Sunday, January 22, 2006

Does ECUSA have a stand on Abortion?

The Episcopal Church at the national level supports and helps fund the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization advocating abortion rights in the U.S.; the stand seems relatively recent for our church, and it has recently drawn criticism from some on the Anglican/Catholic right. But as far as I can tell, it seems these critics have incorrectly read ECUSA on abortion--at least I hope. They see the Episcopal Church as permitting abortion without qualification, or at least outside the narrow range of extreme circumstances.

As far as I can find, the position expressed by ECUSA's support of RCRC is voiced in resolution GC1994-A054. Take a breath; it's a tad long-winded, and you have to stay awake until the end:

"Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That this 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church reaffirms resolution C047 from the 69th General Convention, which states:

All human life is sacred from its inception until death. The Church takes seriously its obligation to help form the consciences of its members concerning this sacredness. Human life, therefore, should be initiated only advisedly and in full accord with this understanding of the power to conceive and give birth which is bestowed by God. It is the responsibility of our congregations to assist their members in becoming informed concerning the spiritual and physiological aspects of sex and sexuality.

The Book of Common Prayer affirms that "the birth of a child is a joyous and solemn occasion in the life of a family. It is also an occasion for rejoicing in the Christian community" (p. 440). 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.

It is the responsibility of members of this Church, especially the clergy, to become aware of local agencies and resources which will assist those faced with problem pregnancies.

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;

and be it further
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."

The long part before the bold-type paragraph wavers around weakly, but in the end agrees with the Church of England's current official position: abortion is morally wrong except in a narrow range of extreme cases. I've taken the liberty of enlarging and underlining those passages that render ECUSA's disapproval of unconditional abortion obvious.

The paragraph in bold at the very end of the resolution gives voice to another point of view: Come what may, ECUSA should support the Roe v. Wade status quo, as that status quo protects a right, et al (although, just what exactly is the right--one to information, or one to an abortion, or both? Hard to say, if not impossible, from the text). Anyhow, these normal and bold faced sections are, in fact, logically consistent.

That last paragraph, the one in bold, is the one committing ECUSA to RCRC; nothing in the previous paragraphs is similarly effective. The feeling/strategy/panic evident from the last paragraph might be this:

"Without the work of groups like RCRC, abortions will not be available, even in the narrow range of extreme cases. There is no similarly efficacious alternative. The danger of the procedure being entirely eliminated is that severe."

Of course, I do not know.

While ECUSA has never said, to my knowledge, Abortions outside extreme circumstances are permissible, and its support of RCRC does not entail support of such permissibility; indeed, there is disapproval in the resolution for abortion outsiode the narrow range. Still,one should wish for clearer moral guidance here.

Why? The number of abortions performed in the U.S. seems to exceed the number one would expect if abortion were in practice generally a matter of extreme circumstances--we're apparently talking millions. Given the very high numbers of abortions performed yearly, any broad support of abortion rights might well be seen as support for abortion simpliciter.

ECUSA has a teaching office here, a duty to support and render intelligible the dignity and moral significance of human life. To support a legal right to something ECUSA has officialy said is seriously immoral, even "tragic" to use ECUSA's word, is dangerous and risks the appearance of incoherence.


At 11:59 PM, Blogger Contarini said...

Right on target, Scotist. I'm glad to be able to agree with you here!

At 12:09 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thank you.

Now onto the problem is the larger secular culture and abortion.

At 4:40 PM, Blogger Closed said...

I think Fr. Jake's take that this is somewhat "schizophrenic", given the very limited and pastoral statement from GC and the decision to join with RCRC by the Exec. Comm. Given my tendency toward a consistent-life ethic, I find this troubling and I hope that this isn't considered part of a whole cloth program of "progress". Worse, once again, this will be attached with homosexuality and we'll continue to conflate the two matters.

At 1:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Worse, once again, this will be attached with homosexuality and we'll continue to conflate the two matters.

Well, while not "conflating" the two, I do think it has something to do w/ the "respect the dignity of every human being" promise (from the Baptismal vows) common to both.

We respect LGBT people's stated self-understanding "God made me this way/God calls me to relationship w/ this person".

We respect women's stated self-understanding "I need to not be pregnant now, and that it's OK by God for me to end this pregnancy".

The movement towards respecting ALL persons' own self-understandings IS "progress", *C. I don't know why it's difficult for you to see that.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger bls said...

It's difficult for me to see that, too. So Christopher is not alone in that.

At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'm afraid that there is just a common moral blind-spot around this issue (influenced by the fact that the "Pro-Life" side has done such a good job in framing the issue in a way that "Pro-Choice = Baby-killing").

I think that this blind-spot is a tragic phenomenon, for the Church in general, and ECUSA in particular.

Those progressive Christians who should be UNITED in defending life that is TRULY HUMAN (from Iraq, to Death Row, to LGBTs around the world, to the desperately poor everywhere) are instead caught up in yet another "Ick Factor" distraction.

"Abortion Stops a Beating Heart": yes, it sometimes does. And why does this matter for Christians for whom the taking of life (ala meat-eating) is seen as something for which God has given us (being made in God's Image) this power of (sentient) choice?

There are REAL tears being cried in Baghdad, and in Huntsville, Texas. REAL human lives are being taken, through the use of power-over one group of (sentient) human beings, vis-a-vis another group of sentient human beings.

When concrete human wills are no longer being exterminated (and, I might add, when women no longer face life-denying socio-economic pressures to terminate pregnancies they would otherwise CHOOSE to carry to term), then I can get interested, maybe, about non-sentient heartbeats that are being involuntarily stopped (though w/ the caveat, that I'm equally concerned about animal experimentation, especially w/ primates).

Until then, why are we (e.g. Episcopalians) wasting time, and dividing ourselves? "Ick Factor" obsessions re "the unborn" (what I call "fetus fetishism") does NOTHING to help actual human beings (or even fetuses who will be aborted legally, *OR* illegally/unsafely, anyway), and EVERYTHING to do w/ a false posturing over "Life" (Wittle Baaaaaaaaabies!").

Fetus fetishism is idolatry, and I honor ECUSA, in the face of continuing demogogic attacks, for resisting it . . . and sticking to the Gospel! :-D

At 9:06 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Granted, idolatry is the special danger here, but I think nobody has claimed there is an absolute right to life for any creature, or any other absolute rights for that matter.

Granted too, it is exceedingly odd that the rank and file among Christian churches are not absolutely furious over our participation on the Iraq War--it seems like hypocrisy to agitate against abortion while turning a blind eye to the murderous mayhem we unleashed in the Middle East.

And you are right, IMHO, to oppose the death penalty.

People can agree with your points above, and still disagree about abortion.

At 6:57 PM, Blogger bls said...

Or, gee, it could be that people have actually thought about the issue, and come to a different conclusion than J.C.

I know that sounds crazy. No more crazy, of course, than trying to find a right to abortion in the Baptismal Vows, though....

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Contarini said...


Terms like "fetus fetishism" accomplish nothing. The question is whether the fetus should be regarded as a human life--or whether there is at least good probable reason for doing so.

The problem with your "sentience" criterion is that it's functional rather than ontological. From the point at which we have a distinct biological identity definable as human, we ought to treat that entity with the respect due to a human being. Given modern genetics, I think the most reasonable point at which to begin doing that is conception. I grant that there are a lot of ambiguities about the precise "moment of conception," and I have no problem admitting that the fetus becomes more clearly and indisputably a human being as the pregnancy progresses. But we should not deliberately destroy any distinct biological entity that can be described as human.

At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a line of reasoning I used to fall prey to that says that we should worry about "real" human beings who are being injured before worrying about "fetuses." It's a false choice. We should worry about all human beings who are subjected to torture and death, those in Iraq and those at home, those born and those unborn. ECUSA's action doesn't seem consistent with the 94 resolution to me, nor can it be justified as an action of the Executive Council without the approval of General Convention. Whatever our commitment to legal access to abortion may be, the RCRC is on record all over the place as denying that abortion is ever a bad thing. I hope and pray that General Convention this summer has the wisdom to pull us out of such an organization.


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