In male dominated cultures there has always been birth on demand. A woman’s primary duty was to provide a male heir for her husband. If she did not, her husband was free to use another woman for the purpose. That woman had no will of her own. (Genesis 16) It wasn’t rape because the woman had no rights.
In wars, the victors often killed everyone who wasn’t useful as a slave and Moses ordered Hebrew warriors to do so. Neither pregnant women nor their fetuses were spared. However, warriors could take virgin girls for personal use. (Numbers 31) A woman’s only alternative to birth on demand was abortion or suicide, often the same thing.
Chinese folklore mentions induced abortions in 5000 BC but the earliest recorded evidence is circa 1550 BC. Hippocrates gave advice on how to induce abortion as did the second century Greek physician Soranus. Soranus also gave advice regarding contraception. Even for men, birth on demand was not always desirable. Christian theologian Tertullian described surgical implements for such use. Augustine argued that “there cannot be a living soul in a body that lacks sensation due to its not yet being fully formed.” Thomas Aquinas believed that in the first stage of pregnancy the fetus was “vegetative,” in the second “animal, and that it became a soul only in the third.
Whether induced or not, fetuses were not given Christian burial. The Catholic Church did not permit the baptism of fetuses that did not show a human form. However, that changed when the immaculate conception of the mother of Jesus became dogma.
There was a long tradition that Mary lived a sinless life and did not need sanctifying grace because exemption from “original sin” had been granted to her before she was born. That tradition became doctrine in 1854 with the argument that her conception took place in the usual way but that original sin did not stain one’s body but one’s soul; therefore, Mary had to have been a soul before she was born. When papal infallibility became dogma in 1870, so did the immaculate conception and ensoulment at the moment of the sperm’s penetration of the egg.
Until 1821, in America there were no state or federal laws against abortion. Growing Catholic population and political power moved states toward control of reproduction with laws criminalizing contraception and abortion. The Supreme Court overturned the last state law against contraception in 1965. By the time Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, nineteen states explicitly permitted abortions in some circumstances, although only four allowed a woman choice for non-medical reasons. Then, as now, women with choice were those with means.
When my wife and I married in 1953, our Southern Baptist pastor warned us that should she get pregnant we should avoid Catholic doctors and Catholic hospitals because they would sacrifice a mother’s life to save a fetus. Baptists thought that was both unwise and deplorable prejudice.
During her child-bearing years we heard the same from other Southern Baptist pastors, preachers and friends. During the 1971 and 1974 Southern Baptist Conventions, Southern Baptists were called upon “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.”
Prominent Southern Baptist fundamentalist, W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, declared his satisfaction with Roe v Wade. “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from the mother that it became an individual person, and it always has, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press wrote, “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.” Southern Baptist, Linda Coffee, commented, “Legal personhood is separate entirely from a moral or religious view of personhood...the Supreme Court decision does not absolve anyone of individual moral or religious responsibility.”
Baptists, including Southern Baptists, had been leading advocates of separation of church and state. Government support or intervention in religious matters was regarded as evil. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights act, the political south took a sharp turn to the right. The religious south followed.
The Southern Baptist Convention was formed by those who supported slavery and backed their position with selected scriptures from the Holy Bible. A century later more liberal elements among Southern Baptists supported integration. Some like Will D. Campbell became heroes in the Civil Rights moment. Fundamentalists either favored or sought favor with those who devoutly believed in segregation, like W.A. Criswell, and supported their position with selective scriptures from the Bible.
All over America, employers and educators had to make a pretense of giving equal opportunity to African Americans and other minorities. All over America men were losing control over women. Except in churches where they were kept in their special place.
In 1970, the Internal Revenue Service stripped Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status and the Green v. Connally court decision declared that any institution that practiced segregation was not a charitable institution and therefore not qualified for tax-exemption. Many Protestant churches in the south had started schools to avoid integration. With the Green v. Connally decision, the schools lost their reason for being.
Although both the Roe decision and the Connally decision occurred before the Carter administration, the Religious Right blamed Carter, a Southern Baptist. They anointed Reagan to deliver them from government bondage and lead them back to the good life they had enjoyed when white men ruled. Reagan, who as governor had legalized abortion in California before Roe v. Wade, pledged that he would support them.
In the 1970s the threat to marriage was the accelerating rate of divorce among fundamentalists. “Christianity Today” ran eight articles or editorials regarding it. Nevertheless, fundamentalist leaders did not press for laws outlawing divorce and abortion was not an issue.
Paul Weyrich complained of the reluctance of fundamentalists to take up the cause of abortion. “I had discussions with all the leading lights of the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, post Roe v. Wade, and they were all arguing that that decision was one more reason why Christians had to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.” Reagan had abandoned his family to marry a pregnant mistress and divorce ceased to become a moral issue and fundamentalists joined Catholics in making the criminalization of abortion a wedge issue.
By 1980, fundamentalists had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention with the support of Criswell and the tacit support of evangelist Billy Graham, who would later declare, “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” (Parade, 1981)
Baptists had no earthly authority other than the Scriptures to decide doctrine or declare dogma. Neither the Jewish nor the Christian Bibles mentioned abortion. Jesus said that nonexistence was not the worst fate. “The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! good were it for that man if he had never been born.” (Mark 14:21)
Southern Baptists focused on a selective literal interpretation of a scripture from each Testament, one from Jeremiah and one from Ephesians. Both seemed strained.
“Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5 KJV) Does that mean that Jeremiah had a soul before he was formed in the womb or that God had a mission for him before he was conceived? Jeremiah also wrote, “Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying A man child is born unto thee; making him very glad…because he slew me not from the womb; or that my mother might have been my grave, and her womb to be always great with me.” (Jeremiah 20:14-17)
Job also wished that his mother had been aborted him. (Job 3:1-17) Ecclesiastes 6:3 declared that unless a man has a good life and proper burial, abortion is better. The prophet Hosea prayed for God to punish wayward Israelites with abortion. “Give them, O Lord: what wilt thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.” (Hosea 9:14)
A better indication of the status of a fetus might be Exodus 21:22-25. If a man accidentally caused a woman to abort a fetus, then he had to pay the father for the loss of his property, the fetus. However, if there were injury to the mother then it was eye for eye, hand for hand. Some try to force the interpretation that it refers to injury of the fetus but how many incubators did the Hebrews have? How near were they? As Dr. James Morse points out, “Why even bother to fine the man at all if the child lived and suffered no injuries?”
The Code of Hammurabi was similar. “If a man strikes a woman causing her fruit to depart, he shall pay ten shekalim for her loss of child. If the woman should die, he who struck her shall be put to death.”
In Leviticus God commanded Moses to say that if a man lies with his uncle’s wife or his brother’s wife, “they shall die childless” or “be childless.” (Leviticus 20: 20, 21) Previous verses regarding sexual immorality required death by stoning or fire. How was the punishment of childlessness carried out? Wouldn’t abortion or infanticide be required?
Before reading the Bible too literally, read Hebrew 7: 9-10. Levi existed in the loins of his great-grandfather. Is that where fundamentalists believe life begins?
No fundamentalist literally believes that Almighty God is a sheep herder. No fundamentalist believes that one must literally be born again. Not since Nicodemus has there been such a literalist.
From the Christian Bible fundamentalists selected Ephesians 5:22-25. Wives were to submit to their husbands. Husbands were to love their wives. They chose to ignore the previous verse. “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of the Lord.” For men, love is a verb that requires no action other than declaration. For women, declaration of love means submission.
They also chose to ignore Galatians 3: 2, where the writer pointed out democracy in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” As George Orwell might write, some are more “one” than others.
“For the husband is head of the wife,” became Southern Baptist dogma. That has always been true in patriarchal societies. There is a hierarchy. The king rules over all. Wives, indeed all women, submit to his demands. When fundamentalists gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention, women lost their power, even those who had been pastors, university or seminary professors, or officers in the Convention. A woman was to have no authority over a man.
However, if a woman did not submit her uterus to the control of her father, husband or a male-dominated organization like the church or state, then women would control reproduction. And a woman would have authority over her husband. In addition to selective literalism, the fundamentalists turned to the government as the solution to their problem. Men must maintain control of reproduction. That means birth on demand.
First Baptist Church, Dallas, became racially integrated while Criswell, who had opposed integration, was pastor. Southern Baptists who had fought for separation of church and state stand in line for tax-funded handouts for their schools and charities.
Right or wrong. Black or white. It’s surprising how quickly colors, like other absolutes, can change.
I want to acknowledge debt to James O. Morse, US Army, Retired, for his essay, “Is Abortion Always Murder,” and to Randall Balmer, professor, editor, and Episcopal priest for his excellent book Thy Kingdom Come.