• Early in his ministry, the Rev. Bill Lawrence served as counselor to pregnant women considering their options, which sometimes meant referral to abortion services if they chose.
• Under a new Texas law, a pastor could face civil lawsuits for such a referral.
• In effect, the law could make it financially impossible for a United Methodist to continue offering pastoral care to persons in need.
If the newly passed anti-abortion law in Texas had been in place 50 years ago, my ministry could have ended soon after it started. I could have faced civil court actions for which my $5,800 annual salary would have been inadequate to finance a legal response. I might have left the ministry because I could not afford to stay in it.
In 1971, I received my first full-time appointment as an ordained minister of The United Methodist Church. Among those whom I met in the northeastern Pennsylvania communities that I served were several ecumenical pastors affiliated with the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS). It was an interstate network that had originated in New York City to assist women who faced what they deemed to be “problem pregnancies.” Participating clergy were trained and approved by the local CSS organization, which offered referral information to help the women implement the choices they made. I accepted an invitation to become actively involved as a counselor.
The training included seminars on the resources available for adoption, foster care and support that might be available to women who chose to become single parents if they carried the pregnancies to term. It also included a session with a prominent local obstetrician/gynecologist, who discussed the technical aspects of abortion procedures. And it included referral information about medical clinics that provided abortion services for women who chose that option.
Moreover, the training enabled participating clergy to understand that, regardless of state laws, abortion services are always available. But not all of them are conducted in facilities that maintain clean — let alone sterile — environments. Not all of them use proper medical procedures by medically trained personnel. Some are performed by medical practitioners in facilities that lack adequate resources to deal with unanticipated emergencies. A few are conducted in medical facilities by highly trained personnel under the ruse that the physician is performing a diagnostic procedure for which the patient has adequate financial resources to cover the costs privately.
Women who could not or would not use one of those options might find information about CCS in pamphlets at clinics, social service agencies or word on the street. They called a CCS number and received contact information for a member of the clergy who was on call that week and then called the CCS counselor to schedule an appointment.
In the years that I served with CCS, I counseled dozens of women who faced problem pregnancies, and I provided them with referral information. But the approved facilities that we listed as offering abortion were beyond the Pennsylvania border.
New York had rather progressive laws regarding abortion in the early 1970s. Women in the Scranton area, where I was appointed, could drive to Binghamton in 90 minutes and to New York City in less than three hours. That was manageable but not simple. They had to get an appointment, arrange to be out of work or school, determine whether or how to discuss the whole matter with the partner in the pregnancy, and arrange transportation. Some were entirely alone.
After the Supreme Court issued its January 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the demand for CCS counseling and referral services diminished. Women could approach health care providers directly.
But Texas seems now to be the pioneer in turning back the calendar at least 50 years. If its new law withstands further Supreme Court action, remains in place and prompts other states to enact similar legislation, women could face dreadful choices. They may look to unlicensed and unsafe practitioners. They may have to cross multiple state lines to receive care. They may need counseling and referral resources like CCS.
Most women need more than six weeks even to know that they are pregnant, let alone to start a decision-making process about health care. By then, anyone who provides an abortion in Texas will be treated as a criminal.
What is more menacing about the Texas law is that pastors who provide counseling and referral services could be sued by persons who had no role in the pregnancy, the decision-making process, or the ministry that a United Methodist is authorized to exercise by the Social Principles of the church. Anyone who happened to see a woman leave my church office with a pamphlet that might contain referral information about the health care to which she has a right, according to United Methodist policy, could file suit against me in civil court. The dozens of women whom I counseled could generate dozens of cases. In effect, the law in Texas could make it financially impossible for a United Methodist to continue offering pastoral care to persons in need.
Of course, ministry should never be about money. But we might be at a new turning point in pastoral care, when some 21st-century version of the Clergy Consultation Service will have to be created. Pastors will have to find ways around the law. We cannot stop the ministries of the church just because some zealots in a state legislature allow us to be sued.
Lawrence is professor emeritus of American Church History at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and research fellow at the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition at Duke Divinity School. He is also former president of the Judicial Council.
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