Our Abortion Guidelines are Too Good to Replace!

The only thing wrong with our current Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) guidelines on abortion is that not enough SDAs know about them. Members and leaders of other denominations know about them and some have used aspects of them in their own guidelines. They have also invited some of us to participate in their own high-level discussions of the issue. It seems that the SDA abortion guidelines are not unknown, except among SDAs.

I had nothing to do with writing them. I did lead a conference at what we now call Loma Linda University Health at which SDAs from all parts of the world presented a wide range of views on the subject. The LLUH Center for Christian Bioethics published in 1992 most of the papers in an anthology which I edited with the title, Abortion: Ethical Issues and Options. We left out one or maybe two papers which were disrespectfully pro-choice.

Some say that our conference and our book prompted the General Conference to take up the issue with a committee led by Dr. Albert Whiting. I do not know because I was not on the Committee. I do know that he received high praise from many who were members of it for his calm and fair even-handedness.

Gerald Winslow and others skillfully represented a great number of us who hoped and prayed for guidelines which would be thoroughly biblical, avoided opposite extremes, and could be embraced and implemented by the leaders of our denomination’s medical centers. Thanks to him, others, and eventually a majority of the committee, our prayers were answered.

It is time to stop asking the question “When does human life begin?” A single sperm and a single ovum are alive and human. So is the result when the first fertilizes the second. This result has the possibility of becoming a person like you and me, but it does not have this potentiality until it is successfully implanted in the uterus.

We should not use these words interchangeably. A possibility is something which might happen. A potentiality is something which will happen unless something goes wrong or someone interferes. Not conception, but implantation, is when the clock starts ticking for the new life. Hopefully it will not stop before at least three score and ten years after his or her birth.

The right question is about when the new life becomes a citizen with the protections which all citizens enjoy. This is a matter about which there is a justifiable range of convictions. They depend upon what people take to be the minimal requirements of citizenship and when in human gestation they occur. Because scientific research constantly improves our understanding of what goes on during a human pregnancy, it is fortunate that our guidelines do not try to specify “when.”

SDA medical centers around the world are not “slaughtering babies.” My educated guess is that comparing the total number of abortions that SDA medical institutions all around the world typically do each year with the total number of live babies they deliver establishes that the percent of abortions they perform is very small and that these are done in very complicated cases. The results would be the same if we compared these totals for only the United States. After all, it is easier and less expensive to get an abortion in a clinic which specializes in doing them than at a full-service medical institution.

I am talking about the total numbers of abortions and live deliveries in all the SDA medical facilities either around the world or only in the United States because there has been and perhaps there still is a rare SDA institution which performs more abortions than would be expected. Sometimes this is because the districts they serve have more than the usual number of savagely raped women and barely pubescent girls. On occasion there seems to be no justification for the higher number. “By precept and example” is the proven method of effectively dealing with this challenge.

Our current guidelines are thoroughly biblical. I understand that some might think otherwise because the biblical references are at the end of the document and I, myself, have sometimes wondered where they are or if any exist. Although it is easy to miss them, they are there! Yet, the guidelines themselves are manifestly biblical even without the references.

Those of us who are SDAs believe that body and soul are so integrated that they cannot be successfully separated. This means that we should take into account the woman’s psychological wellbeing as well as her physical health.

An unsophisticated married couple in a church I once pastored visited me in much distress because their teenage daughter had conceived after having been raped by another patient in an institution for severely psychologically disabled people where they both lived. It was doubtful that he fully understood what he had done and doubtless that she didn’t.

Unable to comprehend what had happened to her, and what was going on within her, she was plunging into a dark pit of increasing terror. The administrators of the facility, who were horrified by what they had let happened, thought it best that she receive a first trimester abortion. “Would it be OK with Jesus if we said ‘Yes’?” they wondered. “Everything I’ve ever heard about Jesus convinces me that he would understand,” I answered. “More than that, he will be with you every step of your tragic journey.”

I also understand why some might be perplexed or even offended by the “on the one hand and on the other hand” reasoning throughout the guidelines because at first glance this does convey a lack of clarity, conviction, and courage. Yet this is one of the three most well-known and frequently used ways of thinking about ethical issues.

The first is deductive. It establishes norms, in our case biblical ones, and relates them to concrete ethical issues or cases. The second is inductive. It begins with the concrete issues or cases and extracts from them justifiable norms which have long been effective even though nobody formulated or perhaps even noticed them. For instance, most families do not have a plaque hanging on a wall which declares “Thou shalt not murder your spouse or sibling.” Everyone “just knows.”

The third is interactive or dialectical. It recognizes that in some cases it is necessary to consider more than one thing and strike the best possible balance among them. Our abortion guidelines are neither inductive nor deductive. They are interactive or dialectical. Although this way of reasoning is less well known, it is just as legitimate as the first two.

Whether SDAs should serve in the military is another place where SDAs rightly reason interactively or dialectically. As I have, when one examines SDA guidelines and literature on the subject, and does quantitative (“statistics”) and qualitative (“spoken or written comments”) studies of representative samples, the result is the same. It is that on the issue of participation in military service, the majority of SDAs reason interactively or dialectically. They typically think along these lines:

On the one hand, we have a biblical obligation to be good citizens who contribute to the nation’s wellbeing. On the other hand, we have a biblical obligation not to kill people. The best way we can now think of to balance these different requirements is to be willing to serve in the military but also to make every effort to serve in ways that protect and preserve human beings instead of killing them.

Those who are “pacifists” and those who are “just-war thinkers” frequently criticize the SDA guidelines on military service for lack of clarity, conviction, and courage just as some do our abortion guidelines. They hold that pacifism makes sense on its own terms and just-war thinking makes sense on its own terms but that non-combatancy doesn’t and there is no way that it ever can.

I see this differently. I am not asking pacifists and just-war thinkers to become non-combatants. I am requesting that they acknowledge that it does make sense on its own premises. One of these premises is as true to life as anything can be. This premise is that in some very difficult situations we have more than one important ethical obligation and our job is to honor all of them to the best of our ability.

Interactive or dialectical thinking is the most valuable feature of our current abortion guidelines but it is also the most vulnerable. So far, those who take different sides on the issue of abortion in the current discussion seem equally indifferent to this methodological matter. But how we think can improve what we think but what we think cannot improve how we think. This is what makes this methodological issue so overwhelmingly important.

Are SDAs pro-life or pro-choice? Both. Do they believe in individual conscience or denominational guidelines? Both. Do they want religious liberty or protection of the vulnerable? Both. We should add something to all three of these “Boths.” It is that by working together and following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are trying to discern the best ways to honor all three “Boths” here and now. Single-minded thinking on issues like this one makes no sense and helps no one. The best we have come up with so far is something like this:

On the one hand, the fetus’s sanctity of life is important. On the other hand, the woman’s liberty is important. The reverse of sanctity and liberty sometimes occurs too. We therefore should be against abortion except in some very rare and difficult circumstances and we should respect those who have different views on this matter.

I do not know why anyone would want to discard this.

Does this mean that our guidelines cannot be improved? Not at all! I have resisted the temptation to show how I would reword our guidelines if I could because this time I am focusing on methodological question about how we think rather what we conclude. I hope that many will read the guidelines on the internet and that they do so understanding the interactive or dialectal thinking which brought them about. Again: Always think for yourself but never think by yourself!

David Larson is Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University Health

Image from rawpixel.com

Further Reading:

The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Official Guidelines on Abortion, approved and voted by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Executive Committee at the Annual Council session in Silver Spring, Maryland, October 12, 1992.

The current Spectrum print journal, volume 47, issue 3, includes additional articles on abortion.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9873
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Excellent article. It is important to realize that like Dr. Larson points out, this isn’t an issue that the Bible addresses directly. Instead as a denomination we can figure it out on our own. We have greatly benefited from the efforts of abortion pioneers such as Edward Allred who has done so much for our church through his faithful former ownership of Family Planning Associates and the other Adventists who now own it. It is a shame that his life’s work has to be ignored so that people can push their opposition to the sanctity of the abortion procedure and sacred conscience of decision between a woman and her doctor. Kudos on an excellent article.

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Having taken the time to read the 1992 denominational position on abortion, I am astounded by the inclusion of the following words:

“The final decision whether to terminate the pregnancy or not should be made by the pregnant woman after appropriate consultation. She should be aided in her decision by accurate information, biblical principles, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

Bravo!

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Thes guideline make this possibly the most pro-choice denomination because the Adventist Church statement acknowledges the truth that the Holy Spirit, a full member of the Triune Godhead can lead people either toward or against abortion. Abortion is truly a religious issue and one that deserves the unswerving support of the religious liberty leaders who protected it thus far from those who claim that the state should outlaw abortion because God opposes it. When we perform abortion in our hospitals it is for the healing of society and the healing of lives. It is as much an act of worship as any other life-saving medical procedure.

When abortions are outlawed, we can be sure that Sunday laws are right around the corner. How this ever passed the watchful eye of our “conservatives” I can’t imagine.

Only if our church were not so blind on LGBTQI issues.

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I sense that many people do not understand that ethics is a discipline in its own right. You can be a biblical scholar and not be an ethicist. Ethics is informed by theology, but ethics and theology are two different disciplines.

Another thing that many people do not understand is that our hospitals have ethics committees. These committees will literally convene during the precious hours and even minutes during which a difficult decision must be made. Here is one anecdote. A famous doctor in Houston had a living will, but his life could be saved by a surgery that seemed to be outside the parameters of his living will. His wife came to the meeting and told the ethics committee members that she wanted them to save her husband’s life. The thoughtfulness and seriousness in which our hospitals and their ethics committees do their work is not sufficiently understood by many of the loud voices in the abortion debate.

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Phil–
Yes. ALL hospitals in the United States are required to have an
“Ethics Committee” that can be called on short notice.
Most persons who are hospital clients are not aware of this mandate.

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Sam…thank you for your well-stated thoughts…you have shed a light on the issue that I imagine escapes most people’s notice. Indeed, our church leaders should protect the right of women to choose, in the full spirit of religious liberty.

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As part of the dental course on Community Health we had the students make house calls on families on welfare, with their permission of course. one single mother with five children introduced each child and named a series of fathers. the final one she said, this one I had on my own. And we had thought it only happened once.

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Some bible issues are non-negotiable and some negotiable.
As SDA’s, we assume the 7th day Sabbath is not negotiable or subject to change.

State of the dead, creation week, and some others fit this definition.
But abortion is negotiable as is divorce and other issues.

The real issue is the question, “What is negotiable and what is not?”

For any church to have an identity they must state what is what is not.
Some think nothing is negotiable, and others think everything is negotiable. And this is the major division in the SDA church today.

I have enjoyed Dr Robert D. Orr’s Book Medical Ethic and the faith Factor. Eerdmans 2009.

So balanced, so thoughtful, so pastoral, so wise-Dave Larson never disappoints. The same kudos to the others at the LLU Bioethics center.

One other issue that was not germane to Larson’s purpose in the article: what can we/should we do to women or couples who choose abortion for the poorest possible reasons? Do we prosecute them as criminals? Publicly shame them? Another extreme option: require them to give birth and then take the baby away for adoption? If abortion per se is made “illegal,” what happens next?

If we do not want our “solutions” to become ethically problematic extremes, Larson’s plea must be heeded that, in themselves, such ethical dilemmas require balancing elements that are not absolutely “right” or “wrong.” Adventist dislike living with any theological or moral ambiguity, but we have no choice if we would balance justice with mercy.

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Human what? I have lots of cells that are alive and human, probably most are even more human as the sperm and egg are haploid. All this to get to the point of saying it is the possibility of human life! That ones makes a big deal about something that is maybe only 5-8 days from conception to the blastocyst that implants in the lining of the uterus seems to be a little picky. Maybe if the discussion was Plan B it would have some appropriateness.

I remember my first case scenario after completing my child fellowship. The county DA has summoned me to his office for a referral on a 16 yo female who gave birth to a live fetus then wrapped it in a towel and stuffed it in the hamper before heading to school only for her mother to discover it that morning. The DA was obligated to charge the teenager with homicide but pleaded if I can find reason find her incompetent. We got her off the hook and mandated the teenager and her parents to undergo treatment. I had another case of a 4 yo female referred to me for depression. Her father was her maternal grandfather who left the family when he impregnated his mentally retarded daughter. Since the mother did not have the capacity to raise the child, the responsibility fell on her maternal grandmother to raise her. The grandmother was torn between loving her only granddaughter and hating her all at the same time. The grandmother would start her day crying and end her day crying and wished of committing suicide but cannot even face the fact that no one would care for her only grand daughter.

There is neither right nor wrong in some cases. Glad I not God.

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Well Ron, the process of procreation begins when the woman is pregnant.
This does not equate to a human being from the start to finish. But it is life in some form.

Those at F7 claim it is a human being from the first day. This means a woman who takes a morning after pill just murdered a human being. She aborted the process of procreation.

I think the church position is viable and reasonable. There are situations when abortion is a viable option. So the abuse of a policy does not negate the policy. And we see a world of abuse of the policy in the world and no doubt in the church on some level.

If it is murder, there are no exceptions for abortion for any reason. There are not excepts when murder is a viable option.

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I was a voting member of the 1989 committee that formulated the guidelines. Dr. Albert Whiting was the chair. What I found unfair was that of the 25 or so voting members only two were pro-life: Pastor David Newman and myself. The rest of the members spanned the abortion spectrum from middle of the road to absolute radical pro-abortion advocates. My memory is seared with one particular women who was, if I recall correctly, a lawyer for the Religious Liberty department. She said that she would get pregnant and abort the baby and harvest the organs if her born child was in life-threatening need of them. So she was not concerned at all for unborn life.

One morning, another GC executive–a woman–led the opening Bible reading and prayer time. She emotionally mentioned that if Mary was given the choice to give birth to our Savior, that all women should receive that choice. So Mary could have aborted Jesus? THAT was what she was advocating? I never quite understood what she was trying to say.

I was about six months pregnant at the time with my last child. I can’t tell you how disturbing all these radical positions were to me. If the world SDA church knew how this “sausage” was made on the abortion guidelines, they would be storming the GC to demand the church become pro-life. So sorry, Dr. Larson. I thank you for the opportunity to speak at the 1988 Abortion Conference you were in charge of. And I thank you for allowing the book you edited included a chapter that I wrote, but my heart breaks for the SDA guidelines. They are not founded on the Bible.

The SDA church cannot claim to be the remnant church who keeps the commandments, when it ignores the “Thou shalt not kill” commandment. Until the church begins to protect unborn life, Adventists keep only 9 of the 10, just like all the other denominations.

Teresa Beem

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Does that also mean that we should have a funeral when pregnancies terminate on their own? About 20% of them do, so that’s a lot of funerals.

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You will have to ask the people at Fulcrum 7. I don’t agree with their conclusions as I stated in my comment.

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Maybe not a funeral, but it is important not to discount or disparage the woman’s/family’s grief. For them, it was a real pregnancy, a real person developing, and that loss must be acknowledged and grieved.

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Alice –
It is interesting to note that many times this stays with a woman and eventually
wears her down over sometimes many years.
It is ONLY after the many years that she is finally assisted with the grieving
process that she is able to resolve the sadness and terror she felt all these
years.

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I admire your unequivocal stand on abortion. We need more leaders who should have your stamina and fortitude. But you might want to enlightened me on what the Bible teaches specifically and categorically about abortion.

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