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Reproductive Justice, United Methodism, and the 2020 (2024) General Conference

By Katharine H. Henry

I write to you as one of Cal-Pac’s lay reserves to the General Conference and a lay delegate to the Western Jurisdictional Conference. I also write to you as a United Methodist who holds reproductive justice as an expression of Christian faith.

Reproductive justice is a movement led by Black U.S. American women, with significant landmarks in 1989 and 1994. There are four shared tenets of reproductive justice today, as stated by SisterSong, a Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, and often shared by the group United Methodists for Reproductive Justice:

  1. “The human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy”
  2. “The human right not to have children”
  3. “The human right to have children”
  4. “The right to parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities”

The reproductive justice movement is inherently intersectional, relating to topics such as economic, racial, and environmental justice. It includes, but is not limited to, autonomy in one’s most obvious reproductive events and decisions, such as those related to pregnancy and abortion. In viewing the Lenten Lunch & Learn webinars hosted by United Methodists for Reproductive Justice (UM4RJ; a fairly new organization which includes clergy and laity from across the U.S.), I appreciate that the leaders and speakers took a broad approach. The webinars included topics as wide-ranging as references to pregnancy in the Bible, medically accurate perspectives on abortion and the Social Principles, connections between reproductive justice and opposing white supremacy, and protesting gun violence to make communities safer.

Our United Methodist Social Principles and the proposed Revised Social Principles (see Molly Vetter’s article from February 20) include many strong statements in favor of reproductive justice, such as support for the rights of children, a call for churches to support and enable age-appropriate sexual education, and the affirmation of healthcare as a basic human right. There are also reproductive justice–related petitions before this General Conference that come from a variety of individuals and organizations. I won’t detail every single one for you, but will cover three legislative issues.

First, the stance on abortion in the Revised Social Principles is very similar to our current United Methodist statement in the 2016 Social Principles. Our denomination is neither fully in favor of abortion as a personal healthcare choice nor fully opposed to it. As a worldwide church, I believe it is time for us to adopt the perfectly imperfect, globally studied and revised, Social Principles, which come from years of conversation, compromise, and consensus. I respect the intention of those closest to the editorial process and many U.S. delegates for the General Conference to adopt this document without revisions. As a pro-choice Christian, I would like to see a bolder stance on abortion, as well as some medical topics corrected for accuracy. As a United Methodist, however, I choose the whole document, with its powerful language on topics such as economic justice and opposition to child marriage, for example, and love that it represents the people of The United Methodist Church.

Second is a piece of legislation written by Cal-Pac’s own Mary Larson, whom many of you know as a longtime, hardworking advocate for reproductive freedom (petition #20846 in the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. 3). Larson’s petition is to add a new resolution to our Book of Resolutions recognizing the disproportionate impact that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion will disproportionately impact People of Color, those with disabilities, rural populations, and young people. Larson references the history of people of faith advocating for reproductive choice. If this resolution is adopted, it would empower United Methodist public advocacy for pregnant people’s right to make their own healthcare decisions in the United States. I pray that it will be adopted!

There is one additional piece of legislation I’d like to mention. In relation to sexuality and reproductive justice, one wonderful strength of United Methodists is our longtime support for access to sex education. The Revised Social Principles include this statement: “We support the rights of all people to exercise personal consent in sexual relationships, to make decisions about their own bodies and be supported in those decisions, to receive comprehensive sexual education, to be free from sexual exploitation and violence, and to have access to adequate sexual health care” (in The Nurturing Community, part C). Through UM4RJ’s webinar series, I learned about a curriculum for 5th and 6th grade children that provides age-appropriate faith and sexual education; it is called “Wonderfully Made: Loved by God.” This is exciting—but still, The UMC does not have a long-term sexual education curriculum for the lifespan.

Dr. Kathy Hartke, a United Methodist laywoman and gynecologist from the Wisconsin Annual Conference, has proposed that The UMC approve the United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Our Whole Lives: Sexuality and Faith” and add a United Methodist faith perspective section to the curriculum. I think that this action, or a similar one, is needed so that the church may more genuinely act on our written commitments to accessible sexual education. Dr. Hartke’s petition is #20788 in the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. 3, and would impact the Social Principles, ¶161.G. I see the passage of the Revised Social Principles document to be the priority at this General Conference. I genuinely hope that this piece of legislation will come before the 2026 Called General Conference, when the church will have our next opportunity to edit our Social Principles through Christian conferencing. I would look forward to increased opportunities for The United Methodist Church to support and offer empowering education about bodies and sex so that all people will know they are, indeed, wonderfully made (Psalm 139).