Abortion (Mennonite Church, 1975)
Abortion (Mennonite Church, 1975)
A summary statement accepted by Mennonite General Assembly
August 5-10, 1975, Eureka, Illinois
The Assembly 75 Statement
Because we believe the Bible teaches that persons are created in God's image, that human life is a gift from God to be held in high esteem, and that God's interest in individuals begins before their birth with His desire that they develop into knowledge of and faith in Him:
We believe that--
1. Abortion violates the biblical principles of the sanctity and value of human life.
2. In the light of the spiritual and ethical erosion in our society we need to accept our responsibility to recognize and protect the sanctity of human life.
3. While we do not legislate morality for society we should work toward making counsel concerning alternatives available to each person who seeks an abortion.
4. In those rare situations when very difficult decisions must be made about the life of the mother or unborn child, Christians should prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit with a group of believers committed to discerning the Lord's leading.
5. The Scriptures teach us not to look with punitive judgment on those who differ but to be sensitive toward their situation and surround them with care and compassion.
Supplementary Study Material
The statement above was accepted by the Mennonite General Assembly after extensive study by the Council on Faith, Life, and Strategy. The following material prepared by the council in the process of its study may be useful in providing background for the statement, and as additional study material.
The question of abortion is avoided by many even though it is universal, involving the secular society, challenging Christian values, and producing uncertainty for both.
Where once it was a topic relegated to silence, it is now the subject of all media. The Supreme Court's January 22, 1973, decision that no state may interfere with a woman's right to obtain an abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy has invalidated all existing state laws that do not conform.
Who Shall Decide?
Individualism has not bypassed the Mennonite brotherhood. The temptation is for every man to do what seems right in his own eyes. For instance, a Mennonite medical doctor may be tempted to make decisions only on medical consideration and neglect to consider ethical and social aspects. But that is not the nature of a true brotherhood. It is in thinking together with all of the information available and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit that light on the subject will bring direction to individuals for responsible decision-making.
Every congregation has resources within itself to bring to a discussion of abortion. There are persons who have studied seriously the teaching of the Bible. In addition, there are persons who have the experience of being parents, doctors, lawyers, pastors, nurses, social workers.
A starter for groups desiring to work on the question could be a panel of persons giving input to a local congregation or to a group of congregations in an area. Following the panel, small groups or Sunday school classes could continue the discussion.
There are books as well as magazine articles on abortion. Some of them are listed in the suggestions for further study.
The following is a gathering of data from current reading* and from persons in the theological, medical, and legal fields. It is given for whatever help it may be for group discussion, as are the case histories and the suggestions for further study.
The Word from the Bible
The Bible does not speak directly to the question of abortion; there is only one direct passage in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:22). Secular history writers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Hippocrates note that abortion was performed at the time of early Bible history. Because the Hebrew nation was small, large families were desired; so it is reasonable to believe that abortion was not practiced among them.
The Bible does teach that human life is a gift of God and of immeasurable worth in His sight: Created in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 2:7-9; Genesis 9:6; Psalm 8; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Luke 3:38; 1 Corinthians 11:7), born to live forever (Matthew 10:28; John 5:28, 29; 1 Corinthians 15:53, 54), protected by God's commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." The teaching is also that man shall act in the best interests of his neighbor (Matthew 5:44; 22:39; John 15:17; Romans 12:14-21; Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 10:24). The teaching of the Bible also leads to special concern for the defense of the defenseless, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, the stranger, the one who has no advocate.
The teaching and work of Christ concerning the worth of every life before God (Matthew 6), made in His image, sanctifies human life and makes impossible the taking of human life for any reason.
Twenty-five years ago pulmonary ailments, heart, and renal disorders, as well as other miscellaneous problems, were considered reason for abortion. Most of these are often considered dangerous for the health of the mother, and there are doctors who continue to perform abortions for such reasons.
Before the recent Supreme Court decision some states shifted from abortion if the life of the mother was endangered to if the health of the mother was endangered. Defined in the most sweeping possible way health was hardly distinguishable from "happiness" or even " wishes." The World Health Organization defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being." In fact, in no other realm are moral decisions reduced to calculation of happiness or the avoidance of threat.
There is a great deal of speculation about the emotional effects of abortion, but unfortunately, there is little information by way of concrete study.
Some favored liberalization of abortion laws so that abortion could be performed in the same manner as other medical procedures. They have felt that abortion is a medical question to be decided by the patient and the doctor. No one argues that induced abortion is not a medical procedure calling for trained persons. But to perform an abortion is not the same as deciding whether it should be performed. In both the physical and mental conditions, the moral view of the doctor and psychiatrist, conscious or not, will influence his judgment. The psychiatrist will either decide to recommend that his patient take the risk of completing a pregnancy or he may feet that the direction of counseling and therapy is too demanding. If he is competent, he will also take into account the specific moral views of the patient and of the cultural and religious community to which the patient belongs.
There were three kinds of laws concerning abortion -- restrictive, moderate, and permissive.
The restrictive laws made it impossible to get a legal abortion except in extreme circumstances. They led to a few legal abortions and many illegal abortions. Often unenforced, they made a travesty of the law. They tended to discriminate against the poor who found it difficult to get a safe abortion cheaply.
The moderate laws made room for a variety of exceptions but were proven difficult to administer with equal justice. Under this law there were a large number of legal abortions and a continuingly high number of illegal abortions.
The permissive laws made it possible for a woman to obtain an abortion for almost any possible reason. They led to a large number of legal abortions, possibly fewer illegal abortions, and the lowest mortality rate due to abortions being performed under medically safe conditions.
A fourth position has been arrived at by the Supreme Court's decision which results in the removal of abortion laws and allows professional groups and the mother or individual doctors to make the decisions. Such a law works at none of the social causes of abortion; it gives freedom but no help with possible alternatives.
Moral and Ethical Questions
If it is human, the fetus has some rights to protection. These rights compete with the rights of others. They compete with those of the mother who may feel that the child threatens her health or freedom or the rights of the family who may feel it would be burdened economically and psychologically by another member. How does one weigh competing rights?
Medical authorities speak of the fetus becoming "viable" and eligible for birth. Some persons pose a test of "personhood." If such a test of personhood were imposed on the fetus, there is concern that it may be the first step toward screening the mentally handicapped or those for whom advancing age brings a decline of physical and mental energies for termination of life. Do you think that such a possibility is a real threat to all of us?
The Catholic Church has consistently said that life begins at conception. Others would put the beginning of life at some other point -- at the time of measurable brain waves, the time of fetal heartbeat, at time of viability (ability to live outside the uterus), time of birth (breath of life). The fetus at all stages is fully human. Since the fetus is always human, are human rights dependent on development?
Abortion is seen as a means of stabilizing world population which is seen as a good one even though the ability or inability to support projected population is still unresearched. With an increasing demand for the "good" things of life, who will set the standards for that life? Who will select those for whom there is room?
Many who favor liberalized abortion laws cite the discrepancy in services available. An informed woman with financial resources has always been able to get a "safe" abortion. The poor woman who is less informed has had to resort to illegal abortions, which are also costly and often injurious to her life and/or health. Is it Christian to work toward laws that discriminate?
Some say that the crucial question is, "Is the fetus human?" If the answer is "yes," then it is entitled to the basic right of life. If the answer is "no," then there are no conflicting rights and there is no ethical question involved. Is that too simple an answer to a hard question?
The Mennonite Church has emphasized loving of persons, not killing them. it has taken very seriously the command "Thou shalt not kill." Should the church give clearer light and speak with conviction on the dignity of life for the unborn as well as the born?
Even though the wish for each child is that he have a healthy body and a strong mind, the lack of them does not make him less a person in God's sight. In many cases the presence of a mongoloid has been very healing to a family. Should the possibility of deformity be a sufficient reason for abortion?
There has been demand from some women for the right "to do what she wishes with her own body," but the fetus is not her own body but a separate being. Would not such freedom serve to alienate them from claims that are human and from sensitivity to the rights of others?
Direction for the Church
It may be that the circumstances that have forced the church to think deeply about its stand on abortion will have served it well. The church might be led to see that indignant protests against abortion have integrity only when followed by concern for human life. It could well become a more compassionate body, no longer as judgmental of the unwed mother, as unaccepting of her child, nor as judgmental of the woman who chooses abortion. It could become ready to support financially and in other ways the families of handicapped children and large families. Instead of fighting liberalized abortion laws it might work harder toward a world in which the ills of a materialistic dehumanizing society would be cured by divine love and acceptance. Its members might think more seriously about becoming adoptive or foster parents to care for battered and unwanted children. It could provide more teaching, counseling, and other services regarding attitudes toward abortion, family planning, and sex. It could work toward forming groups made up of pastors, physicians, and lay persons to be available to help in the making of moral decisions concerning abortion.
- Special recognition for help from the books Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality, by Daniel Callahan, and The Morality of Abortion, edited by John T. Noonan, Jr. Return
For Further Study
Life and values, edited by Edwin and Helen Alderfer (Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, Pa., 1974, 124 pp.); Abortion, the agonizing decision, David R. Mace, (Abingdon, 1972, 144 pp.); Abortion: law, choice and morality, Daniel Callahan (The Macmillan Company, 1970); Abortion: the personal dilemma, R. F. R. Gardner (Eerdmans, 1972); The morality of abortion, legal and historical perspectives, edited by John T. Noonan, Jr. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1970); The terrible choice: the abortion dilemma (Bantam Books, 1968); Who shall live? Man's control over birth and death, prepared for the American Friends Service Committee (Hill and Wang, New York, 1970); Dilemmas in faith and the scientific manipulation of life and death, Council for Health and Welfare Services (United Church of Christ), 1505 Race Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102, Code No. HM-HW-368-IOM; Birth control and the Christian, Christian and Medical Society (Tyndale House, 111. 1969); Moral issues in the control of birth, Duane Friesen (Faith and Life Press, Newton, Kan., 1974); President's Commission Report: "Population and the American future," Chap. 11, pp. 172-177 (Signet, N.Y., 1972)
Luke Birky, "When is life," Gospel herald, January 30, 1968; Paul Erb, "What about easier abortion laws?: book review," Christian living, July 1972; Marlene Y. Kropf, "How I decided about abortion," Christian living, November 1972; "In favor of life," Richard F. Keller, Gospel herald, September 2, 1975.
Context of the Statement The issue of abortion became the first "case study" for the Council on Faith, Life, and Strategy. This Council was created in the restructuring of the Mennonite Church in 1971. It was seen as something of a "think tank" for the church without program responsibilities.
Abortion became a significant issue for the church when a variety of court decisions in the United States, beginning with Colorado in 1967 and culminating the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in January 1973 that the government could not interfere with a woman's right to obtain an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. In Canada "therapeutic" abortions approved by a hospital committee were approved in 1969. In 1988 the Canadian Supreme Court removed this restriction on the grounds that delays in the decision-making process violated women's rights under the Charter of Rights. Prior to these court decisions abortion was illegal in both countries; a position that would have been affirmed by the Mennonite Church.
The Council on Faith, Life and Strategy issued a number of discussion papers beginning in 1973, and several church-wide conferences were held. Twelve members served on the committee during the drafting of this statement; two of them from Canada -- Anna Bowman (Scarborough, Ontario) and John W. Miller (Kitchener, Ontario). Miller was vice-chair of the Council.
Statements by the Mennonite Church General Assembly state the understanding of the Mennonite Church at the time of the action. Statements have informal authority and influence in the denomination; they have formal authority as confirmed or endorsed by area Mennonite Church area conferences and/or congregations.
Abortion: a summary statement adopted by Mennonite General Assembly, August 5-10, 1975. Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1976; Assembly 75 workbook. Lombard, Ill. : Mennonite Church General Assembly, 1975: 18-19.