The Anglican Church does not know its own mind on the issue of abortion, or does it? This was the question raised recently in a controversy about a pro-Morgentaler editorial in the Church’s national monthly.
The editorial was rejected outright by some Bishops and some individual Anglicans, conditionally supported by others and firmly defended by the editors as a true reflection of the 20 year old Anglican position on the issue.
The controversy began in December 1984 when the national Anglican monthly newspaper, The Canadian Churchman, circulation 272,000, published an editorial entitled: “Morgentaler verdict shows abortion law must be changed.” After a favourable review of the testimony by various witnesses for Morgentaler at the October 1984 trial, the editor, Jerry Hames, concluded as follows:
It is to be hoped that Dr. Morgentaler’s four acquittals will now persuade Parliament to change the current law.
First, abortions should be available to all women, regardless of the region where they live whether through a hospital or an accredited free-standing clinic.
Second, a woman should be able to get an abortion with the minimum of delay. The process of obtaining a legal abortion should not, as it does at present, put her health at risk. The bottlenecks that currently exist must be removed.
Third, hospital abortion committees should be re-examined, and the reason for their existence more clearly defined. As Dr. Watters pointed out, they exist in no other field of medicine; why do they exist in the area of abortion? If they are a legal committee, where is the woman’s legal right to appeal their decision?
In many areas of law, society leads and the legislators follow. The Mogentaler juries have given the legislators a clear indication of where society is leading. It’s up to them now to follow.
The first to react strongly to the editorial was Bishop Derwyn of the Huronia (London) Diocese. The London Free Press (Dec. 14) reported that the Bishop was “horrified” by the editorial in the church paper which, he said, sided with “the Morgentaler approach to abortion.” The Bishop, the Free Press reported, would instruct his clergy to indicate to their people that the editorial did not represent the Church. Later on, in his pastoral letter, the Bishop quoted the following resolutions as being truly representative of the Church’s position,
“abortion should not be an acceptable therapeutic procedure except in those rare instances in which a mother’s life and therefore the life of the fetus itself may be seriously endangered.”
The February issue of the Canadian Churchman noted the remarks of several other bishops. Bishop Reginald Hollis of Montreal had complained in his monthly clergy letter that the editorial should have referred to the 1980 General Synod resolution. Bishop Allan Read of Ontario diocese felt that the editorial was “contrary to the established position of our church.” Bishop Ronald Ferris of Yukon diocese was described as “outraged” by the editorial. He believed that the 1980 General Synod had opposed abortion “except in the cases of clear medical necessity.” “I believe the darkest chapter in our church’s history was 1965-1979,” he said. “In this period we helped open the door on the greatest wave of human destruction this country has ever known.”
Meanwhile the bishops of Toronto Diocese had issued their own statement, printed in the local insert of the Canadian Churchman called the Anglican. Rather than taking issue with the editorial, the bishops affirmed their support for the 1969 law legalizing abortion, while calling to mind that the 1980 Anglican General Synod(held in Peterborough) had rejected abortion as birth control and “abortion on demand, either for reasons of convenience, economics or social hardship.”
The editorial also caused a number of readers to react. A total of 90 letters, almost all critical, were received, of which seven were published in the January issue. These readers accused the editor of favouring abortion on demand, supporting the jury acquittal while ignoring that the jury was packed with non-churchgoers, failing to give proper guidance from a truly Christian point of view and ignoring that the unborn are tiny human beings.
The editor of the Canadian Churchman replied in two installments. In response to the letters to the editor in the January issue, he printed a brief statement about the editorial itself.
“The editorial did not advocate abortion on demand, or the use of abortion as a measure of birth control. The position of the Anglican Church in 1967 was that abortion should be legally available to women whose health, either physical or mental is threatened. In a resolution in 1980, General Synod further stated that the church rejects abortion on demand, or for reasons or convenience.”
In an unsigned article in the February 1985 issue, the Churchman pointed out that Bishop Derwyn Jones had been forced to issue a correction to his December clergy letter when he discovered that the resolution he believed to be representative of the views of the Anglican Church had, in fact, never been voted on.
Second, the views expressed in the editorial, the article pointed out, appeared in harmony with the long established views of both the Anglican Church. With regard to abortion as a legal and political problem, an editorial of 17 years ago, in April 1986, for example, had summed up the Anglican views as follows:
“In the area of abortion, contraception and homosexuality, the choice is governed by the individual’s conscience. If the church is opposed, then (a member) has the moral obligation to obey his (or her) church’s rules, but also has no right to impose these rules on people of other faiths, or no faith at all. There is a clear distinction between moral and civil law.”
With regard to the reasons for an abortion, the article stated, in a 1967 brief to a government considering making abortions legal, the Anglican Church had argued that it should be legally permissible to terminate pregnancy where there is serious threat to the mother’s life or health with the term “health” to be understood in its broadest sense.”
Confirmation of the early Anglican position on these two positions, the legal-political aspects and the presumed reasons for permitting abortions, may be found in the book Morality and Law in Canadian Politics: The Abortion Controversy (A. de Valk, Montreal, 1974). On page 84 one finds the April 1968 editorial quoted as above, with the further information that the reference to “the Church” is a reference to the Catholic Church.
The editorial, therefore denied the right of Roman Catholics – and by implication the right of any other group – to oppose the proposed legalization of abortion in parliament. It assumed – as many others did – that the legalization of abortion pertained only to an individual’s private belief, and that the life of the unborn is of no concern to anyone. The Canadian Churchmen, then, was among the early media arguing in favour of a state in which Christians have no right to establish legislation according to their principles, because that would be “to impose” their private morality.
As for presumed reasons for abortions, the same volume Morality and Law indicate that the Anglican dilemma of wanting to restrict abortion only to “serious threats,” yet allowing the broadest interpretation of the term “health” existed in 1967. Thus, one reads on page 53:
“On December 14 (1967) the Anglican delegation appeared before the Committee. Part of the hearing was spent in an attempt to discover the exact meaning of the Church’s brief and position. The brief noted the Church’s “responsibility both to uphold and to interpret the long-standing Christian tradition in opposition to abortion.”
“But the authors claimed change was needed in view of “the impact of Medical science,” “an increase in biological knowledge” and the “recognition of the place of women.” Their dilemma was summed up by Clause 11 of the brief which rejected as “indefensible position” both abortion on demand and the absolute prohibition of all abortion.
“The difficulty came with the description of the actual changes the delegation proposed. Clause 9 of the brief stated that “abortion should not be used to solve those social problems which should be dealt with by social and economic measures…” Clause 10 asserted “the general inviolability of the fetus.” Clause 12 requested that due consideration be given to the sacredness of human life. But Clause 13 recommended that termination of pregnancy be permissible whenever life or health was threatened, with health understood, the brief pointed out, “in its broadest sense,” including “the relationship of the expectant mother to her total environment and her ability to cope with the problems within it.” Participants in the hearing indicated this definition as the key line of the brief…
What was a dilemma in 1967 has remained a dilemma ever since. The Church’s 1967 position was reconfirmed by the General Synod of 1973 and never challenged effectively thereafter.
Today’s situation may be summarized in two points. First, despite the opinion of some Anglican Bishops, the December 1984 editorial does seem to be as representative of the Church’s stand on abortion over the last twenty years as any other statement. A thoughtful letter to the editor in the October 1984 edition of the Churchman, interpreted the Anglican stand as follows. After explaining how he had carefully examined the recent position paper of his church (Abortion: an Issue for Conscience and The Abortion Question), issued in a study kit of his diocese of Quebec, the letter writer states:
“I now believe the reports simply beg the question on abortion today; that the true, initial and underlying premise is that the current situation is acceptable, if regrettable, and that the church is not going to take a lead in changing it.”
The writer went on to say that he thought this attitude a disgrace, indeed “contemptible hypocrisy.”
The second point is this. The only way Anglicans can begin to correct this confused situation is by approving the resolution which Bishop Derwyn Jones and some others mistakenly believed had been passed. The Church must then convince Anglicans that abortion must be actively opposed without conditions or qualifications. Whether this is possible remains to be seen. When the bishops met in Mississauga in mid February, they decided that no new action was required. For the time being, therefore, the Anglican Church remains in a dilemma and, for all practical purposes, remains on the side of the Morgentalers of today.