Mixed messages about worth of human life come from the 222nd Assembly of the PCUSA PDF Print E-mail

2016-06-17 12.25.31webThe 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA took place in Portland, Oregon, June 18-25. Presbyterians Pro-Life gave witness to Jesus Christ and the value of human life through our exhibit booth and our Assembly news, Daily Delivery. We provided assistance as we were able to commissioners through nightly meetings and testimony in committees. Our PPL GA team was 10 strong, comprised of board members and volunteers. Each day began with team prayer and ended in prayer with a small band of courageous commissioners committed to making God-honoring, Bible-based decisions in an assembly more welcoming to a Muslim cleric who prayed for Allah's blessing and to the LGBTQ community than to theologically orthodox, evangelical, pro-life Presbyterians.

End of Life

End of Life paper from Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) approved

Abiding Presence: Living Faithfully in End of Life Decisions, a lengthy paper meant to provide a guide for pastors who minister to those at the end of life and to encourage Presbyterians to prepare advance directives to indicate their wishes for medical care at the end of life, was lightly amended by committee and approved by the plenary as amended. View the paper and GA action

An added paragraph clarified an important difference between palliative care and hospice care in the affirmation statement: "Affirmation: Faithful Living at the End-of-Life." Another amendment simply added 'surrogate decision-makers,' to a list of various provisions under the umbrella of 'advance directives.'

A pastoral guide in the rationale forms the heart of the resolution. It generally places a high value on human life as created in God's image. It acknowledges God's presence throughout our lives and even in our death. The paper offers excellent information about the roles of the various care providers (medical, spiritual, and ethical) that persons may encounter at the end of life. It informs about the dying process and the decisions one may face. Carefully used, it is a teaching tool to assist Presbyterians in writing advance directives or counseling others facing decisions at the end of life.

Two fault lines prevent PPL from endorsing the paper fully and so we raise these reasons for caution when using the paper as a tool for study in congregations.

The paper holds a high view of individual autonomy and seems to equate any definitive moral statement with being judgmental rather than pastoral. Scripture clearly teaches that we are not to take human life. Our Book of Confessions teaches that the prohibition against the taking of human life includes any activity that causes harm to ourselves as well as to others. Yet, authors of "Abiding Presence" state:

While sharing in the historic Christian opposition to suicide, we do not find it condemned in Scripture nor see ourselves called to judge others, particularly those facing irreversible deterioration of awareness and bodily function.

In committee discussion authors of the paper and denominational staff stated that they wanted to be pastoral to families whose loved ones have committed suicide. The affirmation states that it can be "understandable" to hasten death and the pastoral guide indicates physician assisted suicide may be "justified" in some cases.

High importance is also placed on the individual's experience of suffering in the dying process—not only in terms of physical pain, but in loss of community relationships or personal function. While authors acknowledge that we are not necessarily to avoid suffering at all costs, and that we may be closest to God when we 'share in Christ's suffering', that theme is abandoned (along with any assurance that God is present and faithful and trustworthy in our suffering) when they indicate toward the end of the paper that physician assisted suicide (PAS) may be "justified" in some cases, that only the individual can determine their own experience of suffering, and that pastors are to support the decisions to cause one's own death through PAS. Justin Marple, TE Commissioner and PPL Board member, offered a motion to add the comment that "the church does not advocate for suicide in any form." The motion failed in committee by 10-60.

Physician finds problems in section of paper dealing with life of an unborn child when a pregnant woman is dying or already has met the criteria for brain death.

When a mother is dying or already has met the criteria for brain death, there is a chance the child may live if the mother's bodily functions can be sustained for a period of time sufficient for the child to reach viability. Dr. Patricia Lee June objected to a statement in the paper asserting that children born in such circumstances have poor outcomes. In testimony given during open hearings in the Theological Issues and Institutes Committee, Dr. June stated:

It [Sec. D of the paper] erroneously states that most infants who survive have poor outcomes. First, this implies that infants with disabilities have no value. It denies the medical literature which shows premature birth with normal development in surviving babies. Don't consign these babies to death -- let us offer them a chance for a full life.

The paper's authors focus on the mother's wishes, but little is said of the care of the child who remains alive.

The specific circumstances must be examined, and individual moral commitments and beliefs of the pregnant woman and her partner should govern whatever decision is made, in light of respecting the woman's right to govern what is done to her body.

Medical providers are bound by the mother's advance directives, it is true, but authors of the paper missed an opportunity to encourage women of child-bearing age to make provisions in their advance directives for any unborn child to have a chance to live beyond the event of their own death. Dr. Ernest Krug, primary author of the paper and a pediatrician/ethicist, thanked those from PPL who had testified and told the committee he had gone back and researched the literature and found more recent information giving a 62% survival rate among these babies. He suggested the wording be changed from "infants if they survive have generally poor outcomes" to "infants may face developmental challenges". No one offered this amendment in committee but there is some hope that an editorial change may be made before publication and distribution.

Protection of Born Children

There is good news in items of business that call for the protection of already born children against violence and abuse

Commissioners approved Advocating for the Safety and Well-being of Children of Palestine and Israel (Item 08-02 ) calling "the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the government of Israel to denounce and cease the incitement of violence against children or at the hands of children."

Also approved was the PC(USA) Child/Youth/Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy and Procedures (Item 03-14). The rationale for the policy affirms children as a gift from God

Children, youth, and vulnerable adults are a gift from God and the Church has a divine mandate to provide for their safety and nurturing. The Church is called to be a place that reflects the open arms of Jesus. In Matthew 19:14, Jesus says, "Let the little children come to me."

Children and youth are not only persons of care and service in the church, but they are also co-recipients of the graces and love of God. Jesus exemplified this in the Gospel of Mark 10:15–16 when he urged his followers to receive the kingdom of God as a little child. And he specifically takes up the children into his arms and blesses them. So also the Church, as the body of Christ, is to be the presence of Christ's love, in the same way taking up all children and youth into its arms and blessing them; providing for them a safe, thriving, and nurturing environments in which to grow in every way.

2016-06-17 12.26.15webOf special interest is the definition of a child used in the protection policy rationale:

Child: A child will be defined as a person between the ages of 0–11.

Did the Office of the General Assembly mean to include the months from fertilization until birth? Probably not, but it is a interesting development in the body of Assembly statements about the value of human life all the same.

The Imago Dei

Language about Imago Dei found in several items of GA business

The value and dignity of human life was the basis of a report (Item 11-21) from ACSWP titled Human Trafficking and Human Rights: Children of God, Not for Sale. Approved on a voice vote in both committee and in plenary, the report focused on the trafficking of humans for forced labor and declared:

Human beings, created in the image of God, are not for sale.

The theological basis for the paper contains statements with which pro-life Presbyterians can agree:

The church stands against human trafficking and forced labor based upon its conviction that each person bears the image of God, or Imago Dei, and that work is both a necessity and a calling: "the laborer deserves to be paid" (1 Tim. 5:18). We may understand the image of God as the capacity for personal, covenantal relationship that gives all humans individual worth...human beings should never be treated as commodities.

The rationale says more about the Imago Dei and concludes:

Human trafficking is thus a violation of the image-bearers whom God has created. It is an affront to God and a rejection of God's purposes for humankind.

How is it the church is so clear that human trafficking is a "rejection of God's purposes for humankind" and is yet so blind to the offense of abortion that has killed more than 55 million of God's image bearers? Is our imagination so dull that we cannot see beyond the curtain of the womb and know that we are thwarting God's plans and purposes when we abort unborn children?

In other items of business the Imago Dei did not fare as well.

The confusion of the PCUSA about the nature of human beings in relationship to our Creator God is evident in two measures approved by the Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions. In a lightly amended Affirmation of Creation (Item 14-13) the teaching of science ascends to a 'truth' level that seems to supersede the biblical account of the creation of humankind in God's image. The Affirmation includes the following points about which Presbyterians do not have essential agreement:

"That God has connected all life on Earth in a network of kinship by virtue of biological evolution from common ancestors;

That, in response to God's call, we Homo sapiens (modern humans) emerged, in our wide diversity and different cultures, as a species over more than 6 million years of hominin development;

That, since our line of descent split from the line that resulted in our contemporaries, the chimpanzees and bonobos, we Homo sapiens were preceded by at least eighteen already identified hominin species, all of which are now extinct;*

Commissioners also endorsed a clergy letter (Item 14-01) stating:

Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts. . . .We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth,

The letter labels as ignorant any who disagree with their position on evolution:

To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.

Related Article: Such is the Value of Life in the PCUSA, by Carmen Fowler LaBerge, President of Presbyterian Lay Committee



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