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The Post-Separation United Methodist Church (psUMC) on Abortion

The Post-Separation United Methodist Church (psUMC) on Abortion

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, overturning its controversial 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, has, among other things, provoked questions about the future and present position of the United Methodist Church (UMC) on abortion.

The emerging “daughter denominations” of the present UMC—the Global Methodist Church and the post-separation UMC—are clearly moving in different trajectories on pro-life concerns. 

But each is coming from a similar starting place. Right now, the vast majority of those who will continue into the Global Methodist Church remain in the UMC. The UMC’s current official position on abortion has enough pro-life-leaning language that even the liberal-leaning United Methodist Communications concludes that its statements “place the United Methodist position on abortion firmly on the spectrum of life-based ethics rather than choice-based ethics.”

This reflects a history of pro-life momentum in the UMC, with one General Conference after another having incrementally amended the UMC Social Principles to become a bit more pro-life. While this was curiously ignored in recent United Methodist News Service reporting, the 2016 General Conference made the historic shifts of ending the UMC’s affiliation with the extremist Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) and repealing the denomination’s decades-old endorsement of Roe v. Wade.

However, amidst many pro-life-leaning statements, the UMC Social Principles on abortion also include a single, ambiguous sentence supporting “the legal option of abortion” in situations of “tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion.”

But what does that mean? For decades, liberal United Methodist officials have broadly interpreted “life” to use the name and resources of United Methodism to support any abortion as long as there is any aspect of the mother’s life—her career, finances, emotional wellbeing, etc.—that could be challenged by continuing a pregnancy. This obviously would apply to any baby. At the 2012 General Conference, pro-life delegates tried to amend this key phrase by adding the word “physical,” to limit abortion support to situations of conflict with the mother’s physical life. I watched this proposal narrowly fail in a legislative committee hand vote (for which the liberal chair suspiciously did not request a hand count).

At this moment, the Global Methodist Church’s official position on abortion in its Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline (see under “Part Two | Social Witness,” then “202. Our Witness to the World,” sub-sections 2-3) is arguably rather similar to the current UMC position. 

But it is essential to understand that both denominations are in a transitional phase. The GMC’s position is not set in stone, but is rather a starting point for delegates to the denomination’s convening General Conference to determine how to amend and perfect. And the split will empower the UMC’s far left to shift the post-separation United Methodist Church dramatically on abortion and other issues. It is only a question of how quickly this will happen, after the GMC takes away most of those who would resist radicalism. 

Then as liberals reshape the post-separation UMC on abortion, the brakes will be removed.

With similar values as leaders of the Episcopal Church, our denomination’s powerful, apportionment-funded General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) has already expressed its desire to dramatically rewrite the UMC’s position on abortion to systematically delete statements expressing even moderately pro-life sentiment, broadly declare support for “legal access to abortion” with no qualifications or restrictions, and reframe abortion as a matter of “reproductive health” (see here to read the GBCS’s initial proposed rewrite and here for an explanation of how much this would change the UMC’s current position). In response to outcry from many conservative United Methodists, the GBCS moderated its proposal. But the agency did not back down from seeking to delete the current statements expressly wanting lower abortion rates and declaring that “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.”

The long-delayed General Conference has not yet had a chance to vote on the GBCS’s proposal. But before too long, many or most of those who raised the earlier outcry will have left the UMC. Then we can expect the GBCS to get everything it wants, with minimal remaining resistance. 

This GBCS proposal is not an outlier.

After the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that elective abortions may be legislatively restricted, the UMC’s denominational agencies and leading bishops fell over themselves to declare their broad support for elective abortion. Their statements ignored key parts of the current UMC position, such as that those declaring that we want lower abortion rates and that “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.” The latter omission is chilling, in light of the violent attacks recently targeting such centers.

In the name of the entire UMC Council of Bishops (COB), New York Bishop Thomas Bickerton denounced the Dobbs decision as having supposedly “denied the sacred worth of women” and characterized needlessly killing unborn children as “health care.” It is a bit odd to see a rather powerful, privileged, wealthy white man like Bickerton sanctimoniously claim to be concerned about “privilege” and racial disparities here, without expressing concern the inherent violence of abortion disproportionately kills children in some populations more than others. (Here is a critique of the tendency of activists like Bickerton “to change Black women — especially poor Black women — into mascots for abortion rights.”)

Reportedly, Bickerton abused his position as COB president to issue his personal statement in the name of the entire Council (i.e., all bishops) without really consulting the other bishops. We should generally suspect that such misleading is probably the case whenever we see what sounds like a collective statement with only one bishop’s name at the end. The United Methodist bureaucracy’s culture of refusing to respect the rules and proper procedures is not limited to sexuality issues!

But is Bickerton really unrepresentative of the majority of United Methodist bishops? After all, he is one of six officers (all Americans, BTW) the other active bishops have elected to represent them. All four of the other COB officers currently leading an annual conference have expressed similar attitudes: both Cynthia Harvey of Louisiana and Tracy Smith Malone of East Ohio promoted a general agency’s decrying the Supreme Court decision as somehow anti-women, while Jonathan Holston of South Carolina (disappointingly) shared and echoed Bickerton’s statement, and Sally Dyck (now interim bishop of the California-Nevada Conference) issued her own extended abortion-defending editorial.

Like Bickerton and Holston, Dyck cites no Scripture and shows no interest in relevant writings of John Wesley or other historic Christian tradition. She also makes no reference to the UMC’s official position, which she, as president of the aforementioned GBCS, evidently opposes. Dyck also gets surprisingly politically partisan for a church leader, warning of the consequences “if there is an overturning of Congress at the mid-term.”

Furthermore, Dyck, the COB’s Ecumenical Officer, blatantly misrepresents the truth, claiming that “the number of abortions has significantly decreased, not increased with legalized abortion.” Actually, the data is clear that U.S. abortions increased dramatically in the years immediately following Roe’s 1973 sweeping invalidation of abortion restrictions, and while abortion numbers have fallen more recently, they have remained consistently higher than they were in 1973. I emailed this factual correction, together with the previous link, to Bishop Dyck and asked if she would issue a public correction. I received confirmation that she opened my email almost immediately. But she has chosen to leave her false statement online.

Other bishops and officials have issued their own pro-abortion statements or shared those from Bickerton or one of the UMC agencies.

Such advocacy by UMC leaders on abortion is not new. As one of many examples, in 2004, both the GBCS and United Methodist Women joined dozens of left-wing organizations—including the atheistic American Humanist Association and the Communist Party USA—as an official co-sponsors of the extremist “March for Women’s Lives,” which fiercely opposed any restriction on abortion and featured much vulgar, hateful rhetoric against pro-lifers. As with bishops’ recent abortion-supporting advocacy, the UMC’s renewal groups protested but were unable to stop such  radicalism.

But at times, those now headed into the GMC have been able to restrain left-wing extremism in the UMC on abortion. In 1996, the GBCS’s top executive, along with the former dean of our denomination’s Wesley Theological Seminary publicly supported the grisly practice of late-term, “partial-birth” abortions, which blur the line between abortion and infanticide. Subsequent GBCS defenses of partial-birth abortions were later prevented conservative delegates amending the UMC Social Principles on abortion, in ways the GBCS has sought to roll back. Later amendments made by conservative General Conference delegates forced the GBCS to remove its endorsement of the “Freedom of Choice Act,” a radical bill to broadly repeal even modest restrictions on abortion through all fifty states.

It was a major victory for those who are now GMC-minded when the 2016 General Conference forced the UMC to break ties with the extremist Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), of which United Methodist agencies had been founding members since 1973.

But RCRC has strong support among many leaders set to dominate the post-separation UMC. Renewal groups distributed information to 2008 General Conference delegates documenting how RCRC opposes any legal restriction on or moral opposition to abortion, and how the group even describes performing abortions as “sacred work,”  “God’s work,” and “holy work,” which clergy should bless (see pages 27-31, 63, and 101-102). That did not stop clergy delegates Tracy Smith Malone (see page 2699 of the official transcript) and Julius Trimble (see page 2701) from going out of their way to speak in favor of a resolution offering a blank check statement “in support of the work of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice,” in the name of our entire denomination (you can read the resolution’s text here). These two UMC delegates’ vocal extremism on abortion apparently later helped their (successful) efforts to be elected as bishops.

Other prominent liberal leaders, who will likely become more dominant in the post-separation UMC, have more recently expressed strong, unqualified support for RCRC, including Karen Oliveto, liberal caucus groups, and several annual conferences. Last month, RCRC’s CEO (a former GBCS staffer) took her rhetoric of reframing abortion as “abortion care” to its logical conclusion, saying that Jesus Christ “would be accompanying patients inside” abortion clinics, “caring for them”—apparently meaning that Jesus would personally perform abortions!

After Global Methodists have departed, who will be left in the UMC to restrain such extremism?

Anyone putting such hope in leaders claiming to be “centrists” (very different from the genuine Methodist middle) should consider the track record. In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, we reviewed statements from the leaders of the so-called “centrist” caucuses that emerged a few years ago—the United Methodist Centrist Movement, Uniting Methodists, and Mainstream UMC.

Numerous such “centrist” leaders aired strong opinions supporting abortion and/or denouncing pro-lifers. A few focused on promoting common-ground concerns, like supporting women with unplanned pregnancies. Not one took a clear, strong, consistently pro-life position. This all matches earlier observations of “centrist” leaders’ imbalance on abortion.

To be fair, I give “centrist” leader Adam Hamilton credit for some statements that may nudge some people in a relatively more pro-life direction. He calls himself “pro-life with a heavy heart.” But his recently reiterated stance on intentionally destroying unborn human life at the very earliest stages (see pages 158-159) differs from a consistently pro-life position. He recently held a town hall meeting on abortion, in which he declined to take a position on a proposal to allow his state to restrict abortion, and he even-handedly featured one member of his congregation who volunteers for abortion provider Planned Parenthood and another who volunteers for a crisis pregnancy center.

And within the “centrist” caucus world, Hamilton’s unique example is overwhelmed by multiple other leaders, such as Uniting Methodists’ Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, whose congregation decried pro-life policy as “misogynistic,” and Mainstream UMC’s Mark Holland, who in his current campaign for U.S. Senate has repeatedly highlighted his broad support for abortion.  

We cannot expect much moderation from people who sincerely believe that all elective abortions are “holy work” that Jesus Christ might have personally performed or that pro-life values are inherently “misogynistic” (i.e., stem from evil hatred of all women). 

Again, after the separation wraps up, it is not a question of if the UMC will shift leftward on abortion, under the dominance of such leaders, but rather how quickly.

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