Louisville, Kentucky — It was an emotional day for the Health, Safety and Benefits Committee of the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
On the day the committee was scheduled to consider two items related to reproductive justice, the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson which, as anticipated, overturned the long-standing Roe v. Wade decision and the more recent Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey decision.
The commissioners and advisory delegates returned from a morning break to an announcement, by the Committee Moderator David Ammons, of the court’s decision and his strong remarks of concern and disappointment. He asked Michelle Bartel, a commissioner from Wabash Valley Presbytery to offer prayer for this time.
Following the prayer, the committee returned to its work on family leave policies knowing that they would return to the topic of reproductive justice in the afternoon.
After completing work on the family leave recommendations early in the afternoon the committee took up the business related to reproductive justice with one recommendation from an agency and a commissioner resolution to be considered. Moderator Ammons asked Committee Vice-Moderator Doris Evans to lead the business for the afternoon. Evans asked JoAnne Sharp, co-moderator of the Advisory Committee for Women’s Concerns, to offer a prayer for the upcoming deliberations.
The first item of business was HSB-03: A Resolution on Reproductive Justice — From the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, an item referred from the previous assembly. In its five points, it commends the Mission Responsibility Through Investment for support of reproductive justice and directs them to continue their work. It also directs the Office of the Stated Clerk to promote reproductive justice work in the church by distributing the rationale, directing the Presbyterian Mission Agency to continue this work in its public witness policy and continuing support of the Office of Gender and Racial Justice.
This item was introduced by the other co-moderator of the Advocacy Committee, Madison McKinney. She talked in depth about the scope of this work and how it is not pro-life or pro-choice but about affordable comprehensive reproductive health care. The church’s stand began with the 1992 “Report of the Special Committee on Problem Pregnancies and Abortion” and the church approaches this as a social justice issue. She talked about how today’s Supreme Court decision means reproductive rights are under attack and the church must use its voice and take a stand.
Nancy Tatnall, a commissioner from Cherokee Presbytery, asked McKinney if the Advocacy Committee would like to recommend changes to the item considering today’s decision. McKinney answered that the committee is in conversation about responding, but the news is too recent for the committee to have a recommendation.
After HSB-03 was moved and placed on the floor for debate, Young Lee Hertig, a commissioner from Pacific Presbytery, commented with strong emotion in her voice that this action is inadequate in light of the Supreme Court decision this morning. “It needs amending. It is too weak,” she said. Another speaker noted that the next item carried stronger recommendations.
An amendment was proposed to make the language of the item more inclusive by changing “women” to “childbearing people,” which easily passed. With little additional discussion, HSB-03 was approved as amended on a vote of 36 to 2.
The committee turned next to Commissioner Resolution HSB-11: On Affirming Reproductive Justice. In the five points of this resolution, the position of the PC(USA) is reaffirmed regarding individual choice and the principles of the Reproductive Justice Movement. The resolution also rejects government restrictions on access and restriction and attempts to deny people from receiving essential health care.
The committee heard from one of the commissioners who proposed the resolution. In a video message Katherine Styrt, a teaching elder commissioner from Great Rivers Presbytery told her story about pregnancy with twins where a problem threatened one of the babies and her health as well. Selective abortion of the first twin was necessary for health reasons.
Two members of the committee followed up with their own stories. Lindsay Jacaruso, a commissioner from Minnesota Valleys Presbytery, spoke of her difficult but “pretty standard” pregnancy. She was reassured by knowing God was with her and that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Next Jennifer Hallberg, a commissioner from St. Augustine Presbytery spoke of her medical condition and how a pregnancy would be life-threatening to her. She recognizes the benefit of medical access for reproductive health but added “I don’t know what it is like for my sisters who cannot afford health care.”
Rebecca Todd Peters, a member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy spoke about the impact of the decision today and that 58% of childbearing people will lose access to abortion. In the 80s, half of the childbearing people having abortions were poor or disadvantaged. 30 years later, it was three-quarters. This is an enormous religious freedom issue, she said. And there are many other issues we are addressing. A more comprehensive approach is needed.
In her brief comments, Kerri Allen, the Chair of the Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee, suggested an amendment requesting the Board of Pensions provide access for pregnant persons to travel for an abortion. Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, responded that the board welcomes this suggestion. They have always had a deep commitment to women’s health issues and already have some expense reimbursement for health care. However, such a change will have to be approved by the board and the legal situation of all 50 states will need to be reviewed to structure something that is legally viable.
Following up on Peters’s comments, Hertig described this as a theological problem and asked if the Advisory Committee is planning to write a theological statement. “We are at theological war here over a woman’s body” she concluded.
Jacaruso offered an amendment to the resolution which would “Direct PMA in connection with [the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns] create a theological reflection to guide the church on the issue.” Abigail King-Kaiser, a commissioner from Cincinnati proposed an amendment for the Board of Pensions to help support travel for an abortion. Board President Spencer expressed his strong support for the motion but pointed out some problematic language. After an amendment, the language read: “Urge the Board of Pensions to continue to develop the policies and practices that will ensure that plan members be able to access reproductive health care and abortion, equitably, no matter the state they live in.” Both additions to the resolution were easily approved
After an emotional day, the amended commissioners’ resolution was approved by a vote of 37 to 3.
The committee also spent significant time and energy today discussing family leave and how best to require that for pastors and others in the church. The most time was spent on HSB-07, a recommendation regarding family leave and placing guidance in the Book of Order. After significant discussion and amending the recommendation, including placing it in a different part of the Form of Government section the item was approved 31 to 9. The committee then agreed to have HSB-06 answered by the action on HSB-07. Finally, the second commissioner resolution HSB-10 regarding mental health care in the church was approved with an added section and some amendments adjusting language at the suggestion of the Board of Pensions.
The leadership team thanked the commissioners and advisory delegates for their hard work that day. While all of the items passed with very little dissent, commissioners’ comments to the committee moderator about presenting these difficult topics could keep them off the consent agenda when they come before the full assembly.