The Episcopal Church and abortion

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The Office of Public Affairs of the Episcopal Church responded to questions raised by new laws restricting access to abortion in states such as Alabama, Missouri, and Ohio, by sending out an email last week summarizing the positions taken by General Convention on the issues of abortion and reproductive healthcare, noting that, “the General Convention of The Episcopal Church recognizes the moral, legal, personal, and societal complexity of the issue. The diversity of views within the Church represents our common struggle to understand and discern this issue.”

The summary reads in part:

The Episcopal Church teaches that “all human life is sacred. Hence, it is sacred from its inception until death. The Church takes seriously its obligation to help form the consciences of its members concerning this sacredness. …

In a series of statements over the past decades, the Church has declared that “we emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.” At the same time, since 1967, The Episcopal Church has maintained its “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 [about the termination of pregnancy] and to act upon them.” 

The Church urges dioceses and congregations “to give necessary aid and support to all pregnant women.” General Convention “commends the work and mission of pregnancy care centers which stress unconditional love and acceptance, for women and their unborn children.” …

At the General Convention in 2018, The Episcopal Church called for “women’s reproductive health and reproductive health procedures to be treated as all other medical procedures.” The Convention declared “that equitable access to women’s health care, including women’s reproductive health care, is an integral part of a woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth as a human being.”

We continue to advocate that “legislating 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.”

Read the whole summary statement here.

A few bishops have published their own commentary on the issue within the Church and the country.

The Rt Revd Jennifer A. Reddall, Bishop of Arizona, uses the show Call the Midwife as the backdrop to her blog post on the subject. An extract:

The narrative arc of the current season has been threaded with storylines about abortion, along with the issues that accompany abortion: maternal health, poverty, social stigma of unmarried mothers, mental illness, inaccessibility of birth control, and domestic violence. Abortion in the show’s context is illegal–but not inaccessible–and extremely risky.

I’ve been intrigued by the intersection between this fictionalized, historic narrative, and the present-day national conversation around the recent, highly restrictive laws controlling access to abortion services, and women’s health more generally.

In Call the Midwife, characters are consistently presented with situations that do not fit into their ideal moral view. Mothers face hard choices; the midwives are caught between caring for their patients and fulfilling their legal obligations. The midwives–both lay and religious–are not of one mind about whether abortion should be permissible. But to a person, they always respond to their patients with compassion and empathy–and they allow themselves to be changed by the stories they encounter.

Jesus taught using stories. When we hear about characters who struggle with issues we struggle with, it can open our minds and hearts to the Love of God, and reminds us how Jesus interacts with the people around him. The Gospel consistently recounts that Jesus ‘had compassion’ on people and crowds, and his compassion leads him to action to relieve their suffering and hunger. I consistently see the face of Jesus in the characters in Call the Midwife: they love, they weep, they care, they heal, they pray, and they stand by their patients through joy and grief.

I wish I heard more compassion and more love towards women in our national and legal debates–and not just when they have an unwanted or unviable pregnancy. The lifetime of stories I have heard and shared with the women I know have moved my own thoughts and opinions about abortion into a place that is roughly equivalent to what The Episcopal Church has stated in our General Convention resolutions.

Read Bishop Reddall’s blog post here.

The Rt Revd Susan E. Goff, Suffragan and Ecclesiastical Authority in Virginia, also affirms the nuanced position of successive General Conventions, writing in part:

Our statements about abortion and women’s reproductive health are bound together by our unshakable affirmation that all life is sacred and all human beings are worthy of abiding love. As a woman, as a child of God and as a bishop, I hold my own arms wide open in love to support women in making informed decisions about their bodies and their reproductive health. I reach out with pastoral care toward those women who chose to end a pregnancy and to those who choose to give birth in difficult circumstances. I call on our legislatures to provide access to adequate health care, education, safety and freedom from violence for all who are born. While honoring the sanctity of life for all people and upholding our Church’s teachings about the seriousness and “tragic dimension” of abortion, I will do what I can to keep our society from returning to an era of backroom abortions in which the lives and health of women are threatened. With arms held wide open in love, we can reach out to people on the many different sides of these issues without becoming polarized. God bless us all as we navigate these waters in the love of Christ Jesus.

Find Bishop Goff’s full statement here.

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Jon White
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I would like to live in a world where there were no, or at least very few, abortions. I'd prefer it if every pregnancy were wanted and part of a woman's desire to bear and raise a child. However, it has been shown by centuries of experience that simply outlawing abortion doesn't make it go away. Past experience shows that legislating morality is about as effective as Cnut's barking orders at the tide. Legally restricting abortions has been empirically shown to be a failed policy; it just leads to abortions being performed in dangerous ways and increases death and disfugurement of women. I'm opposed to criminalizing abortion because it ISN'T effective in meeting the goal. What does seem to be more effective in reducing the number and rate of abortions is empowering women, providing economic opportunity, enacting policies that support families and children, realistic sex education, and providing effective and accessible family planning options.

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Philip B. Spivey
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Philip B. Spivey

I agree with you, Jon, nobody wants to perform fetal abortions and in a society truly geared for a family's welfare, there would be very few necessary. But as I indicated below, in a more charitable way, the abortion issue is really a straw man (pun intended.) If people opposed to abortions were forthright with us about their concern for women and the unborn, they would be the first proponents for programs of nationwide contraception and family planning services. They might even characterize the preponderance of abortions as an "urgent public health issue". No such public health initiatives have been forthcoming.

Because the real agenda at hand is controlling women's bodies, self-determination and futures. The real agenda is to reign shame and ridicule down upon any women, like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who dare challenge patriarchy. "Abortion" has become a dog whistle for turning back progress for women. That's how people win elections (and court seats) these days.

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JoS. S. Laughon
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I prefer the Didache on this.

"And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, Exodus 20:13-14 you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, Exodus 20:15 you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten"

This is from AD 70.

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Gregory Orloff
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Gregory Orloff

Of course, the Didache (sans the Exodus numeration interpolated here) was addressed to the members of the Church, who committed themselves to the way of Christ Jesus and his gospel values, rather than to society at large, which likely did not share that commitment — and thus it is a guideline for spirituality rather than a template for legislation. A better Christian response to abortion would be vast improvements in the treatment of women and the provision of better healthcare and education, which require personal cost and sacrificial giving that is more expensive than sound bites, grandstanding and passing bills. The largely male legislatures enacting the recent spate of anti-abortion laws show no such passion in passing laws against the adultery and fornication also mentioned in the Didache (or for enforcing male responsibility in pregnancies, for that matter) — perhaps to deflect the potential for self-incrimination?

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JoS. S. Laughon
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A few points;

1. As Christianity spread through various polities (Armenia, the Eastern and Western Empires, Ethiopia), Christians did not simply prohibit their only members from engaging in such sins of violence but in fact abolished such violence. To hold, as the early Christians did, that abortion is violence akin to infanticide or exposure of infants (widely tolerated in antiquity), and not seek abolition was incoherent. "Personally pro life but politically pro choice" would be unheard of to the Early Church.

2. Absolutely, the legal code punishing abandonment, restricting divorce, refusal to pay alimony should be considered when crafting family policy.

3. It does seem odd people point to the gender compositions of legislatures when erasing powerful women like female governors. Gender imbalances like an all-male Court that decided Roe do not seem to bother so much.

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Gregory Orloff
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Gregory Orloff

If "personally pro-life but politically pro-choice" would sound incoherent to the Early Church, so would many other approaches to the value of human life in later Christian history, right down to our own day and age. Martin of Tours, Ambrose of Milan and Nicholas of Myra protested beheading or burning grown-up babies deemed heretics or lawbreakers. Gregory of Nyssa railed against slavery as incompatible with biblical notions of human worth and equality, but it took most Christians 1,500 years to catch up. Hippolytus of Rome required quitting the military before baptism, and Basil of Caesarea withheld communion from returning combatants for three years, due to issues of bloodshed -- positions that might be decried as "unpatriotic" nowadays. Perhaps that's why God sends us Anabaptists, Quakers and the occasional Dorothy Day now and then -- so we see how far we've strayed from our churchly ancestors and how inconsistent we are when it comes to being "pro-life."

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JoS. S. Laughon
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Gregory,

Quite literally none of your examples actually proves your thesis that any of the Church Fathers would be politically pro-choice. All of the examples you show is how various Fathers opposed either the State allowing violence or using violence. These same Fathers opposed abortion and, as a result of Christianization, abortion was outlawed in Christian polities.

So nothing in your comment really addresses the fact that the early Church, as a part of their broader pro-life ethic, supported the abolition of killing the unborn. Taking their mantle to then support abortion seems fairly contradictory.

Lastly, in regards to Dorothy Day, she was also against abortion.

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Gregory Orloff
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Gregory Orloff

Jos, I never made a thesis that the Church Fathers would be politically pro-choice or take their mantle to then "support abortion." Reading what I wrote would reveal two theses: (1) Contemporary "pro-life" rhetoric among some conservative Christians inconsistent and piecemeal, focusing on abortion and ignoring or even advocating for warfare and capital punishment, so it cannot claim a coherent Christian ethic or moral higher ground; and (2) When it comes to solving the problem of abortion, few are willing to put their money where their mouths are by funding better education, funding and legal safeguards for women, instead resorting to the cheaper, easier solution of passing legislation. I knew long before you came along that Dorothy Day was against abortion. I also know she had one. And God bless that woman, for she certainly put her money and her life where her mouth was when it came to standing against war, capital punishment, abuse of the poor and defense of life.

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Philip B. Spivey
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Philip B. Spivey

The "abortion issue" is really two issues that have been bifurcated, with the Roman Church leading the way. Without the sanction and resources of birth control advances, women will continue to have, and live with the harsh consequences of, unwanted pregnancies. When a public health policy that fosters and supplies contraception on an as needed basis (like vaccines) is countered by fierce moral and religious objections to birth control, we have wantonly placed women (and societies) in moral handcuffs.

I prefer to view a women's right to choose as God-given right. But, if we insist on bifurcating this question into right and wrong, then which of these is the greater sin: To deny a woman access to birth control or to terminate an unwanted pregnancy?

Ask any human ethicist.

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Debra Hart
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Debra Hart

A woman's body is sovereign. No government or church should seek to intervene in her right to choose. Any equivocating by the church on this matter is unacceptable. Stand up for women strongly.

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Patricia
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Patricia

And who will stand for the soul she was given to nurture and bear forth? It is time to have this very real discussion.
Patricia, please provide your full name for any future comments to be approved - Editor

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Ellen Brauza
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Ellen Brauza

It is a very late development, this idea that a fetus houses a full human soul from the beginning. It cannot, of course, be proven one way or the other. But if you want to consider the Bible’s take on this, consider Genesis 2:7. You can look it up in whichever translation you prefer, but in all cases, it is not until God breathes into Adam that he becomes a living being. This is understood to mean that full, independent, life begins when a child is born and takes its first breath.

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Wm. Bill Paul
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Wm. Bill Paul

Jeremiah 1:5, anyone?
Genetic identity formed at conception, anyone?
And--seriously--are you saying it's not a full human being during the last week of the final trimester? Not a full human being the day before birth?
Abortion is a very difficult issue but it's not helped by woeful arguments like this.

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