Up to this point we have looked at the position of the early church fathers and Roman Catholic Church until the mid-nineteenth century. We’ll now turn, briefly, to Protestant views of abortion. At this point, it should be no surprise that many of the same complexities noted and debated among the patristics and the Roman Catholics were also noted and debated among the Protestants. It should be noted as well that, with precious few exceptions, there is no single “Protestant” position on anything. In light of that, and for the sake of time and space, I will tend more toward generalization in this post.

We’ll start by acknowledging that two towering giants of Protestantism, Martin Luther and John Calvin, both seemed to have held to the view that human life begins at conception. Luther’s protégé Melanchthon, however, seems to have differed with Luther to some degree. As George Hunston Williams has outlined, the early Reformers’ belief in human life from conception was inextricably linked to their beliefs about original sin and eternal predestination.[1] That background may shed light John Calvin’s interpretation of Exodus 21, where he writes,

This passage at first sight is ambiguous, for if the word death only applies to the pregnant woman, it would not have been a capital crime to put an end to the fœtus, which would be a great absurdity; for the fœtus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, (homo,) and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fœtus in the womb before it has come to light. On these grounds I am led to conclude, without hesitation, that the words, “if death should follow,” must be applied to the fœtus as well as to the mother.[2]

As you’ve probably already observed, Calvin’s interpretation here differs from both the ancient Jewish interpretation of the original Hebrew and the early Christians’ interpretation of the Greek translation. Whereas the Jewish and Christian interpreters looked to the text to determine when human life begins, Calvin begins with the assumption that a fetus constitutes a human life from conception. He then imports that belief into the text, and then interprets accordingly. Unfortunately for us, Calvin does not explain why he begins with that view, but Williams’ observation provides a plausible explanation. Later Protestant and Reformed theologians were more divided, with some once again making distinction between formed and unformed fetuses, delayed ensoulment, and the like.

Fast-forward to nineteenth-century America. Prior to this point, American law followed English common law and allowed abortion up until the point of “quickening,” which was believed to be around the midpoint of pregnancy. By the 1840s, medical advancements had made abortion a much safer procure, which led to a drastic increase in abortions, predominantly among married Protestant women. As James Mohr explains in his book Abortion in America,

Most observers, then, agreed that most of the women who drove America’s abortion rates so steeply upward after 1840 were married. Most observers also agreed that virtually all of the women who sought abortions in the United States during the middle decades of the nineteenth century share at least one other characteristic: They appeared to be almost exclusively Protestant.[3]

This increase in abortions led to a coordinated effort to bring about some kind of legislative reform limiting abortion. This effort was led, perhaps surprisingly, by medical doctors. Noticeably absent from this resistance was, perhaps even more surprisingly, Protestant clergy.

Recounting the history in an article for Christianity Today, Tim Stafford notes,

The most visible group opposing abortion were “regular” doctors. The American Medical Association (AMA), formed in 1847, took up antiabortion as its cause…The religious establishment did not. Protestant clergy had considerable prestige and were important in other reform movements of the time—notably temperance—but to the dismay of doctors, most churches ignored the issue.[4]

Eventually the doctors were successful in their quest to have abortion outlawed.

 Fast-forward again to the mid-twentieth century when, as was demonstrated in an earlier installment, American conservative evangelical Christians and scholars were using the Bible to make the case in evangelical books and periodicals that human life began not at conception, but at birth, and therefore that abortion was sometimes permissible and always qualitatively different than murder. As a clear example of this, consider “A Protestant Affirmation On the Control Of Human Reproduction,” which was printed in Christianity Today and described as the “consensus of 25 evangelical scholars who participated in A PROTESTANT SYMPOSIUM ON THE CONTROL OF HUMAN REPREODUCTION, Aug. 27-31, 1968.[5] Regarding abortion, this conservative, Protestant, evangelical symposium declared, “Whether or not the performance of an induce abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.”[6] They go on to outline principles that a Christian physician should consider when asked to perform an abortion. Those principles, quoted verbatim, are as follows:

  • The human fetus is not merely a mass of cells or an organic growth. At the most, it is an actual human life or at the least, a potential and developing human life. For this reason the physician with a regard for the value and sacredness of human life will exercise great caution in prescribing abortion.
  • The Christian physician will advise induced abortion only to safeguard greater values sanctioned by Scripture. Those values may be individual, familial, or societal.
  • From the moment of birth, the infant is a human being with all the rights which Holy Scripture accords to all human beings; therefore infanticide under any name should be condemned.[7]

Three years later, in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution on abortion in which they resolved to

Call upon Southern Baptists 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.[8]

In 1974, the SBC re-affirmed the 1971 resolution which they claimed was “adopted overwhelmingly” and “reflected a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder.”[9]

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that the tide of evangelical opinion began to turn, largely due to the influence of Francis Schaeffer who enlisted the support of Jerry Falwell Sr. The anti-abortion cause was eventually picked up and championed by the Religious Right. In a rare instance of ecumenicism, conservative Protestant evangelicals, generally not known for having favorable opinions about Roman Catholicism, joined forces with Roman Catholic antiabortion organizations in an effort oppose abortion at a constitutional level.

Jonathan Dudley, who chronicles this development in his book Broken Words, observes that “by the mid-1980s, the evangelical Right was so successful with this strategy that the popular evangelical community would no longer tolerate any alternative position.”[10] In less than 20 years, the evangelical position on abortion had shifted from “[we] cannot speak with binding authority where the Bible is unclear” and “whether or not the performance of induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed” to “the Bible clearly states that life begins at conception…It is murder according to the Word of God.” This shift, Dudley accurately notes, “was not occasioned by new discoveries about the ancient meaning of the text or new scientific developments; it was occasioned by a shift in the historical context and political interests of evangelical leaders.”[11]

In Summary
The preceding sprint through Jewish and Christian history was intended to demonstrate that the issue of abortion has long and complex background in religious thought. And, really, we’ve only scratched the surface. What should hopefully be clear at this point is that while abortion has always been viewed unfavorably in the Jewish and Christian traditions, it has demonstrably not always been understood as “murder from conception.” That view, at least in the Western Church, has actually been the minority view for most of Christian history. Perhaps acknowledging this complexity and diversity of thought will evoke a spirit of humility within us as we engage the issue today.

[1] George Huntston Williams, “Religious Residues and Presuppositions in the American Debate on Abortion.” Theological Studies 31, no. 1 (February 1970): 10–75.

[2] John Calvin and Charles William Bingham, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 41–42.

[3]James C. Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800–1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 90.

[4] Tim Stafford, “The Abortion Wars,” Christianity Today, January 1, 2003, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/januaryweb-only/abortion-wars-history-prolife-christians.html, accessed February 13, 2018.

[5] “A Protestant Affirmation On the Control Of Human Reproduction,” Christianity Today 13, no. 3 (November 8, 1968): 18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Resolution on Abortion, St. Louis Missouri, 1971,” Southern Baptist Convention, http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/13/resolution-on-abortion

[9] “Resolution On Abortion And Sanctity Of Human Life, Dallas, Texas, 1974,” Southern Baptist Convention, http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/14/resolution-on-abortion-and-sanctity-of-human-life.

[10] Jonathan Dudley, Broken Words.

[11] Dudley, Broken Words

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