Commentary: Navigating a difficult problem through the path of grace

Quite a few states have passed new restrictions on abortion this year, and more are making similar plans. These restrictions include things like a ban on abortion after just six weeks, even if the woman is a victim of rape or incest. There will be court challenges and even the possibility of this issue going to the Supreme Court.

Many would like to see the landmark “Roe v Wade” case of 1973 over-turned. That law states that abortion is legal until a fetus would be viable outside the womb. Many others strongly oppose any law that would restrict abortion rights.

What does The United Methodist Church’s “Social Principles” say about this? It is found in the 2016 Book of Discipline, in paragraph 161.K:

“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 of abortion.

But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. 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 by certified medical providers. 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 or eugenics.

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. This procedure shall be performed only by certified medical providers. 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 cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy.

Peggy Johnson

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 mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates. The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe.

Young adult women disproportionately face situations in which they feel that they have no choice due to financial, educational, relational, or other circumstances beyond their control. The Church and its local congregations and campus ministries should be in the forefront of supporting existing ministries and developing new ministries that help such women in their communities. They should also support those crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women explore all options related to an unplanned pregnancy.

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.”

So is The United Methodist Church pro-life or pro-choice? Yes and yes! What is written above is a fairly balanced and nuanced statement. United Methodists of goodwill have strong convictions about abortion, and we as a pluralistic church have the freedom to teach what the church teaches and yet have our own opinions.

What I like about our abortion statement is that it is high on relationship building. The best answer to difficult questions is not to write a law or hire a lobbyist or even march in a protest (on either side). The best approach is always deep connections with real people that cuts through all the judgments and “one-size-fits-all” mentality and deals with each situation relationally, prayerfully and in community.

Years ago my husband’s church happened to be next to the office of an abortion clinic. Very often it was the scene of protest marches with people holding signs and giant pictures of bloody aborted fetuses and even someone dressed in a hooded black robe and holding a sickle.

When I would take mail out to the mailbox they would shout at me that I was like a Nazi who watched the Jews being taken to the death camps and ignored the plight of the innocent. I walked over to them one day and engaged in conversation. These were people of deep conviction and a passion for life. I understood their position, and I respect our First Amendment rights to free speech and heart.

I told them that I had been working with a pregnant, single deaf woman in the inner city, who was expecting her 9th child. She was considering an abortion because there was barely enough money to feed the ones left at home, and three of her older children were serving time in prison. I went with her to the doctor’s office and she decided to go ahead with the pregnancy.

I shared with the marchers that she needed financial resources. They promised to help but no one ever called me back. I am sure that many people in the movement do help and this was just an isolated case.

But my point is: supporting women spiritually, relationally and financially with crisis pregnancies and abortion decisions is the important key to this huge, complicated picture. Our faith calls us to “get in the weeds” with the nuances of peoples’ lives and try to weave a path of grace, hope and life for people, one situation at a time.

Pray for our country as we navigate these legal battles over abortion in the months to come. Engage in conversations at church and in the community around these issues. Most importantly, if you really care about this, become relationally involved with real women who are facing crisis pregnancies. Be the hands and feet, the mind and loving heart of Christ, who came to give hope and abundant life.

Peggy A. Johnson is bishop of the Eastern Pennsylvania and the Peninsula-Delaware Conferences of The United Methodist Church.

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