The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and often referred to as “a beacon of conservative Christianity,” has long expressed its opposition to abortion.
A 2014 Pew survey found that two-thirds of Southern Baptists believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. In 2021, the Convention passed a resolution declaring “unequivocally that abortion is murder” and calling for the “immediate abolition of abortion, without exception or compromise”.
But Southern Baptists have not always been opposed to abortion.
The Convention expressed support for abortion in some cases throughout the 1970s, until a more conservative wing took over in the 1980s. I was a Southern Baptist at the time, and I’m studying denomination now. I understand the position of the Abortion Convention as a reflection of the conservative beliefs of leaders about women, gender and sexuality.
From the start, many evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, viewed opposition to legal abortion as a “Catholic issue”. A 1970 poll by the Baptist Sunday School Board found that a majority of Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion in a number of cases, including when the woman’s mental or physical health was in jeopardy. danger or in case of rape or fetal malformation.
The SBC passed its first resolution on abortion two years before the Roe decision. Although the Convention never endorsed the right of a woman to have an abortion at her request for any reason, the resolution recognized the need for legislation that would allow for certain exceptions.
In fact, many Southern Baptists viewed the Roe decision as drawing a necessary line between church and state on issues of morality and state regulation. A Baptist Press article just days after the decision called it an advancement of religious freedom, human equality and justice.
The Convention upheld this resolution in 1974 after the Roe decision. A 1976 resolution condemned abortion as “a means of birth control”, but still insisted that the decision ultimately remained between a woman and her doctor.
A 1977 resolution clarified the Convention’s position, reaffirming its “firm opposition to abortion on demand”. However, it also reaffirmed the views of the Convention on the limited role of government and the right of pregnant women to medical services and counselling. This resolution was reaffirmed in 1979.
Fetus as a person
Later that year, however, as an ultra-conservative faction within the denomination gained power from more moderate leaders, things began to change. From 1980, the resolutions of the Convention took a hard turn against access to abortion. An “abortion resolution” declared “that abortion terminates the life of a developing human being” and called for legal measures “prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother”.
Another interesting change has occurred in this resolution. Instead of referring to “fetal life”, as previous resolutions did, the 1980 resolution referred to “unborn” or “pre-born” fetuses as human life or “persons”. This change in language brought a significant change in the status of the fetus. It was no longer a developing organism dependent on a woman’s body, but rather a full human being with the same status and rights as women. A 1984 resolution named a fetus “a living individual human being.”
Since then, the Convention has passed 16 other resolutions against abortion, including opposition to abortion pills, “partial-birth abortion” – an anti-choice political phrase rather than a medical term for full-term abortion later that involves the removal of the fetus through the birth canal – the inclusion of abortion in federally funded health care and the use of aborted fetal tissue in research.
Control women’s bodies
The SBC resolutions focus on the fetus, but they also exemplify Convention beliefs on gender, particularly how women and their bodies should be subordinate to men.
Beginning in 1980, resolutions removed rape, incest, or mental trauma exceptions for abortion. The only acceptable case of abortion for Southern Baptists has become “imminent death of the mother”. A position statement from 2005 made it clear: “At the moment of conception, a new being enters the universe, a human being, created in the image of God. This human being deserves our protection, regardless of the circumstances of conception.
A 1986 resolution linked abortion to sinful sexuality. Calling on parents to educate their children in a “Christian understanding” of sexuality as a way to avoid unplanned pregnancies, the resolution also opposes abortion as “unbiblical” and harmful to the mother. A 1987 resolution called for teaching abstinence in schools as “the best and only sure way to prevent crisis pregnancies.”
In 2003, a resolution on abortion co-opted the language of the women’s movement to qualify the Roe v. Wade “of an act of injustice against innocent unborn children as well as against vulnerable women in crisis of pregnancy”. The resolution went on to blame the “sex revolution” and a “lucrative abortion industry” for victimizing women. Instead, he promoted anti-choice legislation as a way “to protect women and children from abortion,” and he offered prayers, love, and advocacy for “women and men who have been abused by abortion”.
The resolutions also called for women to be given information about fetal development, and the Convention’s Ethics and Religious Freedom Commission created “The Psalm 139 Project” to provide ultrasound machines to pregnancy centers in crisis to that they can show women images of their fetuses to discourage them from abortion. .
Crisis pregnancy centers are primarily evangelical organizations that offer counseling and assistance in convincing pregnant women not to have an abortion. They often provide misleading and false information, and often receive large sums of public money with little public oversight.
The 2003 resolution also called on the government to “take measures to protect the lives of women and children”. Fifty years ago, the views of the Abortion Convention were driven by concerns about government intrusion into a private matter between a woman and her health care provider. Today, the Convention has fully embraced governmental control of a woman’s reproductive decisions.