Published June 22, 2021
EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker co-authored the following piece with several other Southern Baptist scholars, whose names and affiliations are listed at the end.
One of the difficult things about the Resolutions process at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is that the messengers, who represent cooperating churches, are often given far too little time to consider complicated resolutions. We think something like that might have happened at our most recent meeting.
More often than not, our resolutions come out in a good place. However, that is not always the case. Take for example the 1971 and 1974 resolutions on abortion, which espouse a pro-choice position. Southern Baptists rightly look back on those resolutions with embarrassment and for that reason have affirmed and reaffirmed a clear pro-life position both in the Baptist Faith & Message and in a string of pro-life resolutions over the last forty-one years.
Southern Baptists have not at all diminished in their resolve to “contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death,” and we have declared that resolve time and time again over the years. That resolve is why Southern Baptists affirmed two anti-abortion resolutions at this year’s convention as well—one defending the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits tax dollars being used for abortions) and another calling for the abolition of abortion altogether.
While both of these resolutions have noble pro-life aims, the second one contains two serious flaws that made it impossible for us to support it: (1) it rejects incrementalism and (2) it embraces the abolition of abortion with no exception for the life of the mother. Both of these provisions—if carried out in public policy—would lead to more destruction of innocent human life, not less.
Rejecting an Exception for the Life of the Mother
The mainstream of the pro-life movement has always held that both mother and unborn baby are precious human beings created in the image of Almighty God (Gen. 1:26-28). As such, both mother and baby have inherent dignity and inestimable value and worth. Each one, therefore, has an equal and inherent right to life. But Christian ethics has long wrestled with the very rare but very real scenarios in which a medical condition threatens the life of both mother and baby. Is it morally right to attempt to save the life of one if you can’t save both? Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox ethicists have widely held that it is good and right to save the life of the one even if you can’t save both. As long as the aim is to save a life and the means chosen are morally neutral, that effort is good and right (see “The Principle of Double Effect”).
The classic example of this very rare dilemma is the ectopic pregnancy, in which a human embryo implants not in the uterus but in the fallopian tube. If that human embryo is left to grow in that dangerous place, the fallopian tube will eventually rupture, and both mother and baby will die. But it is possible to remove the fallopian tube, which contains the developing fetus, in order to save the life of the mother. There is no way for the developing fetus to survive if left in place, nor is there any way for it to survive removal. Nevertheless, the aim in such removal is not to destroy life but to save the one life that can be saved—the life of the mother.
The wording of the resolution does not allow for any attempt to save the life of the mother in this kind of scenario. Here’s what it says:
WHEREAS, since 1980, the SBC has passed many resolutions reaffirming the importance of human life at all stages of development, but we have yet to call for the immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise…
RESOLVED, that the messengers of the SBC meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15-16, 2021, do state unequivocally that abortion is murder, and we reject any position that allows for any exceptions to the legal protection of our preborn neighbors, compromises God’s holy standard of justice, or promotes any God-hating partiality [emphasis ours]
This resolution would prohibit the attempt to save the life of the mother in cases like this. As a result, not only will the baby die, but so will the mother. Yet this is a scenario in which one life could be saved. That is why if the wording of this resolution were followed, it would lead to more death of innocent human life, not less.
It is for this reason that Southern Baptists have adopted resolutions to reaffirm over and over an exception for the life of a mother, and we have done so consistently since the beginning of the conservative resurgence in 1980:
1980: “…we favor appropriate legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother…”
1982: “…we support and will work for appropriate legislation and/or constitutional amendment which will prohibit abortions except to save the physical life of the mother…”
1984: “…we call upon all Southern Baptists to renew their commitment to support and work for legislation and/or constitutional amendment which will prohibit abortion except to save the physical life of the mother…”
1988: “…The trustees of the Christian Life Commission have adopted a firm policy opposing abortion except to prevent the death of the mother…”
1989: “…we do reaffirm our opposition to legalized abortion and our support of appropriate federal and state legislation and/or constitutional amendment which will prohibit abortion except to prevent the imminent death of the mother…”
1991: “…we the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, June 4-6, 1991, affirm the biblical prohibition against the taking of unborn human life except to save the life of the mother…”
1993: “…we affirm the biblical prohibition on the taking of unborn human life except to save the life of the mother…”
1996: “…The Southern Baptist Convention has consistently and overwhelmingly adopted resolutions affirming the declarations of Scripture that all human life is a sacred gift from our sovereign God and therefore that all abortions, except in those very rare cases where the life of the mother is clearly in danger, are wrong…”
1999: “…Southern Baptists are on record for their decades-long opposition to abortion except to save the physical life of the mother…”
2018: “…we affirm the full dignity of every unborn child and denounce every act of abortion except to save the mother’s physical life…”
Some ethicists question whether a child’s death resulting from removal of fallopian tube qualifies as an “abortion,” as such, since the death of the child is not intended, even if it is foreseen. We believe that, regardless of how one labels the procedure, the larger moral principle holds. It is good and right to save the life of the one in instances when both cannot be saved.
The word “abortion” can be morally freighted in a way that suggests intent to kill an unborn human life. Nevertheless, there is a history in SBC resolutions of using the term “abortion” generically. In this usage, an “abortion” is any action that results in the destruction of unborn human life at any stage of development regardless of intent (see American Heritage Dictionary, “any of various procedures that result in the termination of a pregnancy”). This usage is a little like employing the term “abortifacient” regardless of intent.
In the string of SBC resolutions dating back to 1980, the framers call for an exception for the life of the mother in “abortions,” but they presumably do so based on the principle of double effect. We might not like the terminology they used, but they were nevertheless using the term “abortion” in a generic sense to refer to any action that has an abortifacient effect, regardless of intent.
Southern Baptists have long affirmed the full dignity and worth of every unborn child at every stage of development, while also recognizing that it is good and right to try to save the life of the mother when both mother and child cannot be saved. The 2021 resolution departs from this clear and consistent precedent in SBC pro-life resolutions. We believe it is wrong to do so.
It is worth mentioning that the vast majority of conservative evangelical ethicists adopt the “life of the mother” exception as consistent with the Bible’s teaching about the sanctity of human life:
John and Paul Feinberg: “At the current state of technology, the only genuine options with an ectopic pregnancy are either to lose one life (the baby’s) or both the mother and the child. Not only would an abortion in such cases be morally permissible; it would be the most prudent decision so as to avoid losing the mother’s life as well” (p. 138).
John Jefferson Davis: “Only in those rare cases where continuation of the pregnancy would present a threat to the mother’s life would abortion be morally justified” (p. 149).
Wayne Grudem: “If abortion is necessary to save the mother’s life, this would be the only situation in which abortion is morally justified” (p. 576).
Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan: “Historically, Protestants have justified taking the life of the unborn when a continued pregnancy would put the life of the mother in jeopardy” (p. 377).
Norman Geisler: “When it is necessary (such as in tubal pregnancies), it is morally justified to take every medical precaution to save the mother’s life… Since the presence of the fetus in a fallopian tube (an ectopic pregnancy) is threatening her life. Either the baby dies or else both will die. And it is better to save the one life than none” (p. 153).
Scott Klusendorf: “Suppose, however, that the pregnancy does in fact pose a grave threat to the mother’s life. What is the morally correct way to proceed?… What is the greatest moral good we can achieve in this situation? Is it best to do nothing and let two humans (likely) die, or is it best to act in such a way that we can save one life even though the unintended and unavoidable consequence of acting is the death of the human embryo? Pro-life advocates almost universally agree we should do the latter. It is better to save one life than lose two…” (p. 31).
Randy Alcorn: “In an ectopic pregnancy, the child developing outside the uterus has no hope of survival, and may have to be removed to save his mother’s life. A tragic situation, to be sure, but even if one life must be lost, the life that can be saved should be” (p. 33).
We could go on and on with examples like this from Bible-believing, inerrancy-affirming pro-life ethicists. This is the mainstream pro-life view and has been for many decades. The resolution that messengers adopted in Nashville is not only outside the Southern Baptist mainstream (at least since 1980), it is also outside the pro-life mainstream in general. It would leave mothers to die along with their babies and would lead to more deaths of innocent human lives, not fewer.
Another dire shortcoming of the recent resolution is that it rejects what is called incrementalism. Here is the wording of the resolution:
WHEREAS, over the past 48 years with 60+ million abortions, traditional Pro-life laws, though well intended, have not established equal protection and justice for the preborn, but on the contrary, appallingly have established incremental, regulatory guidelines for when, where, why, and how to obtain legal abortion of innocent preborn children, thereby legally sanctioning abortion, and
RESOLVED, that we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion because it challenges God’s Lordship over the heart and the conscience, and rejects His call to repent of sin completely and immediately (Gen 3:1; John 8:44; Rom 2:14-15; 2 Corinthians 11:3).
The original resolution rejected incrementalism altogether, but a messenger offered an amendment to add the word “alone” in the “RESOLVED” clause. That is a great improvement, but the messenger’s amendment failed to deal with the castigation of incrementalism in the “WHEREAS” clause. So the resolution still denigrates incrementalism. Why is this rejection a deal-breaker for us and for the vast majority of pro-lifers?
Incrementalism is the idea that, while we all are working for the complete abolition of abortion, we also want to support measures to limit and curtail abortion along the way to save as many lives as we can. The sponsors of this resolution reject incrementalism because they say it gives up on the principle of the sanctity of every human life, and we ought not surrender that principle. We must protect all lives, not just some of them.
But that approach would be a little bit like Eisenhower setting the goal to capture Berlin but refusing to invade Normandy until all of France and Germany can be conquered at once. That would have been foolish. Of course the goal is the total conquest of the Nazis in Berlin, but that goal can only be reached incrementally. You have to land the troops in Normandy and fight your way through. Sitting on the beach in England and declaring your “total conquest” principles would never have driven the Nazis out of France. You have to fight inch by inch, yard by yard, mile by mile until total victory is achieved.
That is what incrementalism is all about. The ultimate goal is the abolition of abortion. But even if we can’t reach that goal today, we are going to take as much ground as we can today and tomorrow and every day until we achieve total victory. That is why the pro-life movement supports incremental steps such as abolishing Roe v. Wade, enacting partial-birth abortion bans, passing parental notification laws, approving “heartbeat bills,” opening crisis pregnancy centers, and other such measures. None of these measures constitute the complete abolition of abortion, but they do save precious human lives along the way to total abolition.
A day before approving the resolution on abortion, Southern Baptists overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming support for the Hyde Amendment—a provision that prevents taxpayer dollars from funding abortions. Even though the Hyde Amendment does not abolish abortion completely, it nevertheless has saved over two million unborn children from being destroyed by abortion. That is incrementalism, and it is absolutely necessary for saving human life along the way to total abolition. That is why this resolution would lead to the destruction of more precious unborn lives, not fewer.
Since 1980, Southern Baptists have explicitly supported incremental measures to limit abortion while also affirming the sanctity of every human life. In 1993, messengers approved a resolution affirming the Hyde Amendment. In 1996, messengers passed a resolution affirming a ban on partial-birth abortion. In 1989, Southern Baptists clearly affirmed an incremental approach on the way to total abolition. Here is the wording of the resolution:
WHEREAS, the Court may now be willing to permit the states and the Congress once again to enact legislation regulating and restricting abortion.
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Las Vegas, June 13-15, 1989, do strongly urge the fifty state legislatures and the Congress to enact legislation to restrict the practice of induced abortion; and
The 1989 resolution affirms the goal of abolishing abortion but also affirms the noble work of “restricting” abortion along the way to total abolition. And that is what Southern Baptists have been doing for decades now in their support for crisis pregnancy centers and the like. These are incremental measures. They are good measures, and they save unborn lives. Proverbs 24:11 commands us to “Deliver those who are being taken away to death, And those who are staggering to slaughter, O hold them back.” Incrementalism comes to the rescue of as many unborn lives as possible, even if all can’t be saved right now. We take the ground we can get, because lives are at stake.
Scott Klusendorf has an important article defending incrementalism. He writes this:
How does it follow that because we can’t save all children we shouldn’t try to save some? Pro-lifers are not the ones compromising when we support incremental laws aimed at limiting the evil of abortion. Rather, the pro-abortionist is compromising because he’s forced to give ground on the current status quo — namely, that any child can be killed at any point in pregnancy for any reason. When pro-lifers chip away at the status quo, they are improving the moral landscape.
Indeed, we are doing more than improving the moral landscape. We are saving lives.
Clarke Forsythe is the evangelical who has done the most extensive work defending the concept of prudence and incrementalism in political strategy. He has written an important book, but here is a summary of his work in which he points to Wilberforce as a good example of incrementalism on the way to the abolition of the slave trade.
Rescue the Perishing
Proverbs 24:10-11 has a grave warning to anyone who passively stands by while innocent lives are destroyed:
If you are slack in the day of distress, Your strength is limited. Deliver those who are being taken away to death, And those who are staggering to slaughter, O hold them back. If you say, “See, we did not know this,” Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?
Our problem with those who reject incrementalism is that they fail to act in the “day of distress.” Right now, it’s already legal to kill babies at any time from conception to birth. Indeed, the immoral regime of Roe v. Wade has presided over the legal killing of over 60 million unborn children since 1973. It’s the greatest human rights crisis of our time, and it is ongoing. That means that right now is the “day of distress.” Why wouldn’t we support measures like the Hyde Amendment? The Hyde Amendment keeps taxpayer money from funding abortions. As we noted above, it’s estimated that more than two million unborn babies have been saved by the Hyde Amendment. What kind of an “abolitionist” won’t do what needs to be done to save the two million?
Not only is the resolution adopted in Nashville at odds with the successes of the pro-life movement, but its own call to action is unhelpfully vague. To call for “abolition” implies adopting the means to accomplish such an end. If they won’t adopt incremental measures like the Hyde Amendment or efforts to abolish Roe v. Wade, then we are compelled to ask: What methods are abolitionists willing to adopt to accomplish their aims? Armed resistance? Civil war? Civil disobedience? In gutting pro-life advocacy of any incremental success, it calls for a goal without explaining how it would be attained. Those who adopt a resolution implying drastic action owe us the clarity of what those actions are to be.
There are other aspects of this resolution that give us pause. For example, it seems to hint at prosecution of post-abortive women. Traditionally, pro-life advocates have wanted to prosecute the abortionist, not the women. Also, the resolution makes no hint at the moral complicity of the men fathering the aborted children, and thus could suggest a misogynistic edge.
This resolution as drafted is a total repudiation of the pro-life movement. It repudiates the legislative gains made by the pro-life movement as insufficiently pro-life. It says the thousands of laws to undo America’s culture of death have all been for nothing. Is that really what we want to communicate to those who have been working tirelessly to fight abortion in America?
The resolution on abortion that was passed at the annual meeting in Nashville was well-intended but woefully flawed. It offers no exception for the life of the mother, and it opposes incrementalism. Those two items are serious shortcomings that would lead to the loss of more innocent lives, not fewer. We believe in the sanctity of every human life from conception to death. Every life is precious, and we ought to try to save as many as we can, even if we can’t save all. That is why the resolutions committee wisely declined to bring this resolution to the floor in the first place. We only wish that the messengers had followed their lead.
Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Alan Branch, Professor of Christian Ethics, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Andrew Walker, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Apologetics, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Steve Lemke, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
Daniel Heimbach, Senior Professor of Christian Ethics, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Ben Mitchell, C. Ben Mitchell, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy (ret.), Union University
Jeffrey Riley, Professor of Ethics, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary