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When Right-Wing Christians Stopped Thinking of Women as People

You'd be surprised at Christian denominations' positions on abortion in the 1970s.
 
 
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Photo illustration shows pro-life (R) and pro-choice demonstrators in Washington, DC.

 

In the autumn of 1978 the Washington Association of Churches and the Washington State Catholic Conference jointly published a  six-page pamphlet they called “Abortion: An Ecumenical Study Document.” Their work offers a fascinating snapshot of Christian thinking at the time and raises some equally fascinating questions about what, exactly, has happened in the last 35 years.

The pamphlet does not contain a position statement. Quite the opposite, in fact. From the beginning, the authors explain that such an agreement is impossible: "Clearly there is no Christian position on abortion, for here real values conflict with each other, and Christian persons who seek honestly to be open to God’s call still find themselves disagreeing profoundly."

At the time, five years had passed since the Rove v. Wade decision, and the Church, broadly, was wrestling with ethical and spiritual complexities the decision brought to the surface. WAC, which existed “to express and strengthen the unity Christians have in Jesus Christ” had asked member denominations to create a study group because strong feelings on the question of abortion were threating that mission. In the absence of an agreement, the study group articulated a set of shared values and then assembled statements on abortion from member denominations.

Some of the contents would come as little surprise to anyone aware of today’s struggles over abortion ethics and rights. For example, the Catholic Church pronounced that even when pregnancy threatens a mother’s life, abortion “increases the overall tragedy.” Catholicism  has wavered over the centuries about when a fetus becomes a person with a soul, but the hierarchy has been consistent in its opposition to abortion after ensoulment, which is now proclaimed to happen at conception. Furthermore, the Catholic hierarchy has long sought to enforce its ethical judgments via civic and criminal codes, and 1978 was no exception: “A legal context in which abortion is presented as a legitimate way of resolving tragic situations creates an atmosphere that reduces respect for the value of life. Ultimately, such an atmosphere dehumanizes the lives of all who live in it.”

What might be surprising is how little the other denominations represented in the 1978 study group agreed with them. Consider the following statements:

Because Christ calls us to affirm the freedom of persons and the sanctity of life, we recognize that abortion should be a matter of personal decision. -- American Baptist Churches

The ALC recognizes the freedom and responsibility of individuals to make their own choices in light of the best information available to them and their understanding of God’s will for their lives, whether those choices be in regard to family planning or any other life situations. -- American Lutheran Church

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) believes that the mother has an overwhelming stake in her own pregnancy, and to be forced to give birth to a child against her will is a peculiarly personal violation of her freedom . . . . The fetus is seen as a potential person, but not fully a person in the same developed sense in which the mother is a person with an ability to think, to feel, to make decisions, and choices concerning her own life. . . . That prior right however, carries with it a tremendous responsibility, for human life, even potential human life is valued. -- Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Abortion should be accepted as an option only where all other possible alternatives will lead to greater destruction of human life and spirit. . . . We support persons who, after prayer and counseling, believe abortion is the least destructive alternative available to them, that they may make their decision openly, honestly, without the suffering imposed by an uncompromising community. -- Church of the Brethren

 
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