11; Exodus 21:22-25; Matthew 7:1-5; James 2:2-13) and freedom of will (John 16:13; Roman 14:4-5, 10-13).’

2. Against abortion: ‘Many American Baptists believe that, biblically, human life begins at conception, that abortion is immoral and a destruction of a human being created in God's image (Job 31:15; Psalm 139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:44; Proverbs 31:8-9; Galatians 1:15).’

Not Viability but Vulnerability: A Christian Ethical Premise

A Biblical ethic on this issue is multi-faceted, even if no rules can be cited to do with aborting fetuses per se.  It is, of course, possible to arrive at the conviction in Old Testament ethics alone that abortion is the taking of human life.  Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century AD, in fact, records that this was the view of Jews in his day:

Against Apion 2:202 The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to kill it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by killing a living creature, and diminishing human kind; if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean.

Ethics is, of course, more than just rules, and one particular perspective from Scripture seems to need more attention than it has received. Scripture’s very omission of an explicit discussion of when life begins does not signal for Christians a license to make this decision ourselves but rather to desist from doing so.  We are instead to recognize that God gives life and are to care for the vulnerable whose viability is compromised at either end of life.  Our ethic does not begin with a search for ‘viability’ but a concern over ‘vulnerability’.  We are to care for those whose lives are vulnerable: the widows, orphans, aliens, elderly, sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, prisoners, children, and, by the same token, the most vulnerable of all—the unborn.  Indeed, concern for the vulnerable places a premium on life at its least viable stages, and to honour such life is to honour God.


After years of pressing for and funding abortion, the United States government is getting out of the business of funding the killing of the most vulnerable in society.  The number of abortions have, over the years, tapered a little.  The old, mainline denominations no longer represent historic Christianity but, following western, post-Christian culture accept the practice of abortion, however qualified.  Planned Parenthood, aggressively pursuing abortion under the euphemism of 'women's health' has utterly disgraced itself even among some of its supporters.  Yet this is a tenuous time in the culture at large.  Christian churches have an opportunity to present a truly Christian ethic at this time, not only of opposing abortion—awful as such killing of innocent life is—but also showing its concern to aid the vulnerable in general.  Christian ethics is not interested in determining whether a life is viable but in identifying and protecting the vulnerable.  As James puts it, Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world’ (James 1.27, NRSV).  God is on the side of the vulnerable, whose lives are at risk from those who have power, authority, and means to take them.