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Documents of Synod:
Studies of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod
(1965 to 1982)


[153rd General Synod Minutes, 30 May 1975, pp. 98-108; Documents of Synod, pp. 7-17.]


The sixth commandment, which is, Thou shalt not kill, requires "All lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others," and forbids "the taking away of our own life or the life of our neighbors unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto" (Shorter Catechism, qq. 68-69). The taking away of human life by another human being is justifiable only "in cases of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense" (Larger Catechism, q. 136). Otherwise the commandment forbids the destruction of the life of any.

Abortion, in distinction from miscarriage, is the intentional killing of a human fetus between conception and birth. The fetus is human by virtue of being a product of human procreation. The act of abortion presupposes that the fetus is alive for it arrests development by inflicting death. The moral question is: whether the life of the fetus is to be preserved just as the life of any human being, or whether, as a developing human being, the life of the fetus may be taken away in circumstances other than the exceptional cases cited above.

Are the unborn included in the respect and preservation of human life required in the sixth commandment? Because abortion is an act of human initiative that interrupts a continuum of developing human life, the burden of moral justification rests upon those who approve abortion. If human life is held to be at some time inviolate, but not from conception, it is incumbent upon those who take this view to show that the point of discrimination is not arbitrarily chosen, but is based upon a substantive change in the fetus.

It is not possible, however, in an increasingly abortifacient society, for those concerned with the protection of fetal life to rest content having charged others with the burden of proof. The moral situation of abortion may be further clarified by appeal to (1) the biblical view of the nature of humanness, (2) the biblical view of nascent life, and (3) the biological facts of generation and fetal development.

The Biblical View of Humanness

The specific biblical ground for the protection of human life is the creation of human kind in the image of God (Genesis 1:28, 5:3). God the creator thus set human beings apart from the rest of creation. While the remainder of created things were given to man to be killed when necessary for his benefit, man was not to be destroyed by his fellow man. At the fall some spiritual qualities associated with the image of God in man were lost (true knowledge, righteousness and holiness--Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10). Further, man was limited to expressing degrees of other characteristics indicative of his being in God's image (reason, will, dominion). but the protection given him by God was not meted out in degrees (Genesis 9:6). It was proclaimed as a unique value, permitted to be taken only in specific situations (lawful war, public justice, necessary defense). It was predicated of beings in the human continuum as such, apart from whatever degree of human characteristics were manifest by the individuals (reason, will, righteousness). This being the case, it is impossible to construe the right to life in terms of social utility or based upon such relative and vague notions as "personhood." This principle affects not only the question of abortion, but that of mercy killing as well.

When speaking of the fetus, it is clear that it does not manifest many of the characteristics normally associated with adult human beings. But it is living and human by virtue of its being in the human continuum of development. That development originates in the reproductive system, which is the God-ordained means of perpetuating the species created in his image, and continues through the glorification of the believer by the grace of God. Therefore, the right to life of the fetus is not to be calculated in terms of its value relative to the social or psychological needs of the mother or family. While concern needs to be manifest for the quality of life of the people affected by an unwanted pregnancy, such concerns cannot weigh against the unique value of human life.

The Biblical View of Nascent Life

The Bible nowhere directly deals with the question of abortion. It does, however, contain a number of references to conception and pre-natal life from which human responsibility toward the unborn may be inferred.

The mandate for human procreation is given in Genesis 1:28, immediately following the assertion that God created mankind in his image, male and female. The God-ordained means of filling the earth with human beings in his image is the generative potency of human sexuality. Human beings do not merely reproduce "after their kind"' they procreate beings who, like themselves, are the image of God. See Genesis 5:1-3.

Not that the activity of God is suspended. The Bible frequently acknowledges conception to be a matter of God's gift. The story of Hannah is a good reminder of this, and other examples abound. Thus Eve, after the first human conception and birth, exclaims, "I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD" (Gen. 4:1, NASB). The truth is enshrined in the praises of Israel: "Behold, children are a gift of the LORD; the fruit of the womb is a reward" (Psa. 127:3).

Between the momentous events of conception and birth, which are regularly linked in the language of Scripture (Isa. 7:14 and many references), God continues his activity in the unfolding development of the fetus. Of this Psalm 139:13-16 is the classic expression. What David finds so over-whelming in this Psalm is the LORD's all-encompassing personal knowledge and presence. In particular he stands in awe of God's care for him in his pre-natal state: "For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother's womb" (vs. 13, NASB). A significant personal continuity is assumed for David continues, "I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." In Psalm 51 David confesses a continuity of sinfulness not only from birth but from conception (vs. 5), the historical beginning of his existence.

Appeal may also be made to the historical beginning of the incarnation wherein the Son of God took to himself human nature, being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary (Matt. 1:20), where gennao stands unambiguously for conception). The uniqueness of the event and its mode does not affect its relevance to the question of abortion. From conception the Son of God is incarnate, his human nature accorded the right to life by no other law than that which grants the right to any human being. Since Jesus as to his humanity was made like us in every way (Heb. 2:17) it follows that authentic human existence deserving the respect and protection of the sixth commandment begins at conception.

This is sometimes denied on the basis of Exodus 21:22f. It is argued that since "life for life" is required only in case of the death of the mother, therefore the unborn child is not regarded as a human life to which the sixth commandment applies in the full sense--otherwise "life for life" would be required in case of the death of the fetus. Thus, abortion is justifiable under circumstances which would not justify the taking of human life already born.

Numerous difficulties surround the attempt to regard this text as definitive. Quite apart from the hazard of appealing to a particular item of civil legislation to establish a moral principle (compare the preceding two verses as well as the familiar provision for the certificate of divorce), the interpretation of the meaning of the text is in doubt. The argument assumes that the child is not included in the phrase "but no harm follows...but if harm follow." It is at least possible, however, that a delivery brought on by the trauma is in view (the use of yeled for that which comes forth lends itself to this interpretation), in which cases "harm" would refer naturally to the child as well as to the mother. A text that is thus unclear in its meaning and doubtful in its application (even assuming a difference in the penalty for maternal and fetal death it might be accounted for on the basis of the indirect causation of the latter) can hardly be appealed to as providing definitive moral guidance.

The inference to be drawn from the consistent view of nascent life taught in the Bible is that human life from conception falls under the duties required and the sins forbidden by the sixth commandment, including "the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life...and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any" (Larger Catechism, q. 136).

Biological Continuity

The right of the fetus to the protection of the sixth commandment is affirmed not only by the relationship of the image of God to normal reproduction and the inferences based upon Biblical texts, but by the nature of fetal development. From the moment that the sperm enters the egg, creating an inviolable union, until the cessation of that life in death, there is no substantive change to the biological integrity of the created being. There is substantial development, but that development is a manifestation of the chromosomal pattern established at conception, without radical interruption or change. The radical changes that do occur (e.g., birth) are changes of situation or location, but not of biological integrity. The names given to the various stages of fetal development do not indicate the evolutionary creation of a new being at each level, but rather describe stages of change and development.

At conception the 23 chromosomes each of the sperm and egg align to form a 46-chromosome cell--human tissue--unlike that of any other living thing. The genetic structure established at the moment guides the development of sex, skin, eye and hair color, height and weight, among other characteristics. In a few days the zygote moves down the fallopian tube, to implant itself into the mother's uterus. There it picks up nourishment and discharges wastes while dividing and developing. Within four weeks, a precursor to the fully developed heart has formed and is pumping blood (several names are applied during this time, such as marula, and blastocyst). The baby is a separate but dependent human life with its own chromosomal pattern and circulatory system.

From the 4th to the 7th weeks all major internal and external structures develop. This is called the embryonic period, and at its end head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, legs, fingers, and toes are recognizable, though small, for the baby is only 1/2-inch long. The 8th week to birth is called the fetal period. The stage is so called because of the ease of recognizing human features with the unaided eye. Fetal growth from the 8th week is phenomenal; first rapid head growth, then trunk growth and finally rapid extremity growth. Eyebrows and hair appear at about 18 to 20 weeks. At 25 weeks a fetus may survive if born at that time, although many die because of incomplete lung development. The 35th to 38th week period is mostly "finishing," getting as ready as possible for survival after birth.

Biologically, at no stage can we assume the unborn is a mere appendage of the mother. Genetically they are separate individuals. Physiologically the unborn determines the development of the pregnancy. The fetus exercises in utero, by only 63 days after his beginning can grasp an object placed into his hand, and will recoil from painful stimuli such as a sharp grab.

There is no point when the developing fetus undergoes a radical change in which it ceases to be or is radically more than what it was the day before. Growth is based upon and is a manifestation of the patterns established at the point of conception. To justify abortion prior to a change in biological development, thus associating fetal humanness and the image of God with that change (EEG, "quickening," viability), is not based fundamentally upon a change in the biological structure of the fetus, but upon an arbitrary decision. The humanness of the child at birth, by tracing back its continuous development, clearly implies the humanness of the fetus at conception. And the humanness of the fetus, given through the normal process of human reproduction, can be attributed only arbitrarily to some other point than conception.

Pastoral Guidelines

Abortion is an increasingly common experience in our culture that, by its very nature, presents conflicts between different means, means and ends, and different ends. The situation that presents itself as one in which abortion will be considered is not, for many people, one in which there is one, obvious choice. The ethical problem arises precisely because arguments can be made for the legitimate consideration of different options.

To facilitate communication with counselees and the understanding of the abortion options, the following analysis is offered. Aside from those abortions desired solely for selfish reasons, most ethical conflicts in the abortion situation may be understood in terms of conflict between two or more of the following principles of life. Counseling will often be most effective when the legitimacy of concerns is recognized while at the same time leading the person to see that the principles motivating those concerns are relative, while the principle of life protecting the fetus is absolute.

I. Principles derived from the relationship with the Creator.

The fundamental principle of life concerns the relationship and maintenance of a living relationship with God. Repeatedly in the scriptures the Lord calls man to life, a life of abundance (John 10:10), a life of sacrifice (Mt. 8), an eternal life (1 Jn. 1), a life of trust (Mt. 6), a life of complete obedience to the Lord (Mt. 6). Man's obligation within this principle is to respond to God and to make himself available to God as a tool to facilitate the response of others.

B. The second principle of life in the scriptures concerns the obligation and right of the individual to make proper use of his psycho-physical unity. Man's life is a gift. He must use it, develop it and make it available for use to the glory of God. Within this life choices must be made. While no freedom in the creation is complete, man was created with the ability, and is continually confronted by God with the obligation, to choose between viable options in this life. Man is ultimately held responsible for the choices made in this "freedom." He must make the decisions concerning the use of his body wherever possible. The individual must choose between being a servant to passions and the God-fearing use of his body and mind.

C. The third basic spiritual obligation is the preservation and development of the family and parenthood. Not all choose to enter marriage. But once that choice is made, the functioning of the family is of utmost importance. God has established the family not only as the basis of the covenant blessings, but also as the basic sociological unit. Within this obligation a family, and the society of which it is a part, must strive to preserve the structure and effectiveness of the basic unity. Those decisions which fall within the purview of the family ought to be made there (children, education, spiritual responsibilities, etc.) except in those few instances of overriding social obligations.

II. Principles derived from the dominion over the creation

A. The first right and obligation derived from the command to govern the created order concerns man's relationship to the use of creation. While the wanton destruction of the creation is never allowed, much less suggested, man has been given the opportunity to deal with nature in self-serving ways. The creation is available to serve man as the image of God, to meet needs as they arise and to provide the framework within which man is enabled to carry out his service to God.

B. The second basic principle, closely associated with the first, is the obligation of the species to provide and care for itself. In the garden Adam worked, thereby participating in the on-going development of creation. With the disruption of the creation in the Fall man became vulnerable to the destructive powers of the creation. His work then became not only a means to provide for himself, but also a way in which the species might survive. The obligation to affirm and preserve the life God has created involves the unified efforts of man in this fallen and populous world. Government is given to man by God, in part, to deal with this situation (LC, qq. 135, 136, Gen. 3:17).

C. As the race and the members of the race have been given the obligations to band together to protect themselves and survive, so the individual has the right to be protected and the obligation to effect the protection of the other members of the society. Building upon the specific command of the sixth commandment, society must provide both the protection of life and those conditions that facilitate the development of life (LC, q. 136 with proofs).


In the normal process of executing the decisions of this life these principles serve as functional guidelines for the Christian, and for much of Western society. But there are occasions in which these principles come into conflict with one another. After analyzing the situations that give rise to requests for abortions, this appears to be the situation in many of the cases. Population control evidences the concern of the society for the quality of life of the people involved. The survival of the race and the quality of that survival are at stake in the minds of many. Concern with the psychological health of the mother evidences a concern with the right of the individual to maintain a life capable of making choices, a life of peace and meaning. Society has an obligation to protect the individual and to provide those situations wherein the individual may develop. Concern with the sociological and economic conditions of the family involved evidences a proper desire to protect and propagate the family as the foundation of both the secular and Christian experience. The desire for an abortion based upon rape or incest evidences the desire of the society to protect the individual from unwanted intrusions into life and to insure the stability and sound foundations of the family. The concern for the deformed or the unwanted child, while often based upon the somewhat arbitrary commitment to the ideal right of every newborn to a sound mind in a sound body in a supportive environment, may be based upon the responsibility of members of society to provide as much assistance as possible to make life as meaningful and useful as possible. And finally, concern for the physical health of the mother demonstrates the obligation to protect the individual from attack and destruction and to maintain the family as a viable, contributing force in society. It is the feeling of the committee that Christians have often tended to categorize those seeking abortions as persons who desire the destruction of life for inherently selfish reasons.
It is true that there are many abortions "on demand" for reasons that are based in selfish motives (cosmetic, timing, etc.).
It is also true that for many the abortion process is a dilemma because of the conflicting and legitimate desires not to destroy the fetus and to protect the quality of life in some other area of life, as noted above.

Where there is no conflict of life principles, the affirmation of life must take precedence over the less basic demands. For example, convenience is not a sufficient reason to destroy the dignity of the fetus. But where real conflicts occur, how are the competing claims of these life principles to be resolved? The first effort in resolving the conflict must be to ask whether the conflict between the two or more principles is in fact irremediable. The quickest option, abortion, cannot be justified unless there is no other way out of the difficulty. What such analysis will conclude is that abortion is unnecessary except in those cases where the life of the mother is threatened.

In the case of the principle of protecting the fetus as the image of God the options for remedying the situation are two: either one kills the fetus or one does not. One may choose a premature delivery, although that is not a solution to several of the conflicts. With the development of the artificial placenta, growth of the fetus outside of the womb may also become an option. But until that time possible resolutions to conflicts from the side of the fetus are limited to the two already stated. However, in the cases of the opposing principles the options for resolution are more numerous.

1.) Population control.
It is certainly clear that population control by the use of abortion is highly effective (e.g., Japan). But the population problem at this point is more speculation of demographers than substantiated fact. Even if it were a life-threatening problem, abortion is certainly not the only solution. Widespread dissemination of information concerning sex and the availability and instruction in the use of birth control measures are certainly two of many options. With such options available and untried, the conflict between the survival of the race and the survival of the fetus is dissipated. In such a case a violation of the principle of protection of the fetus cannot be condoned.

2.) The psychological health of the mother.
Until the present time, because of the restrictive nature of the abortion laws in most states, the psychological indication has often been used as the rubric under which "demand" abortions have been performed. It is therefore exceedingly difficult to analyze the significance of this category as an option for abortion. In the first place, it is not at all clear that pregnancy is a causative factor in the advent of mental illness of a definable nature. Further, it is not clear that abortion is a remedy for any definable emotional state that incapacitates the individual. From the beginning then there is real doubt about the existence of a conflict between the psychological health of the mother and the life of the fetus.

It is true that a pregnancy may bring to the surface a latent psychological disturbance that is unrelated to the pregnancy in etiology. It is also true that a pregnancy may bring about significant emotional distress. But with the advent of increasingly effective techniques of mental hygiene and the relatively mild nature of the disturbances causes by pregnancy, the alternative of psychological care makes abortion unnecessary. In those cases where a pregnancy precipitates a severe disturbance but in which the pregnancy is not a causative factor, the application of sound treatment must be preferred to abortion. Even where the individual threatens suicide because of the pregnancy (assuming that the threat is serious), or where it could be clearly demonstrated that the pregnancy is the cause of the psychological disturbance, the effectiveness of treatment and the questionable value and result of an abortion make the conflict between maternal psychological health and fetal life unnecessary.

It must be emphasized at this point that we are not dealing only with the comparative value of treatment or abortion as therapy for psychological disturbances. It must also be noted that the reaction to an abortion is often psychologically more severe than going to term or a premature delivery. While an abortion is certainly the most rapid method of uncomplicating the situation in which a woman has an emotional difficulty during pregnancy, the questionable value of an abortion, the option of sound and helpful therapy, and the severe cost of killing the fetus make abortions on the basis of the psychological helath of the mother unwarranted.

3.) Deformed or unwanted child.
While based upon a "quality of life" assumption that is highly questionable, there is demonstrated here a concern for the problems that the child will face and the strain placed upon the family and mother in dealing with an unwanted or deformed child who will make "excessive" demands upon the people involved. Specifically in the problem of the unwanted child researchers have been thus far unsuccessful in establishing a direct correlation between the desires of the mother and the family concerning the child during early pregnancy (unwanted) and the resulting quality of life of the child (battered, security, etc.). In addition, the vacillation in the attitude of the people involved makes the establishment of the "unwanted" category difficult. The committee doubts the viability of the category of "unwanted" pregnancies and rejects justification of abortion based solely upon these desires.

[To be continued....]

4.) Rape, incest.

[To be continued....]

5.) Family.

[To be continued....]

6.) The life and physical health of the mother.

[To be continued....]


The committee recommends that Synod, in light of the above report, adopt the following resolution:

Believing that the sixth commandment condemns the wanton or arbitary destruction of any human life at any stage of development, we therefore affirm that voluntary abortion, except in the necessary defense of the physical life of the mother when such is clearly threatened by the presence of the fetus, is a violation of that commandment.
We call upon our society to deal justly with the unborn, and encourage Christians to implement this call in their various spheres of influence knowing that "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people." (Proverbs 14:34)
At the same time, we call upon society and the church to show compassion toward unwed mothers and other mothers in distress, not only offering sympathetic counsel but concrete relief, economic or otherwise (1 John 3:16-18, James 2:14-17).

Respectfully submitted,
Claude DePrine
David C. Jones
Fredric Sloan
Wilber Wallis
Mark Pett, Chairman


After lengthy discussion the Committee's recommendation was approved. (NOTE: On Wednesday night, Dr. James Hurley offered a substitution for the first paragraph of the recommendation. It was approved and reads: "Believing that the Scriptures clearly affirm the sanctity of the life of man, the image of God, and condemns its wanton or arbitrary destruction, we affirm that voluntary abortion, except in the necessary defense of the physical life of the mother when such is clearly threatened by the presence of the fetus, is a violation of the principles involved in the sixth commandment." See page 163)

[Documents of Synod, pages 7-17.]

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