Reflections on Adventists and abortion

How should Adventists relate to the abortion debate?

J. R. Spangler is editor emeritus of Ministry and field secretary for the It Is Written telecast.

In the United States, the debate over abortion is far from being dead. The impact of this debate reaches the highest circles of government, touching those under consideration for seats on the Supreme Court. Six months ago the president of the United States received a pro-life petition with nearly 3 million signatures. Pro-life and pro-abortion forces have their marches and rallies, their speeches and debates. The articles and books on the subject would fill a small library. Yet the staggering number of abortions performed every year on both married and unwed women continues, and is seen by many as an indication of the enormity of the problem.

Naturally, the debate in the secular and religious worlds has affected Adventist thinking. We don't live in a vacuum. We've been embarrassed by several demonstrations that focused on our hospitals. One demonstrator held up a placard that especially brought the issue home to our seventh-day Sabbath-keeping church. It read "Adventists—Remember the sixth commandment, too."

During a nine-month period in the early 1970s, our church produced two sets of guidelines on abortion for our hospital system (see box following editorials). These guidelines represent the church's closest approach to taking a position regarding this practice. But they do not relate to the individual member, and, since they were voted upon by the General Conference officers and not the General Conference Committee, they have only the force of recommendations.

Early Adventist thinking

George B. Gainer, a religion teacher at our Takoma Park, Maryland, high school, has produced a well-documented paper surveying the history of the position of our church on abortion. He gave me permission to excerpt from his document sections that reveal the thinking of some of our pioneer leaders on the subject.

Noting that the practice of abortion was widespread in nineteenth-century America,1 and that the first "right-to-life" movement here, the Physicians' Crusade Against Abortion, took place between 1850 and 1890,2 Gainer says, "The June 25, 1867, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald contained what apparently was the first statement on abortion to appear in Adventist literature. In an article titled 'Fashionable Murder,' the author, John Todd, praised the work of the Physicians' Crusade. He said that in the sight of God abortion is 'willful murder, ' and called the practice 'a direct war against human society . . . against the family order, against the health, the peace, the conscience, and the moral well-being of the mother, and against a child which could otherwise have an immortal existence.'3

"Two years later, in an article titled 'A Few Words Concerning a Great Sin,' the Review, calling abortion 'the murder of unborn infants,' said it was 'one of the most shocking, and yet one of the most prevalent sins of this generation,' and warned that 'God will not pass unnoticed the murder of such children.'4

"A Solemn Appeal, which James White edited in 1870, contains the next reference to abortion to appear in the Adventist press. That he excerpted the fol lowing statement from Dr. E. P. Miller's Exhausted Vitality gives an indication of where early Adventist leadership stood on this issue: 'Few are aware of the fearful extent to which this. . . worse than devilish practice is carried on in all classes of society! Many a woman determines that she will not become a mother, and subjects herself to the vilest treatment, committing the basest crime to carry out her purpose. And many a man, who has "as many children as he can support," in stead of restraining his passions, aids in the destruction of the babes he has begotten. "'The sin lies at the door of both parents in equal measure.'5

"Where did those composing the 'right arm' of the church, the medical work, stand on the abortion question? In his book Man, the Masterpiece, published in 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg wrote: The idea held by many that the destruction of foetal life is not a crime until after "quickening" has occurred is a gross and mischievous error. No change occurs in the developing human being at this period. The so-called period of "quickening" is simply the period at which the movements of the little one become sufficiently active and vigorous to attract the attention of the mother. . . . From the very moment of conception, those processes have been in operation which result in the production of a fully developed human being from a mere jelly drop, a minute cell. As soon as this development begins, a new human being has come into existence. . . . From this moment, it acquires the right to life, a right so sacred that in every land to violate it is to incur the penalty of death. How many murderers and murderesses have gone unpunished!' "6

According to Robert Olson, secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate, although Ellen G. White, the most influential pioneer of our church, never used the word abortion, she appears to have used the term murder in connection with the death of fetuses. After noting that the hoop dresses worn in the mid-nineteenth century had originated in a brothel in Paris, she stated, "Never was such iniquity practiced as since this hoop invention; never were there so many murders of infants."7

While the exact meaning of her statement is not clear, it appears that the phrase "so many murders of infants" may well refer to abortions.

Adventist Health System survey

To see where things stand today, Ministry informally surveyed 52 of our North American Division hospitals as to their abortion policies. Thirty-nine responded; and we feel their responses give a fairly accurate picture of the dilemma Adventists face.

The responses indicate a varied approach to the matter of performing abortions. No Seventh-day Adventist hospital admits doing elective abortions. One institution, with no official abortion pol icy, states they perform, on rare occasions, "social" abortions, whatever that means. Twenty-eight hospitals do therapeutic abortions. And six hospitals re ported doing very few or virtually no abortions in recent years.

As to official policies on abortion, about a dozen specifically mention the 1971 guidelines. Another dozen have their own policies, most of which favor the more conservative 1970 guidelines over the 1971 guidelines. A few of the institutions are in the process of developing an abortion policy.

Several administrators revealed a deep concern over the fact that the church really has no official policy. They pointed out that they are being pressured to declare publicly the Adventist stance. One administrator wrote: "Some pro-life activists, believing that abortion is a black and white issue, feel that the Adventist Church is pro-choice because it appears to have equivocated in its position. They refused to concede that the ethical considerations are quite complex and they fail to realize that it is difficult to generalize and say that in every instance abortion is the 'senseless murder of helpless human beings.' "

Another wrote: "One must keep in mind that hospitals in the Adventist Health System look to the leadership in the church to provide some guidance and direction in matters that, in the eyes of many, have theological implications."

And yet another hospital president wrote: "Actually, many of the Adventist Health System hospitals are awaiting the development of a position on the part of the church. However, we have not received anything yet."

Our survey highlighted two major points that need attention. First, these hospital leaders are sincerely doing their best to cope with the pressures. Second, many of them want the church to take the lead in developing carefully thought through guidelines that will help unify our health system in a critical area.

A statement made by the vice chair man of the ethics committee at one of our hospitals emphasizes the need of prioritizing our time and energy in dealing with the issues that face our church. He wrote: "It seems to me that the church should espouse some positions relative to the value of human life that could be some what universal throughout our system. Many of our Seventh-day Adventist and non-Adventist colleagues find it difficult to believe that we have rather firm positions regarding dancing, card playing, adornment, etc., but have taken no position on the abortion issue."

We believe that .the appeals from some of our hospital administrators and the concerns of many of our leaders and members over the abortion issue are calling the church to give careful study to this issue from theological and ethical viewpoints. From this study we could formulate a viable Adventist position on abortion, especially as it relates to policies governing our hospital system.

1. Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1984), p. 18.

2. Luker, pp. 14, 147.

3. John Todd, "Fashionable Murder," Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, June 25, 1867.

4. "A Few Words Concerning a Great Sin," Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, Nov. 30, 1869.

5. James White, ed., A Solemn Appeal (Battle Creek, Mich.-. Steam Press, 1870), p. 100.

6. J. H. Kellogg, Man, the Masterpiece (Battle Creek, Mich.: Modern Medicine Pub. Co., 1894), pp. 424, 425.

7. Ellen G. White letter 16a, 1861.

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J. R. Spangler is editor emeritus of Ministry and field secretary for the It Is Written telecast.

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