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Were America’s evangelical Christians always stalwartly pro-life and opposed to abortion? Sadly, we were not, and the story behind that delay should be on our minds as we ponder the dark anniversary of Roe v. Wade. To our shame, when Roe came evangelicals were part of the problem.
This fact would be shocking to many Americans today, who naturally associate evangelical Christians with the pro-life cause. But, prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973, evangelicals were, with a few notable exceptions, confused and uncertain about the question of abortion.
Two years before Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for “legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such circumstances as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal abnormality, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
That resolution reveals two very important aspects of this story. First, that the language of “the emotional, mental, and physical life of the mother” was already in use and, second, that the convention called for the legalization of what would become abortion on demand. After Roe, the language about emotional and mental health would be used to allow virtually any abortion for any reason.
Did Southern Baptists have any idea what they were doing? The leadership of the denomination’s ethics agency was then pro-abortion, but the convention itself passed the resolution. Clearly, no pro-life consensus then prevailed among Southern Baptists.
The same was generally true of the larger world of American evangelicalism. The November 8, 1968 edition of Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, featured numerous articles dealing with reproduction, including abortion and contraception. The issue contained what was called “A Protestant Affirmation” that stated: “Whether or not the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.”
But all that was soon to change, and Roe was the catalyst for the moral revolution within evangelicalism. The reality of abortion on demand and exposure to the logic of the abortion rights movement led to a fundamental shift in the evangelical conscience. By 1976 the Southern Baptist Convention would declare every abortion to be a “decision to terminate the life of an innocent human being.” Similarly, the large evangelical movement would develop an overwhelming pro-life consensus, seeing abortion as a great moral evil and a threat to the dignity of all human life. Influential evangelical figures like Francis Schaeffer and Dr. C. Everett Koop (later Surgeon General of the United States) helped to forge a united evangelical front against abortion.
There is more to the story of course. One often overlooked dimension of the story is the intersection of evangelical and Roman Catholic concerns in the emergence of a pro-life coalition. While most evangelicals were either on the wrong side of the issue or politically disengaged, Roman Catholic leaders were on the front lines opposing abortion as a fundamental assault on human dignity. By the late 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was fighting demands for the legalization of abortion nationally and state by state – opposition that preceded the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.
By the time Roe was handed down, Catholic leaders had developed sophisticated arguments and growing organizations to fight for the pro-life cause. In 1967, six years before Roe, Catholics had led in the creation of the National Right to Life Committee. The Catholic tradition, drawn largely from the natural law, became the foundational intellectual contribution to the development of a united front against abortion. Nevertheless, for evangelicals to join the movement in a decisive way, arguments drawn directly from Scripture had to be formed and then preached from the pulpits of evangelical churches.
Those arguments captured the conscience of the evangelical movement and produced a seismic shift within the movement and within the political life of the nation. From the 1980 U. S. presidential election until the present, the pro-life movement has been populated, funded, and directed, for the most part, by evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders. Beyond that, the emergence of crisis pregnancy centers and support systems for women considering abortion have come from the work of millions of pro-life Roman Catholics and evangelicals at the grassroots.
Does this represent a new ecumenism? The reality is actually quite counter-intuitive. The fact that Roman Catholics and evangelicals work together on the front lines of moral and cultural issues should not mislead. The cooperation is genuine and necessary, as we both understand. At the same time, the very Roman Catholics who remain stalwartly pro-life are those Roman Catholics who most closely adhere to the doctrinal teachings of their church. The same is true on the evangelical side, where moral conviction is most clear where doctrinal convictions have the greatest hold.
In other words, those volunteers working together at the local crisis pregnancy center are, most likely, the most Catholic of Catholics and the most evangelical of evangelicals. Our doctrinal differences remain, and they remain of vital importance, but we have arrived at the moral emergency together, and we have urgent work to do.
Honesty compels evangelicals to confess that the Roman Catholics were here first, but Roe explains why the evangelicals did show up to the pro-life cause–late, but here at last.