Politics & Policy

Aborting Churches

Unholy death warrants.

Early in January, just in time for the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Episcopal Church reaffirmed its membership in an abortion-rights coalition.

During its January 9-12 meeting in Des Moines, the executive council of the Episcopal Church voted to clarify and affirm its membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).

RCRC, formerly known as the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, was founded in 1973 with funding from the Playboy Foundation (and later from the Ford Foundation), to organize religious supporters of legalized abortion. RCRC is absolutist in its rejection of any restriction on abortion, defending the legality of partial-birth abortion, and opposing parental-notification laws, as well as other sensible restrictions.

Agencies of the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, and Conservative Judaism all belong to RCRC. So too does “Catholics for a Free Choice.” RCRC was founded in the wake of Roe v. Wade to counteract Roman Catholic opposition to the Supreme Court ruling.

The author of the Episcopal motion, representing the Diocese of Washington, D.C., noted that the executive council’s vote simply reiterated the denomination’s stance on abortion, which he said has been an “unequivocal opposition to any federal or state legislation that would interfere with a woman’s right to make a decision on terminating a pregnancy.” This was reported in the Living Church magazine .

RCRC boasts that its ecclesial alliance for abortion rights is both wide and “mainstream.” It describes abortion rights as integral to “religious liberty.” RCRC head Carlton Veazey notes on its website that RCRC founders thought their struggle would last only a decade. “In fact the struggle is far from over,” he regrets. “It has changed and intensified, and the stakes are growing.”

Veazey refers to a “sense of doom” as the U.S. Senate moved toward confirmation of Samuel Alito. RCRC had already called the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of Alito a “dangerous setback for individual privacy and women’s reproductive health.” According to Veazey, in a column for Beliefnet.com, Alito has “shown an appalling lack of understanding for life’s complexities and the circumstances that some women must endure.”

Feelings of angst at RCRC are quite deep. Veazey, who is ordained in the National Baptist Convention, writes:

After four years of unprecedented access, far-right Christian fundamentalists are deeply embedded in government structures. The nation is not yet a theocracy, if mullah-run Iran or Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is the standard. But we are on the brink of a de facto Christian state, and we should be very frightened for the future of religious freedom and diversity.

Despite the claims of the “mainstream” on the issue of abortion, RCRC’s members are in fact an increasingly isolated minority among America’s churches. The vast majority of America’s over 160 million church members belong to Roman Catholic or evangelical churches that disapprove of abortion. Denominations totaling less than 20 million belong to RCRC. And the membership of those denominations is, in fact, deeply divided and ambivalent on the question of abortion.

These RCRC churches, in their official abortion statements squishily express discomfort with abortion while still defending its unrestricted legality. “We do not wish to see laws enacted that would attach criminal penalties to those who seek abortions or to appropriately qualified and licenses persons who perform abortions in medically approved facilities,” the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) declares.

The United Methodist Church unequivocally asserts, “We support the legal to abortion as established by the 1973 Supreme Court decisions.”

Episcopalians warn that “legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem” and insist that any legislation must “see that individual conscience is respected.”

The United Church of Christ “upholds the right of men and women to have access to adequately funded family-planning services and to safe, legal abortions as one option among others.”

The end result of all their statements is that the official lobby offices of these denominations, on their own and acting through RCRC, oppose all proposed restrictions on abortion. In April 2004, they all endorsed and participated in the “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington, D.C., organized by the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood.

In all their unctuous demonstration-marching and statement-making, the pro-abortion-rights church community has not considered the effect of their advocacy on their own demographic health.

Conservatives have often chided the mainline Protestant denominations for their dramatic membership losses, faulting the controversial liberal political advocacy of their churches’ officials. No doubt there is truth in this. Most mainline Protestants are still conservative leaning, despite the chronic leftism of their church hierarchies. Many react in frustration by leaving.

But the demographic implosion may also have other, deeper contributing factors. One out of every six Americans belonged to a mainline denomination 40 years ago. Today it is one out of every 15. Writing for The American Journal of Sociology several years ago, Catholic priest (and romance potboiler author) Andrew Greeley, with two other sociologists, asserted that mainline Protestant decline is actually created by decades of declining birthrates in comparison to those for conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Though Greeley et al. did not address it directly, mainline Protestant hierarchs long championed legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade, culminating in their founding of RCRC in 1973. Undoubtedly this had some impact on abortion rates among their own flocks. The lower birth rate among mainline Protestants can probably be explained, at least partly, by some level of increased moral ease with and resort to abortion (the “Roe Effect“).

So perhaps unrestricted abortion is fueling the decline of the very same churches who have most championed it. The irony is a sad one.

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee (UMAction) of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy.


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