Hillary, Methodism & Abortion

on August 10, 2016

The Atlantic ran a piece on Hillary Clinton and abortion that portrayed her views as the product of, and aligned with, her United Methodism.  It’s true that she was deeply shaped by Methodism as a young woman, but the article misses some serious nuances.

Hillary came of age in the 1960s, at the height of Methodism’s Social Gospel liberalism and on the precipice of the denomination’s 50 year membership implosion.  Theological orthodoxy had long since collapsed among the church’s elites, and many traditional Christian ethical standards, especially relating to autonomy and the human body, were now now under question.

In 1970 United Methodism first affirmed abortion rights, and in 1973 the church helped found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights to counter Catholic pro-life activism. Many Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals in that era conflated abortion with contraception, characterizing opposition as Catholic and reactionary.  A 1972 United Methodist policy statement declared that in “continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion.”  But there was little in official Methodist witness on abortion that acknowledged or even debated historic universal Christian opposition to abortion.

There was always internal opposition to United Methodist affirmation of abortion rights.  The church’s most prominent theologian Albert Outler opposed this stance from the start, as did the church’s most prominent ethicist Paul Ramsey.  But the church’s political witness remained unwaveringly opposed to any legal restrictions on abortion.  In 1996 the church’s chief lobbyist signed an ecumenical appeal for President Clinton to veto a ban on partial birth abortion.

That controversial church defense of partial birth abortion led to the 2000 General Conference’s ratifying policy language opposing partial-birth abortion, which was part of a decades long trend of amending the church’s affirmation of abortion rights. The 1992 General Conference had nearly voted to withdraw from the abortion rights coalition, which shortly after moved from the Capitol Hill Methodist Building.

Subsequent attempts to withdraw the church from the abortion coalition failed until this year, when a strong majority of the General Conference mandated withdrawal.  The delegates also by a large majority revoked a 42 year old church policy affirming Roe v. Wade.  These  votes reflected partly the growth of conservative African United Methodism. But they also revealed that many moderate USA Methodists, especially the young, were no longer comfortable with old style abortion rights activism.

So United Methodism has been trending for years away from abortion rights and towards a somewhat more pro-life perspective.  This trajectory reflects both unease with the over 50 million abortions since the 1973 court ruling and an increasing appreciation for universal historic church teaching on life, fueled by the growth of overseas United Methodism and the rebirth of theological orthodoxy after nearly a century of dominant theological liberalism.

Hillary Clinton on abortion represents a Methodist ethos of the 1960s and 1970s but not of recent years. She also emerged from Mainline Protestant culture before the Mainline’s demographic and cultural collapse.

The Atlantic article about Hillary, Methodism and abortion recalled Bill Clinton years ago seeking counsel on abortion from a Baptist clergy, who singularly consulted his Bible and decided personhood doesn’t begin until birth when God “breathes life” into the baby.  Here is the classic hyper Protestant presumption that truth may obtain through the individual without regard to the universal.

United Methodism is still trying to recover from that presumption.


  1. Comment by Nutstuyu on August 10, 2016 at 3:07 pm


  2. Comment by DannyBoyJr on August 11, 2016 at 12:20 am

    While I applaud the decision to withdraw unconditional support for abortion, I am still uneasy with a full ban on the procedure. Maybe it’s my own history of mainline Methodism, but I do accept that first trimester abortions may be acceptable as long as it is to save the life of the mother, or if the fetus is dead or non-viable. It is not black or white.

    As for when life begins, I am unpersuaded by the “life begins at conception” claim. It seems we may need to revive the old notion of “quickening” or “ensoulment”, which is usually timed at about the end of the first trimester of the pregnancy.

  3. Comment by Tim Morgan on September 21, 2016 at 12:42 am

    not our call dude.

  4. Comment by Skipper on August 11, 2016 at 10:09 am

    A candidate that supports un-Christian behavior, like same-sex marriage and abortion should not claim to be a Methodist.

    Remember when Bill Clinton claimed to be Southern Baptist and they said his positions were not theirs?

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.