- The intensive debate over abortion is a relatively new phenomenon in Christian history. Nevertheless, it is a major divisive issue among Protestant churches around the world.Though rarely a major topic of concern, abortion has generally been opposed by Christians. The earliest statement is from the Didache, a popular second-century instructional manual, which states, "You shall not kill the fetus by abortion or destroy the infant already born." St. Augustine, an important church father in the eyes of early Protestants, considered the topic in the Enchiridion. As with the philosopher Aristotle, who preceded him, and the theologian Thomas Aquinas, who followed, Augustine believed that the fetus became fully human at some point during pregnancy (males attaining their humanity quicker than females). However, in the 16th century Pope Sixtus V (1521-90) declared abortion at any stage to be homicide. His decision was directly tied to the increased role of the Virgin Mary in Catholic devotion.Three years later Sixtus's successor Gregory XIV (1535-91) returned to the Thomist position, which was once more overturned by Pius IX (1792-1878) in 1869. Sidestepping the question of when a fetus attains full humanity, he noted that the unborn child was potentially human. Any abortion might thus be homicide, and he prohibited them all; that remains the current Catholic position.Protestants did not begin to deal with abortion definitively until the 19th century. Abortion was legal in the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. In the postwar years, however, the American Medical Association, as part of a general program to assume hegemony over issues of birth, began a campaign against abortion. Only a few churches responded, the AMA being a relatively controversial organization at the time.However, in 1869, the same year of Pius IX's statement, the Presbyterians issued a brief declaration against abortion, a unique pronouncement for the era.The modern American debate on abortion reflected the convergence of two trends - the development of medicine and the rise of the feminist movement. By the time of the AMA campaign, which by the 1880s had succeeded in making abortion illegal in most American states, doctors were quite aware of basic techniques for safe abortions. The campaign against abortion was thus not a medical issue but a political one. Early in the 20th century, advocates for women's rights supported birth control and ultimately abortion as part of their demand that women assume control of their own bodily functions.The new phase of the women's movement, popularly dated from the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan, placed the question of abortion on the public agenda. During the next decade, a move to decriminalize abortion culminated in the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which reversed most state laws against abortion. In the years since, women's rights advocates fought to maintain and extend the rights articulated by the Court in 1973. Leading the antiabortion fight were such groups as Operation Rescue, Concerned Women for America, and the National Right to Life Committee. Roe v. Wade established a context in which abortion counseling centers and abortion clinics could emerge, and they became the focus of demonstrations that on occasion turned violent.Through the early 1990s, verbal encounters often turned into physical assaults, bomb threats, and actual explosions. Some antiabortion activists even began to suggest that killing those who facilitated abortions was justified as they were murderers. Most famously, former Presbyterian minister Paul Hill (1954-2003), director of an antiabortion group, Defensive Action, killed a doctor and his escort. Hill was subsequently convicted and in 2003 executed.In the face of charges that it tacitly condoned such tactics, the main body of the antiabortion movement denounced violence; by the end of the 1990s, the number of incidents had radically (though not completely) decreased.Those who found abortion acceptable dubbed themselves prochoice. In their view, they were fighting traditional male controls over females. They said decisions about abortions should be made on a case-by-case basis by pregnant women and their physicians. They generally viewed the unborn fetus as not yet fully human and hence not enjoying the same rights as those of a baby following childbirth. They tended to stress individual rights over those of groups (especially the family). They deplored the high number of illegal abortions that occurred before 1973, the number of deaths attributed to such abortions, and the likelihood of their return should Roe v. Wade be reversed.Those favoring a ban on abortion called themselves prolife. They viewed the unborn as fully human and hence saw abortion as homicide. They have also tended to identify with traditional family structures. Protestant prolifers made common cause with Roman Catholics in this issue.Following the decision in Roe v. Wade, pro-choice advocates founded the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Its support has been drawn from the larger liberal Protestant churches such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 1987, the United Church of Christ adopted a resolution that spoke for many liberal Protestants, stating that the church "Encourages persons facing unplanned pregnancies to consider giving birth and parenting the child or releasing the child for adoption before considering abortion; [and] Upholds the right of men and women to have access to adequately funded family planning services, and to safe, legal abortions as one option among others."More conservative Protestant groups, allying themselves with the Roman Catholic Church and most Eastern Orthodox bodies, took up the pro-life cause. Typical of their stance is the 1984 statement of the Conservative Baptist Association (now CBAmerica): "WHEREAS, the most abused, defenseless, and un-cared-for segment of our society is composed of the unborn infants who are ripped from the womb by induced abortion; and WHEREAS, it has become socially acceptable for men to repudiate their paternal responsibilities by acquiescing to the destruction of their own unborn children . . . [we] urge that Conservative Baptists protest by every legitimate method this wanton attack upon human life."The great majority of Protestant individuals and churches find themselves on a spectrum between those two opposite positions. Many conservative Protestants leave a door open for abortions on some occasions, as when a pregnancy results from a rape or threatens the life of the mother. The Church of the Nazarene, for example, would allow abortions when based on "sound medical reasons" suggesting the life of the mother was in danger. Most Protestants, both conservative and liberal, oppose abortion as a rule but differ on the number and type of exceptions to that general rule.Further reading:■ Charles and Stacey Tipp Cozic, eds., Abortion: Opposing Viewpoints (San Diego, Calif.: Green-haven Press, 1991)■ Anne Eggebroten, ed., Abortion - My Choice, God's Grace: Christian Women Tell Their Stories (Pasadena, Calif.: New Paradigm Books, 1994)■ Richard L. Ganz, ed., Thou Shalt Not Kill: The Christian Case Against Abortion (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1978)■ J. Gordon Melton, The Churches Speak on Abortion (Detroit: Gale Research, 1989)■ Denyse O'Leary, The Issue Is Life: A Christian Response to Abortion in Canada (Burlington, Ontario: Welch Publishing, 1988)■ Robert N. Wennberg, Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1985).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.