Commentary: United Methodists and abortion today

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | Feb. 9, 2009 {0971}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

The 2008 General Conference of The United Methodist Church took a step toward greater moral seriousness when it amended the denomination’s Social Principles on abortion.
 
Paragraph 161 J in the 2008 Book of Discipline contains important additions: “The Church shall offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies,” and “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.”

These additions give practical direction to congregations and members, and they also give more substance to the church’s commitment to the statement, “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.”

These additions in 2008 follow the addition in 2000, which states the church’s opposition to “late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.”

Over the last eight years, the church has strengthened its teaching about abortion so that it is more compatible with historic and ecumenical Christian understanding and practice.
 
Perhaps what is most encouraging about the 2008 General Conference is there was a real discussion about abortion. This is such a difficult subject to deal with that most would rather not discuss it.
 
Often we rationalize our avoidance of this subject by pointing out that there are other moral issues to consider besides abortion — the threat of the modern way of life to the natural world, the continuing existence of stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the human misery of global poverty and disease, and a system of global economics tilted against under-developed nations. All of these other issues must be addressed as profound moral concerns and urgent practical problems. Yet their rightful demand for our attention is no excuse for failing to be concerned about abortion. We are capable of dealing with more than one, or several, moral concerns at the same time.
 
Also, we often hear the truism that it is foolish to become obsessed with a single issue, such as abortion. Of course, it is a mistake to single out one moral concern to the practical exclusion of others in our daily discourse, ethical reflection and political attention. Nevertheless, the fact that a few would be so foolish is no excuse for the rest of us avoiding being engaged in an issue. The narrowness of others who are obsessed with abortion is no excuse for the rest of us to narrow the scope of our own moral attention by excluding abortion from our view.
 
Abortion is a vexing issue for Christians in America because it strains the capacity of our culture and political system to find a way to protect the life of the unborn in a social environment shaped by the value of individual freedom. We Americans cherish the cultural value of being free to make our own decisions without interference from government. Yet the freedom we exercise in the case of an abortion is more than the liberty to live where we desire or to hold whatever religious or political opinions we choose, since the exercise of this freedom results in the extermination of another human being. The political solution for achieving the right balance between the government’s guarantee of individual rights and its arguable responsibility to protect totally vulnerable unborn human life is still a matter of public debate and is likely to persist.
 
The law of the land is not always a sufficient solution to our personal moral responsibility. As our Social Principles state, “Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience.” There are sometimes complex political reasons why a particular government refuses to fully enact in civil law a moral rule. The law does not define what is moral, but only the terms of the government’s use of its coercive powers in a moral situation. Whatever the legal construct might be, we human beings still have to exercise our own moral responsibilities as persons and develop together a culture that nourishes moral values and decisions.
 
There is one fact that will continue to affect public debate and personal moral reasoning, and that is the reality that a human life begins with conception. The novelist Walker Percy, who was trained as a physician at Columbia University, stated that “it is a commonplace of modern biology, known to every high-school student … , that the life of every individual organism, human or not, begins when the chromosomes of the sperm fuse with the chromosomes of the ovum to form a new DNA complex that henceforth directs the ontogenesis of the organism” (“Sign-Posts in a Strange Land,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991, p. 341). Or, to extract a line from Wendell Berry’s poem “Some Further Words” (Given, Shoemaker Hoard, 2005, p. 29):
 
… I know
a “fetus” is a human child.
 
What we do with this biological fact depends upon our values, and how we apply our values has immense consequences for unborn human beings, ourselves and our culture.
 
The Christian community distinguished itself in its very beginning by opposing infanticide and abortion, both of which were commonplace in the Roman Empire. The Christian worship of God as the creator of all life and Jesus’ teaching, which generates values of the worth of every human being and our responsibility to take care of those who cannot care for themselves, made the church’s position inevitable. For Christians in the American context, finding our way to this historic Christian perspective has not been easy.
 
I suspect that Christians who are citizens of the United States will always have somewhat different political judgments — as citizens — about what is possible and acceptable regarding the legal solution to the moral problem of abortion. Yet, as Christians, we should continue to move toward a distinctly Christian perspective and practice in the context of a culture that may have different values and a government whose basis of individual rights may limit its capacity to encompass fully a moral position.
 
The movement of the General Conference over time to strengthen The United Methodist Church’s pastoral guidance and witness about abortion is encouraging. As we embrace more fully the larger historic and ecumenical Christian witness about abortion, we shall grow in our ability to develop a distinctive Christian identity in a pluralistic society and a secular government.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011, tparham@flumc.org, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.


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