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Faith groups struggle with abortion, health care


A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert and David Briggs*

Dec. 22, 2009

Health care reform matters. Abortion matters.

As the congressional debate moves forward, many religious groups that have been allies on the need to provide universal health care now find themselves struggling with competing moral imperatives.

Those who favor nearly unlimited access to abortion such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice have lobbied to treat the act as a medical procedure deserving of federal subsidies.

Those who view abortion as the taking of innocent human life, including Catholic, Orthodox and many evangelical leaders, have argued lifting the ban on federal funding of abortion promotes evil.

The moral arguments on government funding of abortion are complex, balancing individual rights, the common good, and the line between law and ethics with practical concerns over acceptable compromises that do not lose sight of the needs of the uninsured and immigrants.

United Methodists, like many religious Americans, find themselves in the middle of the debate. Church pronouncements offer serious moral reflection, but do not take a specific stand on the legislation before Congress.

Individuals such as Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, signed a letter to the Senate describing abortion as “critical health coverage” that should be affordable for all Americans.

Others, such as U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a United Methodist who fought for restrictions in abortion funding in the Senate debate, say Americans should not be forced to pay for abortions.

The sticking point in the debate seems to be whether to stay with the status quo established by the Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funds for abortions, said sociologist Ziad Munson at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa..

“Pro-life opposition to federal funding of abortion follows a well-worn social movement tradition,” he said. “Henry David Thoreau went to jail in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes that he said were being used to finance the Mexican-American War, which he believed was unjust. Similar issues were raised during the Vietnam War by opponents who did not want their tax dollars being used to support a war they believed was unjust.”

Conflict of ‘life with life”

As early as 1972, the lawmaking body of The United Methodist Church supported the legal option of abortion. The denomination’s Social Principles today state, “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.”

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Since the 1970s, General Conferences have further refined the church’s position with specific statements opposing late-term or “partial-birth” abortion and supporting requirements for parental or some responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who are not legally adults. The Social Principles talk about “our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life.”

“The United Methodist Church has managed to keep plenty of moderate-to-conservative people within its ranks since 1973, and the existing language makes it clear that having an abortion isn't something to be taken lightly,” said Laura R. Olson, professor of political science at Clemson University.

In some ways, the difficulty in discerning ethical boundaries on abortion reflects the larger struggle in the nation and among mainline Protestants.

The Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity involving extensive interviews of 2,610 adults in 2006 found 15 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal under no circumstances and 12 percent said abortion should be legal under almost all circumstances, with the vast majority somewhere in between.

Mainline Protestants were even more spread in the middle ground, with 22 percent saying abortion should be legal under most circumstances, 31 percent under some circumstances and 26 percent only under extreme circumstances, according to the study led by researchers at Rice University and the University of Notre Dame.

Differing views

United Methodists find themselves on various sides of the current debate, where frequent shifts in language on abortion are sharply contested as legislation moves forward.

The Board of Church and Society said a House version of the bill prohibiting federal subsidies for abortion “essentially penalizes” women with fewer economic resources.

In a letter to the Senate, Winkler and other advocates for lifting restrictions on abortion coverage said, “Providing affordable, accessible health care to all Americans is a moral imperative that unites Americans of many faith traditions. The selective withdrawal of critical health coverage from women is both a violation of this imperative and a betrayal of the public good.”

The Rev. Cynthia Abrams, executive of The United Methodist Board of Church and Society, added, “While there are varying views on the issue of abortion and the emotional struggles faced by women in situations to consider this medical procedure, the reality is that abortion is legal in the United States, and the position of The United Methodist Church supports access to safe and legal abortion.”

But what is legal is not always moral, say proponents of keeping a ban on federal funding of abortion. They also say the issue is a matter of conscience.

“Who in our society are the least powerful and the most vulnerable? It’s an easy answer. There is no group in this country as powerless or at such great risk as are the unborn. Once conceived, there is a one in five chance that a fetus’ existence will be terminated by an abortion,” wrote the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News magazine in an editorial.

“No other group is at such risk of not surviving the next nine months—not the poor, not cancer patients, not those suffering with AIDS. Not even those who are without health insurance. And no other group is as incapable of speaking for itself or protecting its rights,” he wrote.

The Rev. Paul Stallsworth, pastor of St. Peter’s United Methodist Church, Morehead City, N.C., president of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality and editor of the quarterly newsletter Lifewatch, discussed in a recent issue the need for health care reform that serves the life and dignity of all, as opposed to violating those basic values.

“I cannot and will not support any health care reform plan that allows federal money to fund abortions in America,” Stallsworth declared.

In the end, decisions about matters of such sacred worth may best be made by individuals with the guidance of Scripture, tradition, reason, experience – and prayer.

The United Methodist Church acknowledges in its Social Principles, “Government laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience.”

*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn. Briggs is news editor of the news service.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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