WASHINGTON -- While evangelical and Catholic leaders have been working tirelessly in recent weeks to make sure any health care bill does not include federal funding of abortions, leaders of the nation's mainline denominations have been doing just the opposite, even going so far as calling abortion a "God-given right."
The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society all are members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a pro-abortion rights organization that took part in a Dec. 2 "Stop Stupak" rally in Washington D.C., urging the Senate not to include the pro-life Stupak amendment in its version of the health care bill.
The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society -- the denomination's lobbying arm -- even sent out an alert after the health care bill passed the House, calling the bill itself a "major milestone" but lamenting passage of the Stupak amendment, which it saw as "a tremendous setback for access to comprehensive reproduction health coverage." The amendment passed the House 240-194 and prevents the government-run public option from covering elective abortion and also prohibits federal subsidies from being used to purchase private insurance plans that cover abortions.
The four previously mentioned denominations all have pro-choice positions of varying degrees, but their leaders' stances on abortion in the health care bill have surprised even some seasoned observers.
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said most church members of mainline denominations would know little if anything about the lobbying effort. IRD is a conservative organization working to transform the "churches' social witness."
"They would be very surprised," Tooley told Baptist Press. "At least 90 percent have no idea what happens with the money after it leaves the local church. Certainly, 90 percent or more do not know that their denominations have lobby offices on Capitol Hill.... Most mainline Protestants aren't familiar with what's going on in their name. So, it would be very surprising to the vast majority."
The issue captured attention in the conservative Internet realm when Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told a small gathering at the Stop Stupak rally, "Don't let anybody tell you that religious people don't support choice. You not only have a constitutional right for abortion, but you have a God-given right." CNSNews.com reported the comment.
Tooley said Veazey's quote was "in line" with other past comments.
"It's tragic," he said of the coalition's position about federal funding of abortion. "These same church groups were out there supporting Roe v. Wade in 1973.... It's horrifying that groups that are at least in theory parts of the body of Christ are not only defending abortion but demanding that it be funded by tax dollars."
Membership in mainline churches has fallen by a fourth in the past 50 years, according to the research firm The Barna Group.
Meanwhile, the leading evangelical denominations have been working to make sure the Stupak amendment remains in the Senate version. Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said "the Stupak-Pitts amendment is the minimum required for any genuinely pro-life person."
"People who claim to be pro-life" and accept anything less "have pro-life views as a preference, not as a conviction," he said.
Following are the four denominations' positions on abortion, according to their websites:
-- The United Methodist Church in 2004 adopted a position opposing partial-birth abortion. But the statement also says the decision to abort "should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel."
-- The Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1993 adopted a position stating, "The considered decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy can be a morally acceptable, though certainly not the only or required, decision."
-- The Episcopal Church in 1994 adopted a resolution stating that the "Episcopal Church express[es] 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 United Church of Christ has been pro-abortion rights since Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973. It joined a friend-of-the-court brief this decade in trying to overturn the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. The Supreme Court allowed the law to stand.