Abortion advocacy will be a topic at GA Print

Two pieces of business calling the church to advocate for unlimited access and funding for abortion services are coming to the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) to be held in Pittsburgh, PA, June 30-July 7. Item 21-03 from Albany Presbytery asks the General Assembly:

[T]o protect all women’s access to comprehensive health care, including access to health services that enable responsible family planning and honor the exercise of individual conscience.

The presbytery asks the GA to accomplish its goal by encouraging the church, its members and councils, and directing the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations to advocate (nationally and internationally respectively) for full access to reproductive health care for women and men in both private and public health plans, including legal access to abortion services when necessary. The six recommendations also ask the above entities to oppose state and federal laws that would restrict or limit access and public funding of family planning and abortion services; and to advocate for restrictive requirements and limitations on pregnancy centers affiliated with those who are "anti-abortion."

Item 14-04, a Human Rights Update from ACSWP (Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy) asks the GA to direct the Stated Clerk to post the report online, include it in the GA social witness policy CD, and encourage its study and use in advocacy. It also requests observation of "Human Rights Day," continued monitoring and reporting of human rights issues by ACSWP, and would encourage councils of the church to pray for victims of human rights violations. The report focuses on access to reproductive health care, worker’s rights, and civil liberties. The call to action section on reproductive health care echoes many of the same advocacy recommendations in Albany Presbytery’s overture (Item 21-03) bur adds to those advocacy supporting legislation that requires insurance companies to cover contraception and abortion, even for those religious institutions who object to paying for contraception or abortion as a matter of religious freedom and conscience.

History of abortion advocacy in PC(USA)

Twenty years ago, in 1992, the GA approved "Problem Pregnancies and Abortion" as a social witness policy on abortion in the PC(USA). The approved paper called for publications of PC(USA) entities to "reflect the diversity of positions about problem pregnancies and abortion found herein." Those positions spanned the range of what we might label ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’. Since 1992 the Washington Office (now Office of Public Policy) advocated in a one-sided manner against any restrictions on abortion including advocacy against parental consent for abortions for minors and advocating against the ban on partial birth abortions.

In 2006 the General Assembly passed a more nuanced statement including a clear declaration that when problems arise late in a pregnancy the lives of both mother and unborn child must be considered and that viable babies, those able to survive outside the womb, ought not to be aborted. Of the responsibilities of the church, including advocacy, the 2006 statement said this:

The church has a responsibility to provide public witness and to offer guidance, counsel, and support to those who make or interpret laws and public policies about abortion and problem pregnancies. Pastors have a duty to counsel with and pray for those who face decisions about problem pregnancies. Congregations have a duty to pray for and support those who face these choices, to offer support for women and families to help make unwanted pregnancies less likely to occur, and to provide practical support for those facing the birth of a child with medical anomalies, birth after rape or incest, or those who face health, economic, or other stresses.

The 2006 statement brought to the church the most balanced abortion policy since reunion in 1983. As a result, since 2006 the Office of Public Policy has largely been silent on the issue of abortion, speaking out once in support of an adoption initiative, something about which the whole church could agree. The absence of one-sided advocacy has been helpful to the peace and unity of the church and has allowed congregations to focus on a more pastoral response to problem pregnancies.

How would these measures affect the Church?

 Item 21-03 seeks to establish a platform for one-sided, pro-abortion advocacy from the whole church. If commissioners approve this action the advocacy that results will draw attention away from more pastoral responses to problem pregnancy and reproductive health in congregations. If approved, this overture would direct the Office of Public Policy and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations as the public voice of the church to advocate one side of a moral issue – a position contrary to the teaching of Scripture on the nature of life in the womb that ignores God's prohibition against the taking of human life. Such advocacy interferes with ministry that understands children to be a blessing from God and exacerbates the divisions in the church on the issue of abortion. Those who believe Scripture teaches that abortion is sin would be placed in a crisis of conscience. The overture brings bias rather than balance. This is evident in the call to advocacy that would liberate abortion clinics (for profit businesses) from regulation while increasing regulations for crisis pregnancy centers (non-profit organizations, offering free services). The call to support programs that reduce unintended and teenage pregnancy is a thinly veiled effort to promote comprehensive sex education and distribution of contraceptives. In spite of some helpful suggestions such as supporting medical leave, childcare, and preschool programs, an overture that elevates the voice of a few as the voice of the whole and will fracture rather than unite the church.

Item 14-04 seeks to enable similar one-sided, pro-abortion advocacy. The first of four recommendations would have the effect of distributing this resource under the guise of social witness policy without going through the stringent and well defined process outlined by previous General Assemblies for establishing a social witness policy in a way that considers the broad range of voices and beliefs in the church on the sensitive issues surrounding pregnancy and reproductive health. If approved the lengthy and biased report would fuel ongoing advocacy that is divisive.

Is there a better way?

In 2008-2009 a Task Force on Abortion in Pittsburgh Presbytery held a dialogue on abortion and issued a report focused on the things we could say together and on ministry that supports women in difficult pregnancy situations. The report (available from PPL) models a way to bring ministry out of conflict. Since 1992 the church has spoken numerous times in GA actions calling for congregations to support women who are pregnant in difficult circumstances. Yet, no programs or resources have been forthcoming from the denomination to equip churches for assisting women in giving life to their unborn children. An Adoption Assistance Fund set up by the Board of Pensions is the single exception, but those funds are only available to those covered by the BOP Medical Benefits Plan and are not available to other church members.

PPL has vision and resources for equipping churches to cherish life and assist women in crisis pregnancy, but we receive no funding from the denomination and have no voice or access to the higher councils of the church.