Thursday, January 26, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 2 – Context


On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade and placed the question of abortion into the hands of each state. Americans, including church members, have mixed feelings and complex convictions regarding abortion, as reflected in various polls.[1] Most Americans want safe, legal abortion to be available. A majority is also uncomfortable with abortion in at least some circumstances. Of course, morality is not simply a matter of public opinion. The resolutions passed by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention[2] reflect the tension in these overlapping majorities.

That the issue and the questions surrounding it are complex is reflected in the Church’s history as it has grappled with the morality of abortion. The official teaching of the Church and that of its major saints and theologians have not been simple or straightforward.

Some Personal Context

I have come to see it as less than straightforward. I invite you to prayerfully think it through with me. I have long been persuaded by what is often referred to as the “consistent ethic of life,” which is committed to cherishing, defending, and nurturing the flourishing of all life (including to one degree or another, life in the womb). Such an approach opposes nearly all uses of violence and all “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (BCP, p. 302). Many Christians whose life and teaching I respect have held this ethic, e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Fanny Lou Hamer, Helen Prejean (of ‘Dead Man Walking’ fame), Joan Chittister, Stanley Hauerwas, Rowan Williams, and others. That remains generally where my convictions lie.

In my 20’s, I was on the board of a pro-life organization, Matrix Lifeline, in Bloomington, IN (like those commended by General Convention Resolution D105 in 1994[3]). Ironically, the chair of the board of that organization was a woman who was also a leader in the local Democratic Party. And when I was invited to speak on the topic with a class at Indiana University, my counterpart defending the pro-choice position was a woman who was involved in the local Republican Party. Things were different then.

Recent Historical Context

This last point is significant. Things were different before the 1980’s. The abortion fault lines have not always run simply between conservatives and liberals/progressives, whether inside or outside the church. The Roman Catholic Church has long been Pro-Life and opposed to abortion (though, as we will see, even that is more complicated in the tradition). But that has not always been so for other Christians, including conservative Christians.

In 1968, before Roe v Wade, Christianity Today, the conservative Christian magazine founded by Billy Graham, gathered 25 conservative evangelical theologians, doctors, and scientists to discuss the morality of abortion in a “Protestant Symposium on the Control of Human Reproduction.” The statement coming out of that symposium affirmed, “Whether or not the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.”[4] A special issue of Christianity Today followed including a lead essay by conservative Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke who asserted, “the absence of any biblical text forbidding abortion” and “the Old Testament does not equate the fetus with a living person.”[5]

In 1971, another conservative Christian magazine, Eternity, published an essay by Nancy Hardesty that came to a similar conclusion. Also in 1971, conservative Evangelical scholar and apologist, Norman Geisler, published a book with Zondervan (a conservative Christian book company) in which he contrasted the Roman Catholic position with what he understood to be the biblical view, asserting that “The embryo is not fully human.”[6]

There were certainly also conservative evangelicals who disagreed with these positions[7], but there was no anti-abortion consensus among those who otherwise shared basic conservative theological commitments And it was not considered a litmus test issue.

Nor was there a consensus among more liberal/progressive Christians. Some Protestant theologians influential among liberal/progressives who were not conservative evangelicals, like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, argued for a more pro-life position. In ‘Ethics’, Bonhoeffer wrote,

Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And this is nothing but murder.[8]

Many of the Roman Catholics and others who formed the first anti-abortion organizations in the late 1960s were liberal Democrats who also opposed the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation.[9] Civil Rights icon, Fannie Lou Hammer, was also pro-life.[10]

The November 1980 issue of the progressive Christian magazine, Sojourners was dedicated to affirming a pro-life position from a more progressive position. There were several essays by women and men including one by Jesse Jackson[11]

Certainly, many liberal/progressive theologians advocated for a more pro-choice position[12]. But, again, there was not a clear consensus on the issue despite many shared convictions otherwise.

Well into the 1970’s, there were a significant number of pro-life Democrats and a similarly significant number of pro-choice Republicans. It has not always been a matter of conservatives on one side and liberals/progressives on the other. Beginning in the later 1970’s into the early ‘80’s, many liberals who had been pro-life became pro-choice and many conservatives who had been pro-choice became pro-life.

It is worth wondering what happened culturally and politically in those years and what has happened over the last generation or so that has made the divisions over abortion so much starker, more contentious, and a matter of partisan identity.[13] We might also wonder if a Christian understanding of abortion or any other moral issue should be expected to fit neatly into the contemporary categories of conservative or liberal or progressive.

An Episcopal Bishop’s Case for a Christian Understanding

The Episcopal Church has passed a number of resolutions over the last several decades on the subject of abortion at its General Convention. Together, those resolutions affirm the sanctity of life and strongly condemn abortion in some circumstances while defending access to safe, legal abortion as a necessary option for women. Thus, they reflect the conflicted, complex convictions many have and have had on the subject.

In this teaching series I will explore the issue of abortion, the life in the womb, and the agency of the woman bearing that life, offering what I believe is a faithful and reasonable understanding based on scripture, tradition, and creation (biology and science). That understanding recognizes that the holy mystery of becoming fully human is a gradual process in the womb and that the pregnant woman is not merely a passive vessel of that process of becoming. The moral balance at first tilts toward the agency of the pregnant woman (usually along with the father) and gradually tilts to include the baby developing in her womb.

I invite your feedback, comments and questions along the way. I also ask for your patience as we make our way toward a conclusion.

[1] Saad, Lydia,Where Do Americans Stand on Abortion?(

 Americans’ Opinions About Abortion, Jan. 2022, Marist Poll (chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

 ‘Public Opinion on Abortion’, Pew Research Center, May 17, 2022(

 Saad, Lydia, ‘“Pro-Choice” Identification Rises to Near Record High in U.S.’ (

[2] The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion(

[4] ‘A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction’, Christianity Today, November 8, 1968, (

[5] Waltke, Bruce K., ‘The Old Testament and Birth Control: Family Planning Under the Law’, Christianity Today, November 8, 1968, (

[6] Geisler, Norman, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand-Rapids, Michigan, 1971

[7] For example, Cottrell, Jack W., ‘Abortion and the Mosaic Law’, Christianity Today, March 16, 1973, (

[8] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics, Fortress Press, p. 206

[9] Williams, Daniel K., ‘The Partisan Trajectory of the American Pro-Life Movement: How a Liberal Catholic Campaign Became a Conservative Evangelical Cause’, Religions, 2015, 6, 451–475

( pdf)

[11] Sojourners Magazine, November 1980, (

[13] See Williams, Daniel K., ‘The Partisan Trajectory of the American Pro-Life Movement: How a Liberal Catholic Campaign Became a Conservative Evangelical Cause’, Religions, 2015, 6, 451–475( See also: Roach, David, ‘How Southern Baptists became pro-life’, Baptist Press, January 16, 2015 (


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 3: Scripture – Old Testament 



1 comment:

  1. I am glad you are doing this program. And it seems you will look into all possible sides and reasons for a women to choose.