SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS AND THE ABORTION QUESTION:
WHERE SHOULD WE STAND?
Kevin D. Paulson
The abortion question has become one of the most bitter, contentious issues in the history of the American Republic. Even in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, hospitals and institutions have been harassed and picketed. Many wonder why our church doesn’t condemn abortion with the same severity as other conservative Christian denominations. Many also wonder why we refuse to join these same Christians in urging our government to ban this procedure as the taking of innocent human life.
To begin with, Seventh-day Adventists have a time-tested heritage of adhering strictly to the Bible in matters of faith and morality. Just because other Christians get excited about something doesn’t mean we should too. Historically, Adventists have been keenly aware of the influence of tradition in shaping the beliefs and practices of mainstream Christianity. We are not believers in “traditional values.” We hold instead to Biblical values. It was Christ who condemned the ancient Jews for “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. l5:9).
Some Adventists seem to be forgetting this. Many are forming opinions about abortion, not from the study of Scripture or the Spirit of Prophecy writings, but from listening to popular Christian leaders like James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, Franky Schaeffer, and Bill Gothard. Sincere though they may be, these men espouse many theological errors and have no understanding of God’s truth for this time. Seventh- day Adventists should listen to such persons with extreme care and discriminating judgment.
Abortion has existed in this world for thousands of years. It is not a modern issue. Moral and civic leaders in almost every society in history have taken one or another position on this question. In ancient Egypt abortion was condoned (1)–one papyrus even lists a formula for inducing it (2). Moses, who was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22), was no doubt aware of it. Yet the laws he gave to Israel under divine inspiration say nothing specific about it–despite a host of very specific injunctions about murder, manslaughter, and sexual behavior. The remaining books of the Old Testament are likewise silent on the subject, though Jewish rabbis in later years took varying positions on the issue among themselves and with others (3).
In the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament, abortion was commonplace (4), and at least one early Christian document commands, “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion” (5). But the New Testament writers, like the Old Testament, say nothing about the issue.
Among the Adventist pioneers, J.N. Andrews and John Harvey Kellogg wrote against abortion (6), yet the writings of Ellen White maintain the silence of Scripture on the subject. Contrary to popular myth, abortion was not universally illegal in this country prior to the l973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. In fact, there were no laws against abortion in the United States prior to the l820s, and for many years after that, most states permitted abortions during the first four months of pregnancy (7). Abortion didn’t come to be generally outlawed until the middle of the nineteenth century, and even then it remained commonplace. One researcher has estimated that there was one abortion for every six births in America during the second half of the nineteenth century (8). In the l920s, it is reported, as many as one in four pregnancies ended in an abortion (9).
Nor did Americans seem to have been terribly bothered by the widespread resort to this procedure in the last century. For example, between l849 and l858 in Massachusetts, of thirty-two accused abortionists brought to trial, not one was convicted; juries composed solely of men freed every one of the suspects (l0). The women of that day seemed even less inclined than men to condemn the practice. One anti-abortion doctor lamented in l896: “Many otherwise good and exemplary women, who would rather part with their right hands or let their tongues cleave to the roof of the mouth than to commit a crime, seem to believe that prior to quickening (the fourth month of pregnancy) it is no more harm to cause the evacuation of the contents of their wombs than it is that of their bladders or their bowels” (ll).
It is thus not true to the facts of history to claim that neither Scripture nor Ellen White had the need to explicitly condemn abortion because it was regarded with general abhorrence in the contemporary culture. Indeed the practice appears to have been very common, and in many cases uncondemned, throughout the history of human civilization.
It is most significant when the writings of Inspiration say nothing about an issue, especially one hotly debated at the very time the inspired writings were penned. Despite the fact that abortion has been controversial throughout history, neither the Bible nor the writings of Ellen White speak dogmatically concerning it, despite a multitude of very precise counsels on nearly every related topic. Ellen White declares: “Before accepting any doctrine or precept we should demand a plain ‘thus saith the Lord’ in its support” (l2). In the absence of such support, the wisest course for Seventh-day Adventist Christians is to allow for conscientious differences (l3).
Certain Bible texts are occasionally used to support the theory that fetuses are complete persons, and that the termination of a pregnancy is thus the same as murder. A number of passages do speak about God forming and covering people in the womb (Job. 3l:l5; Psalm l39:l3,l6; Isaiah 44:24), etc.). But the context of these verses has nothing to do with the definition of life, but with God’s far-reaching perception and care. Using these texts to prove the anti-abortion case would make them prove too much. For example, one such passage states that “before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee” (Jer. l:5)–that is, even before conception. If this proves the total personhood of a fetus, it also proves the total personhood of one not conceived–and would thus rule out any form of birth control, even abstinence from marital relations.
Some have pointed to verses about children struggling together in the womb (Gen. 25:22) or leaping in the womb (Luke l:4l,44). But in the case of Jacob and Esau “struggling” inside Rebekah, this was merely a symbol used by God to represent the conflict between the nations which would spring from her two sons (Gen. 25:23). The Bible also states that God anointed Cyrus and grasped his right hand more than a hundred years before his birth (Isaiah 45:l). Clearly, these passages are not a discussion of when life begins, but of God’s complete awareness of reality and the future.
For the anti-abortion case to have Biblical support, verses must be found which draw the line at conception between life and non-life. No such verse or verses can be found. The issue is in no way settled by merely citing the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” since without clarification, this can be used to forbid the taking of any form of life, even animals or insects. In fact, Ellen White specifically denounced this particular abuse of the sixth commandment:
There are those who say nothing, not even insects, should be killed. God has not entrusted any such message to His people. It is possible to stretch the command “Thou shalt not kill” to any limit; but it is not according to sound reasoning to do this. Those who do it have not learned in the school of Christ (l4).
Notice she says, “It is possible to stretch the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to any limit.” Could the anti- abortionists among us possibly have something to learn from this counsel? This is not to say fetuses are in the same class as insects, only that Inspiration has the exclusive right to define the meaning and limits of all God’s commandments, including the sixth.
We can’t force Inspiration to speak to issues which happen to be emotionally dear to us. What men and women consider to be a “great issue” is not necessarily considered so by God. The Lord says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). God is the One to set the church’s moral agenda, not us.
We find it interesting that when Ellen White speaks of the “earliest moments” of our children, she speaks of birth, not conception:
Even the babe in its mother’s arms may dwell as under the shadow of the Almighty through the faith of the praying mother. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth. If we will live in communion with God, we too may expect the divine Spirit to mold our little ones, even from their earliest moments (l5).
Some have also quoted Ellen White’s counsel to mothers regarding health habits during pregnancy, where she states concerning the mother, “Two lives are depending on her” (l6). But this entire context deals with women preparing to bear children, and the effect of the mother’s habits and lifestyle on the child’s future health. She is not addressing women struggling with the choice to terminate or not to terminate a pregnancy. Again, Inspiration can’t be forced to speak to issues we happen to think are important. The plain, perhaps unpleasant truth for some is that on this subject we encounter a deafening silence from the inspired pen, both in Scripture and in the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy.
Others draw our attention to the anti-abortion statement of a nineteenth-century doctor included in the book A Solemn Appeal, by James and Ellen White (l7). But it is most presumptuous to conclude that Ellen White agreed with all the physicians’ statements found in this book, especially since James White–with whom she didn’t always agree–seems to have had much to do with the choice of materials. One of the authors in this book, one O.S. Fowler, declares that “fine- skinned, light-haired, light-eyed persons” imperil their souls unless they limit sexual relations, even in wedlock, to once a month (l8). No Ellen White statement anywhere ever supports such absurd counsel!
Evidence from another such book by James and Ellen White, Health or How to Live (l9), makes it more obvious that the physicians’ statements included in this and the previous book did not always reflect Ellen White’s written counsels. One of the physicians quoted in How to Live maintains that if pregnant mothers have an appetite for hard liquor, this should be “gratified to the full” lest the mother transmit this craving to her offspring (20). Yet Ellen White clearly denounces such advice as “false and mischievous” (2l).
Do not give credence to unauthenticated reports as to what Sister White has done or said or written. If you desire to know what the Lord has revealed through her, read her published works (22).
Regarding the performing of abortions in Adventist hospitals, perhaps it would be wise to avoid this as much as possible. Even if the practice can’t be condemned on inspired grounds, it can place a needless stumblingblock before the weak in faith (I Cor. 8:9). The church might be wise to return to its more restrictive earlier policies on this matter, which limited abortions in our medical facilities to cases of rape, incest, mental retardation, or danger to the mother’s health or life. So long as abortion services are available elsewhere, this would probably be best.
The increasing acts of violence in recent years against abortion clinics and those who work there reveal the satanic spirit behind much of the so-called “pro-life” movement. Many abortion providers confront on an almost daily basis threats of this kind to themselves and their families. Many awake to find nails scattered on their driveways, or messages left on their answering machines threatening grisly violence to their spouses and children. Such acts of terror have as much to do with the spirit of Christ as the butchery of the Crusades and the racks of the Inquisition. The anti-abortion movement cannot justly absolve itself of responsibility for such behavior. What else can they expect when they describe abortion as “America’s Holocaust,” and compare the procedures in Planned Parenthood offices to what happened behind the gates of Auschwitz? Such talk, from most people’s perspective, makes it simply logical to kill those who work at these clinics. After all, peaceful prayer vigils outside the Nazi death camps didn’t bring an end to the slaughter inside. Only the armed force of an enraged world brought an end to Hitler and his regime. If one truly believes abortion clinic doctors are committing crimes on the scale of Nazi war criminals, it is hard not to see the violent measures pursued by some in the “pro-life” ranks as completely justified, and the protest against such by the movement’s leaders–many of whom freely use this “Holocaust” analogy–as an exercise in supreme hypocrisy.
Other inconsistencies of the anti-abortion movement are equally appalling, and deserve attention. If they are so concerned about life, why do so many of them favor unrestricted gun ownership, and defend the right of citizens to purchase weapons of mass destruction? Why do so few of them find fault with capital punishment–a flawed system that is often racially biased? Why do so many of them support the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons–which threaten all life on the planet, fetal and otherwise?
But the gravest of all their inconsistencies is the refusal to advocate murder charges for women who procure abortions. If indeed abortion is murder, why shouldn’t a woman who chooses to undergo one be tried for first-degree murder? It is utterly absurd, as some anti-abortionists claim, that women in such cases should be exempted from such charges because they really are the “second victim” of the procedure. Would a woman who put out a contract on the life of her six-year old son be considered a “second victim”? One can only imagine the hue and cry from conservatives in our land if such a plea were to be made in such a case, in the light of all their talk about assuming personal responsibility. Why then their reluctance to make women who procure abortions take full responsibility for what the anti-abortionist holds to be the deliberate murder of a child?
I believe there is a definite reason behind this inconsistency. The reason is that, at the bottom line, life is not the real issue here. The real issue is the helplessness and frustration felt by cultural conservatives in the face of the sexual revolution. Nonmarital sex is in most cases the cause of the abortion dilemma. And the unscriptural theology of most conservative Christians, which has either nailed God’s law to the cross of Calvary or proclaimed the inability of believers even through God’s grace to keep it, has been powerless to resist the immoral onslaught of our day.
Modern technology, with its new methods of contraception, has made it increasingly difficult for society to “shame” sexually active young people through unwanted pregnancies, “shotgun” weddings, and the like. The increased availability of abortion has offered yet another means whereby the tangible consequences of an immoral relationship can be averted. These facts of modern life are a source of heightened irritation and anger to the cultural conservatives among us. Guilt and “shaming” are their only remedies for moral shortcomings such as these, denying as they do God’s power for total victory.
This is why the inconsistency of their case regarding the question of life doesn’t seem to bother them. Their capacity for reason is blinded by the rage they feel at being deprived of the old social weapons against sexual sin which they once counted on, and thus being forced to confront the poverty of their own bankrupt doctrinal witness.
This, in the final analysis, is the crux of the whole issue. The reason for the abortion dilemma in most cases is sexual behavior outside of marriage, which the Word of God clearly forbids. This one fact takes the abortion issue completely away from government, since it is not the business of government to restrict the peaceful, private, and voluntary association of its citizens, including the sexual activities of consenting, of-age persons in the privacy of their bedroom. This fact also relieves us of the necessity of sorting out the endless nuances and technicalities regarding the beginning, quality, and viability of life, arguments which amount to little more than speculation in the absence of a plain “thus saith the Lord.” But this fact also places the abortion issue squarely in the lap of the church. Seventh-day Adventists especially can do much to stop abortion. By proclaiming to the world the binding claims of God’s law and the ability of sanctified Christians to obey it (II Cor. 7:l; II Peter 3:l0-l4; I John 3:2-3,7; Jude 24; Rev. l4:5), Seventh-day Adventists can show the world a better way to live.
How tragic that the same Christians who deny the claims of God’s law and the ability of converted Christians to obey it are the same ones who apparently think civil coercion will succeed where spiritual persuasion has failed. The second angel’s message refers to this, when it describes Babylon’s fallen condition as the result of her having “made (forced) all nations (to) drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (Rev. l4:8). This fornication she commits with the “kings of the earth” (Rev. 17:2), a reference to the illegitimate union of church and state which Christ forbids (John l8:36). This use of civil power by apostate Christianity is the ultimate admission of her spiritual poverty. Through “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (II Tim. 3:5), she has made coercion a substitute for conversion.
Perhaps former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said it best when addressing the student body at Notre Dame in 1984: “Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin? The failure here is not Caesar’s. This failure is our failure, the failure of the entire people of God” (23).
It is the appointed task of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to redeem this failure.