How Evangelicals Decided That Life Begins at Conception

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, evangelical Christians widely believed the Bible says life begins at birth and supported looser abortion policies. Given current evangelical anti-abortion activism, the reality and significance of this history deserves fuller discussion.
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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, evangelical Christians widely believed the Bible says life begins at birth and supported looser abortion policies.

That was my argument in an Oct. 31 op-ed for CNN, titled, "When evangelicals were pro-choice." Understandably, not all evangelical leaders were pleased. Mark Galli at Christianity Today called the op-ed a "fake history" in the title of a response article, even while going on to say the facts in the article are actually true. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, issued a more honest response, conceding that many "evangelicals did hold to embarrassingly liberal positions on the abortion issue (including, I must admit, the Southern Baptist Convention)." But both said that the change in evangelical opinion was not driven by a late-1970s political mobilization effort.

Given the enduring importance of evangelical anti-abortion activism, the reality and significance of this history deserves fuller discussion.

That mainstream evangelical leaders widely held liberal views on abortion at the time is undeniable. These were the dominant evangelical views.

In 1968, Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society hosted a gathering of evangelical leaders from across the country for a symposium on birth control. The purpose was to set forth "the conservative or evangelical position within Protestantism" from scholars who "shared a common acceptance of the Bible as the final authority on moral issues." The joint statement resulting from the conference, titled "A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction," included the consensus of attendees on abortion.

"Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed," it declared, "but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord." Circumstances justifying abortion included "family welfare, and social responsibility." "When principles conflict," they affirmed, "the preservation of fetal life ... may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life."

In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention agreed, in a joint resolution: "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."

Dallas Theological Seminary professors also supported the cause. Bruce Wakte, writing in Christianity Today, drew on Exodus 21:22-24 to argue that "God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed." His colleague Norman Geisler concurred: "The embryo is not fully human -- it is an undeveloped person."

And Robert P. Meye, currently a professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, insisted in Christianity Today that evangelicals "must reckon with the fact that there are those within the Christian community who can see no final offense in abortion when entered into responsibly by a woman in consultation with a physician."

In its response to my CNN op-ed, Galli argued these positions bear little resemblance to pro-choice views. Bruce Watke, he points out, thought that while the Old Testament teaches life begins at birth, it also gives the fetus significant moral value. And in the same 1968 Christianity Today, Galli notes, we find the claim that "the Christian answer to the control of human reproduction must be found principally in the prevention of conception, rather than the prevention of birth."

Galli's counter-argument implies that pro-choice Americans believe abortion, rather than contraception, should be the principal answer to the control of human reproduction. Just as wrongly, it suggests that pro-choice voters don't think the fetus has any moral value.

Evangelical views on abortion diverged in response to Roe v. Wade. Christianity Today condemned the decision in 1973 as counter to "the moral teachings of Christianity." The Baptist Press lauded Roe, declaring that "religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision."

Some evangelical leaders advanced the anti-abortion cause throughout the 1970s, all of them, no doubt, out of moral convictions that were sincere, even if poorly reasoned (writer Francis Schaeffer, for example, argued that legalized abortion represented an abandonment of the Judeo-Christian founding of the nation, even though abortion was legal when the nation was founded). Galli and Mohler say these were "wide spread [sic] and deeply held moral convictions." But the evangelical leaders who did oppose abortion after Roe complained the opposite was true.

In 1975, the Christian Action Coalition formed to mobilize lay evangelicals against abortion. Its founders quickly discovered that lay evangelicals weren't interested: "We really thought it wouldn't take much to get the general Christian community in the United States really upset about this issue. ... We thought, 'Once people realize what's going on, there will be spontaneous upheaval.' That didn't happen." Moody Monthly, an evangelical magazine, complained as late as 1980 that "Evangelicalism as a whole has uttered no real outcry. We've organized no protest. ... The Catholics have called abortion 'The Silent Holocaust.' The deeper horror is the silence of the evangelical."

And the founders of the evangelical right at the time, speaking of their movement's emergence in the mid-1970s, lamented that the evangelical community was was stubbornly apathetic on abortion. Paul Weyrich, for example, noted that "what galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer, or the [equal rights amendment]. ... I was trying to get [evangelicals] interested in those issues and I utterly failed." Ed Dobson, the right-hand man of Jerry Falwell, agreed: "The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion. ... I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something."

In 1980, Falwell used his unparalleled platform to change all that. Declaring that "[t]he Bible clearly teaches that life begins at conception," he allied with like-minded evangelicals to disseminate that interpretation across America. Falwell's assertion that this position was the obvious one in Scripture necessarily implied that the host of intelligent, pious evangelicals who came before him just didn't read their Bibles closely enough. It also made the Bible say the same thing his Catholic political allies believed (though Catholics believed it for other reasons).

Although this was politically convenient, Falwell's interpretations were just as much a product of his time as those of his evangelical predecessors. Late 1960s evangelicals were reacting against Catholics; early 1980s evangelicals were joining them. And as evangelicals moved from one historical context to another, "the biblical view on abortion" followed suit.

Why does it matter that what evangelical leaders say is "the biblical view on abortion" was not a widespread interpretation until about 30 years ago? For one thing, it's harder to argue the Bible clearly teaches something when the overwhelming majority of its past interpreters didn't read the Bible that way. For another, it illustrates that evangelical leaders are happy to defend creative reinterpretations of the Bible when it fits with a socially conservative worldview -- even while objecting to new interpretations of the Bible on, say, homosexuality, precisely because they are new. And for another, by looking at the history of how today's "biblical view on abortion" arose, one can begin to see the worldview that made it possible. In the process, it becomes apparent it is that unacknowledged worldview, and not the Bible, that evangelical opponents of abortion are actually defending.

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