News Archives

Abortion

6/1/2001

Who sets policy for the United Methodist Church? Only the General Conference can speak officially for the United Methodist Church. Every four years, delegates at each conference revise the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. The Social Principles, in both books, are described as a "prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions." The Book of Resolutions is not legally binding but serves as a guide for the church for reference, encouragement, study and support.

The United Methodist Church's latest position on abortion, adopted by the 2000 General Conference, is at the end of this paper.

ABORTION
(Updated 6/01)

The first reference to abortion in official proceedings of the General Conference came in 1968, when a study document titled "Church and Family" was adopted. This did not have the force of a pronouncement by the denomination but indicated the direction in which the church was moving.
The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church first dealt with abortion in 1972. Found in the Book of Discipline, the Social Principles are a "prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions." The principles are "a call to all members ... to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice." It has not been determined whether they have the force of law in the church, but they do represent the mind of the General Conference on social issues. The General Conference amended the 1972 statement on abortion in 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000. Whether the changes strengthened or weakened the church's stand on abortion is debatable.
Excerpts from the various study documents, resolutions and Social Principles related to abortion follow.
* * *
STUDY DOCUMENTS, SOCIAL POLICY RESOLUTIONS
1968
The "Church and Family" study document stated: "We believe that responsible family planning, practiced in Christian conscience, fulfills the will of God. The present population problems call for a continuing responsible attitude toward family planning. ... Recognizing that there are certain circumstances under which abortion may be justified from a Christian standpoint, we recommend a study of existing abortion laws."
1970
The special session of the General Conference approved a resolution on the "population crisis," which said states should "remove the regulation of abortion from the criminal code, placing it instead under regulations relating to other procedures of standard medical practice. Abortion would be available only upon request of the person most directly concerned." This was the church's first official position on abortion.
1972
A study document titled "The Family" calls on local churches to work "to remove the regulation of abortion from the criminal code, placing it instead under laws relating to other procedures of standard medical practice."
1976
An omnibus resolution on "Health, Welfare and Human Development" was adopted. It said, in part:
"Each couple has the right and the duty prayerfully and responsibly to control conception according to their circumstances. ...
"When, through contraceptive or human failure, an unacceptable pregnancy occurs, we believe that a profound regard for unborn human life must be weighed alongside an equally profound regard for fully developed personhood, particularly when the physical, mental, and emotional health of the pregnant woman and her family show reason to be seriously threatened by the new life just forming. We reject the simplistic answers to the problem of abortion, which, on the one hand, regard all abortions as murder, or, on the other hand, regard abortions as medical procedures without moral significance.
"When an unacceptable pregnancy occurs, a family, and most of all the pregnant woman, is confronted with the need to make a difficult decision. We believe that continuance of a pregnancy which endangers the life or health of the mother, or poses other serious problems concerning the life, health, or mental capability of the child to be, is not a moral necessity. In such cases, we believe the path of mature Christian judgment may indicate the advisability of abortion. We support the legal right to abortion as established by the 1973 Supreme Court decision. We encourage women in counsel with husbands, doctors, and pastors to make their own responsible decisions concerning the personal and moral questions surrounding the issue of abortion.
"We ... encourage our churches and common society to: ... Safeguard the legal option of abortion under standards of sound medical practice, and make abortions available to women without regard to economic status."
This resolution subsequently was renamed "Responsible Parenthood" and is carried in the 2000 Book of Resolutions (pp. 121-124) under that title.
1980
A resolution opposing a call for a constitutional convention gave the following as a reason for opposition:
"'Right to Life' advocates, frustrated by their inability to succeed in their goals of eliminating all abortions through the normal legislative process, are now trying the constitutional convention route. Yet such an amendment, declaring the fetus a person from the moment of conception, would be, in effect, to write one theological position into the (U.S.) Constitution. Various faith groups, including The United Methodist Church, do not share that theology. Such a position would be contrary to the doctrine of separation of church and state embodied in the Constitution, and would impinge on freedom of religion, guaranteed in the First Amendment." This statement continued in the Book of Resolutions until 2000.
1992
The 1992 General Conference rejected by 37 votes a motion to terminate United Methodist participation in the Religious Coalition on Abortion Rights, which rents office space in the Methodist Building in Washington. The church's Judicial Council subsequently ruled (Oct. 30, 1992) that support of RCAR by United Methodist agencies is consistent with the church's official stance on abortion. The United Methodist Board of Church and Society and the Women's Division of the Board of Global Ministries are charter members of the coalition, which includes about 35 religious and public-interest groups. Neither of the Board of Church and Society nor the Women's Division has given direct financial support to the coalition for a number of years.
1996
Delegates to the 1996 General Conference, by a 399-to-497 vote, defeated a "rights of the unborn" addendum to its "pro-choice-with-stipulations" stance on abortion. They also voted to continue support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (formerly the Religious Coalition on Abortion Rights) and adopted a resolution titled "Clinic Violence," which condemns violence against "those peaceably assembled to protest abortion" and "providers of legal services related to reproductive health."
In a resolution on "Health and Wholeness," the 1996 General Conference delegates said, "Religious and other appropriate forms of counseling should be available to all patients and families when they are called upon to make difficult medical choices, so that responsible decisions, within the context of the Christian faith, may be made concerning ...abortion...." In a section on "Medical Rights for Children and Youth," the delegates said, "every person, regardless of age, shall have the right to adequate and objective counseling relating to pregnancy and abortion in doctor-patient confidentiality..."
In a statement on population, the 1996 delegates said, "The Church should exert leadership in making possible the safe and legal availability of sterilization procedures for both men and women, and of abortion where appropriate." A resolution on "The Status of Women" bemoans the fact that "[i]n many places, safe and legal abortion is denied, in some cases even to save the life of the pregnant woman." The same resolution also says, "Attention should particularly be given to ensuring access to safe, legal, and non-coercive contraception" and to ensuring a "well-informed choice regarding abortion and its alternatives ..."
2000
The General Conference adopted "The United Methodist Response to Hospital Mergers" in the Book of Resolutions (pp. 277-278), which says:
"Whereas, a crisis in health care is occurring in communities across the United States because of the ever-increasing number of hospital mergers, and
"Whereas, such mergers often put the availability of AIDS prevention information, fertility services, artificial inseminations, tubal ligations, vasectomies, condom distribution, contraceptive medication and devices, 'morning after' pills, and abortion services at risk; and
"Whereas, such mergers can result in the denial of certain types of end-of-life health care; and
"Whereas, the effect of these mergers is most severe in poorer communities that have limited health care options to begin with; and
"Whereas, these mergers are usually completed, often with the assistance of public money, before the public is even aware they are happening or what the consequences will be;
"Therefore, be it resolved that the General Board of Church and Society and the Women's Division work to alert their constituencies concerning this crisis in reproductive and end-of-life health care, and
"Therefore, be it further resolved that the General Board of Church and Society and the Women's Division expand their health and wholeness public policy advocacy to include this critical issue of reproductive and end-of-life health care; and
"Therefore, be it further resolved that the General Board of Church and Society and the Women's Division work in cooperation with appropriate community groups to make resource materials available to local churches; such materials to include briefing papers, articles, action alerts, sample sermons, and information on gaining legal intervention when necessary to deal with the crisis of increasingly limited reproductive and end-of-life health care in their communities."
* * *

STATEMENTS IN THE SOCIAL PRINCIPLES
1972
"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, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion. 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."
1976
"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. We support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. Nevertheless, governmental laws and regulations do not necessarily provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made after thorough and thoughtful consideration by the parties involved, with medical and pastoral counsel."
1980
Repeated 1976 statement, adding the phrase "and other appropriate counsel" at the end, making it read: "Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel."
1984
Repeated 1980 statement, with some rearrangement of sentences and clauses to make sentence in middle of statement read: "In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures."
The 1984 Social Principles statement, therefore, reads:
"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 should 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, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant 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, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel."
1988
A new sentence was added, saying: "We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection."
1992
Delegates added two sentences to the section on abortion: "We call for the Church to provide nurturing ministries to those persons who terminate a pregnancy. We encourage the church to provide nurturing ministries to those who give birth.
1996
One new sentence was inserted that combined the ideas added by the 1996 General Conference and added ministries to those in a crisis pregnancy. "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."

2000

The church's current position on abortion, approved by the 2000 delegates, follows. It is found in the Book of Discipline, Social Principles, Paragraph 161J. Additions made by the 2000 General Conference are in boldface type.
"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, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with the past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. 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. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion. 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. 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, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel."

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