Lifestyles Left and Right

Wesley’s Pro-Lifers

The United Methodist Church has gradually moved away from its pro-choice position on abortion.

By 11.17.08

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With the strengthening of Democratic congressional majorities, the election of Barack Obama, and liberal victories on state ballot initiatives concerning abortion, bioethics, and assisted suicide, the last two weeks have given little for pro-lifers to celebrate. Yet pro-lifers have also seen the emergence of more encouraging trends in unlikely places.

One is the United Methodist Church, our country's second-largest Protestant denomination. Like other mainline American Protestant denominations, United Methodism has for decades been dominated by a theologically liberal and radical hierarchy that is out-of-step with the generally much more conservative grassroots membership. One of the many reflections of this was the official abortion-friendly positions adopted by such denominations a generation ago.

At its 1972 General Conference (as the denomination's quadrennial policymaking body is called) the United Methodist Church adopted a lengthy statement of "Social Principles" on various controversial issues, including a moral defense of abortion and a call for the practice's legalization. Ever since, pro-life United Methodists have been trying to take their church back. In the last three General Conferences, "death with dignity" rhetoric of "right-to-die" advocates was officially abandoned in order to clearly state that the denomination "opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia" along with "any pressure upon the dying to end their lives." At the 1988 General Conference, the Social Principles statement was amended to oppose abortion "as a means of gender selection" or as a "means of birth control" -- which, the data shows, applies to most U.S. abortions.

In 1992 and 1996, the denomination passed amendments calling the church "to provide nurturing ministries" to "those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy," including both "those who terminate a pregnancy" and "those who give birth." At the 2000 General Conference, statement was added "oppos[ing] the use of" partial-birth abortion and "call[ing] for the end of this practice" in most instances. In 2004, the statement on abortion was qualified with strong support for adoption. The denomination's position was further modified that year to recognize post-abortion stress and promote counseling for its victims.

When United Methodists convened this spring, they took quite a number of pro-life steps. Delegates adopted a supplemental statement that lengthily denounced the global problem of gender-selective abortion while describing abortion as "violent" and something to oppose when chosen for "trivial reasons." Opposition to abortion as a means of birth control was strengthened, and language opposing parental notification requirements was neutralized while adult "notification and consent" and family consultation were endorsed for minors' abortions. The Social Principles now indicate a clear preference for life with a sentence to "affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers … that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion."

More significantly, this last General Conference removed much of the pro-abortion language that had remained in place for 36 years. 1972 rhetoric about circumstances that "warrant" abortion, "unacceptable pregnancy," and support for abortion being somehow "[i]n continuity with past Christian teaching" were stricken from the Social Principles, which now declare that "we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child." Now the abortion problem with the United Methodist Social Principles has been reduced to a single sentence, which "supports[s] the legal option of abortion" during unspecified "tragic conflicts of life with life."

It is true that the pace of pro-life progress has been frustratingly slow, and the vagueness of that single sentence has enabled liberal denominational officials to continue claiming a mandate for promoting pro-abortion policies in the church's name. Yet the encouraging fact remains that for the last 20 years, every abortion-related change to the denomination's Social Principles has been life-affirming. There are now also positive signs of change in the denominational hierarchy, with at least three bishops in as many years taking the groundbreaking step of speaking out against abortion.

The biggest disappointment for the pro-life Methodist cause came when a margin of just 32 General Conference delegates (out of 800 voting) sustained the denomination's continued affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which stridently opposes any legal restriction or moral disapproval of abortion. The vote was suspiciously scheduled at a time when more than 100 of the increasingly international denomination's pro-life-leaning African delegates were absent. The vote was also influenced by a massive and apparently unprecedented effort by RCRC staff and volunteers before and during the General Conference to lobby delegates, at several points with blatant dishonesty about the extent of their uncompromising extremism. Yet the fact remains that the United Methodist vote on RCRC affiliation was nevertheless the closest it has ever been.

It is also worth remembering that there is recent precedent for an abortion-affirming denomination to reverse course. Two other mainline Protestant denominations, the American Baptist and the Northern Moravians, have chosen to sever their past ties with RCRC. America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, adopted a resolution in 1971 that anticipated the Supreme Court's reasoning two years later, demanding legal abortion for reasons as vague as the threat of consequences for the mother's emotional health, effectively making any abortion impossible to prohibit.

In 1974, they adopted a mealy-mouthed resolution calling for "a middle ground" on abortion without any supporting any concrete limitation. Among RCRC's early supporters were several Southern Baptist seminary professors and Foy Valentine, who remained that denomination's chief public spokesman on social issues until 1986. Yet through a struggle of many years, the Southern Baptist Convention has renounced its support for abortion, adopted a position in line with historic Christian teaching, and become a critical institutional bulwark of the pro-life movement.

Many pro-life United Methodists are cautiously optimistic that a similar change may be underway in their own denomination.

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About the Author

John Lomperis writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.