Lesson 1: “The Church“ and Abortion

“I decided to begin our series on abortion with an article written by Michael Cooper-White, the president emeritus of United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg and director of Lutheran Formation at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He also reports for the Gettysburg Times and published this piece on July 11, 2022. It is not only well written but also offers critical information for our time and place, laying an excellent foundation on which to build.

“The Church” and Abortion
by Michael Cooper-White

For people of faith, to one degree or another, every issue we face as a society has moral dimensions. People who profess belief in God seek to discern the will of the Divine and live in accordance with it.

In my lifetime, no issue has caused more consternation than abortion. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a stance that held for nearly a half-century, for the foreseeable future reproductive rights will be determined on a state-by-state basis. While we citizens have little to no influence when it comes to unelected justices, our views and voices do hold considerable sway with current office holders and candidates. Our votes in November and beyond will ultimately determine how the legal rights of women and families are defined.

For the faithful who may be undecided on matters of abortion, it’s time to reexamine the sweep of religious teachings and then make known our convictions to those who represent us. Some people who regard themselves as non-religious may also find helpful perspectives from their fellow citizens who do profess a faith. We who are called as clergy, theologians, teachers of faith, now have heightened responsibility to offer counsel and guidance.

For many in the general public, the stance of “The Christian Church” appears unambiguous. Abortion is sin, an immoral choice at any stage of pregnancy and regardless of circumstances. Life begins at conception and ending it is murder. End of discussion.

That is the official stance of some clergy, congregations, and denominations. But it is by no means a universal “Christian perspective,” either historically or currently.
The question of when life begins is unlikely ever to be settled. While official Roman Catholic doctrine and declarations of Southern Baptists, Mennonites, and some others contend life begins at the instant of conception, teaching statements of other denominations conclude it remains an unknowable mystery. For example, the Presbyterian Church in the USA’s (PCUSA) statement on abortion says, “We may not know when human life begins.”

Contrary to the contentions of many so-called “pro-life” politicians and some religious leaders, no mainline denominations take a cavalier attitude when it comes to abortion. A careful reading of their statements reveals the depth of anguished discussions about how best to advise individuals and families considering an abortion.

United Methodists say, “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.”

My denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) concludes, “Because we believe that God is the creator of life, the number of induced abortions is a source of deep concern to this church. We mourn the loss of life that God has created. The strong Christian presumption is to preserve and protect life. Abortion ought to be an option only of last resort.”

There is widespread consensus that abortion not be regarded as another means of birth control. The Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA) states, “As Christians, we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.”

Like most other mainline denominations, however, the ECUSA also opposes governmental intrusion into a deeply personal, medical, and family matter. Episcopalians are urged to voice “unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions (about the termination of pregnancy) and to act upon them.”

Alongside urging abortions be rare, the broad trajectory of ecclesial moral teaching says it is incumbent upon society to provide support and services when the option of last resort is chosen. The United Church of Christ (UCC) states, “Women with limited financial means should be able to receive public funding in order to exercise their legal right to the full range of reproductive health services.”

In a similar vein, churches’ statements call for respecting the professional judgments and consciences of medical providers called upon to carry out patients’ decisions. The American Baptists say in this regard, “We condemn violence and harassment directed against abortion clinics, their staff, and clients, as well as sanctions and discrimination against medical professionals whose consciences prevent them from being involved in abortions.”

Virtually all Christian communions also advocate strong support for babies, children, and parents. The Church of the Brethren says, “We also recognize our responsibility to work for a caring society that undergirds women who choose to carry pregnancies to full term, a caring society that treasures and nurtures all children, even the unborn, the unwanted, the unloved, a caring society that protects integrity of conscience in decision- making in relation to pregnancy and childbearing while also acting to protect the unborn.”

Churches’ statements on abortion merit careful study. They reflect the collective wisdom and prayerful discernment of thousands of Christians across the denominational spectrum.

Beyond Christianity, our nation’s other great faith traditions have much to offer in the ongoing debates about public policy on reproductive rights and restrictions. These matters are too important to be left to the politicians. They can be engaged more compassionately in faith communities than in courtrooms or legislative chambers, though that’s where public policy decisions will ultimately be made.

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