As more state legislatures vote on banning abortion once embryonic cardiac activity is detected, the warfare between supporters and opponents of abortion rights is again escalating. And the stakes are high. To many opponents who consider abortion to be murder, every inching step toward criminalization is progress toward reducing the abortion rate and saving babies. (Other abortion critics disagree that outlawing it is the best strategy; many contend measures such as better health care, contraceptive access, and poverty reduction will do more to decrease abortions.) To supporters convinced that abortion is a common practice occurring throughout history and should be safely accessible rather than self-induced or otherwise perilous, banning it usurps the right to an autonomous medical choice and results in injury and death for many women. Failed efforts at dialogue to ease this clash have repeatedly shown the extreme dissonance between these positions.
Evangelical Protestants, though today some of the most fervent foes of abortion and supporters of criminalization, once leaned in other directions and permitted a more expansive range of views. Many observed that their source of divine authority, the Bible, did not speak explicitly about abortion and concluded that different Christian views were conceivable. In the late 1960s, various evangelical leaders argued that abortion was morally sinful in some circumstances but acceptable in others. Others, citing the Protestant commitment to “the priesthood of all believers,” considered this a grave but private matter to be settled prayerfully between oneself and God. Ninety percent of Texas Baptists surveyed in 1969 felt their state’s abortion law should be loosened. In 1971, Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders passed a resolution entreating members to work for abortion’s legalization under conditions of “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,” the last a capacious category offering wide latitude.
A typical Gallup poll released in August 1972—five months before the Supreme Court handed down its 7-2 ruling in Roe v. Wade—reported, “Two out of three Americans think abortion should be a matter for decision solely between a woman and her physician.” A “record high” 64 percent of Americans supported “full liberalization of abortion laws,” including a majority of ordinary Catholics surveyed (56 percent). Both political parties at that time contained strong support for the expansion of safe and legal abortion services to American women. Where evangelical opposition to abortion existed, it was often part of progressive social justice critiques of U.S.-sponsored violence in the Vietnam War or the perpetuation of capital punishment, as it was for many Catholics.
After Roe’s 1973 affirmation that women had a constitutional right to abortion throughout the first two trimesters of pregnancy prior to fetal viability, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, W.A. Criswell, praised the court’s decision and publicly stated his belief that abortion was not murder and that “what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” The following year, the SBC reaffirmed its 1971 resolution, calling it “a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder.” In 1976, while noting that it rejected “any indiscriminate attitude toward abortion,” the SBC resolved, “we also affirm our conviction about the limited role of government in dealing with matters relating to abortion, and support the right of expectant mothers to the full range of medical services and personal counseling for the preservation of life and health.”
Southern Baptist leadership formally retained this middle ground until, after the successful fundamentalist takeover of the denomination, a dramatically dissimilar 1980 resolution reversed course. It dropped the bits about limited government and expectant mothers’ medical rights, instead advocating for government intervention in the form of “appropriate legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother.” The official Southern Baptist position, like that of many other evangelical power brokers, hardened further from there.
In many ways, this striking shift embodies the Catholicization of the conservative Protestant understanding of abortion. But this development was driven less by the efforts of actual Catholics than by fundamentalist Protestants—who once collectively despised Catholics as ostensive theocrats—such as Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, and Beverly LaHaye. Interpretive restraint toward the Bible’s silence (which Protestants traditionally equated with God’s silence) on the morality of abortion met a hasty death at their hands: Schaeffer, Falwell, LaHaye, and their allies instead brandished certitude with the help of arguments and tactics acquired from conservative Catholic activists and political operatives such as Paul Weyrich and Phyllis Schlafly. The anti-Catholicism of the old Christian right swiftly thawed, thanks to abortion and the matrix of related gender and sexuality credos in which Protestant and Catholic leaders found common cause, from complementarian theology, practical enactments of female submission to male authority, and prohibition of women from high church authority to injunctions against same-sex love and marriage.
Today, the vast majority of conservative evangelicals basically accept the Roman Catholic anti-abortion claims shaped over centuries by men debating the finer points of conception, contraception, and the origins of life eventually to conclude that abortion is murder from the moment the egg and sperm unite. In this view, the fertilized embryo is fully human and has the same right to life as any fully developed person; and if an embryo’s right actually trumps that of the person in whose womb it gestates, that is because—proponents believe—the right to life itself is more fundamental than a “right” to an abortion, perceived to be mere convenience: a woman’s selfish desire to have sex without consequences and not have to bear a child. This stance is often conveyed viciously: witness the Catholic scholar who, though a frequent lecturer calling for more love and civility in public debate, recently tweeted derisively at presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, “[F]or an ambitious politician who associates himself with Christianity to say it’s OK to suggest that God smiles on the division of a child into a collection of severed body parts at the hands of an abortionist, has lost all claim to be other than a hypocrite.” There are thoughtful ethical discussions to be had of these matters, including the accountability of men for lives conceived; but many Christian spokespeople for the unborn tend to exude the smug self-certainty of the old fundamentalists instead of the humility both Catholics and Protestants claim as a core Christian virtue.
And the certitude can cut both ways. On the pro-choice side, raising ethical questions about abortion is often seen as anathema, as if any inquiry into abortion’s potentially sad or even tragic dimensions will harshly shame women who have sought one; slogans like “Keep Your Hands Off My Body,” though not routinely as vicious as the above tweet, do not invite nuance. Frances Kissling, president of the Center for Health, Ethics and Social Policy and the former longtime head of Catholics for Choice, is one of the few pro-choice leaders willing to grapple with what she calls “the moral status of the fetus” and to engage publicly with pro-life thinkers about the deep values animating their respective positions. Some of her sister pro-choice leaders have looked at her warily for speaking about the ethical complexity of some situations involved in ending a pregnancy as well as about efforts to reduce abortions; but the refusal to have these conversations, she contends, “hardens people’s sense of absolutism,” ignores the experiences of some women who may be mournful about an abortion without doubting it’s the right choice for them, and leaves many feeling orphaned between hardline, no-compromise positions at both ends of the spectrum. Kira Schlesinger, an Episcopal priest and author of Pro-Choice and Christian, agrees, writing, “What about those of us in the middle who, as Christians, value the gift of life but believe there is a difference between a just-fertilized egg and a fetus at thirty or forty weeks’ gestation? What about those of us who see the harmful impact of abortion restrictions on those already living on a razor’s edge, trying to make ends meet, and so support a woman’s access to abortion because of our Christian values of caring for the most vulnerable, not in spite of them? … We assert that we can be faithful Christians and affirm a woman’s right to choose while longing and working for a world in which fewer women find abortion to be the best option.”
If a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll is accurate, three-quarters of Americans—77 percent of those surveyed—want the Supreme Court to uphold its Roe decision, though many want fewer restrictions on abortion access than Roe allowed while others want more, such as 24-hour waiting periods or limiting abortion to the first trimester of pregnancy. As late as this June, only 9 percent said abortion should not be permitted under any circumstances. More than half disagreed with the idea that life begins at conception. Overall, 57 percent identified themselves as “pro-choice” and 35 percent as “pro-life.” Notably, a lower percentage of Republican men considered themselves “pro-life” (59 percent) than Republican women (68 percent), and over half of Republican men said they would support a law that allowed abortion at any point during pregnancy in cases of incest or rape. But beyond disagreeing even within their own camps about which regulations they prefer or would support, this and previous polls display a much broader range of American attitudes than are reflected by the state legislatures pushing six-week abortion bans or so-called “heartbeat” bills (a clear misnomer).
Many subtle and principled religious viewpoints, some leaning toward and others leaning away from further regulation of abortion, are not represented in today’s public debate. People who lean toward greater reproductive freedom, including many progressive Christians, haven’t always clearly articulated the fullest scope of ethical arguments, while those who lean toward greater restrictions have sometimes—possibly often—been publicly timid about the intricacy of their views or their policy preferences, or any misgivings they may feel about joining the ranks of the twenty-six countries that currently outlaw all abortions. If anyone’s conscience is gnawing at him or her to speak up with conviction, now would surely be a very good time to do so.
Marie Griffith is the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the editor of Religion & Politics. Her latest book is Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. Follow her @RMarieGriffith.