Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth is the pastor of Whiteville United Methodist Church in Whiteville, NC and the editor/president of Lifewatch (or the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality).
Why Revise the Social Principles?
Due to action of The United Methodist Church’s 2012 General Conference and negotiation of church leaders, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) held listening sessions on the Social Principles throughout the church. From them, the GBCS “concluded that the Social Principles needed to be more theologically grounded, more globally relevant, and more succinct” (according to a 04/12/18 press release).
Then the 2016 General Conference voted to affirm the GBCS continuing its work in revising the Social Principles. On April 11, 2018, “The United Methodist Social Principles – Working Draft 1” was released. Church and Society aims to propose a complete revision of the Social Principles to the 2020 General Conference.
The Social Principle on Abortion: A Brief History
Since the birth of The United Methodist Church in 1968, the Social Principles’ paragraph on abortion has been contested. The 1972 paragraph stated: “We support the removal of abortion from the criminal code, placing it instead under laws relating to other procedures of standard medical practice. A decision concerning abortion should be made only after thorough and thoughtful consideration by the parties involved, with medical and pastoral counsel.” Following the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which knocked down state laws against abortion, United Methodism reflected Roe; its 1976 abortion paragraph included this sentence: “We support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.”
Since 1976, many General Conferences have considered and debated petitions that would alter the church’s teaching on abortion. Some passed. Gradually, the paragraph became more skeptical, critical, and prohibitive of abortion. That is, the Social Principle became more protective of the unborn child and mother.
In 2018, while The United Methodist Church’s Social Principle on abortion (Paragraph 161K in the 2016 Book of Discipline, which is part of “The Nurturing Community” section) “support[s] the legal option of abortion,” it also contains many phrases and statements that are protective of the unborn and mother. This Social Principle has now been revised—thoroughly, in the GBCS’s draft proposal for 2020.
The Revised Title
The revision of this Social Principle is boldly announced in its title change: from “Abortion” to “Reproductive Health.” Why? Well, “Abortion,” as a title, might be considered too controversial, harsh, specific. In contrast, “Reproductive Health” might be understood as more medical-clinical, gentle, and general.
Against this retitling, four objections can be raised. First, the new title assumes that abortion is, as a matter of fact, just another aspect of “reproductive health.” However, many inside and outside the medical profession, especially those of various religious persuasions, would disagree. Second, should not a Social Principle on abortion, by necessity, be titled “Abortion?” One would think so: a thing should be called what it is. Third, the Church through the ages has routinely used the word “abortion,” so United Methodism should regularly use the same word. And fourth, abortion names a morally significant (and objectionable) incident: that is the taking of the life of an unborn child. To put such a serious incident under the heading of “reproductive health” disguises and diminishes what happens to the child.
For these reasons, the title “Abortion” should remain.
The Revised Text
According to the three needed improvements reported by the listening sessions, how does the revision measure up?
Is the revision “more theologically grounded”? For starters, the revision mentions God once. But not Jesus Christ. And not the Holy Spirit. The Bible is cited twice, but not quoted. Church tradition is not referenced. The revision seems trapped in the modern worldview of individualism, public health, and social science. It seems anthropocentric (centered on humanity), and neglectful of God and God’s creation, commands, and redemption. Unlike the current paragraph, the revision opens up very little to the presence and power of God. So the revision is not “more theologically grounded” than what was revised. Its theological grounding is lessened.
Is the revision “more globally relevant”? To be globally relevant, the revision would need to use terms that are universally understandable and applicable. The Church speaks the most universal language of all. Its words — for example, God and humanity, birth and death, good and evil, joy and suffering, love and loyalty, and so on — appeal to most people worldwide. While occasionally using such words, the revision reverts to a Westernized, individualized, medicalized mindset. This mindset results in the revision’s inability to affirm the humanity of the unborn. Such thinking is better suited for an international political agency than for a global Christian church. While the standing Social Principle on abortion is imperfect on the matter of global relevance, it lacks the revision’s predetermined Westernized agenda. So, on its global reach, the revision fails.
Is the revision “more succinct”? Yes. The revision is roughly one-third as long as the current Social Principle (approximately 220 words to 660 words).
Editing Out the Gospel of Life
When the standing Social Principle on abortion was revised, what were some of the key phrases and sentences that were deleted? “Sanctity of unborn human life.” “Sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.” “We support parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed….” “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics….” “We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice….” “We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment….” “We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates.” “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.” “We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption….”
These phrases and sentences emerged from historic, ecumenical Christianity’s witness for life and opposition to abortion — and were approved by General Conferences.
If the theologically superficial, globally distant, brief revision is adopted, as is, by the 2020 General Conference, this would basically nullify, in one vote, all General Conference decisions that have been protective of the unborn child and mother. That nullification, in one vote, would: silence the voices of many United Methodists around the world; increase distrust in The United Methodist Church; set The United Methodist Church more strongly against the consensual teaching of historic, ecumenical Christianity on life and abortion; and lead possibly to the destruction of more unborn children and bring harm to their mothers. That nullification, in one vote, would not be good. Such nullification is unacceptable.