This social teaching statement was adopted by a more than two-thirds majority vote at the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Orlando, Florida, August 28-September 4, 1991.
There are few social issues that divide Christians as much as abortion. I still remember the group that came to my college campus with giant photos of aborted fetuses and verbally accosted passer-bys with a megaphone (the alumni were less than pleased with the aggressive tactics).
The Value of Life
The central premise of the social statement is that all life has equal value, in this case, especially, the lives of a mother and her unborn child. Whether we are talking about the life of the mother or the life of the child, the statement reminds readers that all come from the same place: a common concern for and commitment to life. Human beings are created in the image of God, and nothing we do changes that.
In the public discourse around abortion, there are often hard-and-fast stances taken by the different sides, setting up moral absolutes. The statement is wary of such claims:
Nor is it helpful to use the language of ‘rights’ in absolute ways that imply that no other significant moral claims intrude. 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.
While it sounds wishy-washy at first, I am impressed with how the statement is able to take a firm, easily understandable position that navigates the treacherous waters around it.
Support for All Life
While the social statement is titled “Abortion”, it is just as much about life in all forms as it is the life of a mother and unborn child. Abortion is just one part of a larger social problem with all of life–it can’t be considered all on its own.
Pregnancy requires a great deal of care and support. There are medical concerns, emotional issue, familial problems, financial concerns, and other cares that need to be addressed. Are we prepared to offer that support? In this country, not yet.
For those already living in poverty, an unintended pregnancy is a nightmare. With little in the way of financial or community support, giving birth to a child is nearly unimaginable. If the circumstances are bad enough, an abortion may seem to be the only answer. If we are to tackle the issue of abortion, then, we have to first call out the society and culture that refuses to take care of expecting mothers. The church calls for increased support at all levels for expecting mothers as well as better, comprehensive sex education and prevention, so that unintended pregnancies themselves are reduced.
What about after a child is born? Baby’s need care. New mothers need support, such as actual paid maternity leave. Children as they grow have medical, nutritional, and other needs that can be difficult to provide. They and their families need quality childcare, shelter, and education. The needs of a child are much more far-reaching than simply being born. It is our responsibility as communities of faith to ensure that our communities provide care and support as well as advocate for better, broader support beyond our communities.
Adoption deserves special mention. Though it carries less of a stigma than it used to, there is still this cloud of suspicion around adoption, both for those who choose to give up their children for it and those who take them in. Consequently, the church calls for better support for the adoption process as a viable, positive alternative to abortion.
With better comprehensive support for mothers and children, we can greatly reduce the number of people who consider abortion. But, there are still some circumstance in which abortion may not only be an option, but it may be the only option.
Ending a Life
There is no one-size-fits-all guideline for when an abortion is a morally responsible option. Each case must be weighed and considered on its own. As always, the two equal, greatest considerations are the life of the mother and the life of the child. The statement outlines three conditions in which an abortion could be a moral choice.
Case in which the life of the mother is clearly threatened. There are cases in which continuing a pregnancy would be fatal to the mother or both the mother and the child. I know someone who experienced this in their own family–it does happen. In these cases, there is no way to prevent the loss of life, and the church laments that in our broken world, such choices have to be made.
Cases in which sex was coerced. “Sexual assault” may be a better way to describe this, but the statement specifically mentions rape and incest. In these cases, in which the woman has been physically abused and traumatized, where “conceptions occur under dehumanizing conditions that are contrary to God’s purpose”, she is not morally obligated to continue the pregnancy as further traumatization.
Cases in which there are extreme fetal abnormalities. These cases are only those in which the baby is so badly developed and deformed that life outside of the womb will be extremely short and excrutiatingly painful. In these cases, the church asks, and implicitly answers the question, “Are there cases in which death is better than life?”
In all cases, the church opposes abortion when the child will be able to live outside of the womb with the assistance of “reasonable and necessary technology”, except in the third cases above. If the child can survive, then the community is obligated to provide all of the love, support, and care necessary to ensure that the child’s life reflects the value and dignity afforded to him or her as created in the image of God.
The first and primary choice should always be life. But we have a long way to go. Our community and societal support structures for pregnant families is pitiful. Maybe it’s because we believe that we are all capable of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and that caring for our neighbor is a sign of weakness, but how is it moral to let the fate of a child be determined by circumstances outside of their and their family’s control? This is why, when wrestling with the issue of abortion, the church comes out strongly in favor of better support of all kinds and at all levels for giving birth to and raising children. If we reduce the need for abortion, then we will reduce abortions, and at the same time, provide a better life for everyone.
Unfortunately, there are times when an abortion is a moral and ethical choice. The church is called to minister to families suffering the pain of a lost life, to nurture and uphold them, to support and care for them. We are all created in the image of God, with equal dignity and worth.