With the recently-concluded Southern Baptist Convention urging its members to pray for "abortion-vulnerable women," a university professor and author from Oregon pointed out that America's largest Protestant denomination was not always opposed to abortion.
Oregon State University Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Professor Susan M. Shaw said in an op-ed in the Religion News Service that Southern Baptists only expressed support for abortion in the 1970s. The op-ed, entitled "Southern Baptists Have Not Always Opposed Abortion," revealed that the changes in the denomination's stand on the issue began only a decade after--in the 1980s--when a conservative wing took control.
"I was a Southern Baptist at the time, and I now study the denomination. I understand the Convention's stance against abortion as a reflection of leaders' conservative beliefs about women, gender, and sexuality," Shaw said.
Southern Baptists' Evolving Stand On Abortion
Shaw explained that Southern Baptists, like many evangelicals, saw the issue against legalizing abortion as a "Catholic issue." The professor cited a Baptist Sunday School board poll in the 1970s that showed a majority of Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion for several instances besides the woman's physical or mental health being at risk, rape, and fetal deformity.
According to Shaw, the Convention's first resolution on abortion came in 1971. The said resolution acknowledged the need for legislation that will provide exemptions on having the procedure. Many members saw the 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the country, as an indication to put limits between church and state when it comes to government regulation and morality.
Shaw said the Baptist Press even released an article then that called Roe v. Wade an advancement in justice, human equality, and religious liberty. This was followed by another resolution by the Convention the year after that affirmed this "advancement."
Former Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land affirmed that the change in the abortion stand of Southern Baptists came only after Roe v. Wade. Land told ERLC's Jill Waggoner in a February 15 interview that pre-Roe v. Wade Southern Baptists believed that life began when God breathed into Adam and this alleviated them in dealing with abortion.
"The real shift came in the aftermath of Roe. I was a foot soldier in the pro-life army back in the mid-1970's, organizing pro-life groups in churches when I was in Texas working at Criswell College. And I saw (the shift) happen. It was (a result of) the revulsion over the bloodshed. I don't think even the pro-choice people thought that abortions would jump they way they did once Roe was made the law of the land. That, and the amazing advances of embryology and sonograms--we knew a whole lot more about human development. I saw a ground shift among Southern Baptists," Land recounted.
Afterward, the Convention criticized abortion as "a means of birth control" in its 1976 resolution and yet clarified its "strong opposition to abortion on demand" the succeeding year. The said 1977 resolution also stressed the Convention's views on the government's limited role on the issue, as well as, the right to medical counseling and services for pregnant women. The Convention then reaffirmed this position in its 1979 resolution.
"Later that year, however, as an ultra-conservative faction within the denomination acquired power from more moderate leaders, things began to change," Shaw highlighted.
Come 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention released its "Resolution on Abortion" where it declared that human life is ended by abortion as it urged that legal measures be enacted to prohibit the procedure except to save the mother's life. Shaw said this particular resolution is worthy of being highlighted for it was the first time the Convention changed its terminology from "fetal life" to the "unborn," "preborn," or "person."
The Resolution That Sealed SBC's Stand On Abortion
The Southern Baptist Convention resolved its stand on the issue of abortion through a resolution released during their Annual Meeting on June 1, 1984 in Kansas, Missouri along with several other resolutions.
The resolution on abortion stipulated a strong opposition of the denomination to abortion, which is only given the exemption of saving the mother's physical life. The resolution calls the procedure a "national sin" for it recognizes that the unborn is a "child" and a "living individual human being."
It also directed members and churches to provide women in crisis pregnancies with counseling, housing, and adoption placement services on top of bringing them to a relationship with Jesus Christ and a "sense of Christian responsibility" for the unborn.
In addition, the resolution deplored the use of abortion pills and tax funds for abortion, as well as, called upon its members to support legislation that prohibits the procedure. It also provided support for pro-life medical professionals.
The 1984 resolution was followed by several other resolutions that eventually changed the Convention's reasons for opposing abortion. There's the 1986 resolution that urged parents to inculcate a "Christian understanding" in their children of what abortion is and a 1987 resolution on abstinence that should be taught in schools.
Shaw also highlighted a 2003 resolution that favored the women's movement call for abortion as an injustice both to mother and child prompted by the "sexual revolution." These resolutions were supported by other statements released by the convention.
As previously reported, SBC was set to discuss its best pro-life approach at this year's convention. This resulted in the creation of the "On Anticipation of a Historic Moment in the Pro-Life Movement," a resolution that focuses on the accompaniment of women 42 years after SBC opposed abortion.
The new resolution, which reportedly faced controversies for its lack of punishment for people who commit abortion considered being murder, urges Southern Baptists to pray for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The resolution also asks members to pray and stand with those who have an abortion.
Shaw concluded that the Convention's views on abortion have changed from government intrusion to one that fully embraces it now, almost fifty years after.
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