From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Faith traditions must address 'stork' issues, speakers say

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 26 Apr 2000 13:26:46

April 26, 2000  News media contact: Tim Tanton·(615)742-5470·Nashville,
Tenn.  10-71B{224}

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - With all of the options available today to help
couples become pregnant -- or terminate a pregnancy -- it's no wonder the
poor stork is befuddled.
"It's not only the storks that are befuddled but United Methodists also,"
said the Rev. Donald E. Messer, president and professor at Iliff School of
Theology in Denver. 

Messer and sociologist Sally B. Geis are co-editors of a new book, The
Befuddled Stork: Helping Persons of Faith Debate Beginning-of-Life Issues,
published by Abingdon. Messer and Geis, founding director of the Iliff
Institute for Lay and Clergy Education, were in Nashville for an April 25
teleconference on "Does God Care How We Make Babies?"

The religious community must be more effective in addressing today's
leading-edge issues surrounding reproduction, such as cloning and genetic
manipulation, panelists said in interviews before the teleconference. They
also noted that the Methodist tradition provides resources for helping
people sort through those issues themselves.

The book and the four-and-a-half-hour teleconference dealt at length with in
vitro fertilization, abortion, cloning and other "beginning-of-life" topics.
Panelists examined the issues from a variety of viewpoints and took calls
from viewers.

"Our primary concern is to help people think through theologically and
personally the kinds of questions that face us in assisted reproduction,"
Messer said.

"Our goal is not to tell people what to think, but to, No. 1, assist them in
identifying the issues and the questions that need to be raised ... and to
relate those to their own values and their own faith convictions," he said.
Secondarily, the book and teleconference were aimed at helping people
understand why others of good conscience believe differently, he said.

"All of that lowers the 'shrill' dimension of the debate," he said. It
emphasizes that others who hold different views on reproductive issues are
also people of good character and faith.

Trying to make sense of modern reproductive techniques can be difficult, but
Methodism does offer a framework for exploring the issues. Geis cited the
Methodist quadrilateral of Scripture, experience, tradition and reason.

In The Befuddled Stork, for example, Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer, a Jewish
leader and writer from Metuchen, N.J., makes a sincere effort to ground in
Scripture his belief that cloning can be a good thing, Geis said. 

Continuing through the quadrilateral, she noted that "we each come with

"We have a tradition, but it's not as rigid a tradition, I believe, as some
people would make it sound," she said. For example, abortion was legal until
some time in the 19th century, and nobody seemed to find that offensive to
our traditional position, she said, adding that feelings have changed since

One of the denomination's strengths is its openness to reason in a broad
sense, including using the social sciences and natural sciences in trying to
understand God's creation, Messer said. That means "not just fixating on a
single line of Scripture" or a single church statement adopted at one moment
in time, he said. United Methodists have a long tradition of seeking, as
well as struggling with Scriptures and making them applicable in their
lives, he said.
While the Christian church has grappled with the issue of abortion for
decades, it faces a learning curve on other beginning-of-life issues, such
as genetic manipulation and cloning. Panelists stressed the need for gaining
a better understanding of the facts.

The Rev. Rebekah L. Miles, associate professor of ethics at Perkins School
of Theology, noted that Methodists do have the resources for "making
sustained arguments" on these issues, and that their tradition includes
drawing on huge bodies of literature in the process. However, for whatever
reason, Methodists haven't taken that approach in this case. 

She described her experience of serving on a churchwide panel that was told
to produce a consensus document on cloning. The group, which represented a
wide range of opinions, had about two days to discuss the issue, reach
agreement and write a statement. The result was a document that was generic
and wishy-washy, she said. Having more time and perhaps using a different
writing process would help such a committee, she said.

Faith traditions give people a way of looking at reproductive issues that
differs from what someone would get in medical counseling, panelists said.

"You think about the process of judgment quite differently," said the Rev.
Sondra Ely Wheeler, associate professor of Christian ethics at Wesley
Theological Seminary in Washington. As a pastor and Christian ethicist, she
raises such questions for a parent as: How will this decision affect the
person they are and the person they're going to become? She said she would
want people to think about the character of their spousal relationship, the
relationship between parent and child, and the nature of who they are and
what they believe.

The development of new reproductive techniques is occurring so rapidly that
the religious community is in danger of being left behind as society makes
decisions about advances in cloning, genetics and so on.

"The church needs to give its attention to these new dilemmas before the
secular world takes it over and just decides everything without us," Geis

Is the religious community speaking to these issues effectively?

"I wish we were doing it more effectively," Geis said. "One of my greatest
hopes is that we in the religious community make a real effort to understand
these issues ... to understand science better, rather than just deciding
you're going to have rigid opinions without really knowing very much about
what you're talking about." The more complete one's understanding is, the
more informed one's decisions will be, she said.

The United Methodist Church has struggled with some issues, such as
abortion, more carefully and longer than it has others, Messer noted. He
said he's not well informed about where the church stands on cloning, "but
I'm under the impression the denomination is not very well informed either
on the issue, so we (could) have a kind of knee-jerk 'no' without having
really done our homework."

Geis agreed, noting that such a response would end up cutting off reasonable

"The same thing is true about genetic manipulation," she said. "It's new,
it's frightening. 

"It's perfectly legitimate for us all to be anxious about these issues," she
said. "We hardly know what to think about them. But they're here, and we
need to work at it. Hard."

Several petitions to the United Methodist Church's top lawmaking assembly,
the General Conference, call for a ban on cloning. Others deal with
reproductive issues such as abortion. The assembly, the only body that
speaks for the denomination, meets May 2-12 in Cleveland.

More than 90 downlink sites participated in the teleconference, which
originated from the offices of United Methodist Communications (UMCom) in
Nashville. Sponsors were Iliff School of Theology and UMCom, in cooperation
with the United Methodist Publishing House and the Women's Division of the
United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. 

Panelists included Geis; Messer; Miles; Wheeler; Dr. Frederick Abrams,
director of the Clinical Ethics Consultation Group and associate clinical
professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (and coiner
of "befuddled stork"); Marilyn E. Coors, a fellow in ethics and human
medical genetics at the center; Dr. Ruth L. Fuller, associate professor of
psychiatry at the center; Sidney Callahan, author and columnist for Health
Progress, the journal of the Catholic Health Association; the Rev. Ronald
Cole-Turner, author and professor of theology and ethics at Pittsburgh
Theological Seminary; and the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, author, columnist and
senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. M. Garlinda
Burton, editor of UMCom's Interpreter magazine, was the moderator.
# # #

United Methodist News Service
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