Many individuals and churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention are cheering the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to effectively overturn Roe v. Wade.
Brent Leatherhead, acting president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted: “The day we have all been waiting for has arrived. #Dobbs is here. Roe and Casey are overruled. More lives are now protected today than yesterday as a new chapter for the #prolife movement begins.”
“Thankful to God for this historic day,” tweeted Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky,” while Paul Chitwood, president of the SBC’s International Mission Board, tweeted, “Praise God!” with a link to a Fox News report about the SCOTUS ruling.
This reaction is probably unsurprising to many who likely equate anti-abortion positions equally with the Catholic Church and the SBC.
However, looking back at SBC history tells a very different story of Southern Baptist views on abortion. The SCOTUS ruling provides a fitting time to review how the SBC’s views changed.
In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed the first of four resolutions that most would consider “pro-choice” today.
Messengers to the convention affirmed the sanctity of human life, including that of a fetus, but they also called upon Southern Baptists to protect a woman’s right to an abortion.
The resolution reads, “We call upon Southern Baptist to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
Messengers would reaffirm the 1971 statement in 1974, proclaiming that the 1971 resolution “reflected a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder” and “dealt responsibly from a Christian perspective with complexities of abortion problems in contemporary society.”
In 1976 and 1977, the SBC passed softer resolutions which argued “that in the best interest of our society, we reject any indiscriminate attitude toward abortion, as contrary to the biblical view … and support the right of expectant mothers to the full range of medical services and personal counseling for the preservation of life and health.”
Prior to the late 1970’s, most SBC leaders viewed abortion as a deeply personal issue that was complex and not simply a “right to choice” versus a “right to life.”
Similarly, while most mainline Protestants affirmed that a fetus was an innocent life, it is a misconception that they were categorically opposed to abortion.
Prior to 1980, abortion was primarily seen as a Catholic issue. Southern Baptist, Church of Christ and Methodist leadership typically stayed away from the debate so as to avoid appearing to associate with the Vatican.
After the Roe v. Wade decision, Linda Coffee, the attorney for Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), gave an interview with Baptist Press, reprinted in a post at The Gospel Coalition.
Coffee was a member of Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas at the time, and she stated, “I’m glad the court decided that women, in consultation with a doctor, can control their own bodies.”
In 1981, a pamphlet published by the SBC’s Christian Life Commission, later renamed the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, acknowledged the moral value of unborn fetuses.
Yet, it questioned the restrictiveness of some laws, explaining, “It is questionable that Christian love and justice would be served by extremely restrictive laws which do not give conscientious people with proper medical advice the opportunity to choose when they are faced with very grave moral dilemmas related to abortion.”
Even W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, told reporters after Roe, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
Criswell’s view completely changed to a pro-life position by the beginning of the so-called “Conservative Resurgence” in 1979.
Prior to Roe, Southern Baptists did not see abortion as an absolute moral sin.
Most felt it was inappropriate to use abortion as a means of birth control or to avoid taking responsibility for a pregnancy. But abortion was seen as a difficult moral decision, not so black and white as today’s “Right to Life” supporters present it.
SBC thinking in the 1970s generally paralleled that of other evangelicals.
As Randall Balmer noted in a POLITICO article, published May 10, 2022, in 1968, Christianity Today, in conjunction with the Christian Medical Society, supported a conference on the morality of abortion featuring 26 prominent evangelical theologians.
Ultimately, abortion was presented as a complex and difficult matter. While there was not agreement on abortion, it was agreed the abortions were morally permissible under certain circumstances.
Later, Carl F. H. Henry who became the editor of Christianity Today would affirm that “a woman’s body is not the domain and property of others.”
Harold Lindsell, who followed Henry at the journal, went a step further arguing that “if there are compelling psychiatric reasons from a Christian point of view, mercy and prudence may favor a therapeutic abortion.”
Beginning in 1980, the Southern Baptist position formally changed when Larry Lewis became the president of the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) in 1987 and proposed the first of 20 anti-abortion resolutions to be adopted by the convention.
His resolution stated, “Be it further RESOLVED, that opposition be expressed toward all policies that allow ‘abortion on demand’ … That we favor appropriate legislation and/or constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother.”
Foy Valentine, the internationally respected Baptist ethicist who ran the CLC for 27 years before he retired in 1987, was one of the last holdouts calling for a broader view marked by reason and compassion.
While the SBC was always conservative by nature, there were both those who held positions similar to today’s “Right to Life” movement and those who called for a more dynamic position, seeking what was best for the mother and child.
Ultimately, the several views on abortion that long existed were subsumed and a so-called “pro-life” position overtook the SBC to the point that it was added in 2000 to the denomination’s statement of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message.
Anticipating an overturning of Roe by SCOTUS in its Dobbs ruling after the leaked majority opinion draft, messengers at the 2022 Southern Baptist Convention meeting adopted a resolution that encouraged “all Southern Baptists to pray for the overturning of the disastrous precedent set in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.”
As we move forward with a renewed debate on abortion, we need to keep these distinctions in mind, recognizing the complexities and ambiguities of this matter that most, even the SBC, previously acknowledge and wrestled with.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.