[Today I will be one of ten clergypersons participating in a forum on “Religious Perspectives on Women’s Health Issues” (with a focus on abortion and contraception) at the Medical College of Georgia here in Augusta. Each panelist will give a five-minute (!) opening statement. We were asked to use this time to state our religious tradition’s perspective on the issues at hand. Here are my prepared remarks. If you have any comments, please post them quickly; the forum begins at noon EST today.]
I am grateful for the opportunity to be with you today to discuss these important issues. They are important issues because they are people issues. One thing that you who are medical professionals and we who are professional clergy share in common is a deep concern for the well-being and wholeness of people; you are concerned for your patients and we are concerned for our parishioners. Often, of course, those lines cross, because often your patients are our parishioners. In a very real way, then, we are all in this together. So I join my colleagues in gratitude for this opportunity to dialogue with you.
I hope to accomplish two tasks in these opening remarks. First, I want to summarize the perspective of my Baptist tradition on women’s reproductive issues. I must qualify this portion of my remarks by saying that there is no monolithic Baptist tradition on such matters. The Baptists with whom I associate the most are Southern Baptists, who tend to be very conservative, and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Baptists, who tend to be conservative in a more moderate fashion. Two cherished Baptist doctrines are the priesthood of believers and the autonomy of the local church; therefore, our church polity has historically been non-hierarchical. We don’t take too well to pronouncements from above on what we should think about anything.
Nonetheless, I think that I can speak with some confidence of a consensus among the more conservative Baptists. It is reflected in the words of a resolution adopted by the SBC in 1980; the sentiment of this resolution has been reaffirmed many times since.
Be it therefore RESOLVED, That the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirm the view of the Scriptures of the sacredness and dignity of all human life, born and unborn, and
Be it further RESOLVED, That opposition be expressed toward all policies that allow "abortion on demand," and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we abhor the use of tax money or public, tax-supported medical facilities for selfish, non-therapeutic abortion, and
Be it finally RESOLVED, That we favor appropriate legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother.
Since the adoption of that resolution the messengers to the SBC have consistently said that abortion should be allowed only to save the life of the mother.
I think that I can also speak with some confidence of a consensus among more moderate Baptists. They would tend also to oppose “abortion on demand” but would be more likely to favor the availability of the abortion option under broader circumstances than risk to the life of the mother. Those might include rape, incest, and the probability of severe defect in the fetus.
Contraception has not been a big issue among the Baptists among whom I have lived and worked. The prevailing perspective has been that while terminating a pregnancy is problematic, preventing one is fine. Some trial balloons have been floated by some prominent Southern Baptist leaders in recent months that may indicate that contraception may become an issue in Southern Baptist life. One leader (Al Mohler) has suggested that “deliberate childlessness” by couples is “moral rebellion.” Another (Dorothy Patterson) has very recently written, “While taking an oral contraceptive is certainly not equal to purposely getting an abortion, the ethical considerations are similar. One function of oral contraceptives is to help prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. If life begins at conception, this function of the pill is not contraceptive but abortive." I’m not sure where that discussion is headed; I suspect that artificial birth control is so firmly ingrained in most Baptist couple’s lives that it’s a non-starter.
Second, I want to mention some thoughts/concerns/perspectives that I think Baptist (and I suspect most Christian) women or couples might be harboring or nurturing or struggling with if they are confronted with a decision as to whether or not to have an abortion.
In the first place, they will likely be dealing with their presumption that the fetus is a life. Most of them will believe that life begins at conception. Some of them will have processed some of the other possibilities, such as that life only begins when the baby can live outside the mother’s body or perhaps when a nervous system begins to develop, but most will still believe that the fetus, regardless of its stage of development, is a life. I realize that we might need to differentiate between a “life” and a “person,” but I’m not sure that many of your Baptist patients will see that as a significant distinction. “Life” for some of them will equal “potential person” and for others “full person with all the rights of protection that full-grown person has.” So, many of them will be dealing with feelings of guilt over the mere contemplation of an abortion, even if there are valid medical reasons for having one.
In the second place, many Baptist and other Christian patients will come to you having been immersed in the idea that at the heart of the Christian faith lies the practice of self-sacrificing love. They believe that Jesus Christ laid aside his self-interest and his prerogatives as the Son of God and voluntarily gave up his life on the cross for the sake of us sinners—for people who are guilty! They believe that as followers of Christ they are called to have the mind and heart of Christ which require them to practice that same kind of self-giving love. They believe that they are called to put the interests of others—even of their enemies—ahead of their own. As I said earlier, most Baptists would say that abortion should be available when the life of the mother is in danger. But, even when that is the case, a follower of Christ may well be dealing with a sense that it is not right to put her own interests ahead of those of the fetus, even if it threatens her life. The dynamics of that inward struggle could be very painful.
I believe that to treat a person as a whole person means that we have to deal with the physical, emotional, social, environmental, and spiritual dimensions of that person’s life. I hope that I have given you something to think about as you contemplate the spiritual aspect of your patients’ lives as they deal with some very difficult choices.