I am pro-life. My heart is grieved when I think about the hundreds of thousands of lives cut short just last year. I think Southern Baptists ought to be working hard to reduce the number of abortions in this country.
After studying the history of the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance on abortion, I have started to wonder about our tactics. We need to change our strategy in order to save lives.
As a recent article from The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission points out, the SBC has not always held the view on abortion it holds today. It always has been, broadly speaking, pro-life—excepting, of course, the early position on slavery. Nevertheless, the SBC has not always spoken with one accord on the issue of abortion.
Today, the majority of Southern Baptists are strong opponents of abortion. In fact, a Religious Landscape Study conducted in 2014 by the Pew Research Center, found nearly 70 percent of Southern Baptists think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
This has not always been the case.
The SBC’s middle position on abortion
Consider the Resolution on Abortion passed by the SBC in 1971:
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.
The SBC sought a middle position between those who “advocate that there be no abortion legislation” and those who “advocate no legal abortion.”
On the one hand, they sought to pursue laws that would protect the vulnerable lives of the unborn, out of concern for the sanctity of life. On the other hand, they sought to pursue laws that would protect the vulnerable lives of mothers, out of concern for the sanctity of life.
They were especially concerned about those mothers who were victims of trauma or faced difficult circumstances, which motivated them to allow for the possibility of abortion in cases of “rape, incest … [and] the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
Those Southern Baptists in 1971 did not think it would be “pro-life” to use legal means to ensure vulnerable women could not have access to abortions. Their resolution was passed prior to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 and was reaffirmed in 1974 and 1976—after the Roe v. Wade decision.
SBC question about Roe v. Wade
Notice the initial response to that decision from the SBC. On Jan. 31, 1973, Baptist Press—the SBC news service—published a “News Analysis” by W. Barry Garrett. The analysis opens with the following line:
“The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision that overturned a Texas law which denied a woman the right of abortion except to save her life, has advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.”
This statement stands in stark contrast to the resolution passed by the SBC in Birmingham last year.
Garrett stated, on behalf of the SBC, that Roe v. Wade “advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.” Furthermore, he ends the analysis by repeating the same line.
Writing prophetically, Garrett anticipated some of the questions Southern Baptists were going to ask after the Supreme Court decision. One of these questions is instructive because it is the same question Southern Baptists are asking today.
Garrett asked, “Was this a … ‘liberal’ Supreme Court that rendered the decision?”
This question is relevant for us to consider in 2020 in light of the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion. Garrett asked the question because he knew some Southern Baptists would be inclined to think they would be able to overturn Roe v. Wade if they could elect a conservative president who would appoint conservative judges to the nation’s highest court.
This idea has been prominent within the SBC ever since. In fact, The Washington Post reported 1 in 4 Republicans who voted for Trump in 2016 cited the Supreme Court as the primary reason for their decision.
Back in 1973, Garrett pointed out the court that issued Roe v. Wade was not a liberal court, and the ruling was 7-2. He was showing Southern Baptists a more conservative court would not solve the problem.
The last 47 years have proved Garrett right, as did the recent Supreme Court decision.
Not a good reason to vote
Voting for a conservative president who promises to appoint conservative judges will not have an impact on the number of abortions in this country. This was true in 1973. This was true in 2016. Most importantly, it is true in 2020. In fact, history shows abortion rates have dropped more significantly under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents.
The abortion issue is not a good reason to vote for Donald Trump, though other reasons may be.
So, how should Southern Baptists work to reduce the number of abortions in this country?
In the words of the 1976 SBC Resolution on Abortion: “We call on Southern Baptists and all citizens of the nation to work to change those attitudes and conditions which encourage many people to turn to abortion as a means of birth control.”
This means we should get out there and start fighting for vulnerable women.
Jared Brandt is a philosophy professor and amateur salsa maker. He and his wife, Courtney, live in Arlington, Texas, have two small children and are expecting to welcome a foster child into their home this summer. The views expressed are those solely of the author.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The claim about abortion rates under Republican presidents has been corrected to clarify the differences between abortion rates under Democrat and Republican presidents.