Once essentially pro-choice, the Southern Baptist Convention today stands firmly with pro-life evangelicals and Catholics on sanctity-of-life issues, including opposition to mandated coverage of contraceptives in the Affordable Care Act.
Southern Baptist attorney Linda Coffee wrote a series of legal proceedings that led to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 establishing a woman’s right to abortion.
“I tend to feel the state should be neutral on abortion because it should never appear either to sanction an abortion or to interfere improperly with a doctor-patient relationship,” Coffee, a member of Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, told Baptist Press. “But I would have little personal sympathy for use of abortion as a contraceptive or to avoid personal responsibility.”
‘No official position’
“There is no official Southern Baptist position on abortion, or any other such question,” Barry Garrett, head of the Washington bureau of Baptist Press, wrote in a news analysis dated Jan. 31, 1973. “Among 12 million Southern Baptists, there are probably 12 million different opinions.”
James Wood, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in the early 1970s, opposed legislative attempts by Congress to overturn the Supreme Court decision, citing “the separation of church and state and free exercise of religion on the part of those who find these medical services completely harmonious with their religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., leased space to an abortion clinic until controversy prompted the congregation to cancel the arrangement.
“This is a basic watershed between Protestant and Catholic theology on two questions,” Pastor Wayne Dehoney told Baptist Press in a story dated May 5, 1976, “the morality of birth control, of which abortion is another form, and the question of when life begins.”
Dehoney, a Baptist statesman who served as SBC president 1964-66 and died in 2007, said he “didn’t anticipate the deep feelings on the matter.”
Conception vs first breath
“Protestant theology generally takes Genesis 2:7 as a statement that the soul is formed at breath, not with conception,” Dehoney said. “However, as Baptists believe in the priesthood of every believer to search the Scriptures, find truth and make moral decisions for themselves, we have differing views on the matter of birth control and the question of when life begins.”
In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution supporting legislation to “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.”
A resolution in 1974 affirmed that stance as “a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder.”
That consensus started to shift, however, with the “conservative resurgence” launched in 1979 to correct a perceived liberal drift in the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics. By 1980, the exclusions from banning abortion narrowed to saving the life of the mother.
A 1984 resolution in Kansas City called for a constitutional amendment banning abortion and production of literature “to take a clear and strong stand against abortion, and to inform and motivate our members to action to eliminate abortion on demand.”
Sanctity of Life Sunday
The convention added a Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January, to the denomination’s calendar in 1985.
In 2000, the Baptist Faith & Message was amended to add, “We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.”
The Southern Baptist owners of Hobby Lobby cite that amendment as their basis for refusing to pay for coverage of contraceptive methods they believe can cause an abortion in a case scheduled for argument before the U.S. Supreme Court March 25 challenging Obamacare.
Roman Catholic opposition to the contraceptive mandate is rooted in “natural law,” the idea that the purpose of sex is procreation and any attempt to prevent conception by unnatural means violates the will of God.
“Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented,” Pope Pius XI quoted St. Augustine in an encyclical on Christian marriage in 1930. “Onan, the son of Judah, did this, and the Lord killed him for it.”
The birth-control pill
The FDA approved the pill for in 1960, prompting calls for review of the Catholic position.
In 1963, Pope John XXIII established a commission of six European nontheologians to study questions of birth control and population. John died the same year and was succeeded by Pope Paul VI, who released the encyclical Humanae Vitae, or “Of Human Life,” in 1968.
Despite concerns such as the population explosion and the changing role of women in society, the pope reaffirmed “that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”
If for any reason Catholic couples want to space out their children, Paul said “it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier.”
Many Catholics choose to ignore Church teaching on contraceptives. The Guttmacher Institute reported in 2011 that just 2 percent of Catholic women rely on natural family planning.
That raises questions about how realistic it is for Southern Baptist leaders like seminary president Al Mohler to call for deeper theological reflection about birth control among evangelicals.
“Conservative Protestants have adopted Catholic positions on other sex-related issues,” Jacob Lupfer, a Ph.D. candidate in government at Georgetown University, wrote in an ABPnews/Herald commentary last fall.
“Perhaps it was only a matter of time until evangelical elites began pushing back against birth control. If they think they can convince the rank and file, they should take a good, hard look at the Catholic hierarchy’s absolute failure on that score.”