Roe v. Wade anniversary: How abortion became an evangelical issue

Prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973, evangelicals were, with a few notable exceptions, confused and uncertain about the question of abortion.

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.

  • WmarkW

    Catholic morals emphasize obedience to the teachings of church hierarchy that claims to trace its existence to Jesus himself. Evangelism emphasizes creating a personal relationship with God based on ones own reading of scripture.

    Evangelicals were willing to let women make their own moral decisions about abortion, until too many started making the “wrong” one. Then abortion became another symptom of general societal breakdown. So now abortion is another case of “true freedom means following the words of Jesus Christ (the way WE define them).”

  • RickWatcher

    Murder has always been an issue with God and His Word is not of any private interpretation as stated in 2 Peter 1:20 and God has said, “Do not murder.” God is the author of life and that which is growing in a woman’s womb when she becomes pregnant is a human baby, not a glob of flesh as some would have you believe and no amount of man’s supposed wisdom will change this fact. While the procedure may be necessary to save a woman’s life, there is no excuse for it for any other reason. The Lord will forgive those who destroy this life, if they repent of it, yet He will hold the nation accountable for allowing this murder. Many of those who seek this abominable procedure have many problems afterwards, mental and physical, and no amount of argument to the contrary will change this fact either, yet many young women will ignorantly walk into one of these death mills thinking it will help them when in fact it will only injure them or worse.
    Fighting this mass murder should always be a major issue with the true follower of Jesus Christ.

  • A.C.2

    A study published by Rue in 2004 in Medical Science Monitor of American women who’d had abortions found that most women felt pressured by others to abort and the women said they felt “rushed” or “uncertain,” yet 67% received NO counseling and most were not told about alternatives.

    Coerced abortion is a grave injustice to women and their children and an internationally recognized human rights abuse. Coercion can involve or escalate to violence. Homicide is the leading killer of pregnant women.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    I don’t need the history lesson. I was there when abortions were much nicer, for all. It was making them “legal,” with perhaps the taxpayer footing the bill, that has caused all the raucus. Historically, humans have been doing abortions for as long as they’ve been here. Pagan Rome was the first to make them illegal. It is the killing of a human being, however any way one wants to look at it. The nice thing about Pagan Rome was that, after it was born, if you decided you didn’t want it, you could legally kill it. Humans have always been, and remain, a confused species.

  • H. Don Smith

    Wonder if the CEDAW protects the civil rights of millions of pre-born women? Clever words will never change the clear fact that abortion kills a unique individual. That without due process too.

  • AntiochusIV

    It’s not inconsistent at all. Opposition to abortion exists because people do not want women to be able to make their own decisions. Women had more autonomy during the Roman period than during the Christian Dark Ages, but their state was still deplorable. Exposing a child is the father’s decision and therefore not inconsistent with opposition to abortion.

  • AntiochusIV

    Sorry to burst your bubble, fundie Rick, but abortion has never been considered “murder”. Not even by the Bronze Age desert tribe you worship as your deity. So you only show your own ignorance by assuming that “murder” refers to whatever your preacher has been ranting against.

  • AntiochusIV

    Keep ranting and raving, Don. Talibangelicals assume that asserting something is evidence. Twenty years ago, this newspaper correctly labeled them as poor, uneducated and easy to command. And they are. When they are at the pasture on Sunday with the other sheep of their flock, their pastor only needs to utter the command, and they will be ranting and raving about it for years to come.

  • AntiochusIV

    History of the Southern Baptist Convention:

    - Founded in 1845 in support of slavery
    - Preachers used the Bible to argue in favor of slavery
    - After slavery was abolished, it supported segregation and Jim Crow for more than a century
    - The leader of the gang that lynched the three civil rights workers in 1964 was a Baptist preacher named Edgar Ray Killen, who missed being convicted by one vote because a woman “could not convict a preacher”. That’s Southern fundamentalism for you.
    - The Segregationist Baptist Convention argued that blacks suffered under the Curse of Ham, and were naturally inferior and servile to whites.
    - To this day, the Biblical supremacist theories advanced by the Supremacist Baptist Convention still exist among “Christians”. They were recently found in Texas public school textbooks.
    - These same Southern fundamentalists who started calling themselves ‘pro-laahf’ had no problem acquitting actual killers and lynchers, when they targeted blacks and others these fundies don’t like, even into the early 80s. See the Greensboro Massacre.

    *This* organization purports to be moral? If the Southern Baptist Convention is not immoral, then nothing is immoral.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    1944 to 1952, my years in Catholic grade school, the nuns taught the soul enters the newborn, as it takes its first breath. Through 1972, national Catholic and Protestant weekly newspapers wrote articles saying the same thing. Today, both the nuns and the newspapers say something different. The nuns can be excused, for they’re not supposed to have the experience of birthing a baby. The newspapers may also be excused, as I have come to know all media are ignorant of history and make up what they write, as fast as their fingers can move across the keyboard.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    Antioch – Picky, picky, picky.

  • cricket44

    So this article is celebrating Southern Baptists joining the anti-woman pro-ignorance movement?

    Wow.

  • cricket44

    “pre-born women”

    No such thing. My God, did you type that with a straight face? Get thee to a biology book!

  • Joel Hardman

    So what actually changed the mind of evangelicals? Did they gain some greater understanding of human anatomy?

  • DigitalQuaker

    Perhaps a deeper, or different, understanding of scripture, and how it speaks to the situations that are present in cases of potential abortions.

  • DigitalQuaker

    Perhaps a deeper, or different, understanding of scripture, and how it speaks to the situations that are present in cases of potential abortions.

  • DigitalQuaker

    Speaking of ignorance…

  • DigitalQuaker

    Well, since both of those groups are comprised of people, including women, I’m not sure what you point is.
    People change. Peoples understandings of scripture changes. We all seek to know truth, within the circumstance of our existance, which contiues to change and evolve as we live. However, for most people the belief that God is the moral authority that guides (or should guide) our actions and our laws, the challenge is that our understanding of “his” unchanging covenant, does change, hopefully to become closer a more complete realization of God’s truth.

  • DigitalQuaker

    Hey, our elected government purports that this country is moral. Shall we break down all of the United States (which most of us are citizens of) immoral actions?

  • cricket44

    You confessing?

  • DigitalQuaker

    AntiochusIV, you’re assuming that all men are against abortion rights, and that all women are for it. That’s obviously not correct.
    The issue is far more complex and nuanced than your simplistic rational that people want to control women’s decisions.

  • DigitalQuaker

    No, identifying you as such.

  • cricket44

    One of us has the facts. It’s not the one who is against choice.

  • cricket44

    What this article says is that Southern Baptists used to acknowledge women as people with rights and now they consider them incubators. Got it.

  • cricket44

    Scott, are you still trying to be relevant? Poor deluded thing.

  • cricket44

    “have the choice to keep your pants on.”

    You do have that choice, Scott, and the world is grateful to you for making it. Other than that, your post is the usual nonsense blather.

  • cricket44

    I see your confusion…why are you bringing up murder in a discussion about abortion? Some research might be a good thing for you to try.

  • cricket44

    Yep, you’re still confused. Feel better soon!

  • Secular1

    Sin VA, am i reading you right Baptist were racists first and then the fairy tale believers before? Sin, a bit of a new,s racism was a consequence of fairy tale believing only. So is their anti-choice stand too. All the evils of the world are based on the stupid fairy tales you guys believe in.

  • AntiochusIV

    Read “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”. The author, an evangelical himself, points out that there is no evangelical mind. Thus, there is nothing to change. Their empty heads are just filled with whatever they hear their preacher ranting and raving about.

  • AntiochusIV

    By the way, DigitalQuaker – no one really believes that you are a Quaker. Stop poisoning the good name that Quakers have acquired through centuries of good work like opposition to slavery, racism and sexism (the exact opposite of the SBC).

  • AntiochusIV

    People change, yes, and the Southern Baptists decided that sexism and anti-gay bigotry was more politically feasible than the racism they had preached since their founding.

  • AntiochusIV

    The country is not the government is not the people, though I don’t think a pretend Quaker would understand.

  • AntiochusIV

    DigitalFaker, women can be sexist too. Go to a country that practices genital mutilation on girls, and you’ll see that women are strong advocates. The same is true for female opponents of abortion.

  • Secular1

    Hello AntiochusIV, I know Mr Sin very well, on this blog. I know he was using the racism argument because it suits his purpose, rather deceptively and shamelessly. I wanted to see if he would reiterate it

  • RickWatcher

    AntiochsIV,
    Where are the bronze ager tribes now. Most were judged and destoryed for their evil practices. Only a couple are left, Egypt, Iran, a few others and their cup of judgement is about to flow over as is the judgement for all nations.
    Israel, God’s chosen, were even judged and dispersed for almost 2,000 years for their sin do you think God will think America is special and will spare us?

  • AntiochusIV

    Are you from the South? Yes, your fake God is only “destroying” peoples in the distant past, where no one can verify them, but gullible, clueless fool like RickWatcher will believe it, because they are ignorant and uneducated enough to believe literally anything. Anything.

  • bmontgomery1

    You know of course that half of the babies that are aborted each year are young women?

  • AntiochusIV

    Hey racist, no one was talking to you. Go back to your backwoods trailer park, ranting and raving about “mulattos” and “miscegenation”.

  • Secular1

    “As usual, Secular is reading what he wants into my posts.
    Since he has repeatedly shown his ignorance of the Bible and science”

    Really Sin? You are there always throwing this all the time. But you never can rationalize even in your mind the questions I pose, All you can come up with an accusation that I am ignorant of bible. The fact is, it is not the ignorance of bible. It is the bible that that is ignorant, stupid, superstitious, bigoted and evil.

    “most people just ignore him.” But it is quite evident you are not able ignore me. Admit it Sin teh fact is I get under your skin, by asking sharp questions, that you cannot handle. Yet your ego cannot let it go. Next time instead of just hurling accusation that I am ignorant of your reason for wet dreams – aka bible, tru to put on your thinking cap (if you can find one) and respond to the short comings in your beloved bible.

  • AntiochusIV

    Yeah, except that fetuses are not actually “babies”.

  • kathmihok

    OK, then. Religion aside… Let’s talk science and truth… Does a human fetus contain human DNA or not?? Not disputable. It’s DNA is not banana DNA or kangaroo DNA. That being the case, logic dictates that a human fetus is human. Can’t honestly call it anything else. So where is the problem?? Abortion is therefore KILLING A HUMAN. Why can’t so many face the truth?? Too inconvenient to accept responsibility for poor choices???

  • aubiecat

    Scott, have you done any research into the personhood movement? You have a good start there, but the pro-abortion/pro-choice movement would argue that the fetus is a part of the mother’s body, so if you don’t have any problems with her having her appendix out, you shouldn’t have any problems with her having her fetus out either. They argue that since the fetus can’t survive on its own, it is not a separate life. It may be tangential, but many fear that they will soon take that argument and apply it to a 1-month-old or a 6-month-old. It can’t survive on its own, therefore it isn’t a person yet.
    However, there are very few actual scientists in the field of human biology who would even bother with this argument; it is scientifically clear that the zygote, the embryo, and the fetus are all a separate human being from the mother. The argument is really only made in places like this and Congress, where people who don’t really know anything are free to say whatever they want.

    I would ask Cricket if he has done any research. If you go read about the medical procedures of abortion, look at pictures of the “product of pregnancy” as they call it at Planned Parenthood, you will see just how clear it is that it is a tiny human being that is being destroyed.

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