Two years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, the largest Protestant group in the United States made a powerful statement on abortion.
The Southern Baptist Convention wanted to make it legal.
The members of the convention listed in a 1971 resolution when it should be allowed: “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.”
Three years later, they affirmed that statement and, recognizing the complexities of contemporary society, asked for “God’s guidance through prayer and study in order to bring about solutions to continuing abortion problems in our society.”
By 1980, the middle ground was gone. The Southern Baptists now supported a U.S. constitutional amendment banning abortion except to save a mother’s life.
That reversal was a marker in the rise of the politically potent Christian Right, for which many say abortion has become a proxy for bigger divides in American culture.
In the past decade, support for or against abortion has become a litmus test for politicians. And conservative lawmakers in many states have been increasingly successful in passing restrictions.
Still, the majority of Americans’ views on abortion have changed little since the mid-1970s.
In 1975, just two years after Roe v. Wade, 21 percent in the United States wanted abortion legal under any circumstance, 54 percent wanted it legal under certain circumstances, and 22 percent of Americans wanted it to be illegal in all circumstances, according to the Gallup poll.
In 2011, the statistics are not much different: 26 percent want it legal under any circumstance, 51 percent want it legal under certain circumstances, and 20 percent favor illegal always.
The growth in the anti-abortion movement among Protestant religions, such as the Southern Baptists, happened against a backdrop of growing conservative movement within the churches.
Concerns about moral values during the sexual revolution, along with the later unease over the economic crisis in 1979 through 1981, galvanized evangelical leaders into action, said the Rev. George Grant of Parish Presbyterian Church in Franklin.
“There was a great deal of alarm about the future of our world,” he said.
Around the same time, a group of Southern Baptist ministers, worried that their denomination had become too liberal, started what became known as the Battle for the Bible. They’d eventually take over the denomination, leading it to be more theologically and politically conservative.
The conservative Protestant groups brought muscle to what, before then, had largely been a fight waged by the Roman Catholic Church.
The battle shows no sign of ending soon, said Vanessa Beasley, associate professor of communications studies at Vanderbilt University. That’s because for more than three decades, the anti-abortion platform has worked in politics as a fundraising and campaign strategy.
“At the end of the day you have to get people to do two things,” Beasley said. “Give money and go vote.”
Abortion motivates people to do both, she said.
But not always have the anti-abortion advocates had success, as evidenced in a recent controversy over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation.
It began in December when Southern Baptist-owned and Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources began to receive complaints about pink Bibles it sold that benefited the well-known and popular breast research and cancer awareness foundation.
Blogger Susan Michelle Tyrrell of the pro-life group Bound4Life said that buying the pink Bible was “making a donation to death” because Komen donated money to Planned Parenthood. Komen’s money was for breast screening programs, but because Planned Parenthood also funds abortions, activists were furious.
LifeWay pulled the Bible from shelves. And Komen on Jan. 31 announced it was cutting ties with Planned Parenthood.
Almost immediately, Komen was flooded with protests from women across the country who said the organization had betrayed women’s rights.
Three days later Komen reversed course. Several top leaders resigned.
A turning point
Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, says there’s no gray area for pro-life activists.
For them, abortion is murder and they want to end the practice and punish those who perform it.
When the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the state constitution provided for “protections of an individual’s right to make inherently personal decisions, and to act on those decisions, without government interference,” including a “woman’s termination of her pregnancy,” the pro-life movement in Tennessee hit a turning point.
Brian Harris, the longtime president of Tennessee Right to Life, said the organization’s main goal became a constitutional amendment that would undo the court’s decision.
State Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, was a member of the state’s House of Representative’s subcommittee on public health when the constitutional amendment was first proposed.
For years, Democrats had control of the House and blocked the amendment from making its way through the legislative process. But when Republicans took over in 2010, things changed.
“Whoever has the majority controls the committees,” she said.
Jones said she believes the amendment is an attack on women’s rights. But so far, abortion foes are better organized and more effective.
“You can’t force people to have children,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, I think the propaganda war has been pretty much waged and fought strongly from the other side. We need to get our views out.”
Meanwhile the pro-life movement in Tennessee has shown its effectiveness in moving forward anti-abortion legislation, even as it successfully shepherded the constitutional amendment through the legislature.
It helped pass a “Choose Life” license plate measure allowing residents to raise funds for pro-life organizations. In 2010, it won a rule requiring abortion clinics to post signs saying that women could not be coerced into having an abortion.
Last year, it helped lead a fight to defund Planned Parenthood, with the state ultimately redirecting federal family planning contracts the agency had long held to other organizations. It also succeeded in passing legislation that bars the use of telemedicine, such as Web-based video teleconferencing, for the dispensing of Mifepristone, the abortion pill.
This year, it successfully advocated for two new laws, one requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. A second law extends Tennessee’s murder and assault laws to the earliest stage of pregnancy. Gov. Bill Haslam signed both measures into law this month.
“The bottom line is it’s all been worth it if we win SJR 127,” said Harris, citing the number of the bill. “If we don’t win, we have given up the opportunity to protect life in Tennessee.”