Why Abortion Divides American Protestants

Why Abortion Divides American Protestants January 24, 2023

This week, the most controversial Supreme Court decision of modern times, Roe v. Wade, reached its fiftieth anniversary. Even though the Supreme Court rescinded the decision last year, the divisions that Roe made evident are still very much with us. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of Protestant Christianity, where some denominations endorse abortion rights and others denounce abortion as “murder.”

First Baptist Church, Providence, Rhode Island (Wikipedia)

Perhaps we can observe this fiftieth anniversary of Roe by asking why American churches divided over abortion and what these divisions really mean. At a time when some American Christians are suggesting that it’s time for a theological reexamination of abortion, perhaps it would be useful to ask why the various theological divisions over abortion within American Protestantism developed in the first place.

These divisions were not very evident before Roe. While theologically conservative Protestants were generally more likely than liberal Protestants to oppose abortion, there were plenty of exceptions.

For instance, the first president of Americans United for Life – which was founded in 1971 – was the Unitarian George Huntston Williams, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. The year in which Williams became the founding president of Americans United for Life was the same year in which the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging Southern Baptists “to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

But Roe clarified for some Christians the issues that were at stake in the abortion debate, and it set in motion a process that further exacerbated the divisions between American ecumenical Protestants and theological conservatives on the issue.


Christians and the Abortion Debate before Roe

The Christian church had a long history of opposing abortion. The opposition was not always perfectly consistent, and for several centuries many theologians in the West who were influenced by Aristotle suggested that ensoulment might occur well after conception (but well before birth), but neither the Eastern nor Western church ever suggested that human life began at birth or that abortion was licit. As early as the second-century Didache, Christians equated abortion with infanticide, a view that was echoed in other early Christian writings. And at first, the Protestant Reformation did not signal a break with this thinking. John Calvin, for instance, explicitly condemned the destruction of fetal life.

Protestant ministers in the United States said very little about abortion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and when they did begin speaking out on the subject in the mid-twentieth century, they struggled to find a consistent position on the issue. In the 1930s, the few Protestant denominations that expressed a view on abortion (such as the Anglican Communion) expressed their opposition to it. But in the early 1970s, most of the major ecumenical or mainline Protestant denominations endorsed abortion rights.


Liberal Protestant Views on Abortion

Most liberal Protestants of the 1970s recognized that abortion could be morally problematic. But in the end, their belief in the Social Gospel and the social value of birth control, their emphasis on the right of the individual person to make moral decisions without coercion, and their growing interest in women’s rights and civil rights prompted them to endorse abortion legalization.

As Melissa Wilde’s Birth Control Battles demonstrates, Protestant endorsement of birth control campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s was very closely correlated with the Social Gospel. Denominations that embraced the Social Gospel endorsed birth control campaigns as a way to reduce poverty and improve society; those that rejected the Social Gospel were also likely to eschew birth control.

The same thing was true with abortion in the early 1970s. Denominations that saw both sin and salvation in social terms were likely to minimize any sin that might be associated with individual pregnancy termination and instead focus on the social benefits of abortion legalization. It would reduce unnecessary suffering and maternal death, and it would be an act of compassion for women who were marginalized.

In the 1960s and 1970s, liberal Protestant denominations tended to view social evils in morally absolute terms, but individual moral decisions as a relativistic matter. Social evils such as racism, unjust wars, and economic inequities had to be confronted. But when it came to individual actions, they emphasized the right (and responsibility) of each person to engage in personal moral decision-making guided by the “law of love.” Abortion was a matter for individual decision-making, liberal Protestants argued in the late 1960s and 1970s. There might be good reasons for a woman to decide to keep her unwanted pregnancy because of a conviction about the ”sanctity of life.” But the Christian Century and other liberal Protestant publications insisted that neither the law nor the church could force this choice on her.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade reflected this liberal Protestant respect for individual conscience rights. Roe acknowledged the moral weight of the abortion decision, but said that until the point of viability, the pregnant woman’s right to determine the matter of abortion for herself superseded all other interests. It was an intensely individual approach to moral decision-making, and it reflected liberal Protestant views at the time.

Liberal Protestants also believed that abortion restrictions exacerbated gender inequities – which meant that the advancement of women’s rights required legalized, accessible abortion.

In the 21st century, liberal Protestants increasingly became convinced that abortion restrictions especially harmed the poor and people of color. And with this conviction came a renewed effort to defend abortion rights. While liberal Protestant pronouncements on abortion in the early 1970s were likely to emphasize individual freedom of choice, liberal Protestant discussions of abortion today are much more likely to focus on issues of equity, poverty, and racial justice.

But this approach to abortion raised some uncomfortable questions for some liberal Protestants. It was not entirely clear from liberal Protestant theology why the fetus was not a person. And if it were a person, one could argue that liberal Protestants who cared about social justice and protection of the marginalized had a duty to defend fetal rights. This was why in the late 1960s and early 1970s several liberal Protestant professors and clergy, including the Episcopal priest Charles Carroll, the Princeton ethics professor Paul Ramsey (a Methodist), and the Harvard Divinity School professor George Huntston Williams, endorsed the pro-life cause. Some of them connected a defense of fetal life with opposition to the Vietnam War or a defense of civil rights for African Americans, because they thought that human life must be protected at every stage of life – including the fetal stage.

But most liberal Protestants resolved this moral tension by focusing on the social harm to women and minorities that resulted from restrictive abortion laws. They may not have been willing to say that abortion was perfectly moral, but when the debate was not centered on abortion’s morality but rather on the question of whether it should remain legal and accessible, they could more-or-less unite around the assertion that restrictive abortion laws harmed women, people of color, and the poor, and that abortion should therefore remain legally protected.


Evangelical Protestant Views on Abortion

Evangelical Protestants approached abortion from a very different vantage point – though the fact that they would do so was not immediately obvious in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When abortion policy first became a matter of public debate in the late 1960s, evangelicals lacked a clear theological consensus on abortion.

This was largely because evangelicals had just recently rethought their position on birth control. In the 1930s and 1940s, no evangelical Protestant denomination had followed ecumenical Protestants in endorsing birth control, and several conservative Protestant periodicals expressed opposition to the liberal Protestant birth control campaign. But at the beginning of the 1960s, national evangelical magazines began publishing articles that suggested that Christian married couples could use birth control (and even the birth control pill) without sin.

Compared to liberal Protestants, it was a cautious endorsement. Evangelical magazines continued to insist that God’s expectation for most couples was for them to have children. Unlike liberal Protestants, evangelicals remained highly skeptical of the population control movement, and they showed little enthusiasm for the campaign to distribute birth control pills internationally as part of global poverty reduction or population control efforts. They thought that birth control should never be used by unmarried people to facilitate out-of-wedlock sex. But Christian married couples who wanted to have children at some point could legitimately use contraception to delay childbearing or limit the number of children they had. This stance, while remarkably conservative by liberal Protestant standards, was nevertheless an innovation for mid-twentieth-century American evangelicals.

Evangelicals’ shift in attitudes toward contraception shaped their reaction to the abortion debate. While evangelical attitudes toward abortion varied in the late 1960s, most evangelical magazines approached the issue with caution. As with contraception, many evangelicals thought that abortion could be justified in exceptional circumstances. Even Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and (in 1973) the National Association of Evangelicals thought that abortion was justified in cases of rape and incest. And some evangelicals were willing to go a bit further.

In the late 1960s, when abortion policy debates focused on limited liberalization proposals that would modify existing abortion laws to permit pregnancy termination in cases of dangers to a woman’s health or suspected fetal deformity, evangelical ethicists and national evangelical magazines were cautiously supportive.

But after 1970, when several states passed the first American laws to legalize elective abortion, Christianity Today turned sharply against abortion, calling it “murder.” Eternity magazine likewise published strong denunciations of abortion. And while significant numbers of evangelicals continued for a short time to hope that they could find a middle ground on abortion (as the Southern Baptist Convention did in 1971 when it passed a resolution advocating modest abortion law liberalization as an alternative to the idea of “making the decision a purely private matter between a woman and her doctor”), the idea that evangelicals should oppose abortion in most circumstances quickly gained ground.

When Roe v. Wade was issued, the National Association of Evangelicals responded with a scathing denunciation: “We deplore, in the strongest possible terms, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court which has made it legal to terminate a pregnancy for no better reason than personal convenience or sociological considerations.” Christianity Today said that it was obvious from the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, that “the American state no longer supports, in any meaningful sense, the laws of God.”

But evangelicals did not immediately move to make abortion policy a political litmus test. Nor did they treat abortion as the most urgent moral or political issue of their time. Instead, for most of the 1970s, they considered abortion part of a larger constellation of moral evils centering on the sexual revolution and the feminist movement.

It was Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? (and, after that, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?) that moved many evangelicals from a position of moderate concern about abortion to focused outrage.

Schaeffer portrayed Roe v. Wade as the symbol of the Supreme Court’s abandonment of moral absolutes. Drawing on a theology of abortion that he largely borrowed from Catholic pro-life thinkers, he argued that abortion was only the opening wedge in moral relativists’ devaluation of human life, and that legalized abortion would soon lead to legalized infanticide and euthanasia.

This critique resonated with evangelicals because it touched on many of their concerns about moral decline in America, and it connected the sexual revolution with both the secularization of American institutions and cultural liberalism. In their view, being “pro-choice” meant abandoning the moral laws of God as absolute standards. It meant abandoning a fixed understanding of the meaning of the American Constitution. It meant accepting the premises of the sexual revolution and feminism. And it meant devaluing human life and opening the floodgates to a practice that would probably soon lead to the deaths of other groups that were considered marginal or unnecessary.

The minority of evangelicals who questioned this view wondered whether the lack of any clear biblical prohibitions on abortion (or clear statements that human life began at conception) should give evangelicals pause before they joined the pro-life campaign.

But for most evangelicals, the lack of a clear Bible verse condemning abortion didn’t matter, because it was clear that abortion was associated with a whole host of evils: premarital sex, population control, secularism, moral relativism, and second-wave feminism, to name a few. Evangelicals had never really been pro-choice, but when they became full converts to the pro-life cause, they made their campaign against abortion part of a larger political program to turn back the tide of the sexual revolution, the blurring of traditional gender roles, and the secularization of American government and culture.

Because the evangelical pro-life campaign combined a social justice rationale (saving the lives of a marginalized group) with a culturally conservative political program, it appealed to evangelicals on both the left and the right. Ron Sider, the progressive evangelical who wrote Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, endorsed the movement, as did cultural conservatives such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell. Over time, though, the association of evangelical pro-life politics with a conservative Republican political agenda alienated Black Protestants who in the late 1970s had been some of the strongest Protestant Christian supporters of the pro-life cause.

So sweeping was the conversion of white evangelicals to pro-life ideology that it is hard to imagine a time when they had wavered on abortion. And indeed, there probably was never any real chance that a majority of evangelicals would endorse pro-choice ideology, which even in its religious guise was based on theological assumptions about individual moral autonomy that few evangelicals shared. But the evangelical decision to make pro-life ideology the movement’s signature moral and political cause of the late 20th century was based on more than the theology of abortion; it depended instead on the conviction that Roe v. Wade symbolized all of the culturally liberal forces they opposed and that overturning the decision was imperative for anyone who wanted to save human lives and turn back the tide of moral relativism, secularization, and sexual licentiousness in American culture.


The Theology of Abortion in a Post-Roe America

Now that Roe is no more and the particular cultural moment that produced the evangelical pro-life movement is long past, are the pro-life convictions that motivated evangelicals still relevant? Were the evangelical pro-lifers of the late 20th century right to abortion as the premier moral evil of their time? Or did their conversion to the pro-life cause distort evangelical theology?

Who was closer to biblical truth or the church’s historic position – the evangelicals of the late 1960s who cautiously allowed for abortion in some circumstances or the evangelicals of the late 1970s and 1980s who strongly denounced it? Or were the liberal Protestants who endorsed the pro-choice cause in the name of women’s rights, liberty of conscience, and the rights of the poor and marginalized closest to the gospel truth?

The issue is complicated because each group of Protestant Christians in this debate championed some version of a historic Christian principle. The American evangelicals of the late 1960s can be commended for their caution in taking an absolutist stand on an issue about which the Bible does not speak directly. But in dismissing the church’s historic stand against abortion, the evangelicals of that era (who had just abandoned the church’s historic stand against contraception) probably deprived themselves of some of the theological resources that would have helped them interpret the biblical witness on the subject of unborn human life.

The liberal Protestants who appealed to principles of equity, social justice, and concerns for the marginalized were correct in thinking that these biblical concerns had a bearing on the abortion debate. If white evangelicals had paid greater attention to these concerns in the late 20th century, perhaps they would not have alienated so many of the Black Protestants and progressive Christians who shared their opposition to abortion. But liberal Protestants’ lack of interest in grounding their approach to abortion in external authority stemming from divine revelation separated their abortion stance from those of other Christians who wanted a greater continuity with historic Christian orthodoxy and made their approach unacceptable to most evangelicals.

The pro-life activism of many evangelicals in the late 20th century brought evangelicalism into closer alignment with the views of Christians outside of the evangelical tradition (especially Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) who maintained the church’s historic defense of the unborn. But at the same time, it connected the church’s witness against abortion with an American conservative political program that was necessarily so ecumenical or culturally transcendent.

For those who see the pitfalls of the conservative political program that pro-life evangelicals embraced in the name of fighting abortion, it might be tempting to abandon evangelical pro-life theology as well. But evangelical pro-life theology is actually based on a historic Christian witness that long predates American evangelical politics. Many of the evangelicals who embraced the pro-life cause in the 1970s may have been motivated in part by some version of Christian nationalism or culturally conservative politics, but in the process, they stumbled onto an aspect of historic Christian truth that brought them into closer alliance with Christians in other traditions.

For those who care about historic orthodox Christianity and who believe in an external objective moral standard that is based on God’s revelation, the call to protect human life both before and after birth still resonates. Figuring out how to apply this historic Christian teaching in any particular cultural context can be challenging, and I’m not convinced that the evangelicals of the late 1970s and 1980s necessarily got it right when they tried to turn this moral standard into an American political cause. But I do think that they were right in thinking that the Catholic position on the issue was more closely aligned with biblical theological precepts than pro-choice ideology was.

Perhaps now, fifty years after Roe, we can build on that foundation by exploring the many ways in which the Christian theology of human life might be even deeper and richer than the evangelicals of the 1970s imagined. And I also anticipate that the Christian resources we’ll need for that continued exploration will not be exclusively evangelical or Protestant. Even if Protestants will continue to be divided on abortion for the foreseeable future, perhaps the Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians who believe that there is a theological imperative to defend the value of unborn human life can find resources in their shared Christian tradition for an ecumenical and yet deeply Christian approach to the preservation of unborn human life.

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