On the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade: An Autobiographical Reflection

By Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth

Editor’s note. As 2019 ended and we began to pay added attention to the impending 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we began running stories about that devastating decision that were particularly well received. This first ran in 2014.

January 22, 2014. The forty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade (with Doe v. Bolton), the United States Supreme Court decision(s) that knocked down state laws pertaining to abortion and basically created an abortion-on-demand regime in the United States. Since that sad day in American history, over 56,000,000 abortions have been performed. Therefore, that many unborn children have been destroyed and countless of their mothers have been seriously harmed in all kinds of ways.

This anniversary provides all of us with an opportunity to reflect on these disastrous decisions. National Right to Life News Today has carried many such reflections over the past month. I was asked to offer my perspective, which provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my ministry in service of the Gospel of Life. I offer my thoughts not because they are unique—although we all walk different paths—but because they say something about how one man’s pro-life awareness grew and the challenges of pastoring in a “pro-choice” denomination.

Raised in southwestern Kansas, in a United Methodist household, I was only vaguely aware of the medical procedure known as abortion. As a mathematics major at Kansas State, I remained largely unaware of the debate over abortion that was growing in the larger society. Even as a student at Duke Divinity School from 1973 until 1976, I was relatively untouched by the growing moral and political concerns related to life and abortion.

In the late 1970s, while serving as an associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, I began to discern that abortion is a major moral and political challenge that demanded attention. During those years, I taught a lesson to our youth group on abortion. That lesson created a bit of a stir among, and push-back from, some church members.

Nevertheless, my interest in the subject of abortion and commitment to the Gospel of Life were increasing. That was somewhat unusual for a pastor in The United Methodist Church, which was considered a “pro-choice” denomination and whose General Board of Church and Society headquarters in Washington, DC housed the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR, which later rebranded itself the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice or RCRC). RCAR/RCRC exists, one might say, to provide religious legitimation for abortion on demand.

In 1979-1980, I took a year to study public policy at Duke and devoted special attention to the challenges related to abortion. Most of my research papers were dedicated to various aspects of abortion — moral, political, social, and economic — in America. An informative, and formative, internship with the Catholic thinker Michael Novak at American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC reinforced my interest in the challenges posed by abortion.

In the early 1980s, while serving as the pastor of Cumberland (NC) United Methodist Church, I established and edited “On Second Thought,” a humble quarterly newsletter with special emphases on human rights on the international scene and abortion in American society. During that time, in 1981 or 1982, I attended, with another United Methodist pastor, my first March for Life in Washington, DC. It was a transformative experience. My commitment to the Gospel of Life was sealed.

From 1984 until 1990, I served as an assistant to Rev. Richard John Neuhaus at The Center on Religion and Society, and then at The Institute on Religion and Public Life, in New York City. What a privilege it was to work with Rev. Neuhaus — who had one of the strongest, most articulate voices for life — in this public ministry related to the public square. Our New York-based conferences, seminars, projects, and publications often involved matters related to life and abortion.

While working in New York City, I lived with Marsha and the children in Edison, NJ. Many Saturday mornings were spent at a nearby abortion clinic, where a small band of us lovingly offered abortion-minded women alternatives to abortion.

During the New York years, in 1987, a group of United Methodists met and formed the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS), which began to publish the quarterly newsletter Lifewatch. A couple of years later, a group of United Methodists in North Carolina wrote, published, and distributed “The Durham Declaration: To United Methodists on Our Church and Abortion.” In the early 1990s we held a conference around “The Durham Declaration,” and then published a book of that conference’s materials (“The Church and Abortion: In Search of New Ground for Response,” Abingdon, 1993).

Over the last 25 years, pastoring churches in (or around) Creswell, Rose Hill, Morehead City, and Whiteville, all in North Carolina, I have attempted to preach, teach, serve, and write about the Gospel of Life. To this day, I preach sermons on life and abortion, minister to women tempted by abortion, address abortion as it arises in daily conversations, challenge our Annual Conference to consider abortion every so often, and edit Lifewatch.

Also, I represent United Methodists on the National Pro-Life Religious Council (NPRC), an ecumenical organization dedicated to advancing the Gospel of Life and challenging the culture of death. Through NPRC, I edited “The Right Choice: Pro-Life Sermons” (Abingdon, 1997) and “Thinking Theologically about Abortion” (Bristol House, 2000).

Looking back over these many years, I discern a divine call to ordained ministry in service to the Gospel of Life. That is not a boast based on fact. It is a humble admission based on faith (or trust). At the same time, discernment of a call to this ministry leads me immediately to confession. At times, I have not been responsive to this call; that is, I have been slothful. At times, I have been prideful. At times, I have lost focus. At times, I have ministered out of anger, not love.

But all the time, God has been, is, and will be faithful. Those whom He calls — including you, dear reader — He also forgives and empowers, loves and lifts, so that His ministry can go forward, so that His love can be proclaimed, and demonstrated, to the world — even to those who are intent on destroying the unborn, even to those who care nothing about the unborn, even to those who are willfully blind to the unborn. Thanks be to God!

As the Lord of Life, God has come to us. As the Spirit of Truth, He undergirds and guides us. What a privilege to serve this God and His Gospel of Life — even during the 41st year of Roe v. Wade’s unfortunate reign. God and His Gospel remind us that the Lord of Life, not Roe v. Wade, gets the first, sovereign, and last word in history and on all its injustices.

Rev. Stallsworth is the president of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, and the editor of Lifewatch.