God's Word for today

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Reflections on abortion

Earlier this week I wrote a post entitled "Should preaching be unbiased", in which I reflected on the services that were conducted this past Sunday, which was designated as a "celebration of the sanctity of life".

Pete Grassouw, one of my fellow MCSA bloggers, whose comments always offer insight and food for thought, posted a comment on this post. In it he questioned my position in light of MCSA doctrinal statements on this manner, stating (quite correctly) that as a Methodist minister I am duty-bound (and in fact made a promise before Synod) to uphold the doctrines of our Church.

However, I am sure that many a minister has experienced tension between their personal views, beliefs, and understanding of Scripture on a particular position on the one hand, and the official position of the church on the other hand. The current doctrinal position of the MCSA concerning marriage as being "between a man and a woman" must be causing great tension for those ministers who sincerely believe that this position is incompatible with showing the love of Christ towards those of same-sex orientation. If this were not the case, the MCSA would not have been debating this issue so extensively over the past few years.

While I hold strong anti-abortion views, I recognise that there may be those who sincerely believe that not only is abortion permissible under certain circumstances, but that they sincerely believe that such a position is not in conflict with the teachings of Scripture. It is not for me to stand in judgement of such persons, but rather to engage with them in order to get a better understanding of "the other side" of the debate (for want of a better word).

Similarly, I believe that it is my role as a minister to extend open arms, just as Jesus would, to any woman who has decided to have an abortion (or who has had one already) and provide sanctuary and an atmosphere where healing can take place.

However, I believe that each of us are also entitled to our personal convictions, and mine have been shaped largely by the experience of seeing my unborn son's heartbeat on the ultra-sound when my wife was only 3 weeks pregnant. The fact that this same son (who is now nearly 11) is living 1000 km away from me (as a result of me being in Phase One) makes the bond between us even stronger. I cannot begin to imagine the guilt I would have felt, had we decided to abort him for whatever reason.

I cannot begin to believe that I have the right to take the life of another human being. This is the reason why when I was called up to do National Service in 1988 (South Africa still had conscription then), I presented myself before the SADF Board for Religious Objection requesting that I be confined to a non-combatant role. It is for this same reason that I am opposed to the death penalty.

Readers of this post can be forgiven for thinking that it is inappropriate for me as a male to have any views whatsoever concerning abortion. And you would be right insofar as I would be highly unlikely to find myself pregnant! For this reason this is a subject that my wife and I have discussed at length at various points during the 17 years of our marriage. As a husband, I believe that one of the worst things that could possibly happen would be for my wife to be raped, and if (God forbid) something like this were to happen, there is the possibility that conception could result. However, my wife is firmly of the belief that she would not abort under such circumstances, believing strongly that in the same way that the rape would be no fault of hers, it would be no fault of the unborn baby, either.

Having said that, until one walks down that path, it's impossible to tell what one's decision would be. I accept that. I also accept that my views, as expressed in this post, are by no means the last word on this matter.

Since I would like to invite discussion on this issue, I have reproduced my reply to Pete's comment below.

Dear Pete

This reply may seem a bit rambling, but please indulge me as it is more reflective of my thoughts rather than the way I would write if, for instance, I were to prepare a research paper.

When I was preparing for this service, I went quite extensively through the booklet on abortion published by the MCSA, bearing in mind that the objective of this particular Sunday was to address the question of "Sanctity of Life" and in particular the issue around abortion.

The starting point was the 1995 Conference statement that it affirms “the sacredness and value of human life”, and it expresses the belief “that abortion at any stage of pregnancy is undesirable and not in harmony with the perfect will of God”. The DEWCOM document clarifying the MCSA's position on abortion also refers to two schools of thought concerning when human life is said to commence: "Those who believe human life begins at or soon after fertilisation are, naturally, concerned for the rights of the foetus and tend to be anti-abortion. Those who see personhood beginning only once the foetus can survive outside the womb are more inclined to favour the rights of the pregnant woman and to be open to the idea of abortion. The statement acknowledges that no direct guidance is forthcoming from Scripture to help decide which of these positions is 'Biblically correct', and grants that there are sincere Christians are to be found on both sides of the debate."

Given that "Experience" is one of the elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, my own experience is one of having been present with my wife when it was confirmed that she was pregnant with my son, and seeing the flashing light on the ultrasound at 3 weeks of pregnancy, which her gynaecologist confirmed to be our unborn son's heartbeat. While I cannot purport to speak on behalf of my Superintendent and the process that has shaped his view on abortion (which is quite similar to the one I hold), this experience has strongly influenced me against considering abortion as an option - a view that has strengthened over the past 11 years as I have watched my son grow and develop.

Having said that, I also recognise that a woman or young girl may find herself in a situation whereby she finds herself pregnant under trying circumstances (e.g. rape, poor socio-economic conditions, potential deformity, etc.) whereby a number of options may be considered, including possible abortion. Should she decide to go the abortion route, the role of the church (which I represent as a minister) is to offer counsel in a non-judgemental accepting, loving, and pastoral manner. Such acceptance, I believe, is in line with the MCSA's position.

However, I also believe that while a minister is expected to uphold the doctrinal position of their church, one should also not be "robotic" about it. I'm not sure if there are many ministers of any denomination that accept their particular church's doctrinal positions 100% to the letter. The ongoing debate concerning same-sex relationships within the MCSA is a case in point.

With this in mind, when presenting the message, I put forward my view points in a manner that I believe is not in conflict with the current position of the MCSA. I also included a time for discussion during the service, where the young people (it was a youth service) broke into groups to discuss certain issues raised in the DVD and the message. I specifically said that they were not to come up with a dogmatic "yes" or "no", instead thinking about their answers.

My Superintendent and I both watched the DVD beforehand as part of the preparation process for our respective services, and he endorsed the showing thereof at the morning services (which he conducted), as well as the evening service (which I conducted). We both believed that the content thereof was not in stark conflict with the doctrinal position of the MCSA, or (I believe) we would not have shown it in our services.

Another thing that I may need to consider comes out of the counselling skills course that we are currently doing at the Phase One college. The facilitator of this course has indicated that there may be situations whereby the counselor may need to withdraw from the particular engagement, whether based on Biblical beliefs, prior experiences, personal prejudices, or a combination thereof. For example, she indicated that she would not be able to counsel paedophiles, since the thought of someone molesting a child brings about such feelings of anger in her that her judgement would be clouded. We were taught that we need to recognise our own "blind spots", and possibly the abortion issue is one of mine. I can comfortably see myself offering Christian counsel to a woman who has had an abortion, and I believe that I could do this in a non-judgemental manner. However, I cannot see myself looking at abortion as an option before the fact.

I guess that experiences such as these are part of the formation of one's ministry, and I trust those who have journeyed along this road for far longer than me would not be too harsh on someone who is at as early a stage of one's ministry journey as myself.

I would be interested to hear your views (as well as from others) as to exactly what the doctrinal position of the MCSA is, since to my mind the DEWCOM document leaves a great deal open to interpretation. I also trust that this discourse has not been so wayward as to warrant me a serious "slap" at Synod concerning my adherence to the doctrines of our Church.

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