This is Part 2 of my remarks on the United Methodist Church and abortion, delivered earlier this year at the official invitation of the UMC’s Western Pennsylvania Conference.
Part 1 explored the questions of what difference the UMC’s public witness on abortion really makes, and what hope there could be for such a denomination.
Part 3 details the history of how the United Methodist Church finally repudiated pro-abortion extremism. Part 4 explores where we may go from here and for those eager to reduce abortions, outlines the Nine Steps to Being a Pro-Life Congregation.
I’ve been asked to share a bit about how God has been moving in our denomination in our debates in how much we value the lives of unborn children. This story really integrates with my own story.…. It also involves some key people from Western Pennsylvania, so this is a good place to share it.
In the United Methodist congregations I grew up in, the culture was that controversial issues like homosexuality or abortion should generally be avoided. Apparently, we were supposed to just let church members form their own opinions on such matters from influences outside of the church.
Then when I was around 18 years old, I had a very “born again” experience of really coming to understand that I am a sinner, so sinful that I deserved the death penalty to which I and all the rest of us have been sentenced, but that Jesus Christ paid the price for my sins on the cross, and I embraced new life through repentance and faith in Him.
In college, I was forced to really rethink the abortion issue. In my United Methodist youth group, I had been taught to think in terms of Scripture, church tradition, reason, and experience. Church tradition could hardly be clearer from the church strongly opposing abortion in the first century through writings of John Wesley characterizing abortion very negatively.
In Scripture we see that God loves and created ALL people in His own image, with Psalm 139 talking about God lovingly knitting me together inside my mother’s womb, and the very first man to rejoice at Jesus Christ coming into the world being the unborn baby John. There’s also the basic commandment “thou shalt not kill.”
Reason is clear that logically and scientifically, an unborn child IS a separate human being with his own unique genes, and not “just a clump of cells” or equivalent to toenails you clip off, as abortion defenders sometimes say.
And as for experience, I could not ignore the testimonies of all the women harmed by their past abortions, of the women who had been pushed to get abortions but had chosen life and not regretted it, or of the brutal realities of the violence actually done to a baby during an abortion.
And I had learned to get past such [objections] as “well, I don’t want to imply that my friend who had an abortion is some sort of BAD person” – because the Gospel teaches that we are ALL sinners, but can ALL find repentance and new life in Jesus Christ!
As a religious studies major, I was really eager to learn more about our denomination’s history. This new evangelical faith I was embracing seemed so much in line with what the Wesley brothers and the early Methodists were doing.
Then I did some more reading online about the current state of my denomination. And what really, REALLY got to me was learning about some group called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). Here was a group the MY denomination played a key role in establishing. A group who lobbied Congress to oppose even the mildest restrictions on abortion, who attacked even moral disapproval of abortion, who used very harsh language to demonize Christians with pro-life values – and who did all of this with the name and apparent support of MY church!
I am not sure I can overstate how much of a devastating betrayal this felt like for me. It was like in some movies where a key character suddenly finds out that the beloved parental figure he’s looked up to his whole life was really the bad guy all along. But what could I do? I felt so alone. Non-Methodist pro-life friends didn’t see why I stayed United Methodist.
So I tried some things in desperation. [This involved spending a good deal of time and emotional energy reaching out to various people in ways that never went anywhere. For example, I tried talking to a minister of a small mainline campus ministry at my university about my concerns over her vocal public support for making access to abortion more widespread, given how if abortion had been more widespread in a certain part of India, my own cousin would have been aborted rather than adopted by my aunt and uncle.]
At this point, like a lot of laypeople, I didn’t have a clue about how our denomination works. I had no idea what the difference was between a General Conference or a central conference or a charge conference, but I had never been to any of them. I assumed that if the United Methodist Church officially supports something, then that must be what all the United Methodist pastors support.
So I sent an email to my United Methodist pastor expressing my feelings of betrayal. I used some really strong language that I now regret of basically blaming him for supporting RCRC and hiding this dirty secret. I was kind of hoping he would prove me wrong by saying something like “John, I don’t support RCRC either – let’s work together to get our denomination to stop supporting it.” I also made clear how my email was coming for a place of deep pain. I asked or insisted on meeting with him.
He never replied to me. Instead, he forwarded my deeply personal email onto my parents, without my permission. (Pastors, please never do that, unless there’s an actual threat to someone’s safety.) He wrote something briefly to them about how he found my email offensive and that would not meet with me. Then he apparently set something up with his email so that my parents could not reply to him. I never saw him again.
Then me and some of the Catholic girls from the college pro-life club found a way to take an overnight bus to DC for the annual March for Life. On this trip, I somehow found out about some group of pro-life United Methodists call Lifewatch that was having a little worship service that day. I couldn’t believe there was such a group. This group became my first connection to the evangelical renewal movement in our denomination. It was like a lifeline to me. It was such an amazing discovery to find out that I was not the only United Methodist with my sort of biblical, pro-life faith.
I was also excited to learn how Lifewatch and its allies had scored some major incremental victories since Lifewatch was founded in 1987. At that time, the UMC official teaching on abortion did not quite join RCRC in saying abortion was always “holy,” but our Social Principles didn’t really name any situation in which abortion would be immoral. But the next year, the 1988 General Conference added a sentence strongly rejecting abortion being used as a method of birth control or gender selection. Then in 2000, the General Conference added another sentence calling for banning most partial-birth abortions.
This and the 1988 changes clearly put our Social Principles in conflict with RCRC. Also, a lot more had come out exposing how radical RCRC’s agenda was. So going into the 2004 General Conference, there seemed good reasons why delegates may have wanted to say “okay, we’re not completely on the same page as RCRC anymore.”
By that time, I had started working for the UM Action program of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) as a junior-level assistant. Going to my first General Conference as a 22-year-old recent college graduate was quite an experience. I had never even been to a charge conference. This was supposedly where the people at the highest levels of church leadership – and therefore presumably those with the highest levels of Christian virtue – were making THE decisions for our entire global denomination. At first, it was really exciting. But I really was not prepared for what an intense political free-for-alls our General Conferences really are. This was really not the sort of holy spiritual experience I had sort of expected from the top leaders of my church.
Then I was watching the Church and Society committee where there was this resolution that would affirm our denomination’s continued affiliation with RCRC. Actually, that resolution would have gone a lot farther than just that. It would put our denomination officially on record as supporting ALL the work of RCRC. It would have been a complete blank check of support: “Whatever you are saying and doing, we support you, no questions asked.” And the resolution stated explicitly that a good reason to take such an uncompromising stand was because some United Methodists did not want us to be part of RCRC. The attitude of the resolution seemed to be that if people did not want to be part of a church that supported RCRC then we would rather they just leave the United Methodist Church, and good riddance.
But then when this came up in its full committee – there was virtually NO discussion of the major concerns about RCRC. The whole matter was brushed over really quickly. One delegate assured the committee that, her exact words were that RCRC “is not a pro-abortion or a pro-choice group.”
Now where I’m from, that’s known as blatant lying.
A lot of us laypeople would like to trust that, for the most part, people would not be in prominent denominational leadership positions if they were not pretty trustworthy, spiritually mature Christians. But here I was watching the top leaders of my denomination defend merciless violence against the most defenseless people in the world, rush through a motion to make me feel unwelcome in my own church, and do so in such a less-than-fully-honest way. I felt like screaming. I felt like that moment in Jeremiah 6:14 where the prophet says, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” But the rules required me as a non-delegate to sit down, shut up, and trust the system even when I could clearly see it was not working.
I didn’t give up – I learned there was still a chance to appeal to the full body of all delegates. I ran frantically around the convention center giving handouts about RCRC to anyone who would give me five seconds. But when that petition came up, there was only a single one-minute speech allowed on each side. The last speech claimed, incorrectly, that RCRC advocated nothing contrary to our Social Principles. The fact was that RCRC’s own publications very explicitly attacked the specific life-affirming language added to our Social Principles about partial-birth abortions and abortions used for birth control or gender selection. But the last word delegates heard was that these very clear objective facts were not actually true. So they rushed to a relatively close vote, to support this resolution affirming ALL the work of RCRC.
This was really upsetting. But I didn’t give up.
There’s one other major thing from 2004.
The same committee considered two petitions that would have added new sections in our denomination’s official Social Principles and Book of Resolutions recognizing the reality of the deep distress many women feel after having an abortion. These petitions would have called on local churches to be ready to share contact information for groups who offer counseling for post-abortion stress.
They were submitted by my friend, Cindy Evans, who works with Lifewatch. She herself had two abortions decades ago that she deeply regrets. She was right there in the committee room, and asked to speak about why she submitted them. But the delegates were adamant in refusing to let her say a word.
Both her motions were clearly headed for defeat.
But then all of a sudden, there was an amazing God moment. A woman delegate in the back of the room was moved to stand up and approach the microphone. All of a sudden, she shared something I believe she said she had never shared before. Through tears, she opened up to the full committee room about how many years ago, when she was not walking as closely with the Lord, she had had an abortion, and how deeply and painfully she has regretted that ever since. In that big room full of people, you could have heard a pin drop. After that, the post-abortion petitions sailed through, with some amendments, overwhelmingly. They are STILL part of our official UMC teachings. This was another significant, incremental shift.
In 2008 pro-life delegates added the very pro-life statement that “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child” to the Social Principles. They also deleted some of the problematic “pro-choice” language that had been there before. By the end of the conference, the clear “pro-choice” part of the Social Principles was reduced to a single sentence. That sentence says that “we support the legal option of abortion” in cases of “tragic conflicts of life with life.” Like a lot of United Methodist statements, that seems to be worded in such a vague way that people can interpret it to support a range of different positions. But most denominational leaders have interpreted the word “life” broadly enough that it can mean that if having a baby will have any impact on a mother’s life – like expenses, normal pregnancy side effects, and whatnot – then ANY of that can be used to justify abortion.
But then at the next General Conference in 2012, there was actually a real vigorous debate on changing that to a clearly pro-life statement. The proposal was to change “life” to “physical life,” so that we only supported legal abortion in those very rare cases when the women’s physical life is threatened. The committee vote was amazingly close. Unfortunately, it was one of these quick hand votes so no one recorded the actual numbers. But it was a real show of strength for pro-life sentiment in our denomination.
There were also a whole bunch of more moderate, incremental pro-life amendments that were submitted to the last several conferences. But most of them went down in flames. I have got to tell you, when people put a lot of thought, effort, and prayer into a petition to General Conference, on something that can ONLY be addressed at General Conference, and wait nervously for months and even years to see what General Conference will do with it, it’s really disappointing when the delegates debate it and vote it down, when the arguments against don’t seem to be very good. But what seemed to happen with the majority of these was that these petitions were just quickly thrown aside or completely ignored without even a minute’s consideration. This quick dismissal was done by all sorts of really heavy-handed and unfair tactics by small numbers of people, or even sometimes by a single person abusing their role as chair to misrepresent the truth. Even though there were some good things, it was so discouraging to see not only that so many pro-life petitions were not adopted, but to see the way in which they were prevented from getting a fair hearing.
But even after seeing this done at one General Conference after another, I didn’t give up.
I’ll note that at the 2008 General Conference, someone who really shined was a pro-life delegate named Joe Emigh from this area. God bless him! He had the courage to be so bold and persistent in defending the dignity of unborn children, often putting himself in a very painful and scary place of standing alone. If all conservative delegates were like Joe, we’d have a completely different denomination. And then in 2012, Luella Krieger from this conference was a key voice and vote in defending unborn human lives in her committee and sub-committee, against some really heavy-handed efforts to silence pro-lifers.
And it’s important to remember that there were a few good things added to the Social Principles statement on abortion in these two General Conferences, beyond what I’ve already mentioned. It was amended in 2008 to hint that the church had at least some preference for mothers choosing life, with new language saying that we “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.”
That year we also got through a lengthy resolution that not only decried the international problem of sex-selective abortions, but also described abortion as “violent” and something to oppose when chosen for “trivial reasons.” That resolution was re-adopted last year. In 2012, the Social Principles were amended to add another case where our church unconditionally opposes abortion – eugenics, or not liking certain genetic or other characteristics of the baby.
And that year’s General Conference added a statement that for the first time explicitly said that our church wants lower abortion rates. This last one was actually submitted by this big gathering every four years of United Methodists younger than 30 from all over the world. [Young people are often more pro-life than our parents.] … There was also a petition in 2012 from the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) that would have really rolled back a lot of the pro-life progress of previous years. Because of pro-life delegates being better prepared and pushing back, that proposal got so extensively amended that it didn’t end up doing much damage.