A Complex Position on Abortion: Access, Decision-making, and Legality

[1] Have you ever been unexpectedly pregnant?  I have.

[2] When I realized I was pregnant, the visceral alarm I felt brought the words, “How can this be?” to my lips.  I did not intend to speak Mary’s words when the angel spoke to her (Luke 1:34a).  But there they were, signaling disbelief, alarm, disruption.  It was Advent 2005.

[3] My spouse and I had many factors to consider; they ranged from health and healthcare to vocations to economics to family dynamics.  In the end, we did not so much follow logic as we did our embodied sensibilities of what was right for us right then.

[4] Pregnant persons must be the decision-makers because decisions about pregnancy are about more than the developing fetus.  I certainly understood this in 2005.  This was a personal and familial situation, yet being able to make our own decision relied on a social system that protected the legality of abortion, mandated its safety, and allowed for its ease of access.  The decision belonged to me and my spouse.  We chose pregnancy.

[5] At the time, I had never read the ELCA[1] social statement on Abortion (1991).  In hindsight, it is unlikely the social statement would have helped us personally during our crisis.  From my perspective, its importance lies elsewhere—in pastoral care, ecclesial attitudes and services, and legislative advocacy.  Unexpected pregnancy is not the only reason for abortions.  Other reasons include fatal fetal abnormalities; dangers to the one pregnant; or sexual violence, for instance.  Our perspectives socially and as a church need to include the multiple reasons for abortion in order to cultivate wise pastoral care and legislative advocacy that aligns with our social teaching and policy.

[6] In this article I therefore interpret not only the Abortion social statement, but also relevant aspects of a more recent ELCA social statement, Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action.  Together, these ELCA social teaching and policy documents are crucial for individual and collective dialogue and action in a time such as this when legal, safe, and accessible abortion services no longer exist across the United States and U.S. Territories.

[7] In the first part of the article, I offer a summary of what is in the two ELCA social statements.  It is important to be aware of the basic claims of each regarding reproductive justice.  In the second part of the article, I comment on several aspects of the 1991 statement.  My hope is that as a church, we have some dialogue on those elements that reflect its age. What I offer in that section does not represent an official position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Rather, I rely on my theological knowledge and over 15 years of experience serving “to assist this church to address sexism”[2] through my vocation as director for ELCA Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment.[3]  I also speak from experience as someone who has had to make decisions about pregnancy and childbirth; I am a mother to three children.

What does the ELCA social statement Abortion (1991) say?

[8] This social statement specifically engages moral and ethical considerations of abortion.  Interwoven themes include moral decision-making; the role of the church in social and personal realities of pregnancy and abortion; the nature of sexual relations; and the role of the law in reproductive healthcare, including birth control.

[9] At the outset, the statement is confessional and relational.  As a church, we confess that we are united with each other and all of creation because God creates us and that we are united with all Christians through Christ.  As a church body, we recognize the deep divide over whether or not abortion should be viewed as morally justified or legal.  These points might seem like givens.  Yet they lead the ELCA to take a complex position on abortion, one that was ahead of its time in 1991 and continues to remain unusual in relation to the usual extremes in positions.

[10] The social statement holds both the developing life and the pregnant person with esteem.  Neither has a right exclusively over the other.  To that end, the social statement makes clear that this church advocates for adoption and considers abortion only for dire circumstances:  “Abortion ought to be an option only of last resort.  Therefore, as a church we seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.”[4]

[11] The ELCA “as a community of faith” therefore commits itself to many aspects of policy and practice that support avoiding unintended pregnancy and that support having children and healthy lives.   “This can include financial, nutritional, medical, educational, social, and psychological, as well as spiritual support.”[5]  The statement calls for the support for full and healthy life to be reflected in “congregational life and church policy.”[6]

[12] In addition, the ELCA advocates for sex only in marriage; sex education; and challenges to “irresponsible sexual activity; materialism, individualism, and excessive concern for self-interest; . . . [and] attitudes and practices that are inhospitable to children and to the women who bear them; [and] low regard of human life, especially the lives of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans, and of many women and children who are poor.”[7]

[13] At the same time, the social statement makes clear that this church considers pregnant persons to have moral agency; moral agency means they are the ones in relationship with self and others (partners, medical caregivers, family, etc.) to make the decision whether or not to have an abortion.  Those who need to decide have moral authority (the freedom and “right” to make decisions) that involves their whole person—body, mind, and spirit. They should be trusted to make decisions; they should be supported by their pastors and communities.[8]  Because making a decision to have an abortion or to keep a pregnancy can be difficult, anyone who needs to make this decision is encouraged “to seek support and counsel” from trusted people, including professionals and pastors.  ELCA members, including pastors, should be trained to offer competent and respectful responses.  The pregnant person has moral authority in this decision:  “It is important that those who counsel persons faced with unintended pregnancies respect how deeply the woman’s pregnancy involves her whole person—body, mind and spirit—in relation to all the commitments that comprise her stewardship of life.  Counsellors should seek to call forth her power to act responsibly after prayerful reflection upon all factors involved.”[9] As womanist ethicist Traci West argues, “Knowledge that we acquire through our bodily perceptions must not be discounted in ethics, for it is a crucial source of moral knowledge.”[10]  At issue in the culture and experiences of decisions to have an abortion is that women’s moral authority is disputed and often denied.

[14] In most circumstances, this church wants to see pregnancies continue, but this church also acknowledges that every situation needs to be assessed given the circumstances in which people find themselves.  The ELCA encourages adoption but recognizes that adoption is not always realistic.  People who give their children for adoption, the statement notes, should have social support.

[15] At the same time, “This church recognizes that there can be sound reasons for ending a pregnancy through induced abortion.”[11]  According to the statement, every situation is different and requires its own “morally responsible decision.”[12]  The ELCA recognizes that there are, for instance, considerations for the circumstances for becoming pregnant; the health of the fetus and mother; and what the pregnancy means for the person who is pregnant.[13]

[16] However, “This church opposes ending intrauterine life when a fetus is developed enough to live outside a uterus with the aid of reasonable and necessary technology.  If a pregnancy needs to be interrupted after this point, every reasonable and necessary effort should be made to support this life, unless there are lethal fetal abnormalities indicating that the prospective newborn will die very soon.”[14]  Reproductive healthcare in the form of abortion services needs to be regulated, this church asserts, yet pregnant persons are the ones who should decide what to do.

[17] Insofar as personal moral decision-making, the statement concludes with trust in God’s mercy and grace:  “We have the responsibility to make the best possible decisions in light of the information available to us and our sense of accountability to God, neighbor, and self.  In these decisions, we must ultimately rely on the grace of God.”[15]  The decision-making and the pastoral care people need ends where the statement itself began, in trust in God.

[18] But what of public policies and laws related to abortion?  “The purpose of the law,” this church holds, “is to protect life and liberty, and to provide for the general welfare of society.”[16]  As the social statement outlines, this church’s position on abortion should influence the law because laws are meant to provide justice for all.[17]  To this end, the social statement asserts three ecclesial ethical actions:  prevent unintended pregnancies; support life after birth; and regulate abortion.

[19] Preventing unintended pregnancies is essential to decreasing the number of abortions.  Therefore, the ELCA supports sex education in schools, homes, and churches; community-based prevention programs; parenting courses; accessible contraceptives; voluntary sterilization; and “research and development of new forms of contraception.”[18]

[20] Because difficult circumstances are often the reason for decisions to abort a pregnancy, the ELCA is committed “to improve support for life in society.”[19]  Social responsibility for families and children includes “access to quality, affordable health care, child care, and housing;” “[s]ufficient income . . . or . . . government assistance;” “increased support for education, nutrition, and services that protect children from abuse and neglect;” adequate parental leave; “greater flexibility in the work place;” corrections to gender-based pay inequity; and laws that hold all parents financially responsible for their children.[20]

[21] Although members of the ELCA have divergent views on abortion regulation, the church as a whole—through social teaching and policy—holds the position that the government should regulate abortion.  The challenge, the statement acknowledges, is twofold.  Laws need both to protect prenatal life and to protect the dignity and freedom of persons to make decisions.[21]  “Laws should be enacted and enforced justly for the preservation and enhancement of life,” the statement reads, “and should avoid unduly encumbering or endangering the lives of women.”[22]  This is a complex position, indeed.

[22] Because of the ELCA’s complex position as a church, it opposes the following:  “the total lack of regulation of abortion; legislation that would outlaw abortion in all circumstances; laws that prevent access to information about all options available to women faced with unintended pregnancies; laws that deny access to safe and affordable services for morally justifiable abortions; mandatory or coerced abortion or sterilization; laws that prevent couples from practicing contraception; laws that are primarily intended to harass those contemplating or deciding for an abortion.”[23] In sum, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America supports legal, safe, and accessible services to abortion while at the same time this church urges adoption and pledges itself to crucial social supports to decrease the factors that make it difficult to have children.

What does the ELCA social statement Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action (2019) say about abortion and reproductive healthcare?

[23] Specifically regarding abortion, this social statement echoes and supports the 1991 statement.[24]  Yet it underscores the contextual and personal factors affecting reproductive healthcare decisions:  “Such care is to be provided according to need in all cases, and this church opposes any effort to roll back that delivery.  While questions about how best to organize and finance mechanisms of care leave room for legitimate debate, the mandate for equitable access to reproductive health care remains.”[25]  This mandate to protect the legality, safety, and accessibility of abortion services flows from a Lutheran understanding of justice in the statement.

[24] Justice is the form that love of neighbor takes in society.  “Grounded in faith and love,” the 2019 statement reads, “we seek justice for ourselves and our neighbors within congregations, religious and secular institutions, governments, and societies.  This love includes gender justice.”[26]  In turn, gender justice is about cultivating and ensuring people are protected from laws and practices that negatively affect people on the basis of (biological) sex and gender.  For instance, gender justice includes laws that protect people from gender-based pay discrimination and social attitudes that make it normal for anyone—not only women and girls—to cry when they are sad or upset.

[25] Gender justice also encompasses reproductive justice.  Black women activists and scholars in particular have advanced the values and practices of reproductive justice, a comprehensive vision that includes not only access to abortion services, but also, for example, prenatal and post-partum healthcare for Black women that takes seriously their particular maternal health risks and their personal reports of concerns.  The full picture of reproductive justice from within this movement is based in the values of communal health and well-being; infant and child well-being; and women’s embodied knowledge and moral deliberation; authority; and agency. Read one way, these same values are in ELCA social teaching and policy.

How has the ELCA social statement Abortion (1991) aged?  My personal perspective

[26] I am grateful that this church has social teaching and policy on access to abortion.  I recognize the complex and moderating position of the 1991 social statement.  It is amazing that an ELCA churchwide assembly could vote on it, holding divergent and sometimes opposing perspectives together.  In my role as director for ELCA Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment, I have worked to represent, interpret, and advocate for what is in the text, whether or not I agree with it.  That is my job as a staff member of the ELCA churchwide organization.

[27] Here I offer a brief critique that does not represent the official church position.  I offer comments as part of the reflection and discernment that belongs to the whole church in this time after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned national legal protection to abortion services.  Because of this church’s teaching, we need to think through together what our responsibilities are in pastoral care and legislative advocacy.  Here are some initial reflections for others to join.

[28] First, every time I read the 1991 social statement, I am struck by the fact that the voice of the statement feels distant from pregnant people.  The rhetoric is not the voice of pregnant persons but rather to pregnant persons.

[29] Second, the statement reflects overwhelmingly biased assumptions regarding who becomes pregnant and how.  The statement makes it seem like people with unexpected pregnancies are careless, lacking knowledge, or self-centered in their decisions to have an abortion.  Recent statistics show that the majority of women who have abortions already have at least one child.  Recent statistics also show that white women have abortions at a slightly higher rate than other racial or ethnic groups of women.[27]  Lastly, we now know that transgender men become pregnant, as do persons who are non-binary.  Today our language about abortion would be different.

[30] Third, the statement overwhelmingly refers to the necessity of abortion in relation to unexpected pregnancies.  There is little mention of the medical necessities such as ectopic pregnancies.

[31] Fourth, the statement refers to a specific number of weeks after which this church declares abortion should not occur.  Making a medical guideline in church teaching seems potentially to threaten practices that may need to be done after a certain number of weeks in order to protect the person who is pregnant.

[32] Lastly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commits itself to social goods that are often elusive and therefore make it difficult to bear and raise children.  The list in the statement is specific:  “access to quality, affordable health care, child care, and housing;” “[s]ufficient income . . . or . . . government assistance;” “increased support for education, nutrition, and services that protect children from abuse and neglect;” adequate parental leave; “greater flexibility in the work place;” corrections to gender-based pay inequity; and laws that hold all parents financially responsible for their children.[28]

[33] My own experience after the birth of our third child was that my family was without affordable child care and housing, without sufficient income, without access to affordable and adequate education, without adequate parental leave, without flexibility in the workplace, and without gender-based equitable pay.  And I worked for the church many years after the 1991 social statement was voted upon.  If I had become pregnant another time, I would have had an abortion because there were too many social factors missing or left unsupported for a healthy and flourishing family.  While the reality was difficult, my experience simply illustrates the broader social problems of housing, education, transportation, child care, health care, and compensation. Women often choose to have an abortion because they do not have what they need, including when they work for the church.

[34] Beyond these important factors of what it takes to raise children, there is the ongoing challenge to women’s moral agency—her authority to make decisions for herself and her family in relation to self, God, and others in her life.  Recently there have been significant challenges made to women’s moral agency.  This has surfaced even in bills and laws to protect abortion for women and girls who have suffered rape or incest and become pregnant.  According to journalist Bill Lueders, laws are in place in Idaho, Mississippi, and Oklahoma that require “women seeking an abortion for rape or incest to file a report with the police to qualify for access to the procedure.”  A bill for a similar law in South Carolina (which did not pass) “required that DNA from the aborted fetus be collected for police.”[29]  Forcing women and girls who have experienced sexual violence to trust a system that has been proven not to believe them about sexual violence reinforces and multiplies the problems of not believing and trusting women to be moral agents.  The ELCA statement does assert pregnant persons moral agency. Today, that statement needs to be re-asserted.

[35] And here is the challenge. Each state (and sometimes separate counties) is now creating its own laws. Some of these laws are in direct conflict with ELCA social teaching and policy that abortion should be legal, safe, accessible, and well-regulated to ensure a balance of care between pregnant persons and developing life.  What is and will be our ecclesial response?  Just as in 1991 when this church responded with a complex answer to the moral and legal concerns of abortion, I believe this church is called forth to answer with similar complexity.



[1] All references to “the ELCA” refer to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a whole church.  “The ELCA” does not refer to the churchwide organization of the ELCA.

[2] The job description for which I am responsible uses this phrase.

[3] Prior to 2021, the position was director for justice for women; it was updated to match the analogous position in the Lutheran World Federation and to indicate the reality that all persons are affected by sexism, not only women.

[4] Abortion (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1991), 3-4, ELCA.org/socialstatements.

[5] Abortion, 4.

[6] Abortion, 4.

[7] Abortion, 5.

[8] See Abortion, 5-6.

[9] Abortion, 5-6.

[10] Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 42.

[11] Abortion, 6.

[12] Abortion, 6.

[13] See Abortion, 7.

[14] Abortion, 7.

[15] Abortion, 7.

[16] Abortion, 7.

[17] See Abortion, 8.

[18] Abortion, 8.

[19] Abortion, 8.

[20] See Abortion, 8.

[21] See Abortion, 9.

[22] Abortion, 9.

[23] Abortion, 9-10.

[24] See Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2019), 62, ELCA.org/socialstatements.

[25] Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action, 62.

[26] Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action, 21.

[27] Guttmacher Institute. Demographics | Guttmacher Institute Accessed January 11, 2023.

[28] See Abortion, 8.

[29] Bill Lueders, “The Problem with Making Rape Survivors Prove It,” The Bulwark, December 6, 2022. The Problem with Making Rape Survivors Prove It – The Bulwark. Accessed January 11, 2023.

Mary Streufert

Streufert holds a doctorate in philosophy of religion and theology from Claremont Graduate University and serves as director for Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her publications include feminist systematic theology; sex, gender, and sexuality theories; Luther scholarship—and most recently, Language for God: A Lutheran Perspective (Fortress Press, 2022).