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Presbyterians issue middle-of-road abortion paper

A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) panel has issued a report opposing criminal penalties for persons seeking or performing abortions while acknowledging a "legitimate" government interest in regulating the practice.

Advocates of the report, issued this week from denominational headquarters here, are hailing it as a middle-of-the-road document. They said it could bring healing and unity to a denomination that is sharply divided between advocates of abortion rights and abortion foes.

The Rev. Zolton Phillips III of Baltimore, a former president of the anti-abortion group Presbyterians Pro-Life, said he signed the report because it addresses the concerns of both camps.

"I think both voices are here," said Phillips. "I think the conclusions are ones that I can live with.

The report describes abortion as an option of "last resort" not to be used "casually, or as a repeated method of contraception." It describes the practice as "morally acceptable" in cases of rape or incest, when a mother's life is at risk and when the fetus is deformed beyond possibility of survival.

It stops short of specifying situations in which abortion should be regulated.

The report says fewer unwanted pregnancies could be achieved by improved sex education and access to contraceptives. It advocates that sex be limited to married couples and that news organizations "portray sexual activity both less frequently and more responsibly."

It also calls for universal health care, affordable day care and other social services that would make it easier for low-income women to raise children rather than opt for abortion. It says Presbyterian churches should consider offering adoption programs, homes for pregnant women and other services.

Current Presbyterian policy, as defined in a 1983 abortion report, affirms the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling establishing abortion rights based on length of pregnancy and fetal viability. Following years of complaints about the denomination's support of abortion rights, the church's 1988 General Assembly authorized a study of the issue, which led to the report.