Social Statements are a significant part of the ELCA’s identity and public witness. They represent the church’s best thinking on an issue at the time. Composed by a task force comprised of lay and clergy experts and interested parties from a variety of backgrounds, the social statement is finally approved by a vote at a Churchwide Assembly. In 1991, the Churchwide Assembly adopted the Social Statement on Abortion. Because the church was still relatively new in 1991, the statement relies on earlier statements from the predecessor churches, namely the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church.
The adoption of the ELCA Social Statement on Abortion did not settle the matter in either church or society. The battle still rages. Indeed, despite the passage of our social statement, an ELCA physician who provided legal abortions, was murdered while ushering in his own church in Kansas. Since 1991, medical science has continued to advance, with diagnostics, with contraceptive options, and with life support for pre-term infants. And the political scene has certainly been active as well. Since Roe v. Wade in 1970, state legislatures and political campaigns have been filled with issues of parental consent, universal health care, clinic requirements, spousal/partner consent, foreign aid and contraceptive restrictions, and waiting periods. The recent Supreme Court decision is a reminder that the issues are still alive.
Our 1991 statement takes a middle ground. It neither advocates for the elimination of all abortions, nor advocates for the elimination of all restrictions. Rather, it affirms the sanctity of life, acknowledges human brokenness and the need for difficult choices, encourages societal care for pregnant women and their children, and warns about unequal access to care.
Lutherans clearly support an ethic of life. But it is nuanced. On the one hand: “The strong Christian presumption is to preserve and protect life.” This ethic is re-enforced in the social statement on the death penalty. The Abortion statement continues: “Abortion ought to be an option only of last resort. Therefore as a church we seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.” Our position does not privilege the potential life of the fetus above all other lives.
The statement spends several paragraphs discussing how the church might support women and girls with unwelcome pregnancies. Adoption ranks high as a 1991 option. The statement advocates for hospitality, including the welcoming of women and children, foster care and adoption. It also affirms marriage and shared parenthood. And it suggests that congregations should be involved in sex education. Several topics in this section, “III. THE CHURCH AS COMMUNITY SUPPORTIVE OF LIFE,” are addressed more thoroughly in subsequent ELCA social statements (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and “Genetics”) and social messages (“Gender-Based Violence”)
In the section, “IV. GUIDANCE IN MAKING DECISIONS REGARDING UNINTENDED PREGNANCIES,” the statement calls for compassion and for respectful and competent counseling. Concerning the decision for abortion the statement declares: “ We recognize that conscientious decisions need to be made in relation to difficult circumstances that very greatly. What is determined to be a morally responsible decision in one situation may not be in another.” It goes on: “Our biblical and confessional commitments provide the basis for us to continue. deliberating together on moral issues related to these decisions.”
In the section, “PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES RELATED TO ABORTION,” the statement offers:
“Because of our conviction that both the life of the woman and the life in her womb must be respected by law, this church opposes:
-the total lack of regulation of abortion
-legislation that would outlaw abortion in all circumstances
-laws that prevent access to information about all options available to women faced with unintended pregnancies
-laws that deny access to safe and affordable services for morally justifiable abortions
-mandatory or coerced abortion or sterilization
-laws that prevent couples from practicing contraception
-laws that are primarily intended to harass those contemplating or deciding for an abortion
Church and society continue to debate abortion. The 1991 ELCA Social Statement was not intended to stop debate. It was intended to help Lutherans navigate the debate, by providing background theological resources as well as contemporary discussion. And it was intended as a guide for our participation in public policy. An addendum reminds us:
“Social teaching statements provide an analysis and interpretation of an issue, set forth basic theological and ethical perspectives related to it, and offer guidance for the corporate ELCA and its individual members. They also illustrate the implications of their teaching for the social practice of this church. In their use as teaching documents, their authority is persuasive not coercive.”
To see the Social Statement, go to www.elca.org/socialstatements.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA