How the Bible Began Saying Life Begins at Conception

Evangelical thinkers on both sides of the issue arrived at positions through honest reflection on the Bible, theology and science. But in the face of this disagreement, why did only one set of these reflections come to be known among lay evangelicals as "the biblical view on abortion"?
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Evangelical anti-abortion advocacy rests on a surprisingly flimsy foundation. And exposing that fact makes establishment evangelical leaders nervous.

On Nov. 7, Christianity Today published a feature-length article on the front page of its website that was its second such article responding to an op-ed I wrote for CNN.

In the op-ed, titled "When evangelicals were pro-choice," I argued that evangelicals widely embraced liberal positions on abortion in the decade before the emergence of the evangelical right.

In his first response, Mark Galli, senior managing editor at Christianity Today, called this a "fake history." By the time of his second response, he had learned that this wasn't a fake history after all: "[L]et me admit that Dudley did catch me committing hyperbole. ... Evangelicals were in fact divided, and many if not most of our leaders were formally 'pro-choice' in the 1960s and 1970s."

But Galli went on to insist that politics played a relatively small role in shaping lay evangelical views about the biblical position on abortion.

This statement is also wrong.

Granted, as I pointed out in my last column for The Huffington Post, the political "pro-life" movement was preceded by nearly a decade of sincere reflection on the issue by evangelical leaders.

Most influentially, writer Francis Schaeffer co-wrote a book and film with C. Everett Koop, called "Whatever Happened To the Human Race?" that attributed legalized abortion to an abandonment of the nation's founding "Judeo-Christian values." They neglected to mention that abortion was legal when America was founded. But evangelical right leaders who subsequently took up the anti-abortion cause often cite this book and film series as their greatest intellectual influence.

Galli suggests such conclusions were inexorably those reached by evangelical leaders reflecting on the "terrible and inevitable consequences of pro-choice policy" after Roe became law.

But other evangelical scholars after Roe re-affirmed the community's earlier support for legalized abortion. The late Fuller Theological Seminary theologian Lewis Smedes, for example, argued in 1983: "Abortion should be legally permitted during the first six weeks of pregnancy," asserting the fetus became a person around three months after conception. Philosopher Robert N. Wennberg of the evangelical Westmont College insisted, in a 1985 book: "Abortion is not murder ... abortion ought not to be criminalized."

Calvin College professor Hessel Bouma co-authored a 1989 book asserting: "We should not support a right-to-life amendment that would grant personhood to fetuses from conception. ... personhood should be morally and legally granted to the fetus at the end of the second trimester."

Like their 1960s evangelical predecessors, and like many "pro-choice" Christians today, these latter scholars still saw abortion as a moral problem and still felt Christians should shun it, but they nevertheless found compelling reasons for keeping it legal.

Evangelical thinkers on both sides of the issue arrived at positions through honest reflection on the Bible, theology and science, among other things. But in the face of this disagreement, why did only one set of these reflections come to be known among lay evangelicals as "the biblical view on abortion"?

And why did lay evangelicals go from widespread apathy on abortion to widespread belief that the Bible says life begins at conception over the same few years that the evangelical Right began its anti-abortion advocacy?

Galli argues that the evangelical right did not play the dominant role in this process. Instead, he suggests that lay evangelicals began independently and simultaneously picking up academic books like that by Roman Catholic theologian Michael Gorman; engaging in "ethical reasoning, biblical hermeneutics, historical research, theological reflection, and American politics"; and reaching roughly the same conclusion as a result: that the Bible teaches life begins at conception and requires the criminalization of abortion from that point onward.

Undoubtedly, theological reflections were occurring among evangelicals and swayed broader views about the morality of abortion, particularly among certain segments of the evangelical elite.

But such an individualistic account of history cannot explain why so many lay evangelicals came, en masse, to hold variations on such a specific position on "what the Bible says about abortion," a position which Galli himself says is not actually found in the Bible. What's more, the only evidence Galli gives for this alternative reading of history is a personal anecdote that a friend e-mailed him.

I argue, on the other hand, that lay evangelicals converged on these novel and tendentious interpretations of the Bible because these were the interpretations embraced by the emerging evangelical right's leadership, in large part because that is what their Catholic political allies believed (for other reasons).

The idea that the Bible condemns abortion and teaches that life begins at conception was disseminated to lay evangelicals over the course of a political mobilization campaign in the early 1980s. Jerry Falwell, for example, sent mailers called "Scriptures for Life" to evangelicals across the country featuring his interpretations of "what the Bible says" on abortion. Another evangelical right organization distributed "Biblical scorecards" to pastors and yet another claimed that Exodus 21 commanded the death sentence for abortion providers.

As Susan Friend Harding writes, in her book on this period from Princeton University Press: "In the early 1980s, preachers and lay leaders around the country 'biblicized' total opposition to abortion. ... [T]hey pulled opposition to abortion into the very heart of what it meant to be a born-again Christian."

To take a contemporary example of the "biblicizing" of opposition to abortion, Focus on the Family features a list of 20 biblical passages on its website purporting to tell followers "What the Bible Says About the Beginning of Life," namely, that it is "created in God's image from the moment of fertilization."

Political scientist Jared Farley, in a major study on evangelical political mobilization in the 1970s and 1980s, summarizes what the historical evidence shows as follows:

"The political mobilization of evangelicals was the result of a top-down phenomenon, in which evangelical elites formulated and communicated an ideology of conservative politics and collective action to their followers."

What lay evangelicals widely regard as "the biblical view on abortion" achieved that distinction not because it won out in the academic evangelical market place of ideas, but because it was picked up and popularized by those with the biggest microphones.

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