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When Right-Wing Christians Stopped Thinking of Women as People

You'd be surprised at Christian denominations' positions on abortion in the 1970s.

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Balance: “Instead of a single guide, we have recognized several guides, each of which speaks with the others and balances the others where they become one-sided. These are scripture, church tradition, reason, [and] personal experience.”

Compassion: “The tragedies of rape, incest, child abuse, the 'unwanted' child, as well as the special difficulties of the poor in dealing with abortion all stand as signs that we have not realized Christ’s call for community. “

Responsibility: “We confess that we are part of a society that contributes to abortion by denying parents the support and assistance they need.” “The Gospel call to reverence for life challenges us to do all we can to change those situations that make abortion necessary for some people.”

Anyone who has ever found his or her own deeply held values in conflict will recognize the tone of these quotes—the introspection, the reluctance, the struggle with difficult decisions that force us to choose between different kinds of good or different kinds of bad or some messy and uncertain mix of both. It stands in stark contrast to the righteous certitude of today’s culture warriors.

The Protestant denominations involved in the ecumenical study group were mainline traditions that today are considered theologically liberal. Most continue to affirm quietly that abortion decisions are best trusted to a woman and her understanding of God, with spiritual council and community support. It may be more surprising to many people that at the time many biblical literalists  similarly saw abortion as a matter of individual decision.  Jonathan Dudley, CNN commentator and author of Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, lays it out:

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.

The WAC members sought to discern God’s will through a combination of scripture, tradition, reason and experience, but evangelical Christians claim to speak from the authority of the Bible alone, a Reformation principle known as “ sola scriptura.” Consequently, one striking feature of their shift on abortion is that biblical authority now must be invoked to support an anti-abortion stance. Rick Warren, whose book,  The Purpose Driven Life, cherry-picks from over 10 Bible translations to best underscore his points, said in 2008, “The reason I believe life begins at conception is ‘cause the Bible says it.”

Ironically, as theology blogger Fred Clark has  pointed out, sometime between 1968 and 2008, biblical literalists became so sure God opposed abortion that they actually changed the language of the Bible to fit their  new position on God’s unchanging will. The passage cited by Bruce Waltke was the sticking point because it is the only passage in the Bible that explicitly addresses the legal status of a fetus. In 1977, the New American Standard translation of Exodus 21:22-25 read as follows:

 
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