How will United Methodists respond to Gosnell horror?

By Matt O’Reilly, Special Contributor…

United Methodists have an impressive record for faithfully responding to tragedy. In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Methodist congregations responded with an outpouring of love and intercession. We have preached, prayed and worked to transform the systems that not only allow but sometimes even enable such terrible acts.

Matt OReilly

The trial of Kermit Gosnell presents us with a new national horror involving the violent deaths of children. Charged with the murder of one woman and seven newborns, his crimes likely far exceed the formal accusations against him. The horror of the allegations has been compounded by the initial hesitancy of mainstream media to cover the story. As details continue to emerge, the question for United Methodists is this: How will we respond to the Gosnell horror?

From Roe to Gosnell

We must begin by recognizing that this tragic situation follows from the widespread efforts to normalize abortion in the United States. Not all will agree with that conclusion, but a variety of factors suggest its accuracy. Since abortion was declared a constitutional right in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, the pro-choice movement has worked hard to undermine the full personhood of the preborn. We have been told again and again that the child in the womb is a fetus, not a baby. We are told that abortion is not the ending of a life; it is the termination of a pregnancy. This cold and detached terminology is intended to downplay any emotional reaction to abortion.

The problem is that if a preborn child in the eighth or ninth month of gestation does not have the moral status of a person, why should we think a change of geography from inside the womb to outside the womb suddenly establishes personhood? There is no substantive difference between the preborn and the newly born. If we are desensitized to the death of the former, it will lead us to be decreasingly sensitive to the latter. The road from Roe to Gosnell is a downhill slope.

This connection can clearly be seen in a variety of recent arguments made by abortion advocates. In 2012, bioethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argued in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Ethics for what they called “post-birth abortion.” They claimed that newborns, like fetuses, do not have the moral status of a person and, therefore, the killing of a newborn should be permissible even when the newborn has no disability or defect. Upon the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a piece for titled, “So what if abortion ends life?” in which she argued that the child inside the womb is as much a life as the one outside. She did not go as far as Dr. Giubilini and Dr. Minerva by arguing for infanticide, but when you agree that the preborn and the newly born are alive in the same sense, it is a short and logical step from pre-birth abortion to infanticide. More recently, a representative of Planned Parenthood argued to Florida lawmakers that the decision to offer life-saving care to a child born alive after a botched abortion should be left to the mother and her physicians rather than guaranteed by law.

When the principles that gave us abortion-on-demand are being applied to infanticide in such a broad range of arenas, from academic journals to popular websites and congressional hearings, it is difficult to sustain the view that there is no connection between Roe and Gosnell. United Methodists need to recognize that we are where we are because the Roe decision started us on a path of devaluing the sacred worth of human life. That path has led us to the trial of Kermit Gosnell.

What do we do?

In light of the connection between abortion and infanticide, United Methodists should respond to the Gosnell horror in two ways.

First, we should break ties with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). As many readers already know, our General Board of Church & Society and United Methodist Women are member organizations of RCRC. Readers may not know that in a published volume of worship aids entitled Prayerfully Pro-Choice, RCRC has written that abortion is a “God-given right,” a “sacred choice,” and that human life is not to be attributed to the preborn. This language goes strongly against our Social Principles which declare that, “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion” (2012 Book of Discipline, ¶161.J). Claiming abortion as a divinely endowed holy right is hardly consonant with reluctance to approve it. RCRC has worked tirelessly to devalue and destroy preborn human life, which, as I have argued, has played a significant part in bringing about the current situation in which Kermit Gosnell stands accused of infanticide. United Methodists must respond by holding our denominational agencies accountable for their role in advancing abortion. We must insist they break with RCRC.

Second, we should call upon General Conference to make a stronger statement in our Social Principles in favor of preborn and newly born human life. Our United Methodist Church must speak against the increasing application of pro-abortion arguments to the practice of infanticide, and we need our Social Principles to guide us. We already state our reluctance to approve abortion. We need a statement that declares our unambiguous and unqualified support for human life at every stage.

Finding our voice

United Methodists are supposed to be the people who speak up for those who have no voice, who take up the case of the marginalized, the abused and the victimized. If we want to be faithful to that heritage today and in the days to come, we must be the voice both of the preborn and the newly born, and so must our denominational agencies and Social Principles. We should be able to count on them to defend the defenseless and care for the destitute. This is our opportunity to stand for righteousness and against injustice. We must not miss it.

Editor’s Note: The Rev. Matt O’Reilly submitted this commentary. Since it references the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, we asked that group for a response. The Rev. Steve Copley wrote an essay on behalf of RCRC. We also asked the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society and the United Methodist Women for a response, since they too are mentioned in Mr. O’Reilly’s piece. Both declined.

The Rev. O’Reilly is pastor of First UMC of Union Springs, Ala. He is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire, and a member of the faculties of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect at or follow on Twitter @mporeilly.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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10 Comments on "How will United Methodists respond to Gosnell horror?"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Ted Holland

An egg is not a chicken…the chicken is only a chicken once it leaves the egg. A flower is not a flower until it leaves the bud. A butterfly is not a butterfly until it leaves the larve…..and a fetus is not a child until it is born and takes its first breath.

If John Wesley would be alive today, he would be so upset with how our denomination has taken sides in something as simple as What would Jesus Do? He doesn't anyone to perish. When he talks about his little ones in the judgment between the goats and sheep. We lost our first pregnancy due to a miscarriage and to me we lost our first child. I have counseled girls against abortion, helped in the healing process of those who have had one, and believe we as United Methodists should be more proactive and less afraid to speak up. Wesley did… Read more »

No one is more "the least of these" than the unborn, especially the UNWANTED unborn. What a horrible misnomer the word "unwanted" is, as all are created in God's image and are precious to God. One must ask which other groups do our liberal friends consider to be expendable?


Jeremy, in all of your vehement defending of RCRC, have you ever looked at the hateful language RCRC uses to describe pro-lifers? As long as you keep giving RCRC a free pass there, where is the credibility to your professed concern for "respectful debate"? And when RCRC openly celebrates the actual work of performing abortions as "sacred work" and "holy work"

in what way is that not "pro-abortion," if our words have any meaning?

My wife (and I, for that matter) suffered 2 spontaneous abortions between the birth of our oldest son and our middle son. We were both effected deeply by the unwelcome experiences. Comments from "friends" were sympathetic to flip. We were blessed 4 1/2 years after the birth of our oldest son with another fine baby boy and 21 months after that with another fine son. I am distinctly pro-life. From what I read, one is led to believe that the planned parent people focus on poor women of color and encourage abortion as opposed to Pro-abortion counseling. Is the adoption… Read more »
victor galipi
Matt O'Reilly does an excellent job of recognizing and pointing out how Roe leads to Gosnell, and how abortion leads to infanticide. Rev. O'Reilly also brings The United Methodist Church face to face with the horrors of abortion and infanticide, of the slippery slope of calling any human anything less than human, and he calls us to respond. Unfortunately, so far the UMC response has been to ignore the Gosnell trial and the horrors it is revealing. In other words, the response is no better and is in fact even less than that of the mainstream media, which has at… Read more »
How about we reference this in the discussion? 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:13 – 16

Stephen Copley's response linked at the end of O'Reilly's article is succinct and refutes much of the sensationalism in the piece above.

In addition, who uses terms like "pro-abortion" when describing people who are pro-choice? I thought one tenet of respectful debate was calling people what they self-identify as. Pro-lifers would hate to be called Pro-death because that's what restrictive policies lead to. So can we call people by their self-identified names, please?

I agree that the Gosnell case represents a reprehensible misuse of what is commonly called Choice. But I also think Matt O'Reilly overly vilifies those who may be pro-choice. As medical advances allow us to save babies born very prematurely, it is harder and harder to pick a point at which the unborn child should be considered fully human. However, pregnancy is not always something with which an expectant mother can cope. In a perfect world, there would be no need for abortion. In the real world pregnancy may be life threatening, or the mother-to be may not be capable… Read more »
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