Opponents count votes, weigh tactics and Constitutions.

When does one’s life begin?

At conception (fertilization)? At implantation in the uterus? At viability, whatever that is? At birth?

For U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and hosts of antiabortionists, the answer is obvious: at conception.

Helms’s legislative proposal S. 158, dropped into the hopper several months ago, would make that answer a matter of public policy.

Amid charges of a stacked deck of witnesses, the first round of hearings on the bill were held last month by a subcommittee chaired by Helms’s protégé, John East (R-N.C.). Seven of the eight medical-scientific authorities who testified upheld the contention that human life begins at conception—the foundation slab of the Helms bill.

(Corresponding bills have been introduced in the House by Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois and Democrat Romano L. Mazzoli of Kentucky.)

In defining the fetus as a “person,” the bill would extend to all unborn the due-process protection of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It would permit states to ban or otherwise strictly regulate abortions, in effect reversing the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision that struck down statutes outlawing or greatly restricting abortion.

The bill in a separate section would prohibit lower federal courts from involvement in abortion cases.

Until S. 158, many antiabortionists were pinning their hopes on an amendment to the Constitution to outlaw abortion. But that route requires two-thirds approval of each house of Congress and ratification by 38 states. Advocates of a constitutional amendment have been unable to agree on wording or strategy, and none of the many versions has been reported out of committee.

Ardent antiabortion activists themselves are hopelessly split: some want exceptions for such reasons as rape and incest included in the wording; others are holding out resolutely for no exceptions. And some Catholics among them have blended their opposition to unnatural contraception with their antiabortion views, further clouding the amendment cause.

In contrast, a legislative bill needs only a simple majority to pass each house, and it can be enforced after the President signs it. (Ronald Reagan has expressed support for the goals of the Helms bill.)

Proabortionists generally see little chance of an amendment being passed in the near future, but a statute is conceivably within easy reach since both houses are ruled by a conservative majority. Some antiabortionists fear that debate over a statute, whose continued existence would be subject to the ideological whims of future congresses, will distract from efforts to win an amendment. Others—including some stalwart antiabortionists on Capitol Hill—believe the Helms bill is unconstitutional.

Article continues below

Originally, the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution chaired by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was to have cosponsored the hearings on S. 158 with East’s subcommittee on the separation of powers. Expressing qualms about the bill’s constitutionality, however. Hatch quietly bowed out.

The two-day-long proceedings were held in one of the largest hearing rooms on Capitol Hill, and the wheelchair-confined East—an acknowledged born-again Christian who says he attends “an independent. Bible-believing church”—had to face the capacity crowds virtually alone. His Republican colleagues had schedule conflicts, and the Democrats stayed away, complaining that East had refused to call witnesses they recommended.

The first witnesses, all doctors, were: Jerome Lejeune, genetics professor at Rene Descartes University in Paris; medical researcher Micheline M. Matthews-Roth of Harvard University Medical School; professor Hymie Gordon, chairman of the medical genetics department of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota; Watson Bowes, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine; McCarthy DeMere, a plastic surgeon and lawyer from Memphis; Chicago clinic operator Jasper Williams; pediatrician Alfred Bongiovanni of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and dean of medicine at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico; and Leon Rosenberg, chairman of genetics at Yale University School of Medicine.

With the union of chromosomes at conception, said Lejeune, a new autonomous human has come into being.

Citing the “criteria of modern molecular biology,” Gordon declared that “all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception.”

They and Matthews-Roth, who quoted from numerous textbooks, insisted that they were only telling East what is taught in every university in the world.

However, Rosenberg, who said he was invited to testify only a week earlier, said he knows of no scientific evidence that “bears on the question of when ‘actual human life’ exists.” The “notion embodied in the phrase … is not a scientific one, but rather a metaphysical one,” he said. Science and medicine, he continued, should not be invoked to justify an antiabortion position. “Go ask your minister, your priest, your rabbi, or your God,” he declared, “because it is in their domain that this matter resides.”

Article continues below

Under questioning by East, Rosenberg said that human life ought to be protected at the point of viability—“when one can exist on his own outside the uterus.” He acknowledged that no consensus exists as to when a fetus becomes viable. He pointed out that contraceptives like intrauterine devices (IUDs), which prevent the fertilized egg from implanting itself in the uterus, would be outlawed under the bill (as would so-called morning-after pills and suppositories for self-use in the first five weeks of pregnancy, now undergoing nationwide testing).

Rosenberg, who received loud and sustained applause, insisted that his was the majority view of the scientific community.

Twice, during Gordon’s and Matthews-Roth’s testimonies, small bands of female demonstrators interrupted the proceedings, waving unfurled banners they had smuggled in and chanting protest slogans: “A woman’s life is a human life. Stop the proceedings!” They were arrested.

Taking credit for the outbursts was the Women’s Liberation Zap Action Brigade. Declared a spokeswoman: “Members of Congress, members of the medical profession who have testified, and the church have no right to interfere in a woman’s personal decision to have an abortion.” That view was echoed by other groups, including the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.

East was deluged with written protests from many groups before and after the hearings. Many complained about his initial plan to restrict the hearings to scientific and legal testimony. In response, he announced plans to hold additional rounds of hearings, and to include philosophical, theological, and sociological testimony. He indicated all sides would be represented.

A number of legal authorities, ranging from counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union to Americans United for Separation of Church and State and even the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, questioned the constitutionality of the bill, citing what they said were serious conflicts or deficiencies.

Following the first round of hearings, East seemed to appreciate witness McCarthy DeMere’s analysis: “Senator, you have opened a can of worms.”

Church-and-state issues
Lawyers Are Challenged To Battle Secularist Inroads

Christian lawyers were called to action on many fronts and from many perspectives during a four-day convention sponsored by the Christian Legal Society late last month. The meetings were held on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Article continues below

The theme of religious freedom was the centerpiece. In particular, focus was on ways the Constitution is used today as a noose to strangle that freedom, even though it was written as a shield to protect it. One reason that bobbed gently to the surface from time to time was that some lawyers who believe in Christian principles have been asleep at the switch.

“What is a Christian lawyer?” asked theologian Francis Schaeffer in an address to the lawyers. “Is he someone who puts Christian magazines on the table in his waiting room?”

Schaeffer said the purpose of the First Amendment, in its two references to absolute religious freedom, was to prevent the establishment of a state church, not to obliterate the influence of religion on government as is being done today. “To suggest a viable state separated from religion to these [founding fathers] would have utterly amazed them,” Schaeffer said. “In these shifts that have come in the law, where have the Christian lawyers been?… [To] a nonlawyer like myself, I think I have a right to feel let down a bit.”

Schaeffer said the country is far along in becoming a totally humanistic society, with a system of laws being used as the agent to force humanistic beliefs on the country. He said repeatedly that Christians need to see their faith governing all aspects of life and cultures: “The Lord is lord not only of religious life, but of totality.”

Schaeffer said evangelical leadership as a whole has not been as strong as it should be: “Its main concern has been not to rock the boat.” He said some church leaders (whom he did not name) actually sought to prevent people from attending his second film/lecture series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, a powerful presentation of the medical and social ethics that result from humanistic philosophy.

William Bentley Ball, a Pennsylvania lawyer known for his success in defending Christian liberty in the courts, spoke of a “tidal wave” of secularism that is assaulting Christian freedoms. He called it the natural result of a society that has pushed God from its center and has tried to solve its problems by itself. According to Ball, secularism holds that rights come from society, not from the individual, regardless of what the Constitution says about those rights.

Its promoters are careful not to appear antireligious, Ball said. Every government attorney he has faced in court proclaims that people are free to believe whatever they wish. “However, when one acts in the name of religion, the state’s interests come first,” he said. “I am always amused by this marvelous simplism: an American is religiously free—inside his head.”

Article continues below

Ball named four arenas in which he believes secularism seems to be most threatening: (1) abuse of the federal tax power; (2) wrong use of the state’s licensing power; (3) sex discrimination rulings; and (4) the denial of religious liberty in public institutions. He said the matter of religious discrimination is especially significant since all Christians do not hold women as identical to men in matters of church office. Neither do all Christians believe in the spirit of the Equal Rights Amendment—that there must be no discrimination based on sex. Ball reminded the lawyers that “many of the sex discrimination cases thus far have not been well defended, and … the cement of bad case law is starting to harden.”

Charles Colson, White House advisor to President Richard Nixon who became tangled in the Watergate scandal and wound up in prison—and who emerged from his ordeal a Christian committed to prison reforms—spoke harshly about the failures of American prisons. “How [does a Christian] get involved in issues of criminal justice?” Colson asked rhetorically. “A better question is, how do you not get involved? You have to care. Jesus cared. The more I read [the gospel accounts] the more radical I get every time I walk into a prison.”

Colson said that many experts believe harsher sentences will reduce crime. But that has not been the case: the average sentence in federal prisons in 1945 was 16.5 months, and in 1975, 45.2 months; yet crime is increasing. Colson described in detail the revolting conditions of some prisons he has been in. He said, however, that the chief cause of bitterness among the nation’s prisoners is not those conditions, but unfair sentencing practices of the courts. He called that system “insane” and “ludicrous.” Colson said experts have long believed that poverty, racism, and oppression are at the root of crime, but then referred to a massive study done by two staff members at the George Washington University medical school showing that this view is wrong. The study found that it is a deliberate decision by an individual to do evil and not to do good that causes a criminal act, said Colson. The solution the researchers discovered, he said, was to convert the criminal to a more responsible lifestyle. The study cited by Colson is in two volumes, entitled The Criminal Personality, by Stanton Samenow and Samuel Yochelson.

Article continues below


Columbia Bible College
Graham Association Donates Land For Education Center

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has given 1,447 acres of wooded property near Asheville, North Carolina, to Columbia Bible College in Columbia. South Carolina. The Graham organization invested more than $4 million in the property.

A fire destroyed part of Columbia’s Ben Lippen High School and summer conference center in Asheville, and the new land will be used to relocate the school and expand the conference center into a year-round retreat and training center for lay people. The programs are to include discipleship training, leadership development, spiritual renewal, family building, and “tentmaker” training for missionaries headed for countries closed to traditional missionary ventures. Plans include weekend retreats and weekend workshops and seminars.

J. Robertson McQuilkin, president of Columbia, said Graham talked with him several years ago about developing the facilities jointly, but that Graham feels led to concentrate his efforts on evangelism.

McQuilken said much more money will have to be raised before the property can be developed, but professed astonishment at the expressions of interest from across the country—especially from people not connected with the college. “This will be an entirely new approach,” he said.

Ben Lippen is primarily a residential high school for children of people in full-time Christian work overseas. In a newsletter about the gift of land, McQuilken said, “As you may know, we have been very limited at Ben Lippen, no room to expand, aging buildings, and a noisy, bustling community fast closing in on all sides. But we never had thought of moving until God let our past go up in smoke, clearing the way for something far better.”

North American Scene

A Texas state judge in Austin has ruled that fundamentalist pastor Lester Roloff of Corpus Christi does not need licenses to operate his three homes for wayward children, thus ending for Roloff an eight-year run of court appearances. Judge Charles Matthews ruled that the children’s homes are part of Roloff’s church, and therefore exempt from state licensing requirements. The victory is important for fundamentalists across the country who have been fighting to keep their schools free of government regulations on grounds that the schools are inseparable from their churches.

The fight over biblical inerrancy that has been boiling in the Southern Baptist Convention has taken on new partisan overtones with the announcement that Abner V. McCall, president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, will challenge Bailey Smith for the presidency of the 13.6-million-member denomination. The SBC president is traditionally unopposed for election to a second one-year term, but moderates are unhappy because they believe Smith, elected last year, has put too many “fundamentalists” on convention committees.

Article continues below

The United Methodist evangelical caucus Good News established a legal defense fund after two Pennsylvania pastors were dismissed on charges they violated church discipline. The pastors had told their congregations they could not support payment of the UMC’s World Service apportionments on grounds that funds often were used to support Marxist groups (CT, April 10, p. 60). The Good News executive committee set up the fund “to investigate and to assure that justice and fair play prevail for pastors who are being oppressed.”

Lee College officials say the school figures to recover its $1 million investment with a Miami, Florida, corporation that has been charged with bilking some 400 investors nationwide. President Charles Conn of the 1,400-student Church of God school in Cleveland, Tennessee, said that Lee made every effort to insure the safety of its investment. But he charged that the school received fraudulent documents from the company. Conn wrote a complaint letter to the ABC television network, which had described the alleged pyramid financial scheme in a way he felt portrayed the school as “gambling” with its endowment fund money’s and as “a villain, rather than victim.”

An immediate end to federal subsidies for second-class mailings for nonprofit organizations is part of the Reagan budget approved by the House of Representatives earlier this month. Unless reversed, that means that postage rates for religious magazines will double as of October 1. Editor John Stapert, who has monitored legislative developments for religious press organizations, recently queried publishers as to their plans if that occurs. More than half said they would reduce frequency of publication; about a quarter would cut back the number of pages per issue. Out of 85, 6 said they would consider ceasing publication. The rest would try to absort costs in other ways. Third-class direct mail promotional costs would also rise for nonprofit organizations.

Theologically liberal denominations are biased toward the extreme left and promoting views contrary to those held by most local churches, charged a new group of conservative theologians and intellectuals. The Institute on Religion and Democracy, formed to give grassroots churches the other perspective, singled out the National Council of Churches as funding and publicizing in such a way as to contribute to a leftist revolution in El Salvador. United Methodist evangelist and institute director Edmund W. Robb said the liberal churches’ support of Salvadorian antigovemment factions is a “new form of cultural imperialism imposed by U.S. church groups” and they “will no longer go unchallenged.” The institute’s organizing members include evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry, Catholic professor James V. Schall, and journalists Richard Neuhaus and Michael Novak, among others.

Article continues below

“The largest convocation of biblical scholars ever assembled to inform … on … the authority of God’s Word,” is what James M. Boice calls a planned Congress on the Bible to be held in San Diego in March 1982. The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, of which he is president, is sponsoring the event, and has already confirmed the names of 35 speakers. The council, which met last month in Atlanta is eager to move beyond the inerrancy-infallibility discussion to reinstating the Bible as God’s authoritative Word in the lives of individuals.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.