A traditional, conservative stance on abortion has been endorsed by delegates at the Presbyterian Church’s annual General Assembly – although some significant dissent has also been aired.
One retired cleric suggested that regarding an embryo as being the same as a fully-formed child is like failing to distinguish between an acorn and an oak tree.
Another current minister said that a report on abortion which had been placed before delegates was “not helpful” in dealing with the actual realities they must face in society.
Those at Assembly Buildings in Belfast on Tuesday were presented with a five-point motion, which was debated and then voted on.
The seconder of the motion, Professor Stephen Williams, described the whole issue as a “harrowing subject” – but challenged any pro-abortion delegates to state exactly what the difference is between killing a child and terminating a foetus.
He mentioned a notion raised by two academic authors in 2012 that children could be “aborted” even outside the womb in an “after-birth abortion”.
He said: “Let me be absolutely clear: I’m not claiming that anyone in this house supports so-called post-natal abortion.
“However, it is incumbent on those who support abortion to explain where such authors as these have gone astray in their logic.”
One of several people who took to the podium to object to the wording of the motion was Ron Savage, retired minister of Stormont Presbyterian Church.
“I’m unhappy with the declaration that human life begins at the moment of conception,” he said.
“This morning many of you enjoyed a fine breakfast and included in it was a boiled egg or a scrambled egg on toast or a fried egg as part of a good old Ulster fry to sustain us through the long hours of the General Assembly.
“But, you did not for one moment think that you were having chicken.”
He added: “An egg is not a chicken... An acorn is not an oak tree. So I find it hard to think of an embryo as anything other than a potential human being, rather than fully human.”
He concluded: “To abort an embryo cannot be thought of as the same thing as killing a child.”
However, the next speaker drew murmurs of “hear, hear” when he took to the podium to say he was “distressed that a human embryo should be compared to either a chicken or an acorn.”
Rev Dr Lesley Carroll – minister of Fortwilliam and Macrory in north Belfast, who stood unsuccessfully for the UUP as an MLA in that part of the city – said: “The human experience for woman who have been raped or of women who are carrying a child who they know will not live, must raise compassion in our hearts...
“There are many women who, when reading this report or hearing this debate, will see anything and experience anything but compassion.”
She added: “In my view there are realities that this report would be improved by acknowledging.”
One was that women are already being offered abortions anyway – but are having to travel to England to obtain them.
Another is that women are placing themselves in danger by self-aborting using illegal online pills.
She said the report was “not helpful” in providing a moral path to navigate “through these realities”.
The motion put before delegates had five main points:
1) Reaffirm that human life begins at conception; 2) That the church opposes “abortion on demand for purely social reasons”; 3) there should be “stringent safeguards” around who is currently allowed to obtain an abortion; 4) backing the provision of perinatal care, and 5) welcoming the report as a “cogent theological and moral reflection on the issue”.
However, when motion was put to a vote in its entirety (using the process of listening to Ayes and Nays), it passed by a very large margin – albeit with a minority of audible objections.