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
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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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