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When Evangelicals Were Open to Differing Views on Abortion

by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

(with responses from Melanie Springer Mock and Kendra Weddle Irons)

In his 2011 book, Broken Words: The Abuse of Science, Jonathan Dudley writes that when he was growing up in evangelical circles, he learned to view certain ideas as “part of the package deal of Christianity,” namely, “that abortion is murder; homosexuality, sin; evolution, nonsense; and environmentalism, a farce.” He called them the “big four.” If you didn’t adhere to those particular views on these topics, you were considered an outsider, not a real Christian.

In view of all the recent news reports about defining “legitimate” rape, urging passage of personhood-begins-at-conception amendments, and promoting legislation to force a woman impregnated through rape to carry and bear the rapist’s child (since, in Paul Ryan’s words, “the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life”), we can’t avoid thinking about one of Dudley’s “big four”—attitudes and legislation about abortion.

I thought it might be time to discuss it here.

Dudley said he grew up hearing, “How could anyone vote for a Democrat?” He said when his roommate at a Christian college said he was going to do just that, Dudley immediately lost respect for him and could no longer regard the roommate as a “serious Christian.” The accusation was that Democrats supported the killing of babies.

Dudley writes:

“Given the widespread and intense conviction among evangelicals—on both the left and the right—that life begins at conception and abortion is killing an innocent human being from then on, you’d think this position is clearly taught in the Bible, the mainstream position of historic Christianity, or firmly established by modern science. You’d be wrong.”

A Time when Evangelicals Could Hear and Respect Diverse Views on Abortion
There was a time in the not too distant past when the majority of Protestant Christians, including those who called themselves evangelical, did not consider the point at which a fertilized ovum or developing embryo or fetus becomes a human being to be clearly defined, indisputable, and settled for all time.

There was a time when different viewpoints were accepted and respected and did not serve as a litmus test to determine who was a “real” Christian. A time when many evangelicals thought that the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision might be considered a good and compassionate ruling as it overturned the varied restrictive abortion laws of the states that so often drove desperate women to seek out illegal, unsafe, “back-alley” abortions. Instead, declared the court, the constitutional guarantee of privacy leaves it up to a woman, her doctor, and her own moral agency to make decisions about terminating a pregnancy.

Religion historian Randall Balmer in his book, Thy Kingdom Come, writes that Rev.W. A. Criswell, a well known fundamentalist Baptist pastor who was at one time president of the Southern Baptist Convention, expressed his approval of the Supreme Court decision in these words: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a 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.”

And Dudley, in his book cited earlier, quotes a Dallas Theological Seminary professor who wrote a 1968 article for Christianity Today claiming that “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed,” basing his argument on Exodus 21:22-24. Other conservative Christian theologians made similar arguments.

Randall Balmer reminds us that two years before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, adopted a resolution that called on 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.”

Or consider this quotation from a 1973 book on sex education in the Christian home by an evangelical author and commissioned by a conservative evangelical publisher who had asked Dr. James Dobson (yes, that James Dobson) to write the foreword. In the book’s section on abortion, which objectively informed the reader of both the physiological and legal aspects (including the Supreme Court ruling that had just passed), there appeared this nonjudgmental paragraph:

“There are sharp differences among Christians with regard to abortion. Some consider it murder; others say the operation might be an act of mercy. Some believe that the soul enters the fetus at conception. Others feel that the zygote (fertilized ovum) is just a cell that may become a potential human being but is not yet one at the moment, and hence its removal is not ‘murder.’ The Bible is silent on the subject, although some Christians believe Exodus 21:22, 23 may indicate a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being, since inflicting an injury on a pregnant women which resulted in its loss was to be punished by a fine rather than by death, under the ‘life for life’ law.”
(from Sex Is a Parent Affair: Help for Parents in Teaching Their Children about Sex by Letha Scanzoni, Regal Books Division of G/L Press [Gospel Light], 1973, p.147)

Yes, I wrote those words. And no one—not Dr. Dobson nor anyone else—ever called me to task over that paragraph nor any other part of my four-page section on abortion. (A few years later, Dobson strongly dissociated himself from his original enthusiastic endorsement of the book but not because of that paragraph. Rather it was because of some of the books I wrote later, and he apparently did not want to be associated with my name. When he learned that a revised edition of Sex Is a Parent Affair was going to be published by Bantam in 1982, he wrote to Bantam and demanded that the publisher make sure that his name would in no way be connected to this new edition of book.)

The 1968 Symposium on “The Control of Human Reproduction”
In recent years, Dudley’s book Broken Words is one of the few places where I have seen even a brief mention of an interdenominational 1968 symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today which brought together thirty evangelical scholars from the fields of medicine, theology, law, and sociology, to spend five summer days together discussing contraception, sterilization, and therapeutic abortion, while accepting the Bible as their final authority for moral decision making. The symposium was called, “The Control of Human Reproduction.”

I know about the symposium because I was there —not as one of the speakers but as the wife of a speaker. Those in charge of the gathering had encouraged the participants to bring their families because it was held at Wentworth by the Sea, a historic resort near Portsmouth, New Hampshire (long before the Victorian-styled resort’s 2003 restoration by Marriott). The symposium sponsors arranged everything possible to make the families feel welcome, with professional childcare and entertainment for the children so that the parents could be free during much of the day, a live string quartet playing music during meals, and special activities for the wives (such as tours of historic homes) while their husbands were in the meetings. Yes, the speakers, to the best of my recollection, were all men. No surprise there.

As you can guess, I didn’t go to any of the wives’ events but sat in on every meeting possible, and it was fascinating to hear the interdisciplinary approach to the topics of human reproduction and to see the spirit of camaraderie and civility among the participants even though diverse viewpoints were there. They were “doing theology,” which, as one of my religion professors liked to say, is “a bridge between Scripture and human experience.”

In one session, I was sitting beside the wife of a well-known minister.  She whispered, “I just marvel at the way these men’s minds work.” I agreed, but ached to say, “It could be women’s minds working, too!” I yearned to be up front joining in the discussions and speeches.

There was, among many of the participants, evidence of a heartfelt compassion for women facing difficult circumstances that would be condemned in evangelical circles today. I remember one speaker, a physician who had served in another country, who told of performing an abortion on a missionary wife for the sake of her mental health after she had given birth to several children close together and, in his medical judgment, appeared emotionally unable to cope with a new unexpected pregnancy. No one called him a murderer, even if their own views were altogether different.

Many of the articles from the symposium were printed in Christianity Today (which would never happen now) and also in a now out of print 1969 book published by Tyndale, titled Birth Control and the Christian. The scholars also produced “A Protestant Affirmation Concerning the Control of Human Reproduction” for publication in the November-December 1968 issue of the Christian Medical Society Journal. I found one online copy of the Affirmation as it appeared in the June, 1970 issue of the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, a Christian professional organization, with responses from some of its members.

I know what I’ve written is rather long, Melanie and Kendra, but I wanted to provide some evidence to show that attitudes were not always so polarizing as they are today. There were disagreements, yes, but not polarization and name calling. There was once respect for differing viewpoints among evangelical Christians in a way we seldom see in the present time— and a humility of spirit in the realization that not all the answers are in on some of these tough moral and ethical questions.

But that was before the present political alignment and climate—a topic for another day! (But a good place to start might be to read an excerpt from Randall Balmer’s book. that is included with a 2006 NPR interview.)


Melanie’s Response: Making Abortion “Safe, Legal, and Rare.”

After reading Letha’s post for the first time, I thought it deserved wide play in evangelical—perhaps even secular—presses, because Letha frames the contemporary abortion conversation in ways I’ve not heard before. This proves her point, and makes her post even more important. Most Christians of my generation and younger do not know much about evangelicalism’s historical positions on abortion, because we’ve grown up hearing that abortion is one of the “big four” evils about which Jonathan Dudley writes.

Or, I should say, most of us have grown up hearing about abortion’s evil. I either didn’t hear or wasn’t listening, so didn’t discover until college that all Christians were either ardently pro-life or bound for hell. My parents were progressive Christians and unabashedly Democratic; when I arrived at an evangelical college in 1986, I was surprised to discover that Republicans could be Christians, too (contrary to Dudley’s experience).

My wake-up call to the divisiveness of the abortion debate came when a fellow student called me a baby-killer, not because he knew my stance on abortion—I didn’t really have one—but because I admitted I was a Democrat. At that point, I recognized how polarizing this issue could be for Christians, and how abortion could be used as a “litmus test” for deciding the degree to which one loved and followed Jesus.

Of course, when in graduate school I identified myself as a feminist, my stance on abortion also served as a litmus test, judging my feminist “cred.” When I admitted I was unsure about my stance on abortion, it was clear I could not be a real feminist, because—at least according to some graduate school peers—real feminists fought for reproductive rights, first and foremost, no matter what.

Whatever happened to holding a nuanced view? Of struggling with and embracing a complex understanding of an issue? Of recognizing that most issues exist in shades of gray, rather than black and white?

To be honest, as I’ve matured, my views about abortion have become more muddled, not less. Like many, I am appalled by those on the Right who rant about legitimate rape, contraception, and personhood laws, and I feel strongly that women have the right to autonomy over their bodies, their sexuality, their reproduction. When a party platform focuses on and celebrates “Life,” I am compelled to ask how that platform defines life, given how other policies—including, most obviously, defense spending, gun laws, and the death penalty, among many others—seem so clearly anti-life to me. Even writing this now fills me with anger for those whose entire raison d’etre is to protest abortion.

And yet.  My sons’ birthmothers chose to carry them to term, in countries with relatively high abortion rates (Vietnam and India). The willingness of these women to do this—in my younger son’s case, despite a grave health diagnosis—has given me, and the world, two amazing people who have forever changed my life, and may someday change the world. (At least this proud mama thinks so.) Knowing this about my family’s history makes it easier for me to understand evangelicalism’s hard stance against abortion, even if I don’t entirely agree with it.

This is why I have appreciated President Bill Clinton’s view on abortions, that they be “safe, legal, and rare.” Unfortunately, so long as women’s reproductive choices remain such a polarizing issue, and so long as evangelicals reject other policies—like mandatory sex education and accessible birth control—I doubt President Clinton’s vision will be realized.

Although this makes me cynical and angry, I wonder if Christian feminists might see this as an opportunity: to help other Christians understand what a nuanced view on abortion might look like; to promote policies that make abortion safe, legal, and rare; and to build bridges with other Christians who view abortion differently than do we. This bridge-building may seem like progress, though as Letha points out, in doing so, we might actually be returning to the roots of evangelicalism, where different viewpoints were far more tolerated than they are now.


Kendra’s Response: Honoring Understanding, Dialogue, and Diverse Opinions

I am grateful that Letha is encouraging us to talk more deeply and with a greater sense of the historical landscape abortion has occupied within faith communities. Like Melanie, I had an awakening about politics and abortion when I went away to college. What I learned was that Christians could apparently be Democrats!

Coming from a long line of Republicans and from a family who staunchly supported Reagan largely because he wasn’t Jimmy Carter—whose grain embargo resulted in less money paid for our farm’s crops—and because Reagan wanted prayer in schools, I arrived on my college campus to find people talking about abortion. And these weren’t just people, they were Christians. For whatever reason, it was either the first time I heard or the first time I paid attention to nuance, and I began to consider the possibility that women should be free to make decisions about reproduction and that they would hopefully value the sanctity of life.

At some point after graduation my mother and I had a conversation about my changed political views, including abortion. She shared with me then why she has been so passionately against it: she was pregnant with my youngest sister when she was over forty. Since pregnancy was a rare occurrence at that age, her doctor asked her to consider having an abortion. If she had followed her doctor’s suggestion, her fourth child, my sister, would not be the person she is today. And in this instance I am so glad my mother embraced an unplanned pregnancy and gave us another sibling to love and now a niece to spoil.

But there is nuance to be considered here. My parents had a family and faith network poised to help. They had three older siblings just vying for opportunities to give baths, play for hours, and maybe even to change diapers if not too offending. Living on a farm, they had financial resources to feed another child, even if additional money for college might be more limited. In other words, their choice was a real choice.

But for many others, they do not have a similar situation. For too many pregnant women a decision to have a baby could be the most inhumane decision, as pointed out by Caitlin Moran in her new book called How to Be a Woman. She talks candidly about having an abortion because she takes seriously—as people should—the importance of desiring a child, of being able psychologically, socially, and mentally, to care for a child. And she mentions, too, the importance of a woman’s career and whether or not she can grow professionally (if she wishes) while simultaneously being a mother. Her point is that all of these things work together (along with financial resources, of course) to either contribute to a healthy and happy young individual or to an unhealthy and unhappy one.

This is why I’m thankful Letha has invited us into a more sustained conversation (and hopefully one that will continue in our comments section). As women we have not embraced dialogue about abortion as deliberately and constructively as the early evangelicals apparently did and as Letha has carefully detailed. Somewhere along the line we stopped communicating. Maybe it was because we thought Roe v. Wade had settled the issue. Or, maybe it was because we have watched our country become so divided politically that we are loathe to be involved.

Whatever the case, it appears our country has reached a time when we must either get drawn in and contribute to the conversation or find that women’s reproductive decisions are no longer ours to make.

To this end, I appreciated Melanie’s reminding us of Bill Clinton’s goal: “to make abortion safe, legal, and rare.” Perhaps Christian feminists retreated to the sidelines after abortion became safe and legal and have not been involved enough in keeping abortion infrequent by making life options more realistic. Likewise, I do not think we have spoken clearly or frequently enough about sanctity of all life. Where have we protested enough against war and violence of all forms? Where have we protested enough about the destruction of our natural resources? Where have we protested enough about systemic sexism and racism evident in the American social class system?

Even as I write these suggestions I get overwhelmed; there are too many things and too little time. But there is one place where instead of feeling daunted I feel inspired and hopeful: open conversation among Christian feminists.

What if we continue the conversation Letha began, building upon the hospitality and diversity of opinions marking those early discussions and seeking to find not necessarily a conclusion or solution, but a determination to honor understanding? Sharing our stories is a place to begin.

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