The United Methodist pro-life organization known as Lifewatch is urging Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a United Methodist layman, to reconsider his support of the recently passed Senate health bill, even as passage of a final health bill grows increasingly unlikely in the wake of last week’s U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts.
In December, Sen. Nelson became the final senator to announce his support for the bill, giving the legislation the exact number of votes needed to pass. For weeks prior to the vote, the Nebraska senator — who describes himself as pro-life — had expressed concerns that the Senate health bill would allow taxpayer funding of abortion.
A letter to Sen. Nelson written by two Lifewatch leaders refers to recent “lobbying efforts by some United Methodist clergy and laity” who pressured the senator to support the health bill even if it meant “compromising [his] pro-life principles.”
Many of those lobbying efforts were instigated by the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). In November, GBCS decried abortion-related concerns that were hindering passage of the health bill. The board’s Linda Bales Todd described such concerns as being “based on one, narrow religious doctrine.”
Days before the December Senate vote, the Rev. Cynthia Abrams of GBCS sent an e-mail to Nebraska Methodists characterizing Sen. Nelson as adhering to a “personal agenda” that was causing him to be “the last holdout blocking an important step forward in [health] reform.”
The GBCS e-mail included a suggested script for recipients to use when calling the senator’s office: “As a fellow United Methodist, I’d like you to know that our denomination’s position is that health care is a basic human right.”
(For the history of how health care came to be characterized as “right” by the UMC, see here; the matter has never been debated on the floor of any UM General Conference.)
The Lifewatch letter does not mention GBCS by name, but it notes that the Methodists who urged Sen. Nelson to set aside his pro-life views and support the health-overhaul bill “do not speak for all United Methodists.”
The Senate’s health care bill is unacceptable — to us, to many if not most United Methodists, and to the clear majority of Americans — since it would have the effect of facilitating, and thus increasing, the incidence of abortion in our society.
Furthermore, we are very concerned about the Senate bill’s failure to include the House bill’s conscience protections for health care providers who do not want to be coerced into participation in abortion. Finally, we are disturbed to read reports that your office “shut out” input from pro-life leaders during final negotiations on the final abortion language.
We understand that, in recent weeks, you have been the target of lobbying efforts by some United Methodist clergy and laity urging you to support the health care reform bill even if it means compromising your pro-life principles. While these individuals are certainly free to express their opinions to you, you should know that they do not speak for all United Methodists.
Through our extensive experience in United Methodist congregations and organizations, we can assure you that many, if not most, United Methodists in Nebraska and in the United States share our concerns.
We understand the need to address the problem of the deplorably high number of people in our nation without health insurance. However, the first principle of the General Rules of The United Methodist Church, given by John Wesley to the early Methodists, is “Do no harm.”
With this principle in mind, as negotiations and votes on health care reform continue, we strongly urge you to reconsider your position and to work with pro-life leaders, including Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), to ensure that [any] health care bill that is passed will: (1) exclude any direct or indirect federal support for elective abortions; (2) exclude any provisions that may otherwise encourage or facilitate abortions; and (3) include strong conscience protections.
The letter is signed by Lifewatch president Paul T. Stallsworth, pastor of St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Morehead City, North Carolina, and John Lomperis, a member of the Lifewatch advisory board and a student at Harvard Divinity School.
Lifewatch was founded in 1987 as the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality.
Members of the advisory board include Bishop Timothy Whitaker of the UMC’s Florida Conference, Bishop Will Willimon of the North Alabama Conference, Michael J. Gorman, Dean of Ecumenical Institute of Theology in Baltimore, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, the Rev. Bill Hughes of the University of Kentucky Wesley Foundation, and Thomas C. Oden of Drew University.