The ERLC’s Moral Doublespeak on Abortion

On the necessity of speaking clearly

Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) presidential candidate Bart Barber argues that Southern Baptists should be celebrating a leaked majority opinion from the Supreme Court that appears to erase Roe v. Wade once and for all. However, he also indicates all is not well in the world’s largest Baptist denomination, even when it comes to the topic of abortion. While Barber sees division stemming from the side of abortion abolitionists, Southern Baptists almost certainly don’t see things the same way. Southern Baptists face no small amount of criticism for their place in having supported pro-life presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, who famously appointed conservative judges throughout the United States of America, including several justices to the Supreme Court. And so it may come as a surprise to see the SBC split over something as cut-and-dried as abortion, but some Southern Baptists are recoiling from the necessary implications of what it means to say that abortion is the intentional, unjustified taking of a human life (i.e., murder).

In June, the SBC meets for two days to deliberate on motions, which determine what the convention will do, and resolutions, which declare what the convention believes. Resolutions are not “binding,” but do indicate what the messengers would say, or how the messengers would behave, given some scenario. Messengers to the SBC can accomplish almost anything, provided their motions and resolutions are in accord with SBC bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order, and provided the messengers vote for them. For example, in 2021, the SBC Resolutions Committee attempted to prevent a resolution On Abolishing Abortion from coming to the convention floor. That was before Bill Ascol – brother of this year’s SBC presidential candidate, Tom Ascol – brought a baby to a microphone and persuaded messengers to not only pull the anti-abortion resolution out of committee, but to pass it. Although Southern Baptists spoke clearly to the subject of abortion that day, they faced a great deal of opposition from their ethicists on the way. Significant figures in the SBC, such the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s (ERLC) Joshua Wester (who now serves as Associate Pastor for current SBC President, Ed Litton, at Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama), spoke against the anti-abortion resolution. In the face of pushback from the platform, Southern Baptist messengers affirmed “that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law.” The language of equal punishment under the law is important.

According to some, the pro-life movement has never urged the criminalization of women who have abortions, instead focusing only on the criminalization of the doctors who perform the abortions. But unless we exclude abortion abolitionists and the SBC from the pro-life label, this claim is false. Moreover, it introduces an inherent contradiction into the pro-life position in its claim that the movement never advocates for the criminalization of women but does posit punishment for the person who kills a baby. The assumption here is that women never kill their own babies, when many people rightly understand “abortion” to mean just that. Even setting aside the issue of what should happen to a mere accomplice to murder(!), this argument depends upon the idea that a third party is necessary for extinguishing the life of a child, rather than, say, a pill.

Brent Leatherwood, acting President of the ERLC, uses this line of reasoning in claiming he desires to: “Ban abortion. Save lives. Protect mothers. Go after the abortionists.” Leatherwood’s statement suffers from the same inconsistency as above. When asked if he is absolutely opposed to prosecuting mothers who willfully abort, Bart Barber answers, “I am not absolutely opposed. I do not think it the wise course of action at this time.” In disagreeing with Leatherwood, Barber avoids his inconsistency, but raises the question of when he believes it would be wise to start prosecuting those who willfully murder their own children. In 2021, Southern Baptists said they believe that time is now. While Barber, Leatherwood, and others are certainly right to sympathize with mothers who are victimized by way of abuse and abortion, they are fundamentally wrong to think all mothers are to be absolved. Mothers often are the abortionists. They’ve even been known to shout about their abortions.

To be sure, fathers, too, can be implicated in abortions, through the pressure they put on mothers to abort. But the fundamental point is that the law must treat all who contribute to the unjust taking of a human life equally.

That’s why it’s so odd to see David French trying to throw fuel on an SBC fire in his Sunday column accusing “abolitionists” of being misguided. French’s reasoning follows that of Leatherwood and Barber above but he draws conclusions in the form of pro-choice talking points. For example, French conflates ectopic pregnancies with abortions (they’re not) and complains about the dangers of illegal abortions. Anyone who has had discussions with a pro-choice person has heard these tired, old, objections. But French’s main argument is that women who seek abortion do so, “out of well-meaning ignorance.” He does not believe women who seek abortions realize, “at the time of the abortion that the procedure kills a real human being.” French expresses concern over, “the prosecution of thousands upon thousands of young women who genuinely do not believe they are killing a child.” He also claims that women come to realize what they have done after an abortion. Nevertheless, French is emphatic that these women are, “not malicious or even reckless.” He writes, “Not only is there no intent to kill, there is no real awareness of what abortion truly does.” Not once does French stop to consider that a law that makes abortion illegal (via abortion’s new criminal status) would be the very means of showing those considering abortion that it is evil. Nor does French stop to consider that supposed ignorance of women living in an overwhelmingly pro-life state in 2022 might actually be helped by a bill that clearly defines the nature of an unborn, image bearing, child and makes it illegal to kill an unborn child upon that basis. Instead, French follows the dictates of social, rather than biblical, justice, and falsely concludes that those who desire to see the unjust killing of unborn children come to an end – those he labels “abolitionists” – are actually doing more harm than those who make the unjust killing of unborn children possible in the first place.

In any event, the argument for abolitionist or incrementalist approaches to ending abortion are neither here nor there. Most SBC messengers won’t understand that debate. They just know they’re against abortion. They know there’s no nuance when it comes to protecting or ending the lives of innocent infants. Southern Baptists know that abortion wasn’t in the Garden of Eden, wasn’t legal in Old Testament Israel, and won’t even cross their minds in the new heavens and earth. They will do almost anything to end the injustice of abortion on earth now, whether that means voting for President Trump, or passing a resolution in favor of punishing the murder of unborn children. And they are instinctively suspicious of the moral doublespeak that pervades parts of the Pro LifeTM movement, language that insists on only ever referring to women as victims of abortion, thereby denying their moral agency. 

The average Southern Baptist may not be an abolitionist, but will certainly be for anti-abortion legislation like that which was just introduced in the state of Louisiana, right as Roe vs. Wade is on the ropes. If resolutions matter to rank-and-file Southern Baptists, then anti-abortion legislation matters even more. The text of the law in question had a refreshingly simple logic at its core: a declaration that the anti-homicide laws of Louisiana should apply to unborn persons from fertilization just as they apply to born persons, and a frontal denial of Roe v. Wade’s legitimacy. 

That’s why it’s so shocking that the ERLC, acting on its own, and apart from the clear will of the messengers expressed in the 2021 resolution on the abolition of abortion in Nashville, just helped tank the aforementioned pro-life legislation in the state of Louisiana. Adding insult to injury, they did so while claiming to speak on behalf of the SBC in the same breath: “As national and state pro-life organizations, representing tens of millions of pro-life men, women, and children across the country, let us be clear: We state unequivocally that any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women is not pro-life and we stand firmly opposed to such efforts.” (emphasis added). Thus, the ERLC has used its millions of constituents to gain for itself a platform to contradict those very same constituents. 

What can we conclude from the foregoing, other than that the ERLC is now a failed institution, not to be trusted by its constituents, with whom it is no longer aligned? For whom does the ERLC work? Southern Baptists should feel insulted by what the ERLC just did, even if they aren’t abolitionists. And even if Southern Baptists don’t feel insulted by what the ERLC just did, they will very clearly be insulted by those who served on the 2021 Resolutions Committee, which of course includes presidential candidate Bart Barber, who (as we saw earlier) believes you’re being divisive if you’re upset by all of this.

In Anaheim, messengers will once again be tasked with making and amending motions, passing resolutions, and voting for a new President of the Southern Baptist Convention. Unfortunately, Southern Baptists will also be faced with very real questions about who will best represent them in the public square on something as straightforward as abortion. Like it or not, abortion is the area where those who hold the keys to institutional power in the SBC have decided to double-down in defying the will of the messengers. May the Lord have mercy on the Southern Baptist Convention.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Chris Bolt

Chris Bolt Chris Bolt is a pastor, professor, and author. He lives in Tennessee with his wife and four children.