Editor’s Note: This letter was sent to Peter Landless, M.B., Bch., M.Med, director of the Health Ministries Department at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, on September 24, 2019. It is reprinted here courtesy of the author, Mark Johnson, M.D., M.P.H.
September 24, 2019
Peter Landless, M.B., Bch., M.Med.
Director, Health Ministries Department
General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
Dear Dr. Landless,
I am writing to you in response to a conversation I recently had with the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Adventist Healthcare, and a discussion at our last AdventHealth board meeting in Orlando that was led by the Chief Mission Integration Officer and Senior Vice President for Mission and Ministry. I was encouraged by both gentlemen to contact you directly with my comments regarding the denomination’s activities concerning our statements and guidelines on abortion. I write in support of the 1992 Seventh-day Adventist Guidelines (“guidelines”) on abortion.
I am a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist. I was trained in medicine at Loma Linda University and in my medical specialty area of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. I had the pleasure of teaching at Loma Linda University for a couple of years after completing my training, and I have been the local county health officer for a large county in Colorado for the past 30 years. I believe that my training and experience may give me a rather unique view on the subject of abortion.
I have re-read the guidelines and Abortion: Ethical Issues & Options, edited by David Larson, and I must admit that there is nothing new in the abortion debate. I, too, have no great revelation to share, nor do I have any inspired solution or clever phrase that will clear the fog that has constantly shrouded this issue. What I do have, perhaps, is a different perspective on how this issue and our guidelines impact the very vulnerable populations that seek care in places such as a public health clinic. My comments reflect my conversations with some of those residents who have found it necessary to seek their medical care here.
Every day clients who need Jesus pass through our clinics. Most of them feel that need, but don’t know how to respond to it. When I have asked if they have contacted their churches for help with the issues they are facing, the overwhelming response is that it has been their church that has caused their sense of condemnation and it is Christians who have given them the most heartache and despair. As one client put it, “Christians are the cause of most of my depression. Why would I ever turn to them for help?” To many of our clients, Christians seem much more interested in knowing with whom they are sleeping and what will become of any potential products of those encounters than they are in helping them individually with either their earthly or their eternal wellbeing.
Public health professionals are also aware of the growing impact on mortality and morbidity in this country from what have been called the diseases of despair — depression, suicide, and substance abuse, with their myriad negative health consequences. I have often heard it said that these diseases and today’s culture of relativism, despondency, violence, and the apparent trivialization of the sanctity of life are to be blamed on the existence of legal abortion, but I believe blame must be shared with the many Christian churches that have shifted their focus from Christ to the political and societal gains to be made in the arenas of reproduction and abortion debate, and have abandoned, to a large extent, their mission of bringing hope to the hopeless.
It is almost as if Christians have found a way of puritanically worshipping Aphrodite, but somewhat in reverse. They decry the pervasiveness of sexually stimulating media and graphic materials, the presence of free love and the absence of moderation and self-restraint, and yet, their primary focus seems to be on the sex act and its consequences. The emphasis is usually on the sinfulness of sex. For some this is limited to sex outside of marriage. For some it is sex with the wrong gender. For some it is both sex outside of marriage and sex for pleasure (not procreation) inside of marriage. For some it is any sex. It has been said that it is difficult to make the sex act unpopular, but some in the Christian Church have tried their best to do so. As one pundit said, referencing what he had learned from his religious upbringing, “Sex is the most awful, dirty thing on the face of the earth and you should save it for marriage.”
Pregnancy is seen as one of the penalties for sex shared with the wrong person. This, I believe, is one of the great motivating forces behind the so-called pro-life movement. There must be punishment. Sadly, the penalty usually only accrues to the woman, and perhaps the child.
No woman wants an abortion. Society has often failed a woman seeking an abortion, and what she wants most is to avoid pregnancy and its aftereffects. She may be married. She may be single. Her reasons are entirely her own. They may be related to her familial, economic, social, physical, medical, or marital conditions. Her reasons may be selfless or narcissistic. They may be sinful. They may be virtuous.
The current Seventh-day Adventist Guidelines on abortion have served us well in dealing with these women. They are compassionate, practical and directly address many of the challenging issues surrounding abortion. They are not judgmental, nor do they espouse cheap grace. They give wise counsel to women, husbands, families, clergy, and clinicians. They allow me to show the clients in my clinic that not all Christian churches embrace attitudes that are condemnatory and disparaging. They offer hope.
Our current guidelines set us apart from most other conservative Christian denominations by highlighting some of our most important and central differences: our focus on the Creator rather than the created; the wholeness and multidimensional unity of mankind; the beauty and danger of sexual pleasure, including procreation, as a magnificent gift of a loving God, and, the freedom and responsibility that come with being created in the image of God, with the power to think and to act as free moral agents.
As I said before, I have nothing new to add to the abortion debate. There are no new texts in the Bible or in the inspired word that directly address the issue. Thus, it seems, we are pressed to compel our divines to re-read the tea leaves and re-examine the entrails in an effort to find clues that will support the principles that may better meet the political, ideological, and religious outcomes that some in our church apparently desire.
If we do this, I fear that we run the great risk of becoming “just another judgmental” conservative Christian denomination that no longer has hope to offer to the hopeless in clinics such as the one in which I serve. I would assert that there is no economic, political, or denominational benefit worthy enough to be gained at such a cost.
Mark B. Johnson, M.D., M.P.H.
“A Clinical Ethicist’s Perspective on Creating a New Abortion Statement,” by Mark F. Carr, October 2, 2019
"Abortion Rates and Ratios Continue Dropping in the United States" by David Larson, September 27, 2019
“Our Abortion Guidelines Are Too Good to Replace” by David Larson, September 16, 2019
“Abortion Law: Adventist Leaders Active Behind the Scenes” by Kent Kingston, September 18, 2019
“Amidst Growing Criticism Adventist Church is Revisiting Abortion Position” by Michael Peabody, September 23, 2019
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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