Wesley Theological Seminary ethicist J. Philip Wogaman editorialized in 1972 for liberalized abortion laws. “The absolutizing of the rights of the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy can contribute to greater callousness concerning life and God’s full and loving intentions for it,” he warned. He urged a wider “faithful response to the whole of God’s gracious purpose.” [“Absolute Stand on Abortion Evades Individual’s Conscience”, Christian Advocate (June 8, 1972) Pages 7-8].
In 1973, the US Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, overturned all state laws restricting abortion. (Just a thought…how come the Supreme Court can overturn some state laws but not others…even those that are deemed unconstitutional?) Theologian Albert Outler complained. “The Supreme Court has decided it knows when human life begins and when it can and cannot be taken with impunity. I thought this was more than anybody knew and could afford to decide so arbitrarily.” Boston University School of Theology Dean J. Robert Nelson similarly warned: “The decision represents a cheapening of human life and may have dire consequences in the future.” Nelson regretted that “permissive positions” by The United Methodist Church and other denominations had allowed Justice Harry Blackmun, himself a United Methodist, to cite theological divisions over abortion. [“Protestants Split on Abortion Edict”, Washington Post, Times Herald (January 26, 1973) Page B7].
The chiefs of the General Board of Church and Society and the Women’s Division hailed the abortion rights court ruling in a joint statement. “Decisions regarding abortions are essentially moral and medical, not legal, and must be made by the individual most directly involved,” declared Dudley Ward and Joyce Hamlin. They still insisted that “abortion should not be relied on as a method of family planning.” Central Pennsylvania Bishop John Warman, who had defended the rights of the unborn at the 1970 General Conference, hoped the court ruling would depoliticize abortion. It’s the kind of political issue that divides communities and religious groups, and for that reason anything that takes it out of politics is helpful.” [“Abortion Ruling Confronts Church with Counseling Task”, Christian Advocate (February 15, 1973) Pages 22-23]. (Questions concerning abortion should divide religious groups. The taking of innocent life should not be a uniting factor.) A prominent pro-life activist who was United Methodist regretted that her denomination’s “permissive” abortion position was thanks to General Conference delegates who thought they were taking a “good liberal stand.” [“United Methodist Woman Leads ‘Pro-Life’ Movement”, Christian Advocate (September 27, 1973) Page 24]. In appreciation of Justice Blackmun’s support on abortion he was invited to be a major speaker at the 50-year anniversary celebration of the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. [“Methodists 50 Years on Capitol Hill”, Christian Advocate (October 11, 1973) Page 20]. ( I cannot avoid making a statement here. It would appear that convenience is the driving force. I can find no evidence of church leadership relying on the Word of God in this decision making process. I guess that this is acceptable as long as the number of the offended is held to a minimum. Also, apparently at this point politics was acceptable in the confines of the church.)
In 1974 hearings before a US Senate committee considering a constitutional amendment against abortion, North and South Dakota Bishop James Armstrong, who was the Board of Church and Society’s president, complained that abortion foes were applying “extreme pressures” and spending “vast amounts of money to influence lawmakers, the communications media, and the broader public.” Armstrong was representing the newly formed Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR), of which the Board of Church and Society and the Women’s Division were members. He accused abortion opponents of lacking a “pastoral concern for the woman who suffers an ‘unacceptable pregnancy’. She is viewed, not as a fragile person in crisis but as a thing through whom a human fetus is passing.” [“Other Religious Groups’ Spokesmen Clash with Catholics at Senate Abortion-Ban Hearing”, Baltimore Sun (March 8, 1974) Page A3]. Armstrong asked: “Should a male-dominated religious hierarchy determine the moral posture and legal status of the opposite sex?” [“Religious Leaders Clash in Senate Abortion Hearings”, Newscope (March 15, 1974) Page 4]. (I might wonder if this so-called bishop ever referred to the Bible in the stand that he took or was he just trying to appease his ‘flock’?)
In 1975, the Council of Bishops, meeting in Minneapolis, unanimously opposed a constitutional amendment against abortion. The final resolution declared: “While upholding the sanctity of human life, we stand opposed to an amendment to the United States Constitution that would presume to define the “personhood” of the fetus and that would outlaw abortion.”
We find in the Bible that personhood is defined prior to birth. “Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb (that’s a fetus); and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” [Luke 1: 39-42] That ‘fruit’ was a fetus.
The bishops hoped that the fact that “sharp differences of opinion existent between and within American religious communities on this matter” would not impair “ecumenical dialogue.” (This is another way of saying ‘cut down on the size of their congregations’.) In conjunction with the bishop’s gathering, the Minnesota Conference hosted an “evening of celebration and sharing” with 4,500 persons that featured Justice Blackmun. This author of the abortion rights ruling (legalized infanticide) appealed for the nation to return to Christian principles. [“Methodist Bishops Will Battle Proposed Outlawing of Abortion”, New York Times (April 5, 1975) Page 27]. (Maybe the justice needs to follow his own advice.)
In 1976, Bishop Armstrong, speaking for the RCAR, warned: ” The strenuous efforts by the Catholic bishops to legislate their particular religious view on abortion is a blow to the integrity with which we have engaged in other ecumenical pursuits.” [“Abortion Backers Rap Foes”, Washington Post (January 22, 1976) Page A2]. (How could this bishop even use the word ‘integrity?) Later in 1976, the magazine editor of the General Board of Global Ministries denounced the Catholic bishops’ pro-life advocacy. He accused them of using “political pressure to obtain legalistic and coercive support for a position which they do not have in public opinion.” [“Church Editor Blames Catholic Bishops on Abortion”, Newscope (October 15, 1976) Page 1]. (I guess that if you have to be blamed for something, taking a stand against infant murder is as good as any even if it is against public opinion.) The RCAR functioned as a project of the Board of Church and Society from 1973 to 1980. Among other donors, RCAR received $20,000 from the Playboy Foundation. [“Ridding Ourselves of RCAR”, Good News (March/April 1991) Page 24]. (That donation must have made the church proud.)
Next week the church continues the battle to legalize the elimination of unwanted human life. The more I study this history the more I feel I made the right decision in regretfully resigning my membership in the UMC.
– Bob Munsey
“What happens to us is not nearly as important as what God does in us and through us.” Julie Ackerman Link