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Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Episcopal Church: Abortion & Contraception

I was recently asked a simple enough question: Where does The Episcopal Church stand on Reproductive Justice issues such as contraception and abortion?

The answer is very simple and yet not easily expressed.

I think that's because our discussions on this issue have been emotionally charged and filled with hyperbole, exaggeration, inaccuracies and, well,  drama.

If one is "pro-life," one is, therefore, "anti-abortion" and, necessarily "bad" for limiting a woman's choice but "good" for "protecting the un-born or pre-born" but "bad" for not making provisions to care for the life of the child after it is born.

If one is "pro-choice" one is, therefore, "pro-abortion" and, necessarily "bad" for "murdering babies" but "good" for "respecting the sacred right of a woman to be her own moral agent" but "bad" for "not respecting the 'personhood' of the fetus". 

It's all black and white with no shades of gray and heavily sprinkled with double doses of drama.

That's a difficult position on a good day for The Episcopal Church, which is a faithful pilgrim on the 'via media' or 'middle road' of classic, traditional Anglicanism.

While it may sound like a batch of classical Anglican Fudge, if you read our official resolutions on the matter, it is fair to say that The Episcopal Church seeks to promote the sacredness of human life - all human life - including that of the woman and the children for whom she is responsible.

The bottom line is that The Episcopal Church has voted in strong opposition to any abridgment to a woman's access to a safe means of terminating pregnancy.

That means that The Episcopal Church wants the means of legal abortion to continue while working to address conditions - such as poverty, inadequate education, unemployment, etc., as well as access to information about human reproduction including effective, affordable contraception methods, devices and medicines - which would make abortions a less frequent occurrence.

Though the fact that The Episcopal Church is regularly identified as being pro-choice is accurate, it would be a misstatement to suggest that TEC is "in favor of abortions" or "promoting abortion."

Which means, we're not so different from most Americans.

A recent article in Atlantic magazine maintains that public opinion about abortion is remarkably stable. "Since the 1970s, we have seen considerable changes in attitudes towards gay marriage and marijuana legalization but not in opinions about abortion."

"Take a question that Gallup has asked more than 50 times since 1975: Should abortion be legal in certain circumstances? That year, 54 percent said yes. When CNN’s pollsters asked the same question in May 2013, 54 percent gave that response, with 20 to 25 percent at the extremes."

To my knowledge, no poll has ever been done specifically asking these question of those who are baptized members in good standing or are ordained to lead a congregation, much less simply sit in the pews of The Episcopal Church of a Sunday morning.

My sense, however, is that Episcopalians are like most Americans - we hold two differing opinions simultaneously in tension with each other, and our official position, as stated in resolutions passed by our General Convention, reflect that tension.

Two major pollsters that ask people whether they are pro-choice or pro-life show narrow divisions on the question. Gallup’s May 2013 poll showed that 45 percent called themselves pro-choice and 48 percent pro-life. In Fox News' April 2013 poll of registered voters, 49 percent called themselves pro-choice and 44 percent pro-life.

If you want to know what The Episcopal Church, in General Convention, has said about Reproductive Rights like contraception and abortion, you'd have to dig through the Archives of The Episcopal Church to discover that answer.

You can find resolutions which have been passed by General Convention here .

You will have to work a bit to "connect the dots" but, with some diligence you will discover that, as early as 1930, The Lambeth Conference (an international gathering of Anglican bishops at Lambeth Palace, the official residence of The Archbishop of Canterbury) "approved contraception for the purposes of family planning." (Resolution 15)

Of course, there is the curiously worded Resolution 115 by the 1958 Lambeth Conference which essentially reaffirmed Aquinas's appeal to conscience in terms of husband and wife's decision about the size of their family.

Neither were exactly ringing endorsements of contraception, and there's lots high church language, but the approval is clear.

The 1994 General Convention reaffirmed this position, which appeared under a primary concern "that rapid global population growth adversely affects the prospects for peace and justice by exacerbating poverty, deprivation and suffering, and depleting environmental resources . . ."

I don't have links to the following facts because the Episcopal Church didn't begin making resolutions available online until the early 90s. However, in looking through some old convention journals, I discovered that The Episcopal Church at its 1964 General Convention stated, "The Church continues (from a resolution in 1958) to condemn non-therapeutic abortions...." 

However, three years later, at the very next General Convention in 1967, we approved abortions where "the physical or mental health of the mother is threatened seriously," and in cases where the child would be born with disability or was conceived in rape. 

In 1976, the Episcopal General Convention reaffirmed this statement and went further.  It expressed "unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter and to act upon them." 

We did so again in 1982. 

In 1985, we passed resolution A085 which also reaffirmed our position and asked
That this 68th General Convention request the several dioceses to initiate studies to consider the pastoral, personal, sociological and theological implications of abortion. We suggest appointing appropriately representative diocesan commissions to oversee a process of study which includes those local congregations willing to be involved. We commend to all a study of the official position of this Church as expressed in the resolutions on abortion adopted by the General Conventions of 1976, 1979 and 1982. We suggest to all a study of the paper of the House of Bishops Committee on Theology: "Theological Reflection Paper on Abortion." Finally we direct the Standing Commission on Human Affairs and Health to receive all information arising from these diocesan studies.
I couldn't find either a study of the dioceses or the bishop's theological paper on abortion online (I'm sure someone has copies buried in their files somewhere), but at the1988 General Convention, we were condemning violence to abortion clinics and those persons who seek services there and issued a statement essentially reaffirming our previous position.

In 1991, we were opposed to the requirement for parental consent or notification of parents when minor women seek safe abortion, and we firmly rejected conception for the sole purpose of harvesting fetal tissue for medical research.

In 1997, we did not reject but rather expressed "grave concern" about third trimester abortions, except in "extreme circumstances".  

In 2000, we passed a resolution which, interestingly enough, commended the work done by a Commission on End of Life Issues and asked for a similar study be done on Beginning of Life issues, such as - and I quote - "babies born alive during induced abortions".

I have not found evidence of the existence of that study, much less that a commission was convened. I have serious doubt that either entity ever saw the light of day.

In 2000, we also acknowledged the existence, for men and women, of something called "post abortion stress" and asked for pastoral care for all who suffer from it. 

I think we've come to know that, while some are certainly stressed after the termination of a pregnancy, either through abortion or miscarriage, there is no official medical condition known as "post-abortion stress" and I do not know of any official action regarding this issue from The Episcopal Church.

Officially, we can hardly be described as "pro abortion". However, it can be said that we are unequivocally "pro choice" - in a very traditionally nuanced Anglican sort of way.

Let's take a closer look at our "official" position on Abortion which can be found most succinctly stated in Resolution 1994-A054.  Allow me to lift up some of the language to show you what I mean:
All human life is sacred from its inception until death.

As Christians we also affirm responsible family planning.

We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension, calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community.

While we acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion, as Christians we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.

In those cases where an abortion is being considered, members of this Church are urged to seek the dictates of their conscience in prayer, to seek the advice and counsel of members of the Christian community and where appropriate, the sacramental life of this Church.

Whenever members of this Church are consulted with regard to a problem pregnancy, they are to explore, with grave seriousness, with the person or persons seeking advice and counsel, as alternatives to abortion, other positive courses of action, including, but not limited to, the following possibilities: the parents raising the child; another family member raising the child; making the child available for adoption.

We believe that legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem. We therefore express our deep conviction that any proposed legislation on the part of national or state governments regarding abortions must take special care to see that the individual conscience is respected, and that the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter is acknowledged and honored as the position of this Church;

Resolved, That this 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church express its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.
Now, I may quibble about the phrase about human life ". . . from inception . . .", and some have taken exception to "the tragic dimension" of abortion or that it should be utilized only in "extreme situations", but there's no arguing with the "unequivocal opposition" to anything that "abridges the right of a woman" or "limit(s) the access of a woman to a safe means of acting on HER decision.

We are pro-choice but that doesn't make us pro abortion.

You can not possibly make the claim that "The Episcopal Church promotes abortion" - unless, of course, your penchant or preference is to consistently utilize hyperbole or exaggeration or drama as your primary rhetorical device.  

Indeed, I think the position of  The Episcopal Church makes us decidedly pro-life in the sense that we hold ALL life sacred - including the lives of women - as well as those unwanted pregnancies which lead to the birth and the life of a child who has basic human rights to shelter, food, clothing, access to adequate medical care and, oh yes, love.

The issue of reproductive justice in general and abortion in particular will continue to be pushed into national conversation by special interest groups, most of which are religiously-based.

I predict that, ultimately, we will see the same result from this issue as we have with issues of marriage equality. All the hyperbole and drama and appeals to scripture as the only rationale for undermining abortion or reversing Roe v Wade will begin to fall, more and more, on deaf ears.

At the end of the day, I do believe that the position of The Episcopal Church is reflective of and articulates the position of the majority of Americans:

+ Keep abortion safe and legal, accessible and affordable while we continue to work on conditions that would make abortion a less frequent occurrence.

+ Contraception is an integral part of normal, preventative health care for women which should be affordable, accessible and covered under her health insurance plan. 

+ Respect for the sacredness of all life - from womb to tomb - including the life of a woman to be her own moral agent and make the decisions that are right for her and her family, as well as respect for every child to have the basic human rights of food, clothing, shelter and love.


8thday said...

I am very interested in the intersection of church and politics. I am curious - does the Episcopal Church take a position on other issues? Global warming or fracking, for example? And how is it decided which issues the church will take a position on?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, 8th Day - You know, I can't think of another issue that TEC hasn't had a resolution. Resolutions can be submitted from a variety of sources - bishops, deputies, provinces, dioceses, committees, commissions, agencies and boards, etc.If any of those groups feel passionate about something, they submit a resolution to General Convention where it is assigned to a committee which then holds hearings - just like the process in Congress. General Convention then votes on it and it becomes our 'position'.

Again, you'd have to check TEC's archives and pour over the resolutions there to see where we stand on any one given issue.

I also understand that this is a good resource: Social Teachings of TEC.

Matthew said...

I'm not sure how to reconcile the "tragic element" language with what Dean Ragsdale has said of abortion sometimes being a blessing -- though maybe a blessing is not inconsistent with a tragic element I just don't know. Then again, one need not agree with all resolutions of TEC (I certainly don't agree with some) but I sometimes find myself wondering if I agree with the resolutions or not and whether I think sometimes abortion is a blessing and whether I can square that view with the resolutions or not. I find that I can describe what I believe. I find that I often cannot determine if what I believe is consistent with the resolutions or not. Perhaps that's typical?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


I have seen that for some women, abortion is a great tragedy; for others it is a great blessing. Either way, it is not my decision to mourn or celebrate. It is only for me to support and continue to love.

8thday said...

Thank you for the response and the link. And wow, you were right - I started googling "TEC's position on _____" and every issue I could think of came back with multiple links. The only issue I tried that didn't have a position was TEC's position on which way the toilet paper should be hung : )

I do wonder, as many churches become more and more involved in political issues, when do they cross the line into being political actions committees? It is becoming very blurry out there.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I suppose it can look blurry but I'm pretty clear. A church that isn't working for justice is just a civic club at prayer.

Know justice, know peace. No justice, no peace.

8thday said...

Oh, I absolutely agree with you Elizabeth on the morality.

My comment goes more toward the parameters of the Johnson Amendment becoming blurry. As progressive churches push harder against conservatives, and fundamentalist churches push against liberals, I wonder how long it will be before those in power start looking to punish churches by calling them “too political” and taxing their vast resources. It has huge untapped revenue potential. (I believe this is already starting to happen with pastor’s housing allowances becoming taxable for the first time) And as more and more people identify as “none” I think those folks will also start pressuring for a more equitable distribution of the tax burden. Churches becoming overtly political may just be the leverage they need to accomplish that.

Just pondering . . .

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You may have a point, 8th Day. Can't say as I don't think it's important and just for churches to pay taxes.

Anonymous said...

Mother Elizabeth, I would love to hear your comments on whether I should stay in TEC, in a diocese where the Bishop is seemingly homophobic and has prohibited his Priests from same-sex marriages or even blessing those unions. Although it is his right to prohibit in his diocese, it is also my right to not continue giving my time, talent and treasure to this diocese. Now, I must emphasize that the congregation is very warm, loving and accepting to me and my partner. We are leaving the Church after July 12, 2015, when the Convention results are discussed with the congregation. We are not dividers, troublemakers or care to cause consternation in the congregation. There are other churches in our area where LBGT's are welcome and will perform the marriage and blessing of union. I might add, they are not Episcopal.

Thank you for your sage advice. Many Blessings and Favor of God on you, Anonymous...for apparent reasons.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hello and thank you for entrusting me with your question. First up, your bishop sounds decidedly homophobic and heterocentric. That is never a healthy combination for any one, LGBT or straight. So, while it deeply pains me to say this, I do support your leaving TEC. When you do, and not to make trouble or consternation in the congregation, it is vitally important for you to share your reasons with the good people there and, especially the rector.

And, when your heart has started to mend from having been broken with disappointment, write to the bishop and tell him. He needs to know. He needs to understand that his actions have consequences and that you and your beloved are two of them.

Bottom line: It's Jesus we follow, not any one particular church. Follow Jesus right out the door of that church and into another where you will be welcome and have the covenant you make with your beloved blessed and honored and cherished.

I'm so sorry to lose you but I rejoice for your faithfulness in Jesus, the journey you are about to take, and the contributions you will continue to make in His name.

JoAnna Wahlund said...


"While it may sound like a batch of classical Anglican Fudge, if you read our official resolutions on the matter, it is fair to say that The Episcopal Church seeks to promote the sacredness of human life - all human life - including that of the woman and the children for whom she is responsible.

The bottom line is that The Episcopal Church has voted in strong opposition to any abridgment to a woman's access to a safe means of terminating pregnancy."

Do you not see a contradiction between those two paragraphs? How is human life be considered sacred if innocent human beings can be killed (i.e., "terminated")? It seems to me that if human life is truly considered sacred, then it should be wrong to kill innocent human beings, especially via abortion.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

If I thought you actually wanted to engage in conversation, I would try to explain. You don't want conversation. You want to engage in hyperbole in order to feel like you've "won" so you can feel more in control of the lives of other people.

You are not. That's the decision of the person - emphasis on the person - whose life is directly affected by that decision. It's between the woman - the person, not a collection of cells - whose moral agency we trust, whose life we respect, whose privacy is guaranteed by the 4th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, and God. Not you. Not anyone else. The woman - with the advice and counsel of her family and physician and clergy - and God.

Here's a very simple bottom line you might be able to understand: If you don't want abortion, don't have one.

Here's another: You are not in control.

Simple. Got it?

Anonymous said...

Do you believe abortion should be handled on a national or state level?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I believe abortion should be "handled" by the pregnant woman. Period.

Peter William Yancey said...

I found your posting quite interesting and informative however, I would like to make an observation if I may. The purpose of Christianity is not to be a social justice organization, but to make us Christlike. In the west this process is known as Sanctification, while in the east they know it as Theosis. The more that we are conformed to the image and likeness of Christ, the more loving, compassionate, and just we will become. Over stressing social justice is putting the cart before the horse. The Church is the Body of Christ, not a social service organization.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hmm . . . I think, last time they were together and had a Passover Meal, Judas pretty much said the same thing to Jesus.