Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Courts decision of Roe v. Wade making abortion legal in the United States, a decision whose future is uncertain, although I suspect it will only be further scaled back not overturned. A little known fact which greatly impacted the decision and the way it was written was that Harry Blackmun, who wrote the decision, was former legal counsel to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and he consulted his former physician friends about the medical pieces of the case.
I like the stance of the United Methodist Church (which you will find below) in regards to abortion. One of the reasons I like it is because it think it well encapsulates the difficulties faced in this troublesome issue. I am opposed to abortion in many cases, but certainly do not want to see it made illegal, because as the statement says there can sometimes be a "tragic conflict of life with life."
My mother was an OB/GYN nurse for most of her career and worked for a doctor who did not perform abortions, and even left a practice over this issue. But one of the stories she tells is of a woman who was severely injured in an accident and as a result had a large number of x-rays performed, but she did not know at the time that she was pregnant. As this became clear and it also became clear that as a result of her exposure to x-rays that the baby would be severely disabled, if it survived the pregnancy at all, the doctor counseled her that abortion might be the best option. He was opposed to abortion but recognized the tragic consequences for all involved. These are the realities that face women every single day, and they are the realities that people who want to make absolute stands either don't understand or with which they simply don't want to deal.
Now the fundamentalist opposition in America to abortion is fairly recent. It really came from the influence of Francis Schaeffer, who was pushed in that direction by his son Frank. Frank has now come out in opposition to that stance. It is not that he does not oppose abortion, because he does, but instead that he thinks they have taken the issue way too far and had become way too fanatical. (see his book Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.)
Up until the Schaeffers made an issue of it, abortion had been seen as a Roman Catholic concern, and the fundamentalists did not want anything to do with them. But even the Roman Catholic position, especially the idea that life began at conception, was fairly new. Even though laws against abortion go all the way back to Hammurabi, it was usually allowed up to the time of quickening (when the baby first kicks). Quickening was said to be the time in which the soul entered the fetus, which is why it now kicked, and therefore considerations to protect the soul of the child from eternal damnation now needed to be considered. That is why early creeds said that Jesus shall come to judge the "quick and the dead." Those have now been changed to say the "living and the dead."
In America laws against abortion began to become standard in the late 1800s, and they were pushed not by religious groups, but instead by the newly formed American Medical Association and women's rights groups. The AMA wanted the laws passed because most abortions were not being performed by doctors, and so they saw this as an infringement on their territory. They wanted all medical procedures done by doctors, and so a way to allow this was to make those procedures commonly done by others illegal.
Women's rights group wanted to make abortions illegal because they had concerns about women being forced to have abortions by the father of the child, and so in order to give women greater control over their bodies and reproductive rights that wanted to make sure this was not really an option any more. Sort of ironic.
What most people also don't understand about Roe v. Wade was that it was not just some random decision, but was based strongly on other cases taking place at the time including Griswold V. Connecticut (1965), which struck down laws outlawing contraception, Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which allowed for non-married persons to posses contraception, and Loving v. Virginia (1967), which allowed for inter-racial marriage. These are not cases I hear most people seeking to overturn. Now I will leave it to others to argue about whether Blackmun wrote a good decision, or if he should have done things differently, but we have to understand that it was not created in a vacuum.
Abortion is one of those things that many people feel very deeply about, on both sides, but I truly suspect that most people, like me, are somewhere in the middle. I always have problems with absolutes, which is what people on both sides want. This is just an issue on which there are too many greys.
Here is the position of the United Methodist Church on abortion from the Social Principles (¶ 161.J):
The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.
But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy.
We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We support parental, guardian and other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.
We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.
We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause they to consider abortion.
The Church shall offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth.
We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. (See ¶ 161.K.) We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.
Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.