Guidelines on Abortion (General Conference Mennonite Church, 1980)
Guidelines on Abortion (GCMC, 1980)
Abortion is one of the most important moral issues of our time. Historically we, the members of the General Conference Mennonite Church, have affirmed the sanctity of human life. We continue to make that affirmation and are agreed in our concern about the large number of abortions in North America. In spite of this basic agreement, we acknowledge that the members of our churches reflect a variety of moral perspectives that are informed by different ethical and theological norms, as well as by different understandings of the facts about abortion.1
1. The Status of the Fetus
We believe that the Bible regards fertility as a sign of God's blessing, as God's gift of life which is to be honored with reverence and respect. This mood is reflected by the Psalmist: "Thou it was who didst fashion my inward parts; thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb. I will praise thee, for thou dost fill me with awe; wonderful thou art, and wonderful thy works" (Psalms 139:13, 14, New English Bible).
We acknowledge that the Bible does not speak directly to the issue of abortion. A biblical passage which speaks to the status of the fetus indirectly (Exodus 21:22-25) seems to place a higher value on the life of the mother than the fetus. For the death of the fetus the husband is to be compensated with money, but where the wife suffers hurt or death, there shall be "life for life, eye for eye."2 Therefore the Bible places a high value on the life of the fetus, though it does not necessarily support its absolute defense.
We affirm that the Bible reflects special concern for the poor, the weak, the helpless, the widow, and the orphan. Though the Bible does not explicitly say so, in our day concern for the "defenseless" would probably extend to the fetus.
We acknowledge that it is difficult to settle the issue of the status of the fetus: the status of the fetus cannot be settled by biology, since biological life is a continuum from the time before conception until death.3 Though there is a new genetic identity at conception, there are no scientific grounds for determining when in the biological process human life begins. The decision about the status of fetal life is therefore a moral or theological judgment.4
2. Abortion as Birth Control
We cannot and do not support the use of abortion as a means of birth control. In the light of the value placed on fetal life by the Christian faith, we have grave concern about the ever-increasing number of abortions being performed in our society. We believe that where children are not wanted, proper contraceptives should be used to prevent pregnancy. We believe that many abortions could be prevented if persons would take responsibility for sexual behavior.
We therefore commit ourselves to provide Christian education in the meaning and responsible expression of human sexuality for both young and old, to encourage genetic counseling where genetic diseases are possible, and to foster understanding of various means by which pregnancy can be prevented when it is not desired. We commit ourselves to teaching and upholding sexual chastity before marriage and faithfulness in marriage.
3. Justifiable Abortion
The majority of us believes that most abortions cannot be justified on moral grounds, although we are unwilling to say that abortion is never justified. We do not agree what circumstances justify abortion: most believe that an abortion is justified where the mother's life is at stake; many support an abortion if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or if there is a high probability of severe genetic disease; some support abortion for a variety of personal and social reasons. Some of us, however, believe that abortion is never justified.
We urge fellow believers to continue to search for God's guidance, in a spirit of love, even though there is not yet complete agreement.
4. The Communal Nature of Abortion Decisions
We believe that the New Testament pictures the church as a community (koinonia) which seeks to discern the will of God and take responsibility as a group for decisions. Though the individual woman or couple must finally decide whether to get an abortion, we believe the larger community should also be available in making the decision.
Therefore, we urge that Christians engage in this discerning process rather than making isolated individual decisions, recognizing that such a process will often involve only a small group within a congregation. We believe that a harsh legalistic position that is put forth by the group without loving concern for the individual is often hurtful to persons facing abortion decisions. At the same time we believe the church must have standards that it upholds for its members.
We believe that the community should be willing to support a woman or couple in their decision, sharing responsibility for that decision. This would include sharing in the responsibility for the care of that person or family if a continued pregnancy leads to the birth of a child that brings hardship on a family or single individual.
Because we have a message about the all-inclusive love and compassion of God to share, and we wish to make everyone, regardless of sex, ethnicity, age, or income feel welcome in our fellowship, and in order to help eliminate the need for abortion, we also commit ourselves to advocate increased welfare payments, adequate and affordable medical care for all, sufficient day care; and to provide other personal and communal support for those one- and two-parent families who feel overwhelmed by the pressure of caring for their children. We make this commitment because we affirm that we are all part of the family of God and, therefore, creating and maintaining a high quality of life for all is our responsibility as Christians.
We commit ourselves to show concern for the individuals who decide to relinquish their children, as well as to seek to prevent the suffering, often a living death, of unwanted children by providing adoptive homes and other support systems.
We therefore urge pastors and churches to foster a climate of openness so that these decisions can be worked out prayerfully in the context of Christian community.
5. Morality and Legality5
We believe that the demands of discipleship are to be accepted voluntarily, not imposed legally upon everyone regardless of conviction. The New Testament church, as well as the church the three centuries before Constantine, was interested in working out what is morally responsible behavior for Christians. The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century rediscovered the importance of identifying a Christian moral stance that was distinguishable from the behavior of society as a whole.
Therefore, though we stress the importance of respect for the life of the fetus and though most of us can support abortion only under the most exceptional of circumstances, we do not believe that this position should be imposed upon the society in general. Because of the diversity of moral conviction in the civil community, we realize that what the law permits is not necessarily Christian moral behavior.
We believe, however, that the church should witness to society concerning the sanctity of the fetus.
We also believe that the church should be concerned that legislation not coerce people to act against their convictions and that it conform to standards of justice.6
6. Professionals and Abortion
We believe that doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel should have the right not to perform or participate in performing abortions when this is contrary to their convictions.
We recognize the validity of hospitals setting standards (that go beyond what the law permits or requires) within which they will or will not perform abortions.
We also recognize the importance of empathetic and understanding counselors in helping persons reach decisions that are best for them. The counselors, however, may at times have to respect individual decisions that conflict with their own convictions.
We confess that the church has often left the difficult task of dealing with persons facing abortion to the professionals in medicine, law, mental health, or social work.
We commit ourselves to support our professionals in dealing with moral dilemmas of abortion.
7. Sin and Forgiveness
We acknowledge that there are situations in which Christians get abortions for what other Christians regard as sinful. Persons do sometimes engage in illicit sexual relations, without taking responsibility for contraception, and then use abortion as a birth control device. Persons sometimes choose abortion for relatively selfish personal motives such as economic well-being or personal convenience.
We also believe that there is a place for repentance and forgiveness for sin. The Bible reflects an attitude of compassion toward the sinner. Jesus' harshest words were directed against the self-righteous. He warned against judging others. He spent much time with outcasts and sinners and told those who had caught the woman in an act of adultery, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7, RSV).
Therefore, we believe that persons who get abortions for reasons regarded by others in the Christian community as wrong should be treated with love, so that Jesus' word of redemption may become operative, ". . . go, and do not sin again" (John 8:11, RSV).
We, the delegates of the General Conference Mennonite Church, gathered at Estes Park, Colorado, July 12-19,1980, recognize that a difficult moral issue like abortion requires continued study and discussion. We therefore commit ourselves to continued search for God's will in this matter. We are, however, sure that God's love in Jesus Christ binds us together in this search: "Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God's knowledge of me. In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love" (1 Corinthians 13:12, 13, NEB).
1In order to determine what General Conference Mennonites believe about abortion, data for the "Guidelines on Abortion" were gathered from a number of sources: 96 responses to questionnaires, 25 of which were mailed to each U.S. district and 50 to Canada (see questionnaire and summary of responses to it in the Abortion Packet, pp. 43-50); interviews conducted with a number of persons in the General Conference Mennonite Church; 62 responses from churches and church groups who had studied the Abortion Packet; statistics on abortion cited by J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder in Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1975), p. 181. (Return to text)
2Although this has historically been the interpretation of the text, some people interpret it to mean that there is a live birth. They therefore believe the text does not support making a distinction between the status of the fetus and the mother. (Return to text)
3Biological facts in themselves (such as conception, existence of brain waves, viability outside the mother, etc.) do not determine what value we give to the fetus. (Return to text)
4We acknowledge the high value of fetal life in God's eyes, but we are unwilling to attach to fetal life the same value we attach to fully developed human beings. Clearly the fetus is not just a "piece of tissue" to be discarded at will. On the other hand, neither is the fetus treated as a "person" in the full sense of that term, since particularly in its earliest states it still lacks the capacity to exist independently of the mother and interact socially with other human beings. Usually names are not given to miscarried fetuses or funerals held for them. From the responses from congregations it is clear that most people, when there is a case of life against life (mother versus fetus), place a higher value on the life of the mother than on the fetus. However, some suggest that the life of the mother should not necessarily always take priority over the life of the fetus. In war and capital punishment, as distinguished from abortion, it is clear that there is intentional killing of fully developed human beings. (Return to text)
5Laws are sometimes described as either restrictive, moderate, or permissive. Some people argue that there should be no laws. For an extensive discussion of different kinds of laws worldwide see "Establishing a Legal Policy" in Abortion: Law, Choice & Morality by Daniel Callahan (pp. 123-283). (Return to text)
6For example, in the days of more restrictive laws the more affluent paid a doctor or traveled to a place where a safe abortion was obtained, whereas the poor used the services of criminal abortionists, often under unsafe and unsanitary conditions. (Return to text)
Context of the Resolution
In 1977 at the General Conference Mennonite Church delegate convention in Bluffton, Ohio, a resolution called for study by congregations on "the moral issues of abortion, and practical ways in which the church and minister to persons facing unwanted pregnancy..." A congregational study packet was developed that included reflective articles by Bethel College Professor Duane Friesen, a statement on abortion by a Mennonite hospital, a review of the legalization of abortion in the U.S. in 1973, a review of abortion law in Canada, and some case studies for discussion.
Prior to the General Conference Mennonite Church delegate convention in 1980 a draft resolution was published prior to the Convention, held at Ester Park, Colorado.
Delegate discussion was spirited. Many amendments were submitted, including one that declared "abortion is contrary to the will of God since God created human life in His own image..." The amendment failed, and the original document, with relatively minor amendments was approved by a vote of 1116 in favor and 623 opposed.
Resolutions approved at General Conference delegate sessions are not binding on district conference or local congregations.
"Abortion, homosexuality statements ready for Estes Park," The Mennonite 95 (June 10, 1980): 382-383.
"Estes Park 1980," The Mennonite 95 (August 5, 1980): 454-458.
Minutes 1980: General Conference Mennonite Church, forty-second session, July 12-19, 1980. Newton, Kan. : General Conference Mennonite Church: 4-5, 10-12.
Packet of materials circulated to General Conference Mennonite congregations in 1979.