Methodist Church Continues to Become More Pro-Life
In 1972, America’s second-largest Protestant denomination officially endorsed legalized abortion, as did other “mainline” American Protestant denominations around that same time. However, the April 23–May 2 meeting of the top policymaking body of the United Methodist Church took several incremental but significant steps to move in a more pro-life direction. Specifically, the 2008 United Methodist General Conference decided to:
“Affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.”
Delete from a previously adopted statement the assertion that supporting legalized abortion was somehow “[i]n continuity with past Christian teaching.”
Replace “pro-choice” language in that same statement about “unacceptable pregnanc[ies]” with the pro-life assertion that “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.”
Decry the international problem of gender-selective abortions, while describing abortion as something that is “violent” and to be opposed when chosen for “trivial reasons.”
Support adult “notification and consent” for minors seeking abortions.
“Reject euthanasia and pressure upon the dying to end their lives.”
Between 1988 and this year, pro-life United Methodists had succeeded in adding numerous improvements to their denomination’s official statement on abortion, such as opposing abortion chosen for reasons of birth control or gender selection, opposing partial-birth abortions, and recognizing the reality of post-abortion stress. Some have argued that the first of these puts the church in opposition to most abortions in the U.S., as only a small minority are chosen for reasons related to rape, incest, or actual, severe physical health complications for the mother or child.
However, the denomination’s main position statement still includes a single problematic sentence “support[ing] the legal option of abortion” during unspecified “tragic conflicts of life with life.” This vague wording has been used by some United Methodist officials to align the denomination’s public witness with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). The RCRC agenda is a no-compromise abortion rights utopia, stridently denouncing any restriction on abortion.
The biggest pro-life disappointment at this General Conference was the affirmation by a margin of just 32 votes (out of 800 cast) of the denomination’s continued affiliation with RCRC.
Several factors worked in RCRC’s favor. RCRC launched a very heavy and seemingly unprecedented effort to lobby delegates before and during the conference. The decision on RCRC was scheduled at a time when an estimated 100+ delegates from the U.S.-based denomination’s growing African regions (who tend to be more pro-life than their American counterparts) were not present to vote.
Delegates had also been treated to several misleading pro-RCRC statements before they voted, such as a distributed RCRC flyer’s claim that the group had never “supported the use of partial-birth abortion.” (As a matter of fact, RCRC has for years consistently lobbied against any attempt to limit this barbaric practice opposed by United Methodism’s “Social Principles.”) At one point a liberal bishop took the very unusual step of directly testifying to delegates in favor of RCRC.
Nevertheless, the vote on RCRC was closer than at any previous United Methodist General Conference. By the end of the General Conference, abortion opponents had gained significant ground without losing anything that they already had.
While the pace has been much more gradual than many of us would like to see, the trend of the last 20 years for the United Methodist Church’s public witness on abortion has been in a clearly pro-life direction. If pro-life United Methodists continue to stay within their denomination and build on previous victories, it should only be a matter of time before United Methodism more wholeheartedly joins the ecumenical effort to defend vulnerable human life.