Church coalition backs partial-birth abortion again
Institute on Religion and Democracy, October 16, 1998
The U.S. Senate once again has declined to override President Clinton’s veto of legislation that would have outlawed partial-birth abortion. And once again before the close vote, a coalition of religious leaders steadfastly defended the availability of partial-birth abortion as an essential “religious freedom for all Americans.”
But this time, the Presbyterian Church (USA), although a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), declined to contribute the names of any national church officials to RCRC’s defense of the legality of partial-birth abortion. Herb Valentine, Executive Presbyter of the Baltimore Presbytery was the only Presbyterian Church (USA) member who signed the RCRC defense.
Override falls three vote short
To the satisfaction of RCRC, the Senate failed by three votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.
According to Katherine Ragsdale, the president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), a ban on the late-term abortion procedure would be “wrong and dangerous.” Ragsdale, who is an Episcopal priest, told a press conference in Washington that legislation is “too blunt an instrument for such a complex issue.”
The Washington-based (RCRC) counts as members numerous mainline Protestant agencies, Catholics for a Free Choice, several Jewish organizations and the American Humanist Association. Since “different religious traditions hold a variety of views regarding when life begins,” RCRC insists that abortion should be available to all persons under all circumstances.
“Ethical issues are rarely between right and wrong,” explained Ragsdale at the September press conference. “Ethical choices are about competing needs.” She insisted that there is “strong support” for abortion rights throughout America’s religious community and implied that only a right-wing minority of the nation’s churches oppose “choice.”
Ragsdale did not acknowledge that a majority of America’s churches, including the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and most evangelical denominations strongly oppose the unrestricted abortion-on-demand that RCRC defends. And even liberal-led, mainline Protestant churches have strong pro-life constituencies that vigorously disagree with their church leaders’ participation in RCRC.
Dwindling mainline support
Ragsdale also declined to explain why several mainline church leaders, who typically support RCRC, declined to endorse with their own signatures RCRC’s latest defense of partial-birth abortion. Two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of President Clinton’s first veto, senior leaders of the United Methodist, Presbyterian Church (USA) and Episcopal Church quickly backed RCRC’s campaign in defense of late-term abortion.
This time, the signatures of the official leadership from those denominations were notably missing. Presbyterian and Episcopal spokespersons said their denominations have new policies that preclude an unequivocal defense of partial-birth abortion. Rather than signing the RCRC statement, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick wrote his own letter to members of the U.S. Senate.
Kirkpatrick merely repeated the words of the 1997 General Assembly resolution on partial-birth abortion, which expressed “grave and moral concern” about the practice, which should be considered “only if the mothers physical life is endangered by the pregnancy.”
United Methodist spokespersons said they failed to sign the RCRC statement only because of time constraints. But an RCRC official said the statement was available two months before the September press conference. That official intimated that once reliable allies had grown weary in the face of criticism within their own denominations.
RCRC press conference
Among mainline Protestants, only the United Church of Christ sent officials to appear at RCRC’s Capital Hill press conference. So too did the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.
Other collaborators with the RCRC press conference were the National Abortion Rights Action League, the National Abortion Federation, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Clergy Advisory Board. Ragsdale, in her speech there, assured U.S. senators that RCRC represents most religious Americans.
“The RCRC, in urging the Senate to sustain the President’s veto, is defending not only women’s health and women’s life but also the American way of life-tolerance for differences and freedom for all,” said Ragsdale. “We assure senators that people of faith will be with them as they vote to sustain the veto.”
She castigated “religious political extremists” who have tried to “impose their political and religious views on the nation” by advocating restrictions on abortion’s availability. Jay Lintner of the United Church of Christ, who also spoke at the press conference, acknowledged that partial-birth abortion is an “ugly choice.”
But Lintner seemed to say so based on aesthetic rather than moral qualms. “Abortion is revolting,” he said. “Most surgical procedures are revolting. I’ve had a few I would like to outlaw.” RCRC identifies itself as the only national religious coalition promoting abortion rights. Ragsdale has testified before a congressional committee and is quoted frequently in the media.