When it comes to abortion, Seventh-day Adventists range from providers to prominent pro-life advocates. Now the 21-million-member denomination may be revisiting its position on the controversial issue.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has announced that it is considering revisiting its pro-choice stance on the topic of abortion. According to a press release issued on August 29, the denomination’s Biblical Research Institute (BRI) has been studying the issue from a theological perspective for the last two years. BRI is preparing a statement that “reflects Scriptural principles bearing on the discussion of abortion.” The issue has been intensely debated in the church as some institutions have recognized the contributions of Adventist physicians who operate abortion clinics while other high-profile physicians have taken a strong stance against abortion.
Adventist Institutions and the Abortion Industry
The church, which has a common administrative system but has 21 million members around the world, makes key decisions using a representative-democratic system consisting of clergy and lay people. The church, in a smaller executive committee, adopted the current guidelines on abortion in 1992 which take a pro-choice position, but the denomination as a whole has yet to vote on it at a General Conference session, the highest governing body of the church.
For Adventists, the issue of abortion is not a theoretical abstraction but a practical matter that impacts how the church operates its approximately 198 hospitals around the world, including the second largest hospital in the United States, Florida Hospital. Adventist hospitals rely on the 1992 guidelines and an earlier draft from November 1989, as well as local laws, to determine what type of abortion services are provided. (See Walla Walla General Hospital “Abortion: Policy and Procedure.)
The debate over the church’s affiliation with the abortion industry became intense in 2013 when Christianity Today reported that La Sierra University, a 2,400-student Adventist liberal arts college in Riverside, California, had named its Center for Financial Literacy after Dr. Edward C. Allred, the founder of Family Planning Associates, one of the largest abortion chains in the United States with 23 locations in California. According to the La Sierra University website, Allred, an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is “both the principal sponsor of the center and the inspiration behind its economic philosophy.” According to the Family Planning Associates website Allred’s business partner, Dr. Kenneth Wright, “pioneered the use of saline amniocentesis, a technique for terminating pregnancy safely in the second trimester.”
Pro-life Adventist Ben Carson Pioneered Neurosurgery Inside the Womb
In contrast, Dr. Ben Carson, who currently serves as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, spent his career before politics performing life-saving procedures on babies in the womb. As the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland from 1984 to 2013, he performed the first successful neurosurgical procedure on a fetus inside the womb. He is also an outspoken pro-life advocate.
Earlier this year, Carson gave an interview at CPAC 2019 about the subject of abortion. , “God has orchestrated an incredible situation where the egg and the sperm come together, and within a matter of 10 to 12 weeks, you can see the little fingers and the little toes, and the little nose, and the face, the heart is starting to beat,” Carson said. “It’s absolutely amazing.”
“And then (the brain) goes on to develop very rapidly from there. Hundreds of thousands of neurons every single day… I’ve had the privilege of being able to operate on little babies that were 25, 26, 27, 28 weeks’ gestation. I can guarantee you, they can feel, they can react… You have to give them anesthesia if you’re going to cut them. They can also respond to comfort and to warmth.”
“For somebody to say that’s a meaningless bunch of cells,” Carson said, “honestly is just totally ignorant.”
Other well-known Adventists have stood for the defense of life, even times of war as seen in Mel Gibson’s 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge (worldwide box office $175.3 million) which featured Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist medic who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving lives in combat despite his refusal to touch a weapon.
Protests Outside Adventist Hospital Prompted Debates in early 1990s
In 1985, protesters from a local megachurch gathered outside two Adventist hospitals in the Washington, DC area to protest abortion, according to the Washington Post. This raised awareness among church members. In response to the growing awareness, the Potomac Conference constituency, comprised of laypeople and clergy from the the regional administrative organization, passed a resolution in 1991 by a vote of 190 to 58 asking that Washington Adventist Hospital and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital “immediately adopt and implement abortion policies that institutionally prohibit abortions for social or economic reasons including convenience, birth control, gender selection, or avoidance of embarrassment; limiting the abortion procedure to those times when a pregnancy threatens the mother’s physical life, when the fetus is gravely abnormal, and in cases of rape and incest. The appointment of a committee charged with prospectively reviewing all requests for abortion would be essential to ensure the implementation of these guidelines.”
The Potomac Conference resolution continued, “We further ask the Abortion Study Commission to continue monitoring the abortion policies and numbers of abortions performed at our hospitals and to report to our next constituency meeting on the hospitals’ response to this appeal. The committee shall consist of at least 50 percent female representation.”
The Internet and the Abortion Debate
While the church’s official publications have avoided discussion of the abortion issue, pro-life Adventists have taken to the Internet to call on the church to revisit its position. Nic Simojluk, Ph.D., has written several self-published books outlining the history of Adventists and abortion and maintains the blog AdventLife. Adventist church member Andrew “Prolife Andrew” Michell has gained attention for the issue by posting nearly 200 videos on his YouTube channel calling out church leaders that he feels are not responsive to the issue and offering a large financial award to any pastor who can find a Bible verse justifying abortion. So far, Prolife Andrew reports he has received no response.
Jamey Houghton, the pastor of the Franktown Adventist Church in Colorado, wrote that, “With the evidence in scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy, as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I have no choice but to be in favor of supporting the lives of the unborn if I am to stay faithful to God’s word.”
Adventist pastor and WhiteHorse Media director Steve Wolhberg released a 13-part television series entitled “The Abortion Controversy: Two Women Tell Their Stories of Hope and Healing.” He has recently made the series available on YouTube.
Last month, Scott Ritsema, director of Belt of Truth Ministries, released a video, “Abortion: Are Seventh-day Adventists Pro-Life?” (YouTube), featuring prominent church leaders, including It is Written speaker John Bradshaw, General Conference President Ted Wilson, Pastor Doug Batchelor, and other key evangelists discussing their support of a pro-life position.
In contrast to the pro-life voices, few Adventists who support abortion have spoken publicly about their support of the existing guidelines with the notable exceptions of Loma Linda University religion professor and medical ethicist Dr. David Larson, ,who wrote a blog article, “Our Abortion Guidelines are Too Good to Replace!” on the Spectrum Magazine website, and Pastor Kevin D. Paulson, who wrote a paper entitled “The Abortion Question” several years ago and more recently commented on the Adventist News Network article website. Larson maintains that the church’s position is nuanced and “both” pro-choice and pro-life while Paulson argues that fetal life is not human until it breathes the air outside the womb. Paulson also believes that pro-life arguments conflict with his concept of the principles of religious liberty as expressed in the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
A Call to Revisit the 1992 Guidelines
Last year, Adventist author Martin Weber, D.Min., and former associate editor of Ministry Magazine gave several reasons why he believes the denomination should revisit its guidelines in the North Pacific Union Gleaner:
“Scripture is not silent about prenatal human life. Hebrew and Greek both use the same words to describe a baby before and after birth. It was a baby, not disposable fetal tissue, who leaped in the womb of Elizabeth (Luke 1:44) when Mary visited her. All of us may be thankful the virgin mother did not abort the incarnate Son of God within her. Adventists who teach that the fetus is not human life need to explain what happened to Jesus for the nine months He lived in Mary’s womb.
“In light of all this, what justification can there be for destroying prenatal life, having acknowledged it as “a magnificent gift from God”? Is this not breaking the sixth commandment? And in facilitating abortion, are we not making ourselves the lords of life and death — thus also violating the fourth commandment, which memorializes the creation of life?
“At the 1992 Annual Council debate about abortion, the General Conference Ministerial Association powerfully advocated for prenatal life. Our September issue of Ministry magazine that year featured articles and editorials on the subject. During the debate, I remember holding up a health magazine that described coffee drinking by pregnant women as “unborn child abuse.”
“I asked fellow delegates, “If causing the fetal heart to race a few minutes because of caffeine consumption is child abuse, then what is it when you invade the womb and literally tear apart that beating heart? How can we possibly pass a policy that permits that?”
“Nevertheless, the abortion document was voted overwhelmingly. And now we find ourselves in an embarrassing and inexplicable situation: Public media report that Roman Catholics defend creation life in the womb while Seventh-day Adventists do not. I believe it is time to revisit our official church policy on abortion.”
The Biblical Research Institute has not yet released its paper and some scholars, who have requested anonymity, have expressed concern that the denomination will be pressured by medical and academic interests to shelve the document.
However, the pressure to address the issue is expected to continue to intensify as church members who may not be aware that the issue exists continue to use social media to express their concerns.
In October, the Seventh-day Adventist Executive Committee, comprised of representatives from around the world, will meet to discuss and vote on whether the issue will be brought to the floor of the 2020 General Conference Session in Indianapolis. According to the Adventist Record, the church’s official magazine for the South Pacific Division, “it is anticipated that the new statement will be submitted for discussion and vote to delegates from around the world during the GC Session at Indianapolis in June / July 2020.”