The United Methodist Churchs General Conference is composed of nearly 1,000 delegates (lay and clergy) from around the world. It assembles every four years and determines¯after deliberating and voting¯what The United Methodist Church is to teach and practice, and how the church is to order its life, during the next quadrennium. The Book of Discipline (2004) makes this clear: No person, no paper, no organization, has the authority to speak officially for The United Methodist Church, this right having been reserved exclusively to the General Conference under the Constitution.
From April 23 until May 2, the 2008 General Conference met in Fort Worth, Texas. While the worship services and various presentations were elaborate productions, the conferences main event was the legislative process. Predictably, the denominations teaching on abortion received more than a little attention at the conference. (Just as predictably, the churchs doctrine and discipline, with regard to homosexual practice, received even more attention.)
Before reviewing the 2008 General Conferences action on the churchs official teaching on abortion, a little history is in order. While the 1968 General Conference did not articulate an explicit position on abortion, it was warming to the task. In language that hinted at what was to come, it declared: We believe that planned parenthood, practiced with respect for human life, fulfills rather than violates the will of God . . . . This issue must be seen in reference to the pressing population problem now before the whole world.
In 1972, General Conference adopted the denominations first explicit teaching on abortion under the heading Birth and Death. While nuanced, the 1972 statement was fundamentally for choice, as this sentence indicates: We support the removal of abortion from the criminal code, placing it instead under laws relating to other procedures of standard medical practice. Much of the 1972 statement remains in the disciplinary book to this day.
Since 1976, each General Conference (except 2004) has amended the churchs teaching on abortion. Most of those changes, while marginal, have been in a pro-life direction.
Again, the most recent General Conference revised United Methodist teaching on abortion. Thanks to votes by the Sanctity of Life legislative subcommittee, the Church and Society II legislative committee, and the entire conference, General Conference 2008 edited the paragraph adopted by General Conference 2004 in the following way:
Paragraph [to be determined]) Abortion¯The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. 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
, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, wW e recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We support parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection. We oppose the use of 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. Before providing their services, abortion providers should be required to offer women the option of anesthesia. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrantcause them to consider abortion. The Church shall offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth. We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. (See Paragraph 161L.) 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. Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel. [ Struck-through textindicates deletions by the 2008 General Conference, and bold text indicates additions by the 2008 General Conference.]
A careful reading of the above paragraph reveals that the 2008 version is much more pro-life than the 2004 version. By respecting equally the life of the unborn child and the life of the mother, by supporting notification and consent before an abortion involving a minor, by offering ministries to reduce unintended pregnancy, by affirming (and encouraging church support of) crisis pregnancy centers, and by urging family counsel in decision-making about abortion, the additional language is decisively pro-life. Furthermore, by removing language about an unacceptable pregnancy, past Christian teaching (which seems to be used as a cover for what follows in the sentence), and what may warrant abortion, some of the paragraphs more pro-choice references have been removed. (The sentence on anesthesia appears to be neutral, neither pro-life nor pro-choice.)
Yet it must be admitted that United Methodisms official teaching will require further improvement. The extreme ambiguity of the sentence We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures maintains the denominations commitment to abortion rights. Exactly what conflicts may justify the taking of the life of the unborn child? The statement does not say. Hence, presumably all such conflicts¯real and imagined¯can be taken as justification for abortion and for abortion rights. Hence, this sentence, well interpreted, supports all abortion rights. (This is organizationally verified by United Methodist agencies maintaining membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice [RCRC], a political lobby that defends and advances all abortion rights, and that opposes all moral arguments, political moves, and legal decisions against abortion. It should be mentioned that the 2008 General Conference sustained United Methodist membership in RCRC by a margin of only 32 votes out of a total of 800 cast; this is the narrowest vote, to date, on United Methodist membership in RCRC.)
Over the course of General Conferences to come, the denominations commitment to abortion rights will most likely be dismantled and then perhaps eliminated. After all, it seems that the most energy in the denomination, on this issue, is found among pro-life United Methodists. This abundance in energy, some of which was associated with renewal groups and some of which was less organized, led to a tremendous amount of pro-life legislation for General Conference being written by United Methodists from across the church. Furthermore, though some of the more pro-choice delegates to General Conference displayed savvy political skills in holding off the pro-life advance, political skills among the pro-life delegates are sure to increase. This, too, will enhance the likelihood of United Methodism distancing itself from nearly unlimited abortion rights.
Additional reasons might be given for The United Methodist Church to rid itself of a commitment to abortion rights: the increasing numbers of African delegates (who are, in the main, pro-life) to General Conference; the horrifyingly high abortion rates (though the annual totals are continuing to decrease) in the United States; the pro-life drift of American public opinion (which United Methodism seems to follow); the uncommon clarity of ecumenical teaching on the dignity of the human person; and the providence of God. Taken together, these factors will most certainly help a future General Conference remove its pro-choice commitment from its otherwise pro-life teaching.
But given General Conferences democratic ways and means, and given United Methodisms middling nature (which always wants to offend the least possible number), the denominations turn away from the support of abortion rights might take more than a little while. Even so, in 2008, regarding teaching about abortion, change is in the air of the United Methodist household.
The Reverend Paul T. Stallsworth is pastor of St. Peters United Methodist Church in Morehead City, North Carolina, and president of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality. He also edits Lifewatch , a quarterly newsletter that witnesses to the Gospel of Life within The United Methodist Church.