Notes on abortion

by Neil Rickert

There has been a lot of online discussion since CNN Belief blogs posted an item by Jonathan Dudley “My Take: When evangelicals were pro-choice.”  Here, I shall add my two cents.

My immediate reaction is to disagree with Dudley.  I do not remember that evangelicals were ever pro-choice, and it would seem out of character for them to have  been pro-choice.

Here’s what Dudley uses to back his “take”:

In 1968, Christianity Today published a special issue on contraception and abortion, encapsulating the consensus among evangelical thinkers at the time. In the leading article, professor Bruce Waltke, of the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, explained the Bible plainly teaches that life begins at birth:

“God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: ‘If a man kills any human life he will be put to death’ (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense… Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”

The magazine Christian Life agreed, insisting, “The Bible definitely pinpoints a difference in the value of a fetus and an adult.” And the Southern Baptist Convention passed a 1971 resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother, but to protect her emotional health as well.

I am not in any way challenging that quote.  But there is nothing in what is quoted that even hints that evangelicals were pro-choice.  What it does show, is that around that time they were not as adamantly opposed to abortion as they are now.

I was, at one time, an evangelical though perhaps a somewhat liberal evangelical.  I had already dropped out of religion before 1968.  However, based on my experience, I think I have some sense of how many evangelicals would have thought about the issue of abortion.

  • When a married woman becomes pregnant, they see this as an enormous blessing from God.
  • When an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, they see this as God’s punishment for their sinful sexual relations.

When an unmarried woman seeks abortion, they are thus bound to see that as an attempt to avoid God’s punishment.  And when an unmarried woman uses birth control, they are bound to see that as an attempt to seek pleasure, without suffering the consequences of their sinful activities.

That’s just the way evangelicals tend to think.  So while they might have condoned abortion to protect the emotional and psychological well being of the mother, I don’t believe they ever would have condoned the possibility of unconstrained abortion that would seem to be permitted by the pro-choice stance.

Libby Anne, who was an evangelical more recently than I,  says something along the same lines when she says: “It’s not about babies. It’s about controlling women. It’s about making sure they have consequences for having unapproved sex.

What does seem clear from the Dudley article, is that the “pro-life” argument now being used by evangelicals is based on new theology that was made out of whole cloth; on new theology that appears to have been developed with a political motive.

For the record, I am pro-choice though I am personally opposed to abortion.  The important point here is that the pregnant woman is a moral agent.  Whether to have an abortion is for her to decide.  It is not up to me to impose my opinions on that decision.

3 Comments to “Notes on abortion”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful engagement with my Op-Ed. I’d like to send you an email. How do I contact you?


  2. I am a little young to remember what Evangelicals were saying in 1968, but I have heard that there was some diversity around the issue. There was an underlying theological issue regarding the origin of the individual human soul. One position is called “Traducianism,” which means that the infant’s soul is derived from the parents. That would mean that the fetus would be considered human from the moment of conception. But there was another position called “Creationism” (not to be confused with opposition to the Theory of Evolution) which held that each person’s soul is created individually. The question, of course, is when?
    It used to be under the English Common Law that abortion was legal prior to “quickening,” when the mother could begin to feel the baby stirring in the womb. This presumably would be when the baby acquired its soul, and abortion would after this point be impermissible. Then medical science advanced to the point where we realized that gestation is a continuous process from the moment of conception onward, and most states adjusted their laws accordingly.


    • Thanks for your comment.

      But there was another position called “Creationism” (not to be confused with opposition to the Theory of Evolution) which held that each person’s soul is created individually.

      This is what I take to be the dominant position among evangelicals. It is hard to see that medical science would be at all relevant to the question of when the soul is individually created. The human characteristics that are often attributed to the soul are not obviously present even at birth. It seems to me that one could just as easily argue that the soul is a result of baptism.

      My own personal view is that “soul” is a metaphor, and does not refer to an actual thing. And from that viewpoint, it seems silly to argue about when the soul first appears.


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