Dean’s Letter: Reproductive Choice

Hello St. Paul’s,

In light of last week’s leaked draft of a US Supreme Court opinion about Roe vs Wade, a number of people have asked me what the Episcopal Church’s position is on a woman’s right to choose. You may already know that the Episcopal Church tends towards nuanced positions: as the self-appointed guardians of the Middle Way or Via Media, we work hard to understand all points of view and we try to steer clear of simplistic black or white positions on complex ethical issues. The views of Episcopalians on this and other ethical issues span a broad spectrum, and we are always reluctant to take a position that excludes or alienates people we care about.

Over the last 50 or 60 years, some Christians have adopted opposition to abortion access as a Gospel imperative. However, there is a long history of faithful Christians and their communities speaking up for reproductive choice as an element of upholding the dignity of every human being. In the period between the world wars, legal restrictions on abortions were becoming tighter in the United States. Clergy of all faiths would be called on to offer pastoral care for women who were pregnant and desperate, and they, the clergy, would help the women get abortions from reputable doctors rather than see them resort to unlicensed and often deadly lay practitioners. This continues today, regardless of the laws governing a particular location. So, the religious landscape as it relates to reproductive choice has always been multi-dimensional.

What about the Episcopal Church? Here’s what our Office of Government Relations published three years ago:

“Clergy throughout The Episcopal Church counsel women, men, and families who must make decisions relating to pregnancy and childbirth, adoption, family planning, and who face infertility. Our ordained and lay leaders walk alongside Episcopalians and others who struggle with this intimate and challenging aspect of human life. Over the past several decades, the General Convention has addressed the topic of abortion from a position informed by this ministry and personal lived experience of clergy and laity within their own families. As a result, 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.” (episcopalchurch.org/summary-of-general-convention-resolutions-on-abortion-and-womens-reproductive-health/)

The majority view in the Episcopal Church holds that an individual should have agency over her own body, and that there is no place for legislation when it comes to questions of reproductive health. The issue has come up repeatedly at our triennial General Conventions.

 The 1976 General Convention  passed a resolution that expressed “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 in this matter and to act upon them.” (https://episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution.pl?resolution=1976-D095)

In 1988 the General Convention once again took up the question of legal access to abortion, saying, “All human life is sacred, it is sacred from its inception until death… We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension, calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community.” (https://episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution.pl?resolution=1988-C047)

That resolution concludes by questioning the effectiveness of legislative solutions, and it calls on state and federal governments to “take special care to see that individual conscience is respected, and that the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter is acknowledged and honored.”

We Episcopalians express our theology through our liturgy, and we have specific liturgies to guide people through difficult experiences to do with conception, birth, and perinatal loss. You can find these in volume five of the series of alternative texts, Enriching Our Worship. Here’s a portion of the introduction:

“Fertility is a gift, which exposes bodies and emotions to God’s mysterious power and unfathomable purposes. But this gift can have unpredictable results. Many pregnancies are welcomed as a blessing by the family or the mother – a cause for rejoicing and new hope. However, others may precipitate crises for those involved. Sometimes individuals or couples may be faced with difficult decisions. They may well feel inadequate and overwhelmed when faced by ethical dilemmas.” (EOW 5 p. 2)

To care for those faced with such dilemmas, we have a number of liturgies and prayers available.  Here are a couple of them.

This one is for an individual or household discerning the way forward:

Compassionate God, source of all life, be present now with N. [and N.] as they face this painful decision. Give them grace to choose wisely and fill them with the assurance of your love for them and for all life. Help them rest in the certain knowledge that you are near to guide them and that nothing can separate us from your steadfast love. Amen. (EOW 5 p. 61)

And one for us all to pray, regardless of our point of view or circumstance:

God of Life, you give us life and hope. Be with us in the chaos of this time. Calm our fears, be the light for our path, and strengthen our trust in your promise never to leave or forsake us. We pray through Christ, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen. (EOW 5, p. 18)

See you on Sunday.

Your sister in Christ,
Penny

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