(WOMENSENEWS)–The torrent of moral rhetoric that accompanies the current spate of anti-abortion bills would make you think that conservative Christians have never looked on abortion as anything short of evil.
In 1971 (two years before the Supreme Court constitutionally protected a woman’s right to abortion in Roe v. Wade) the Southern Baptist Convention–which wound up becoming synonymous with the religious right and its anti-choice movement–issued a resolution that might surprise you.
It called for legalizing abortion in cases of "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 group was responding to grim statistics. Every year several hundred women (many of them already mothers) died from botched abortions and thousands more were seriously injured attempting to end their unwanted pregnancies. The Southern Baptists were taking a moral stand in order to protect women and their families.
Abortion wasn’t a concern for the Christian right until the mid-1970s.
Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, did not preach a sermon on abortion until 1978.
The bedrock issue for evangelical Christians had always been simple–preserving the separation between church and state. Since colonial days, Baptists in America had insisted on this, believing that the Kingdom of God and the world of government each function better when kept apart. That’s a far cry from today, when religious activists are doing all they can to control public health policy.
To understand how outlawing abortion became such a central cause, a brief history of the period can be cribbed from the book "With God On Our Side" by William Martin.
First Mobilized in the 1970s
The Christian right first mobilized in the 1970s in response to a tax issue tied to white Southern Christian groups’ antipathy to school desegregation.
After school integration became federal law, white Christian academies were formed in the South, in part to circumvent the law, enabling white parents to send their children to all-white religious schools.
During the Carter administration the IRS said these academies should be denied tax-exempt status because they did not conform to the law on school integration.
To fight back, some fundamentalist and evangelical groups came together.
This represented a joining of quite different sects. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literal, true word of God. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have shades of gray in their belief system, allowing for a more nuanced approach to some scientific issues, such as climate change and evolution.
But in fighting for tax-exempt status for their all-white religious schools, important factions of the groups united to form the religious right.
They became very adept at raising money to advocate for their cause, and they became powerful. The IRS ultimately relented and allowed them to keep their tax exemption.
With that battle behind it, the religious right was ready for more.
Searching for Another Battle
"We had motivated and spurred a lot of Christians to involvement, so we had a small army and needed another battle to fight," Martin quotes Richard Billings, one of the early activists, in his book.
The group’s first effort to rally the troops around abortion, didn’t work. The people in the pews considered abortion a personal issue. But then the activists figured out a way to galvanize their followers: They started talking about the misuse of tax dollars to pay for abortions for "welfare queens," a code phrase that invoked erroneous images of black, unmarried mothers who cleverly cheated the government.
These social and fiscal conservatives were already unhappy about the Great Society social welfare programs that had been enacted under President Lyndon Johnson. Some of their leaders attacked welfare as encouraging out-of-wedlock births. They also said the high taxes needed to pay for welfare were burdening household budgets and forcing women to leave the home and enter the workplace.
A nerve was hit and the abortion issue was born. It was about saving tax dollars and keeping white women at home, not the immorality of abortion itself.
The Catholic Church, meanwhile, had opposed abortion since the mid-1800s.
For a while historical tensions kept the Catholics and the religious right apart, but by the early 1980s the religious right was happy to welcome Catholics (who were primarily Democrats) into the Republican anti-abortion ranks.
End Result: Mass Attack
Now we see the end result: a mass attack on abortion rights in state legislatures and by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.
At the same time, legislators who express such devotion to the rights of the "unborn" are doing all they can, in the name of fiscal austerity, to propose cuts that would be detrimental to children who have already been born.
The first spending bill that House Republicans sent to the Senate–and which got rejected along with the Democrats’ version–would have slashed the budget for the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant that supports prenatal care programs and services for children with special needs.
That bill would also have severely cut money for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, which provides supplemental foods to pregnant women and children up to age 5. Nationally, almost half of all children under age 6 live in poverty and qualify for WIC.
The religious right’s continued, obsessive "moral" objection to abortion needs to be confronted.
Why save embryos in utero and then discard children who have exited the birth canal?
What is clearly immoral is denying health care, nutrition and support to poor women and children.
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Carol Roye, EdD, RN, is a professor and assistant dean for research at Hunter College School of Nursing. She is also a pediatric nurse practitioner, with a practice in adolescent primary and reproductive health care in New York City. In addition, she is the proud mother of six, and grandmother of 12.
For more information:
Women’s Health Is A Family Value, Carolroye.org:
"With God On Our Side," William Martin. New York City: Broadway Books.