United Methodist Teaching on Family Planning

2012-03-19 by . 0 comments

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The United Methodist Church (UMC) has an unusual structure. Although we have a hierarchical or episcopal polity, our doctrinal statements are worked out by a legislative body of delegates known as the General Conference, made up of equal numbers of clergy and laity, which meets every fourth year to examine our doctrines and amend or clarify them if needed. Once the General Conference has met and voted, the doctrines are published in the Book of Discipline.

These doctrines  are not made in a vacuum. All United Methodists are called to prayerfully reflect on the teachings of Scripture as understood through the filters of tradition, experience, and reason. General Conference brings together United Methodists from around the world to share their experiences and work together to reach an agreement.

Although the Book of Discipline discusses many subjects, it does not explicitly mention this month’s blog topic: contraception. However, contraception is related to a host of other subjects that are mentioned in the Book of Discipline, including family finances, global population, abortion, women’s health, children’s rights, and the nature of the marriage covenant.

In ¶ 161.B of the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist church affirms “the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union.”

The purpose of marriage is not merely to produce offspring. Couples who are unable to have children or who choose not to, for whatever reason, should not be made to feel like their marriage is inferior to those who do have children.

There are many reasons a couple might decide not to raise children or have more than a predetermined number.

For example, if parents are not financially able to meet the needs of a growing family, they may want to consider postponing having a family until they are able. The Book of Discipline ¶ 162.C affirms that “children have the rights to food, shelter, clothing, health care, and emotional well-being,” and that they “must be protected from economic, physical, emotional, and sexual exploitation and abuse.” Parenthood means more than the mere physical act of producing a child; it is a long-term commitment that should not be taken lightly.

Unplanned pregnancies are the leading reason for abortions. The Book of Discipline, ¶ 161.J states, “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control,” therefore it is better for a couple to take precautions to avoid unplanned pregnancies than to conceive and then terminate the pregnancy.

Other considerations may lead a couple to decide not to bring another child into today’s world. In ancient times, when many children died before reaching adulthood and the rest went to work in their early teens, it made sense for couples to have several children. In the modern Western world, where childhood diseases have mostly been controlled or eradicated, and children spend approximately two decades receiving an education before they set off on their own, parenting is a much larger commitment. Parents need to devote more of their time and resources to each child, and thus may want to limit the size of their family.

Another consideration unique to today’s world is the reality of meeting a growing population’s needs in a world with finite resources. In the ancient world, where the largest cities measured their populations in the hundreds of thousands, large families were not a threat to the earth’s resources. Today the global population is about seven billion and we are using the earth’s resources in unsustainable ways. In taking seriously our responsibility as stewards of this earth, couples may choose not to add further to the world’s population. The Book of Discipline, ¶ 162.K, affirms this as the right and responsibility of the couple, and opposes it as government policy:

People have the duty to consider the impact on the total world community of their decisions regarding childbearing and should have access to information and appropriate means to limit their fertility, including voluntary sterilization. We affirm that programs to achieve a stabilized population should be placed in a context of total economic and social development, including an equitable use and control of resources; improvement in the status of women in all cultures; a human level of economic security, health care, and literacy for all. We oppose any policy of forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Other couples may choose not to have children due to their own health concerns. A woman with a chronic condition that could cause severe complications in a pregnancy may choose to have a tubal ligation rather than risk a pregnancy that could kill her. A 55-year-old man with high blood pressure and a family history of heart disease may be physically capable of siring a child, but may choose to have a vasectomy to guard against bringing into the world a child that he may not live long enough to raise. One partner may have a sexually transmitted disease and not want to pass it on to the other partner; the couple may choose to use a form of protection to limit the risk.

Even with the most careful of plans, a couple may conceive a child they cannot take care of. The United Methodist Church supports adoption, recognizing that it is never an easy decision to give up a child, and that it is not a lightly-made decision for a couple to raise a child they did not give birth to. The Book of Discipline ¶ 161.K states:

We affirm and support the birth parent(s) whose choice it is to allow the child to be adopted. We recognize the agony, strength, and courage of the birth parent(s) who choose(s) in hope, love, and prayer to offer the child for adoption. In addition, we also recognize the anxiety, strength, and courage of those who choose in hope, love, and prayer to be able to care for a child. We affirm and support the adoptive parent(s)’ desire to rear an adopted child as they would a biological child.

(As a side note, my wife and I have recently been certified to become adoptive parents.)

And sometimes complications arise in a pregnancy that threaten the mother’s life or health. While the United Methodist Church does not support abortion as a method of birth control, the Book of Discipline ¶ 161.J affirms that “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.” In such situations, decisions relating to the pregnancy should be made by the couple and not a government agency, including the decision whether to terminate the pregnancy.

Finally, in order to make the best decisions, it is important for the couple to have the best information and resources available. Therefore, the Book of Discipline, ¶ 162.V states:

We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Access to information and resources should not be limited by government policy, but should be available to couples to assist them in making wise and loving choices in raising a family.

Next week Michael Hollinger (aka Affable Geek) will give us an Episcopalian “Via Media” point of view about contraception.

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