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ANALYSIS: SBC sets the record straight on convention’s abortion stance

PHOENIX (BP)–To the casual observer, it might appear that every few years Southern Baptists at their annual meeting feel it necessary to go back and clear the air on some old business.

In 1995 messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention “apologized to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime” and repented of racism in a landmark resolution on racial reconciliation.

This year, messengers to the 2003 SBC annual meeting decided to undo several resolutions adopted by the convention in the 1970s that expressed support for abortion in cases where the mother’s or infant’s health was in question.

Messengers in Phoenix voted June 18 to “lament and renounce statements and actions by previous Conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture” by embracing a resolution “on thirty years of Roe v. Wade.”

Ironically enough, a day before the convention’s action, attorneys representing Norma McCorvey (she was Jane Roe in the Roe v. Wade case) filed a motion to overturn the 1973 court ruling. Now a Christian, McCorvey’s viewpoint on abortion has dramatically changed since her attorneys in 1969 started the ball rolling on the case in Dallas County, Texas, that made Supreme Court history.

The nation marked the 30-year anniversary of the controversial Roe v. Wade decision in January. The Jan. 22, 1973 Supreme Court ruling effectively established abortion on demand by extending a “right to personal privacy” to women considering terminating their pregnancy.
“On the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade, we thought [earlier resolutions supporting abortion rights] deserved our attention,” said Mike Hamlet, chairman of the Resolutions Committee and pastor of First Baptist Church in North Spartanburg, S.C., in a news conference following convention action on the resolutions.

“It’s never too late to say you’re sorry,” agreed Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s moral concerns arm. “We needed to express our sorrow and our grief over the fact that for a time our convention was officially, through its resolution process, on the wrong side of this issue,” he explained in an interview with Baptist Press. The resolution asserts the 1973 decision ushered in a new and frightful era of “assaults on human life,” such as human cloning and human embryonic cell research.

The 1995 resolution on racial reconciliation lamented the role slavery played in the founding of the SBC in 1845 and noted some in Southern Baptist life “hindered” relationships with African Americans by “opposing legitimate initiatives to secure civil rights” for black Americans.

The 2003 resolution on abortion rights expressed regret that “1970s-era Southern Baptist Convention resolutions and statements” furthered the “‘pro-choice’ abortion rights agenda outlined in Roe v. Wade” and that some of the nation’s political leaders referenced the comments and views of former SBC leaders “to oppose legislative efforts to protect women and children from abortion.”

A resolution adopted by the SBC in 1971 expressed support for abortion in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

Many Southern Baptists had no idea their denomination was “on the wrong side of the Roe v. Wade decision and the issue of abortion” during the 1970s, Land said. Students whom Land teaches in his classes at SBC seminaries are “shocked” the convention once was perceived by many people as pro-choice because of resolutions passed during that time, he said.

The convention quickly went “strongly pro-life” by the late 1970s and the SBC was “well on the way to becoming the most pro-life denomination in America at the rank and file level,” Land continued.

Southern Baptists publicly and officially turned the corner on this issue in the early 1980s, passing a resolution that expressed opposition “toward all policies that allow ‘abortion on demand.'” Since then every resolution on the issue has expressed the convention’s “robust commitment to the sanctity of all human life,” the 2003 resolution states. Yet the SBC never went back and straightened out its sordid stance on abortion until this year, Land said.

In a 1974 resolution, the convention appeared to take special pains to proclaim an official position that “reflected a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion is murder.”

The executive director of the SBC’s Christian Life Commission (now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) at that time, Foy Valentine, was particularly vocal in his support of abortion rights. He was a member of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, now known as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights. The group was founded in 1973 as a response to the efforts of others to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.

In 1977, speaking at a news conference following the release of “A Call to Concern” — a document which expressed support for the Roe v. Wade decision and criticized its opponents for being “blind to the well-being and freedom of choice of persons in the community” — Valentine said Southern Baptists “are officially opposed to a legal abolition of any and all abortion.” He also expressed Southern Baptists’ opposition to “legal support for any and all abortion.”

Valentine, who headed up the Christian Life Commission for 27 years, went on to say the actions of the SBC underscored a rejection of “not only the rigid and dogmatic position that all abortion is murder but also the socially irresponsible and theologically shabby position that abortion may be a pleasant and acceptable means of birth control.”

Other Southern Baptists besides Valentine to sign the document released in October 1977 included Glen H. Stassen and Paul Simmons, then of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Bob Adams, then of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. The signatories of “A Call to Concern” affirmed “that abortion in some instances may be the most loving act possible.”

“The Southern Baptist Convention is now overwhelmingly on the right side of the issue,” Land said confidently. The 2003 resolution is on target in saying Roe v. Wade unleashed an “act of injustice against innocent unborn children as well as against vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations,” he said.

Southern Baptists stand with other Bible-believing people as the last line of defense against the culture of death, Land said.

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  • Dwayne Hastings