One of the most difficult pastor care situations I faced as a local church pastor occurred in my second appointment. I had a good 15 years of pastoral experience under my belt; and completed all of my Ph.D. classes in theological and social ethics, so I was not a pastoral rookie. A church family was in crisis over the pregnancy of their teenage daughter. The parents, fearing this would destroy their daughter’s future, wanted her to get an abortion. The daughter, in her first trimester, wanted to keep the child. The daughter’s boyfriend was so immature he could not commit to anything, so she would be alone in raising the child. The daughter was also so young that she could not foresee the challenges of teenage motherhood, as she would be a sophomore in high school. Both parents and child lobbied me to take their side and try to convince the other that they were right. Much of my book knowledge and pastoral experience went out the window in such an emotionally charged situation. I kept reminding this family that I was not there to take a side but to provide emotional and spiritual support so that they could make the best decision. I kept reminding myself that I had to leave my values and options out of their decision, and my role was to provide a safe holding space for them to hash this out and make the best possible decision.
The Supreme Court decision of Dobbs v. Jackson has taken such decision-making out of the hands of this family for many states who will outwardly ban abortions. We are lucky to be living in a state that will still allow it, but many other Americans will be denied this crucial decision-making ability.
No one decision, doctrine or law is a solitary matter. United Methodists from around the world worked over many years to revise our Social Principles to ensure that the church’s stance was clear on many current issues and realities. That includes abortion:
“Our commitment to the sanctity of human life makes us reluctant to condone abortion. We unconditionally reject it as an acceptable means of birth control or a mechanism for gender selection and other forms of eugenics. We support measures requiring 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, except in cases of alleged incest.”
“We oppose late-term or partial-birth abortion, a process also known as dilation and extraction. We call for the end to this practice, except when the life of the mother is in danger, no other medical treatments are feasible, or when severe abnormalities threaten the viability of the fetus. We recognize that these and other tragic conflicts of life with life may justify decisions to terminate the life of a fetus. In these limited circumstances, we support the legal option of abortion and insist that such procedures be performed by trained medical providers in clean and safe settings.”
“We urge all those considering abortions to seek appropriate medical advice and pastoral counseling and to engage in searching, prayerful inquiries into other alternatives, such as making babies available for adoption. We pray for those facing unintended pregnancies and offer our prayers and support as they attempt to discern God’s will and seek God’s wisdom and guidance. Regardless of the circumstances in which someone might get an abortion, we do not condone bullying or shaming people for their decisions or actions.”
“We acknowledge that young women of childbearing age frequently report that they lack the ability to make meaningful life choices or exercise effective control over their own lives. We challenge pastors, congregations, campus ministries, and others to be at the forefront of efforts to empower these young women. Additionally, we support resource centers that offer compassionate care and help women explore alternatives to abortion.” (The 2020 Revised Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, K. Reproductive Health and Abortion, p. 28-29).
As always, I am impressed with the collective wisdom of our church on this stance. It is a balanced and compassionate stance that takes into account the autonomy of women to make their own decision on what is best for their lives and the future. Too often, the patriarchy of our culture means that men make decisions that are not theirs to make. Dare I also say that our legal and political system is making this same presumption. Abortion, as difficult a decision as that is, must be decided by the individual woman and her family.
In the end, no legal court, no political system, and no church can unilaterally make that decision for an individual woman.
In the coming days, I pray that you will openly and compassionately discuss this with each other and your church members. We will have different options and values on this, but we need to dialogue openly and listen to each other.
Be the Hope,