- Abortions were conducted throughout the ancient world, Israel almost certainly included.
- The Bible does not express a clear position on the ethics of abortion.
- Biblical texts demonstrate no knowledge of conception as a discrete event.
- In biblical texts, prenatal growth is a process and personhood develops over time; not in an instant.
All of this is hard to square with the tenor of contemporary abortion politics, where absolute opposition to abortion, grounded in a belief that life begins at the moment of fertilization, is often held to be the defining political commitment of the religious (read: Christian) right. Within this conservative coalition, evangelicals in particular tend to justify their anti-abortion stance in originalist and biblicist terms.
Take, for example, resources developed by Focus on the Family that assert that the Bible says life begins at conception, or megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s comment that “the reason I believe that life begins at conception is because the Bible says it.”
The Bible, of course, says no such thing.
And you have to work pretty hard to get the Bible to imply it.
If it isn’t in the Bible, then—and it isn’t—where does it come from? Is it simply a constant element of Christian belief? Again, the answer is no.
The Evangelical About-Face
From the outset, we have to distinguish between different kinds of Christians, since different denominations do not have the same historical relationship with abortion. Officially, the Roman Catholic Church has long opposed abortion and, since the mid-20th century, contraception (individual Catholics have various opinions, of course, and tend to access contraception and abortion at roughly the same rates as everyone else in the United States.
Evangelical Christians, however, who are now at least as closely identified with anti-abortion politics as Catholics, have not always been politically motivated by abortion—or even united in opposition to it.
In the era before Roe v. Wade, many evangelical leaders argued that abortion was permissible in many circumstances. For example, the influential evangelical theologian and apologist Norman Geisler, in the 1971 and 1975 editions of his Christian Ethics, wrote the following, which I will quote at length:
The one clear thing which the Scriptures indicate about abortion is that it is not the same as murder. … Murder is a man-initiated activity of taking an actual human life. Artificial abortion is a humanly initiated process which results in the taking of a potential human life. Such abortion is not murder, because the embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.
When it is a clear-cut case of either taking the life of the unborn baby or letting the mother die, then abortion is called for. An actual life (the mother) is of more intrinsic value than a potential life (the unborn). The mother is a fully developed human; the baby is an undeveloped human. And an actually developed human is better than one which has the potential for full humanity but has not yet developed. Being fully human is a higher value than the mere possibility of becoming fully human. For what is has more value than what may be. …
Birth is not morally necessitated without consent. No woman should be forced to carry a child if she did not consent to intercourse. A violent intrusion into a woman’s womb does not bring with it a moral birthright for the embryo. The mother has a right to refuse that her body be used as an object of sexual intrusion. The violation of her honor and personhood was enough evil without compounding her plight by forcing an unwanted child on her besides. … the right of the potential life (the embryo) is overshadowed by the right of the actual life of the mother. The rights to life, health, and self-determination —
i.e., the rights to personhood — of the fully human mother take precedence over that of the potentially human embryo.
Fifty years later, such a position from a notable conservative evangelical would be almost unthinkable. Indeed, Geisler himself did not remain supportive of abortion. Long before his death in 2019, he had become an ardent opponent of abortion in any form, arguing explicitly that it should supersede all other issues in determining Christians’ voting priorities. This change was already apparent in the 1989 2nd edition of his Christian ethics, where he asserted (as part of a much longer discussion):
Scripture texts leave no doubt that an unborn child is just as much a person in God’s image as a little child or an adult is. They are created in God’s image from the very moment of conception, and their prenatal life is precious in God’s eyes and protected by his prohibition against murder.
In 18 years, the Bible had managed to shift from being crystal clear in one direction to being crystal clear in the opposite and contradictory direction, something which Geisler scarcely hints at (and only in the preface)..
But Geisler’s permissive position was far from anomalous in the evangelical circles of the mid-20th century. Bruce Waltke, a professor at the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote in Christianity Today in 1968 “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.”
In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted an official resolution that affirmed the value of fetal life but added “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 fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
At the time, 70% of Southern baptist pastors approved of abortion to support the mental or physical health of the mother. Support was 64% for “fetal deformity” and 71% in cases of rape.
Similarly, the evangelical response to Roe was not immediate or uniformly negative. While Christianity Today criticized the decision in 1973, many influential conservative pastors voiced their support. W. A. Criswell, pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the US, said “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother, that it became an individual person.” He went on “it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and the future should be allowed.”
The Baptist Press actually hailed the decision as a win: “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”
Neither was this a case of leaders who were out of touch with the theological leanings of their congregations, as rank-and-file evangelicals were not exercised by the decision and proved hard for activist groups to mobilize. In 1980, the evangelical magazine Moody Monthly lamented 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.”
This sentiment was echoed by other members of the new religious right at the time, including Heritage Foundation founder and John Birch Society member Paul Weyrich, Moral Majority board member Ed Dobson, and the anti-abortion activist group the Christian Action Council.
Eventually, though, activist efforts to mobilize evangelicals against abortion did come to fruition. Harold O. J. Brown, the Christianity Today editor who wrote the original criticism of Roe v. Wade, founded the Human Life Review in 1975 and the Christian Action Council in 1976. Jerry Falwell preached his first sermon against abortion in 1978, and Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop published their influential Whatever Happened to the Human Race? in 1979. Together, these and other activists worked to bring abortion to prominence among evangelicals.
By 1984, the landscape had changed. That year, the book Brave New People argued the once common evangelical view that abortion was ethically complicated and often permissible, but this time it provoked such a strong backlash that the publisher, Zondervan, conducted the first recall in its history.
Since then, staunch opposition to abortion has been the almost unquestioned position of the Christian right, evangelicals included.
At this point, the facts are pretty clear. Abortion for evangelicals was not an important issue or an issue of unanimous agreement in the middle of the 20th century. Since Jonathan Dudley made this point in an influential op-ed for CNN, however, there has been a war over the narrative. Why exactly did evangelicals perform this about-face on abortion?
When evangelicals themselves tell the story, it becomes a story of heroes rousing morally sluggish congregations to realign with clear biblical truth. In other words, the problem was general ignorance of the Bible’s clear teachings and the remedy was deeper, more diligent Bible study.
These retellings rightly emphasize the significance of highly motivated activists, but their Bible-centrism falls flat. As I’ve argued throughout this series of posts, biblical texts stake out no clear position on abortion or fetal personhood, and neither do they suggest it was an issue of moral significance to the communities by and for whom biblical texts were written. The Bible could not have been the sole driver of this revolution in evangelical politics, which means that other motivations must be identified.
For Dudley, it was a story of the political tail wagging the theological dog. That is, adherence to political conservatism did not result from the belief that life begins at conception; rather, political conservatism motivated many Christians to interpret biblical texts to mean that life begins at conception.
Religious historian Randall Balmer puts a finer point on it. In his book Bad Faith and these articles for Politico Magazine, Balmer argues that political mobilization around abortion was actually kicked off by conservative evangelical resistance to government-mandated desegregation of religious schools.
Balmer is not arguing for anything as simple as an “Aha! It was really just racism all along!” gotcha. This is America, and at some level it’s racism all the way down. The anti-abortion movement has had troubling connections with white supremacist and eugenics movements throughout its long history, but the pro-choice and birth control movements have a few racist and eugenicist skeletons in their closets as well.
What these reconstructions show, however, is that anti-abortion politics did not arise directly from diligent Bible reading and that abortion did not function as an independent political issue. Rather, it interacted with a slew of other issues that all revolved around the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and ‘70s.
The civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam movement, sexual revolution, and second wave of feminism co-occurred in ways that profoundly destabilized the traditional hierarchies of American society and, working together, motivated the political resurgence of the religious right.
While the rhetoric of the abortion debate focuses intensely on the figures of the fetus and the mother, the ethics and politics of abortion have implications that connect very strongly to these traditional hierarchies. I have more research to do here, but I have a hunch that opposition to abortion has proved so powerful a galvanizing force because its intense focus on the fetus—usually portrayed as a baby no matter the gestational age being discussed—easily obscures its connections with less palatable and less popular conservative political priorities. For decades now, the mantra “abortion is murder” has acted as a powerful Trump card and a nearly insurmountable barrier to defecting from the Republican Party, as Bradley Onishi wrote in this powerful essay. No matter how many harmful and destructive policies they espouse, no matter how promiscuously they flirt with authoritarianism, how can any other issue compete with the murder of a million babies a year? This question keeps many people voting for candidates they disagree with on almost everything because the prevalence of abortion weighs too heavily to bear.
I understand this earnest belief. I understand this discomfort. At some point, though, I had to acknowledge that the Bible’s clarity on prenatal personhood and on abortion were illusory.
This doesn’t mean that people who read and believe in the Bible can’t believe that life begins at conception or that abortion is always wrong. However, these beliefs must be understood also as reflections of social, historical, and political forces outside of the Bible. The attempt to locate fetal personhood and anti-abortion ethics in the original message of the Bible is an attempt to remove them from historical and cultural contingency and to sink them deep in the unchanging bedrock of eternal truth. However, theological priorities are influenced by contingent and contextual forces for evangelicals as much as for anyone else.
In short, categorical opposition to abortion is neither a necessary element of true Christian faith nor an ethical issue so clear and settled that it should supersede all others in social and political reasoning.
I can’t tell you exactly what to think about abortion (I’ll share my own positions in the next post), but I can tell you this: if it were left to the Bible, we’d spend a lot less time policing it.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Most of these sources are linked above and repeated here for ease of reference.
Balmer, Randall. Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. Eerdmans, 2021.
—. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico Magazine, May 27, 2022.
—. “The Religious Right and the Abortion Myth.” Politico magazine, May 10, 2022.
Dibranco, Alex. “The Long History of the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Ties to White Supremacists.” The Nation, Feb 3, 2020.
Dudley, Jonathan. “When Evangelicals were Pro-Choice.” CNN Belief Blog, 2012.
—. “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception.“ HuffPost Religion, Nov. 5, 2012.
Farley, Audrey Clare. “The Eugenics Roots of Evangelical Family Values.” Religion and Politics, 2021.
Onishi, Bradley. “Pro-born: A Former Evangelical on the Single-Issue Politics of White Christians.” Religion Dispatches, March 18, 2018.
Griffith, R. Marie. Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. Basic Books, 2017..
Parker, Willie. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. 37 Inc., 2018.
Pittman, Ashton. “To Rule History with God: The Christian Dominionist War on Abortion.” Mississippi Free Press, Jan 26, 2022 (Part one of a three-part series).
Schenk, Rob. Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love. Harper COllins, 2019.