Jamelle Bouie argued in Slate recently that “Conservative evangelicals didn’t always care much about abortion or contraception.” Bouie’s article relies largely on the memoir of Jonathan Dudley, who claimed that evangelicals were mostly pro-choice from the 1960s until the rise of the religious right in politics in the 1980s:
It took the organizational might of Falwell and his “Moral Majority”—as well as evangelical anti-abortion figures such as Francis Schaeffer—to galvanize evangelicals around other “culture war” issues such as feminism, homosexuality, and school prayer. This in turn led to alliances with largely Catholic organizations like the National Right to Life Committee.
At First Things Dale M. Coulter concedes that there was a shift in Christian thought on the issues of abortion and contraception beginning in the 1960s but disagrees with the conclusion that Christians were historically absent from debates about the morality of abortion throughout history and in the decades leading up to the 1980s. Coulter cites the concerns over severe birth defects during the time that thalidomide was administered to expectant mothers, concerns over population control and the perception that these were “Catholic” issues as reasons for some of the lax views on abortion during that time, but gives numerous examples of Christians who were vocal opponents. “This lax view,” Coulter says, “was not universally held even at the time.”
Coulter says Dudley does not take into account contextual factors in history or the history of Christian thought on the issues. “To say Evangelicals were latecomers to opposing abortion represents a selective reading of history, and a false one,” Coulter argues.
He does, however, agree with Bouie that Schaeffer’s 1983 book, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (written with Dr. C. Everett Koop) was a “catalyst for a return to a staunchly pro-life position” in evangelical Christian thought.
Schaeffer, a philosopher, theologian, and pastor, helped to lead Christian thought back to the traditional view that life is sacred. He made his case through spiritual, legal, and intellectual arguments, framing the issue of abortion within the context of human rights, and contrasting the naturalistic worldview to a theistic view that affirmed the dignity of the unborn and their right to life. Schaeffer wrote,
“If man is not made in the image of God, nothing, then, stands in the way of inhumanity. There is no good reason why mankind should be perceived as special. Human life is cheapened.”
In a video series based on the book, Schaeffer makes the case for the rights of the unborn and their connection to the larger human community:
Abortion is not only a religious issue, it is a human issue. The fate of the unborn is the fate of the human race. We are all one human family and thus, when the rights of any part of that human family are denied it’s of concern to all of us. What is involved here is the very essence of what true freedom and true rights are all about. Life is sacred — the first, and most precious gift that God gives us…the term ‘abortion on demand’ is a euphemism for man playing God.
Abortion on demand, Schaeffer says, reduces humans to mere “Tinker Toys to be manipulated by the whim and will of the few. ”
Shaeffer harshly criticized pastors and theologians who defended the right to an abortion. “These theologians have obviously forgotten God’s view of the worth of every human being as made in the image of God,” Schaeffer said. “If these same theologians no longer believe in such a God they should not reside in the respectable womb of the church, using it as a platform to propagate their discriminatory ideas. If the church wants to be remembered as more than a silent accomplice to these murderous inmahmities, it had better stand up and be counted.”
Shaeffer outlined a plan for what would eventually become the modern pro-life movement:
1. We can have pity for the humanist with his barren view of mankind.
2. We can have deep feelings for the aborted babies themselves.
3. We can use our civic powers as citizens to protest and our power at the polls.
4. And we can, through genuine support, prove to the pregnant woman who is considering an abortion that there are alternatives.
Schaeffer insisted that the church (not the state) had a responsibility to care for women in crisis pregnancies and to assist them after the birth of the children.
He said that if the Christian community did not make a determined stand on the issues of each individual to have a right to live and to be treated as made in the image of God, “I believe we have failed in the greatest moral challenge of this century…This is the great moral test of our age.”