The Episcopal Church and Abortion: It’s Complicated

Protestors gathered outside the Supreme Court building after the Dobbs decision | Wikipedia, user Frypie

By Kirk Petersen

As a matter of law, the Episcopal Church has unambiguously supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion since before anyone had ever heard the term “Roe v. Wade.”

But ethically speaking, it’s more complicated.

As early as 1967, in a resolution supporting changes in abortion laws, the General Convention expressed its “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.” With some wording changes, this position has been reiterated many times at General Conventions and other forums.

The most recent extended expression of the church’s position was in 1994, when Resolution A054 concluded with the words: “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 resolution has been reaffirmed in subsequent General Conventions, most recently in 2018.

Hours after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry cited the language from the 1994 resolution, in a statement saying he was “deeply grieved” by the decision. “Today’s decision institutionalizes inequality because women with access to resources will be able to exercise their moral judgment in ways that women without the same resources will not,” he wrote.

But while the 1994 resolution remains the official position of the church, it evaluates abortion morally using language that many pro-choice Episcopalians would likely find objectionable 28 years later. “We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension,” it said, and while the procedure should be safe and legal, “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.”

Further, “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 adoption and having the child raised by other family members.

In addition to Curry, several diocesan bishops issued statements in response to the Dobbs decision, making it clear that the church is not of one mind regarding abortion.

Bishop of Tennessee John Bauerschmidt, a bishop in a conservative state, refrained from taking a position on Dobbs and referred to the church’s “nuanced” positions in General Convention resolutions over the years. “I urge charity toward our neighbors, and our fellow parishioners, whatever our convictions,” he wrote. Bauerschmidt is president of the board of directors of the Living Church Foundation, Inc., which publishes TLC.

Hawaii is a liberal state. Bishop of Hawaii Robert L. Kirkpatrick also did not explicitly take a position on Dobbs, although he noted that the ruling is “in sharp conflict with the official teachings and positions of The Episcopal Church,” which are “nuanced and grounded in our theological perspective.” He urged Episcopalians to remain engaged in the political process and refrain from violence.

The Rt. Rev. Prince Singh, however, bluntly described the ruling as “a step back in human rights, privacy, and safety.” He is bishop provisional in the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan. It is a purple state, with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature. Litigation is under way regarding a pre-Roe abortion ban, which cannot currently be enforced.

In the Diocese of Massachusetts, located in a liberal state, Bishop Alan M. Gates and Bishop Suffragan Gayle E. Harris wrote that they “stand with the long-held position of The Episcopal Church, that ‘equitable access to women’s health care, including women’s reproductive health care, is an integral part of a woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth as a human being.'” They acknowledged the moral complexity of the issue, and quoted (without explicitly endorsing) the church’s opposition to abortion for birth control or “mere convenience.”

The Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe leads the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and the Diocese of Western New York — largely conservative sections of two states that both voted for Biden in 2020. He wrote that Dobbs “raises painful questions about our country’s commitment to the inherent dignity and self-determination of women,” and asked that people “deal with one another gently.”

Perhaps the most overtly political message came from Bishop John Harvey Taylor, Bishop of Los Angeles. “Everyone wanting reproductive freedom and equity notwithstanding their orientation and identification feels like a victim this week. And they are,” he wrote. “So Republicans, here’s an idea: Be true conservatives, and respect everyone’s God-given human rights, whether 18th century slave-owners enumerated them in the Constitution or not.” Taylor previously worked as chief of staff for Richard Nixon after the latter’s presidency, and served as director of Nixon’s presidential library.

Statements opposing Dobbs came from the bishops of California, El Camino Real, Missouri, Western Massachusetts, and doubtless others. TLC could find no statement from an Episcopal bishop that explicitly supported Dobbs.

At the time of the 1994 resolution, a group called the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life (NOEL) had been active for more than a decade. The successor to that group, Anglicans for Life (AFL), is now more closely aligned with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which was founded by people who left the Episcopal Church over doctrinal issues. When the ACNA issued a same-day statement supporting the Dobbs decision, it quoted Georgette Forney, president of Anglicans for Life, saying “this decision requires the development of additional pre and post-pregnancy support and resources for women and families facing an unexpected pregnancy. Unplanned pregnancies should be met with planned resources and support.”

The 2006 renaming of Anglicans for Life predates the 2009 formation of the ACNA, and Forney told TLC that the name was changed because the organization was developing extensive connections with other provinces of the Anglican Communion. Forney speaks openly of her regret about her own abortion at the age of 16. She said the organization is not focused on expanding restrictions to abortion, but rather on supporting people in making different choices. “We have a role to play in helping the moms and the babies,” she said.

When asked about the extent of continued support for her organization among Episcopalians, she said seven or eight of the 150 emails she received asking about how to support the organization’s efforts were from Episcopalians. In contrast, she said 400 ACNA churches are members of AFL, and perhaps 200 of them are “active members,” meaning they do more to advance the organization’s goals than just receive the newsletter.

After a draft of the Dobbs decision was leaked in May, a group of Episcopal clergy and lay people developed an 11-page liturgical document titled “A Service of Lament and Healing,” which characterized the expected ruling as “a time of grief, fear, confusion, hurt, and lament.” Episcopal News Service reported that one of the authors of the liturgy expressed a hope that it would speak to people on all sides of the abortion issue, while acknowledging that some people will be put off by the title. “You know, you could be very happy about this decision and still recognize that people in your community are scared and are deeply wounded by it,” said the Very Rev. Katie Churchwell, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City.

In contrast, the 2009 General Convention authorized the use of a 97-page liturgical document titled Rachel’s Tears, Hannah’s Hopes as part of the Enriching Our Worship series. The document approached the issues of childbirth and abortion from a variety of angles, with liturgies and prayers titled “Blessing of a Pregnant Woman,” “Mourning the Loss of a Pregnancy,” and “For Guidance in Decision-Making.”

The liturgies included “A Rite of Repentance and Reconciliation for an Abortion,” in which a penitent says “My past actions weigh heavily upon me. I seek God’s forgiveness and renewal in my life. … I mourn the life that was within me that I let go. I am haunted by what might have been. I humbly beg forgiveness of God and of Christ’s Church.”

Also in 2009, when the Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale was appointed president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, it was widely reported that she had given a speech two years earlier in which she proclaimed “abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.”  The speech took place in Birmingham, Alabama, following a failed attempt to shut down a clinic. Ragsdale specifically rejected the idea that abortion is ever a tragedy. “And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight — only blessing,” she said.

A conservative website labeled her “the High Priestess of Abortion,” and for years to come hostile commentators would cite the speech as evidence of the decadence of the Episcopal Church. However, after extensive web research, TLC could find no evidence that any other Episcopalian had publicly expressed support for Ragsdale’s absolutist position. The closest example was on the blog of the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, who wrote in response to a 2014 comment on the speech: “I have seen that for some women, abortion is a great tragedy; for others it is a great blessing. Either way, it is not my decision to mourn or celebrate. It is only for me to support and continue to love.”

Ragsdale responded to the controversy on her personal blog, writing: “I would certainly never suggest (and I didn’t, actually – read it) that decisions about abortion are never morally complex and difficult. They often are.”

Ragsdale is a former chair of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights (RCRC), an interfaith group that lists the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Women’s Caucus as founding members. General Convention considered motions to withdraw from membership in RCRC in 2003 and 2006, both of which failed.

This website’s Covenant weblog has addressed the issue of abortion multiple times, most recently on June 28, four days after Dobbs. The Rev. Steve Rice writes that since 2016 he has buried 317 children, but known the names of only 10. “I believe life begins at conception and therefore I believe these children, whether they are called fetuses or products of conception, are human beings, made in the image and likeness of God,” he writes.

His church in North Carolina provides burial services for the needy without charge. The cemetery is on the church grounds, and dozens of parishioners attend every burial. “I know some vote Republican and some vote Democrat. Some identify as pro-life and others identify as pro-choice. Yet all intuitively understand that we are not burying mere clumps of cells. We also understand that these children often represent the hardest of cases, where there are no easy decisions and that there is real work that must be done to support mothers and families.”

Previous Covenant articles, all written by opponents of abortion, have been titled “Life Before Birth According to Scripture,” “Hot Takes on Abortion Are Making Us Stupid,” “Abortion Is Not a Blessing,” and “Sacramental Discipline,” the latter regarding the Catholic archbishop who denied Holy Communion to Speaker Nancy Pelosi because of her position on abortion.

Long-time Covenant contributor Victor Lee Austin, who is theologian-in-residence at Church of the Incarnation and the Diocese of Dallas, turned to the virtual pages of First Things in 2020 to publish “The Education of a Pro-Life Clergyman.” He described how his late wife, Susan, “convinced me that abortion is wrong” early in their relationship. Over the years they lived out their convictions by fostering nine babies, one at a time.

Before the Dobbs decision, four resolutions related to abortion had been submitted to the 2022 General Convention, which is scheduled for July 8-11 in Baltimore. All of the resolutions can be characterized as pro-choice. They are:

  • D083, titled “Addressing the erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy,” seems most likely to be a vehicle for Dobbs-related debate. It declares that “all Episcopalians should be able to access abortion services and birth control with no restriction.”
  • D076, “Addressing the Ongoing Harm of Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” apologizes for the Episcopal Church’s previous support of such facilities in 1994’s Resolution D105. The explanation for the 2022 resolution describes such facilities as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” saying they provide false information and pressure women to carry pregnancies to term.
  • D054, calling on the church to consider relocating the 2024 General Convention, scheduled to be held in Louisville, Kentucky, because of that state’s restrictions on abortion.
  • A001, regarding venues for the 2027 General Convention. This resolution is not specifically about abortion, but there is an effort under way to remove Orlando, Florida, from the list of five cities under consideration, because of that state’s legislation on LGBTQ issues and abortion. The other cities nominated for consideration are Phoenix, Arizona; Charlotte, North Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 
It remains to be seen which, if any, of these resolutions will be considered by the shortened General Convention, which is sharply restricting the number of resolutions because there will be only four legislative days, rather than the originally planned eight.

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