Monday, January 23, 2006

Episcopal Church Yoked with RCRC

It seems the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church recently made the following decision:

...Approved the Episcopal Church's membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The membership had caused some controversy during the last General Convention. In a related resolution (NAC-040), the council asked for a report at its March meeting regarding "membership of or on behalf of the Episcopal Church in external organizations." The National Concerns Committee is considering whether the church needs a more specific policy on membership in such organizations.
The Living Church gives us a little more background on this decision. There's already been some heated discussions in response to this decision. Rather than intrude on that conversation, I'll offer a few of my own observations.

Before saying any more, let me remind you of the official stance of the Episcopal Church on abortion, as articulated in a resolution of the 1994 General Convention:

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...

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.
As some of you will recall, this resolution represents my own perspective. Abortion is always a tragedy, and should be used only in extreme situations. It is not an appropriate form of birth control.

I'm afraid this is one issue in which I part ways with many of my progressive brothers and sisters. I've read their arguments, and remain unconvinced of the ethical stance that they advocate. Even if we allow that a fetus is not fully human, we should be able to agree that the fetus is at minimum a "potential life", and so is deserving of some level of protection. The crux of the argument seems to be at what point this potential life becomes a human being. There is no consensus on this. As I've pointed out before, the "ensoulment at moment of conception" position has some difficulties, as seen in the example of an egg that splits to form twins. Scripture is not clear on this point either, as can be seen in Exodus 21:22-24. For causing a miscarriage, the penalty is a fine. For killing the woman, the penalty is a life for a life. We don't know where to draw the line.

What troubles me is that for some, this lack of a clear line of where human life begins has been taken as a reason to say we can simply make up our own lines. Lack of knowledge is not good grounds for assuming permission. If we admit we don't know, wouldn't it seem that the ethical thing to do would be to err on the side of caution?

The resolution produced by General Convention appears to be attempting to make a cautious stand. But now we see Executive Council affiliating the Episcopal Church with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which is clearly not a cautious organization, and advocates for positions on abortion that are in direct contradiction with the official position of the Episcopal Church. I think the Executive Council has made a serious mistake.

Let me try to offer a couple of examples of why I think this is not a good organization for ECUSA to be yoked with. I'll be referring to a resource document from the RCRC's website, Words of Choice; Countering Anti-Choice Rhetoric. First, they take issue with the phrase "abortion as birth control":

Opponents of choice claim that more than 90 percent of abortions are a form of contraception. Underlying this vague, unsubstantiated claim is the notion that women are irresponsible in their sexuality. In fact, 58 percent of women having abortions in the mid-1990s used a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant. This high rate of contraceptive failure indicates that available contraceptive methods do not meet the health, economic, and social needs of many women.
58% of women who have abortions are using it as a form of backup birth control? Forgive me for being politically incorrect, but I fail to see any reason for anyone to be offended by stating the plain truth. Abortion is being used as a form of birth control. The Episcopal Church is clearly on record as opposing this, as we should be, in my opinion.

The second example is the offense the RCRC finds in the phrase "abortion for convenience":

Women are charged with having abortions for frivolous reasons. Anti-choice rhetoric depicts women who have an abortion as impulsive or careless.
There is nothing "convenient" about having an abortion. It is socially stigmatized and personally wrenching. Women who have abortions often do so because they care about others - they want to bring children into the world under positive circumstances. The decision to have an abortion often is made because of poverty, concern for the well-being of existing children, and lack of commitment and support by the prospective father.

Since each person's situation is unique, reasons for abortion vary. Forty-nine percent of all pregnancies are unintended; of these, half are terminated by abortion Among those who report having an abortion, three-quarters say they are not ready to have a child because of responsibilities related to work, school, family, and other demands. About two-thirds say they cannot afford to have a child. Half do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner. Each year, about 14,000 women have abortions because they have become pregnant as a result of rape or incest.
If I understand this statement correctly, abortion is an option if you are poor, already have children, are a single parent, are in school, or have a demanding job. Those reasons certainly seem to fall under the category of "abortion for convenience" to me, which is also specifically opposed by the Episcopal Church.

I believe our Executive Council has made a huge mistake by associating the Episcopal Church with this group. I think it is a decision that is going to come back and haunt us.

I will never advocate for the reversal of Roe v Wade, however. Why? Consider this article (Thanks Aelred!):

"Four million abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Latin America annually, the United Nations reports, and up to 5,000 women are believed to die each year from complications from abortions."[*] This takes place in countries where churches and schools teach abstinence as the only form of contraception—demonstrating conclusively the ineffectiveness of that kind of program.

By contrast, in the United States, where abortion is legal and sex education is broader, the abortion rate reached a twenty-four-year low during the 1990s. Yet the ironically named "pro-life" movement would return the United States to the condition of Chile or Colombia.
Here's another example of why I think abortion needs to remain legal and safe and be considered an option in "extreme situations", from a letter in the recent edition of Episcopal Life:

Our daughter is 37 years old. Three years ago, she terminated a pregnancy. Her first pregnancy was normal, and she delivered a boy. Her second pregnancy was normal. She delivered a girl who died from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) at 3 1/2 months. Within six months, she was in her third pregnancy. She delivered a normal boy.

Four months later, she developed congestive heart failure. She worked as a respiratory therapist in the ER of a hospital. The virus attacked her heart. Her cardiologist told her husband to get a vasectomy. He chose not to do so because, if our daughter died, he reasoned he might want to have a child with someone else.

Our daughter faithfully took her birth control. However, she was on eight different medications, which may have diminished the effectiveness of the birth control pills. She became pregnant.

A cardiologist, an obstetrician and an internist advised her to terminate the pregnancy, as she likely would not survive and/or the child would not be able to develop normally due to her circulatory problems and necessary medications to keep her alive. She went through with the termination of her pregnancy so that she could raise her two sons. She still grieves for the child that died, and the decision to terminate her last pregnancy was agonizing.

Her husband did get a vasectomy. He realized that raising two boys without their mother would be a lifelong loss for them to deal with.
I appreciate the opportunity to tell this story to persons in addition to my parish. We hope that this will help keep a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy legal. Our daughter's name is Lucy Harlan. Our family attends St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Carmel, Ind.
I believe that our ethical discussions involving sanctity of life issues may be the most critical conversations happening in the Church right now. This issue, if it is immoral to terminate a potential life, is directly connected to other ethical issues; euthanasia, capital punishment and just war theory. If we affirm God as the giver of life, we cannot claim the right to take life, innocent or guilty, without first confronting the finality of such a decision, and engaging in prolonged prayer and reflection on the implications of such an act. We walk on dangerous ground whenever we attempt to take on the role of God.

Will I leave the Episcopal Church over this? Of course not. That is one of the wonderful things about the Episcopal Church; I can protest against the leadership and never fear being silenced, denied communion, or excommunicated for my outrage. I can argue with my bishop, and then share in the sacramental life with him or her. Such graciousness makes room for further reflection and conversation, which often leads to the eventual realization that I might just be wrong.


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