Tag Archives: Randall Balmer

It Really Isn’t About Abortion

I’ve written before about the actual origins of the anti-abortion movement, as recounted by noted religion scholar Randall Balmer. Ballmer (whose account is confirmed by several other historians of religion) reminds us that it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe v, Wade—that evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.”

Objecting to abortion was seen as “more palatable” than what was actually motivating the Religious Right, which was protection of the segregated schools they had established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. 

According to Balmer,

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “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.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

Ballmer has reported on the anger at civil rights laws expressed by those running the segregation academies, and the strategic success of Falwell and Weyrich’s decision to tap into the ire of those evangelical leaders. They were, as he reports, “savvy enough” to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would encounter moral blowback. The anti-integration message worked for Evangelical leadership, but they would need a different issue to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.

Bottom line: the catalyst for the Christian Right’s political activism was not, as often claimed, opposition to abortion. The real roots of Christian Nationalism –as has become very clear–can be found in the movement’s racism and defense of racial segregation.

I thought of that history when I read this report from the DesMoines Register.

The number of abortions performed in Iowa climbed nearly 14% in 2020, after jumping 25% the previous year, new state data show.

Iowa had seen years of steady declines in abortions before 2019. But that trendline has changed. 

The state saw 4,058 abortions performed in 2020, up from 3,566 in 2019 and 2,849 in 2018, the new numbers show. 

The new data were shared with legislative staff Thursday by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The turnaround in abortion numbers came in the wake of Iowa’s 2017 decision to withdraw from a federally funded family planning program, which helped thousands of Iowans gain birth control supplies and information on how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The program was replaced with a state-run version, which barred Planned Parenthood’s participation and has served fewer Iowans.

If “pro-life” activists really wanted to reduce the number of abortions, they wouldn’t oppose family planning. They certainly wouldn’t fight so ferociously to ban sex education in the schools. And as numerous observers have noted, “pro life” is a curious label for people who are unwilling to have government provide any support for children once they are born. 

Perhaps the best summation of this hypocrisy is reflected in an oft-quoted observation from Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister:

“I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Thanks to the COVID pandemic, the hypocrisy of the Christian Right position has become especially clear. It’s obvious in the righteous indignation of GOP mask “refuseniks” and anti-vaxxers, who insist that they have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. That is a right they are unwilling to extend to women, even though a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy doesn’t endanger the community at large, as a refusal to wear a mask or be vaccinated does.

The origins of the cynically-named “pro life” movement are largely unrecognized, and I’m sure there are sincere people who believe that abortion is morally wrong. But the continued strength of the movement isn’t found in a concern for babies; it’s firmly located in the continuing belief of Christian Nationalists that women, like Black people, must be kept subservient.