Sep 13, 2021
Writing in the New York Times this week, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Karen Swallow Prior calls abortion “a failure for every woman and her unborn child—a failure of love, justice, and mercy.” She goes on to praise Texas’ controversial new heartbeat law as a call back to these ideals and a reminder of biological and ontological realities that American courts and legislatures have too long obscured.
Prior’s piece may have seemed bold to readers of the New York Times, but it accurately represented mainstream evangelical beliefs about the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. No major group is more opposed to abortion today than evangelicals, and together with conservative Roman Catholics, they now lead and fund the fight to end legal abortion in this country.
But it wasn’t always like this. Knowing our history can help us avoid fatal mistakes as we enter a new era of bioethical challenges.
It may seem like opposition to abortion is a natural result of conservative Christian faith and of a heavy emphasis on the authority of Scripture. But not that long ago, evangelical Protestants were anything but united behind the pro-life cause. Writing in the Huffington Post a few years ago, Jonathan Dudley chronicled how the major leaders, publications, and institutions of American evangelicalism fifty years ago either openly declared their support for legal abortion, or defended the permissibility of killing the unborn in certain cases. The piece’s title says a lot: “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception.” And he was basically right.
For instance, in 1968, just five years before Roe v. Wade was decided, Christianity Today held a symposium of evangelical leaders to determine “the conservative or evangelical position within Protestantism” on “the control of human reproduction.” In their joint statement, they concluded that “the performance of an induced abortion” is necessary and permissible under certain circumstances, among which they listed “family welfare, and social responsibility.” They continued: “When principles conflict, the preservation of fetal life…may be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life.”
Around the same time, the Southern Baptist convention largely concurred, calling on members of the denomination in 1971 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.”
It’s tough to imagine an abortion that couldn’t conceivably be justified under these criteria. Yet this was the position of one of America’s largest evangelical denominations and America’s leading evangelical publication just before abortion became legal in this country.
So, what changed? It’s a long and complex story with many players, but it’s fair to say that Roman Catholics understood the gravity of the abortion issue and took the right position long before evangelicals did. It’s also fair to say that Catholic reflection on the sanctity of life helped bring evangelicals into the pro-life fold, and back to the historic Christian consensus on this issue—a consensus that goes all the way back to ancient documents like the Didache.
I bring up this history to illustrate that bioethical truths are not always as obvious to Christians as we imagine. Implications about the sanctity of life we think we see today in Scripture and science were not always so clear to evangelicals in past generations—not because God was silent on such issues back then, but because Christians often failed to do the ethical and exegetical reflection necessary to hear Him speak.
If we hold our pro-life convictions firmly today and believe that they truly are grounded in revelation, this past failure should humble us and make us much more sensitive to our current bioethical blind spots. All the more when we realize how fast our world is changing.
We live amid a bewildering array of new technologies and practices that tinker with, dispense with, or exploit human life in ways our grandparents couldn’t have imagined. In vitro fertilization, surrogacy, chemical abortions, contraception and sterilization, gender transition, human cloning and human-animal hybrids, physician-assisted suicide, stem-cell research, embryo-selective eugenics, and dozens of similar applications of science and medicine can leave us dizzy. And even though we confess that the Bible is sufficient to “equip the man of God thoroughly for every good work,” it addresses almost none of these practices directly.
How then do we distinguish between practices that are morally acceptable, and those that violate God’s design for our bodies and relationships? As we answer this question, we risk making one of two mistakes.
On the one hand, we might conclude that because the Bible nowhere explicitly addresses something like human cloning, God therefore has no opinion on the matter. We have Christian freedom to make up our own minds, because Scripture is silent on the issue.
It’s not hard to see where this laissez-faire attitude leads. Christians would quickly lose all meaningful public witness in the modern world if we restricted ourselves only to those moral questions dealt with by name in ancient Israel. Just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention a modern practice doesn’t mean it lacks the ethical principles to rightly judge that practice. Indeed, there is very little in the Bible about abortion. Yet that doesn’t mean God is silent on the murder of unborn children.
Here’s the other mistake: We might argue against something like gay adoption using only the Bible and its condemnations of homosexual relations. “God said it, I believe Him, that settles it.” And this might work in a more Christian society. But that is not the society we live in. More importantly, the Bible itself treats moral truths not as Divine fiats unknowable to anyone without special revelation, but as discernible truths attested by creation and written on the human heart. In a strict sense, we do not need the Bible to tell us that homosexuality, for example, is wrong, because as Paul writes, it is “unnatural”—it violates the evident design or law etched on our very natures and bodies. The Bible’s rules are not rules without reasons. And those reasons are plain even to unbelievers—plain enough, at any rate, to render them “without excuse.”
So, where does this leave us? And how do evangelicals avoid coming to the wrong conclusion on bioethical issues in our time, the way so many did fifty years ago on abortion? For that matter, how do we engage our neighbors and legislators on bioethical issues without falling into either of the errors I just described? How do we know what to say and think about the bewildering new technologies that confront us?
The answer really comes down to diligent study—of Scripture, science, and Christian ethical teaching both ancient and modern. The church must become again a place where the followers of Jesus think deeply about what’s right and wrong and why it’s right or wrong—especially when human life is at stake. We must draw on the resources of Christian communions that have gotten these questions right in the past (more Protestants need to pick up documents like Humanae vitae). And we must take advantage of the wisdom and experience available from organizations like the Christian Medical and Dental Association, whose “Bridging the Gap” bioethics curriculum was the subject of this week’s Upstream interview.
If we hope to speak on any of these issues with “love, justice, and mercy” as Dr. Prior puts it, we must never take the “ethics” half of bioethics for granted. Many who shared our profession of faith once did that. And we’re still living with the consequences to this day.