When Southern Baptists Were Pro-Life
Southern Baptists used to be pro-life. Not anymore.
In June of 2021, the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Nashville. The main issue of many of the “messengers” who came to Nashville was the potential for a “takeover” of the denomination by an ultra-conservative faction. Their hopes to install a reactionary President of the convention were stymied and their effort to take over the nation’s largest Protestant denomination was stymied- for now.
While one effort by the ultra-conservatives failed, another effort passed. Among the many resolutions passed at the meeting was one called, “On Abolishing Abortion.” The gist of the resolution was pretty straightforward: “immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise.”
The resolution came forward with nine co-authors-all men. The text of the resolution was as uncompromising as it billed itself. “we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion because it challenges God’s Lordship over the heart and the conscience, and rejects His call to repent of sin completely and immediately,” reads one sentence. “We affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law,” says another. The message was clear, abortion is murder, a grave sin against God. Because it was such a grave sin, there can be no exceptions- no abortions for rape or incest and definitely no abortions if the mother’s life is endangered. How can there be if abortion is considered as one person described it, child sacrifice?
If you look at the resolution, you might notice that something is missing from the resolution: women. Leave aside that all of the co-sponsors were men, there was no talk about helping women who find themselves in such predicaments. For those not familiar with the pro-life movement, you might think this is par for the course. Of course they didn’t include women, because that’s what anti-abortion groups are all about. But that’s not true. There has been voices within the prolife movement that urge compassion for women, going as far as providing them with support when they choose to have their baby and even campaigning for more support from governments in the form of maternity leave or health care access. Leaders like Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren urge for more help for women in crisis pregnancies.
But those voices of compassion are being drowned out by more strident (usually male voices) who urge no tenderheartedness whatsoever. A candidate for President of the SBC is asking that the interim head of their public policy arm be removed for signing on to a letter urging compassion for women who have had abortions. This was a letter sponsored by the National Right to Life asking legislators to not victimize women in their move to make abortion illegal.
But Tom Ascol, the ultra-conservative pastor running for SBC president was having none of it. “The SBC has a rogue entity in the @ERLC (Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission), Ascol said in a tweet. “The messengers spoke loudly & clearly about our commitment to abolish abortion & see equal protection under the law for preborn children. The ERLC has defied the will of the churches who own it.”
This is where Southern Baptists are when it comes to abortion. Women seem to have no voice and must bear the child even if it means the mother will die. Unlike pro-lifers such as Harrison Warren, there is no talk of how to help mothers once they give birth.
But this hardline stance hasn’t always been the policy of the Southern Baptist Convention. There was a time when the SBC allowed for abortion in certain circumstances. At the 1971 meeting in St. Louis the convention passed the following resolution:
WHEREAS, Christians in the American society today are faced with difficult decisions about abortion; and
WHEREAS, Some advocate that there be no abortion legislation, thus making the decision a purely private matter between a woman and her doctor; and
WHEREAS, Others advocate no legal abortion, or would permit abortion only if the life of the mother is threatened;
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, that this Convention express the belief that society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life, in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon 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.
Three years later and one year after Roe v. Wade the SBC passed the following:
WHEREAS, Southern Baptists have historically held a high view of the sanctity of human life, and
WHEREAS, The messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis in 1971 adopted overwhelmingly a resolution on abortion, and
WHEREAS, That resolution reflected a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder, and
WHEREAS, That resolution dealt responsibly from a Christian perspective with complexities of abortion problems in contemporary society;
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, that we reaffirm the resolution on the subject adopted by the messengers to the St. Louis Southern Baptist Convention meeting in 1971, and
Be it further RESOLVED, that we continue to seek God's guidance through prayer and study in order to bring about solutions to continuing abortion problems in our society.
Both of these resolutions were considered pro-choice by both conservatives and liberals. But let’s look at another resolution passed by another denomination in the same year. The United Church of Christ passed its resolution at the Eighth General Synod meeting in Grand Rapids, MI in 1971. What passed was rather lengthy so I’m just sharing key portions.
The 1971 SBC resolution used words like the “sanctity of life,” hardly a pro-choice term. They do make provisions for abortion, but in limited circumstances: rape, incest and the health of the mother. The 1974 resolution talks about seeking a middle ground between abortion-on-demand and abortion as murder. They again used the phrase “sanctity of human life” and they affirmed the same limits on abortion.
Now, let’s look at the United Church of Christ 1971 resolution. They saw any law placing limits on abortion, even the more liberalized law in states such New York as “neither just or enforceable.” Here is the full quote:
Present laws prohibiting abortion are neither just nor enforceable. They compel women either to bear unwanted children or to seek illegal abortions regardless of the medical hazards and suffering involved. By severely limiting access to safe abortions, these laws have the effect of discriminating against the poor.
The mere liberalization of the laws has not proven to be a viable solution to the problem of illegal abortions. The liberalized laws tend to cause more rigidity and narrowness of interpretation, and, in any case, cannot cover all circumstances in which an abortion may be appropriate.
For these reasons, the Eighth General Synod of the United Church of Christ calls for the repeal of all legal prohibitions of physician performed abortions. This would take abortion out of the realm of penal law and make voluntary and medically safe abortions legally available to all women.
The United Church of Christ is calling for all prohibitions to end and to take abortion out of the sphere of law and into health care. This is a pro-choice piece of church legislation. While the 1971 and 1974 SBC resolutions might seem downright sinful to the supporters of the 2021 resolution, those resolutions weren’t calling for abortion on demand like the UCC resolution did in 1971. They wanted to steer a middle ground that would make some provisions for abortion, but took the sanctity of life seriously.
The move the Southern Baptists made on abortion isn’t from pro-choice to pro-life. It looks more pro-life with exceptions. Maybe in 1971 that was considered pro-choice, but looking at it from 2022, it seems far more pro-life in the Tish Harrison Warren tradition. The messengers in 1971 and 1974 looked at the issue with a sense of compassion; between abortion for any reason to no abortions at all. They understood it was a challenging issue and sought to make the best decision that showed care and concern. The 2021 resolution looks at the issue from a black and white perspective -using the Bible to support resolutions that to be quite honest fetishized the unborn and leaves the woman out entirely.
The decision in 2021 wasn’t pro-life. It was anti-abortion, but it was not pro-life. A half-century ago, the Southern Baptist Convention was truly pro-life and remained that way for decades. It would be nice if the SBC were pro-life again.