The Abortion Wars

What most Christians don't know about the history of prolife struggles
The Abortion Wars
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: alexacrib / Envato

Ours is not the first abortion war. Two previous periods saw protracted contests over whether abortion would be accepted or proscribed.

The first was in the early centuries of Christianity, when faith spread within a Greco-Roman culture that considered abortion (and infanticide) routine. The second was in America during the mid-nineteenth century when abortions became widespread, freely advertised in virtually every newspaper.

The third abortion war is now approximately [30] years old and shows no sign of peace. Living in a battle zone, we can easily focus on the tactics of the moment and forget the wider context. The danger in forgetting is that when the situation suddenly shifts, as it did in 1973 with Roe v. Wade and in 1989's Webster decision, we get thrown off. Suddenly the tactics we had honed become irrelevant, and the goals we had set are outdated.

The first war

People commonly suppose that abortion is an invention of modern, technological medicine. In fact, it was well known in Greco-Roman society. Plato's Republic made abortion or infanticide obligatory if the mother was over 40. In Aristotle's ideal society, abortion would be compulsory for families that exceeded a certain size.

Aristotle also made a distinction that would develop a life of its own: the "formed" versus the "unformed" fetus. Aristotle believed that human life was present in the fetus when distinct organs were formed, 40 days after conception for males and 90 for females. This was a metaphysical, not a moral, distinction; Aristotle would abort both "formed" and "unformed" fetuses. But some Christians—Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas in particular—would later adopt his distinction. It survived in various forms right down to the arbitrary trimesters of Roe v. Wade.

Both Plato and Aristotle believed that a child had life long before birth; it was just that the welfare of society and family were more important to them than the rights of a child. The Roman empire made the same assessment while adopting the Stoic belief that life begins only at birth. Abortion was common. As Michael Gorman puts it in Abortion and the Early Church, the Roman empire was paradoxically "profamily but not fundamentally antiabortion. That the fetus is not a person was fundamental to Roman law. Even when born, the child was valued primarily not for itself but for its usefulness to the father, the family and especially the state."

Many Romans opposed abortion, but Gorman says, "Pagan antiabortion statements are consistently mindful of the welfare and rights of the state, the father, the family and even occasionally the woman, but never those of the fetus. … Christians discarded all pagan definitions of the fetus as merely part of the mother's body. To Christians, the fetus was an independent living being."

From the first, Christians were outspokenly opposed to abortion on the basis of the child's right to life. The Didache, an early second-century document summarizing Christian belief and practice, declares, "Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion/destruction." Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Jerome, Basil the Great, Ambrose—all pronounced against abortion. Tertullian wrote eloquently in his Apology, aimed at non-Christians: "To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed."

That is how Western society came to be antiabortion. Although the church's antiabortion arguments were consistent and insightful, the change in society was due more to the fact that Christians won the empire to their faith. Not long after Constantine legalized Christianity, it was made illegal for a father to kill his children. Roman abortion laws were never changed, but as the institutional church's role grew more important, ecclesiastical penalties for abortion—their severity was between those for manslaughter and murder—became meaningful legislation for the entire society.

No one can say to what extent behavior changed. What is sure is that a stable antiabortion consensus, based on Christian values, had been formed. It endured intact throughout the medieval period and into modern times.

Through Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and on to Barth and Bonhoeffer, Christian theologians have condemned abortion in the clearest terms. Aristotle's distinction between the formed and unformed fetus was carried on by some, for whom abortion was only murder 40 days after conception. (Yet even before then, it was a violation of developing humanity, and thus still wrong.) Therapeutic abortion, in which the life of the unborn can be sacrificed to save the life of a mother, was sometimes allowed. But the values of Greco-Roman society, in which the life of a child had meaning only as state or family granted it meaning, would not resurface for 1,500 years.

The second war

There were no written laws against the practice of abortion in colonial America; courts operated on the basis of English common law, by which abortion was illegal after "quickening," the time when a mother could feel the movement of her unborn child in the womb. The "quickening" distinction seems to have been a survival from the Aristotelian idea of a "formed" fetus, as it filtered through centuries of theological discussion.

"Quickening" might not have survived on the strength of its history alone, though; it had practical significance as well. There were no reliable pregnancy tests, and so until quickening, no one could be certain whether a woman was actually pregnant or merely experiencing some kind of menstrual "blockage." Doctors treated a "blockage" by doing just what they would do to carry out an early abortion. Before quickening, it was impossible to say whether an abortion was intended. There was no point in outlawing behavior that could not be ascertained.

In fact, since "quickening" was generally only known to the woman involved, it was legally difficult to try any kind of abortion case. American courts steered a lenient course with the few cases that came before them. In 1803 Britain passed a strong and clear antiabortion law, but it was not until 1821 that Connecticut passed the first American antiabortion statute. By 1840 most states still had no such law, and those that did rarely enforced them.

A dramatic change began in the decades after 1840: the number of abortions shot up. American conception dropped precipitately: the average American woman bore seven children in 1800, three and a half by 1900. Estimates of abortions ranged between one-fifth and one-third of all pregnancies. Before, abortion had been the refuge of desperate, unmarried women; now most abortions were by married women, using it as birth control. Abortion operations were not regarded as particularly dangerous, and the belief in quickening made them seem innocent as well. This was a period of rapid industrialization, with growing cities and easy transportation by railroad. Along with many aspects of American life, abortion became commercialized.

In 1838 Charles and Anna Lohman, adopting the names of Dr. Mauriceau and Madame Restell, began to advertise extensively in the New York Herald. They were the first to seize an opportunity offered by a new kind of newspaper that sold cheaply, circulated widely, and depended on advertising revenues to make a profit. Madame Restell's business flourished; she soon opened branch offices in Boston and Philadelphia, and moved into a lavish mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Others imitated her. Soon newspaper ads offered a whole portfolio of potential abortionists. They had the political and economic influence to protect themselves; historian James Mohr notes, in one example, that "between 1849 and 1857 there were only thirty-two trials in Massachusetts [under a new, toughened law] for performing abortions and not a single conviction." Newspapers avoided the subject. Only one, the sensational National Police Gazette, reported on and crusaded against abortion. (Not coincidentally, it did not take abortion advertising.)

The increase in abortion, however, led to a counterreaction. The most visible group opposing abortion were "regular" doctors. The American Medical Association (AMA), formed in 1847, took up antiabortion as its cause. Though the AMA was a group with insignificant power, and the medical profession was at an all-time low in prestige, "regular" doctors did raise the issue before the legislature.

The religious establishment did not. Protestant clergy had considerable prestige and were important in other reform movements of the time—notably temperance—but to the dismay of doctors, most churches ignored the issue. No one really knows why; perhaps the topic was too delicate. Catholics, mainly immigrants, were not having abortions like Protestants, and Catholic leaders were at that time in no position to exert political influence.

The rising feminist movement was against abortion. Not even the most radical considered abortion to be an instrument of freedom for women; on the contrary, abortion was understood to be an aspect of male domination, whereby (outside marriage) men tried to conceal the results of their seduction, or (inside marriage) women behaved tragically because of the terrible conditions of a home governed by a tyrannical husband.

In 1870, under a new editor, the New York Times began to campaign actively against abortion. Their investigative reports were too sensational for other newspapers to let pass; soon widespread press attention forced prosecutors to act. The more they acted, the more sensational news was available to report (the bodies of young women found dismembered in trunks; numbers of babies found buried in basements). Marvin Olasky notes in The Press and Abortion that Madame Restell became "an object of general hatred in New York City. Occasionally, her carriage would be chased down Fifth Avenue by a volley of rocks, and by shouts of 'Madame Killer.' "In 1878 she was arrested and could not buy her freedom as she had in previous cases. The night before she was to be tried she committed suicide. The Times headlined the news: "End of a Criminal Life."

Gradually, through the century, laws were toughened. The quickening distinction was dropped. Under the Comstock Act of 1873, abortion advertising became illegal nationally. By the end of the century, abortion was illegal everywhere; and while veiled advertising continued (the Comstock Act was seldom enforced), observers reported that abortions greatly decreased.

The antiabortion crusade was successful despite the fact that only regular physicians publicly worked for it. They were not a particularly influential group, but they did have confident scientific knowledge on their side. Doctors had known since early in the century that the "quickening" distinction was without merit—that the development of the unborn child was gradual from the time of conception.

Some recent histories have commented on the quickening distinction as though it had preserved a right to abortion for women, but that is a classic case of imposing modern thinking on a historical situation. The law and common belief had always held that it was wrong to abort a child once it had life, after quickening. The doctors could presume that society's moral commitments would lead to the banning of abortion once enough people understood that life was at stake from the beginning.

The third war

Yet the success of the nineteenth-century crusade was short-lived. The life of an unborn child is easy to ignore—invisible and voiceless. The New York Times, which had led the press crusade to stop abortions in the 1870s, suddenly stopped reporting on it at all in 1896, when Adolph Ochs assumed ownership and introduced two new slogans: "All the News That's Fit to Print" and "It Does Not Soil the Breakfast Cloth." Abortion news was apparently not fit to print, for it did soil the breakfast cloth.

The National Police Gazette no longer crusaded against abortion either; it now took abortion ads. Other newspapers reported occasionally on lurid abortion cases, but journalism professor Olasky notes a change. In the late nineteenth century, press coverage often referred to abortion as the killing of unborn children. Stories in the twentieth century rarely mentioned the unborn; the focus was exclusively on the dangers of abortion to women.

Doctors also lost interest. By early in the twentieth century the AMA had regulated the irregulars (whose nineteenth-century abortion practices had threatened to take away patients and income from regular doctors) out of business, and had no more need to appeal to the legislature for the control of medical business. Doctors could regulate themselves—but showed little interest in interfering with the practices of their fellow regulars.

There was, therefore, no one to show an interest in the lives of the unborn. The American clergy never had. Sexual behavior grew more promiscuous in the Roaring Twenties, and perhaps the failure of Prohibition made America less interested in moral reform. The Soviet Union legalized and promoted abortion, to the acclaim of some. Population-control groups such as Planned Parenthood began cautiously and privately to favor abortion. So did some doctors, mainly on the basis of their claim to know what was best for the welfare of their patients without governmental interference.

Contrary to popular assertions, the number of women who died from "back-alley abortionists" was small; according to the Kinsey Report, 85 percent of abortions were done by doctors, and the number of annual deaths declined steadily, to an estimated 300 by 1967. The deaths were tragic whatever the number, but far more significant in putting abortion back on the public agenda was doctors' discomfort with the rigidity of the antiabortion laws.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the beginning of the third abortion war was that it seemed to be about a relatively small change in the law—"abortion reform," as it was called. The "right to abortion" was not an issue, at least for women; if anyone's rights were at stake, they were the doctor's. In 1959 the prestigious American Law Institute (ALI) published a new "model code" for state legislatures. It would allow a doctor to perform abortions in cases of rape, incest, serious deformity, and whenever the doctor believed there was risk to the mental or physical health to the mother. The word believed was significant, because it meant a doctor was virtually immune from prosecution so long as he would claim, whatever the medical facts, that he had believed them threatening. Few imagined that such terminology could become an open door to abortion on demand.

Protestants, and even many Catholics, had historically recognized the validity of what is called therapeutic abortion. Abortion reform purported to expand the categories of those tragic decisions. Suppose that the birth of a child conceived by rape threatened to destroy the mother's mental stability; could not an abortion be considered life saving?

Such "hard cases" were real, and proabortionists could expand on them at length. They were received sympathetically in the press, and seemed, in the light of publicity, to be far more numerous than they really were. One well-publicized event brought the abortion issue into public view.

In 1962 an Arizona "Romper Room" TV hostess named Sherri Finkbine learned that a drug she had been taking during pregnancy, thalidomide, had caused numerous birth defects in Europe. She applied for a therapeutic abortion and was granted one by a committee of three doctors. But Finkbine talked to reporters before the scheduled abortion, to warn others about the dangers of thalidomide.

The hospital, wary of public scrutiny, refused to allow the abortion until an advance court judgment was made that the abortion was legal. A judge said that he could make no ruling unless someone had filed a complaint. No one was complaining, but cautious hospital officials were not willing to go ahead without official assurances. The legally complex case was presented in the press as a woman persecuted by an inhumane, hypocritical legal system. Ultimately, Finkbine traveled to Sweden to have an abortion. Her story had a strong emotional hook, enabling many Americans to identify with the plight of a woman who believed she was bearing a deformed child.

In 1967 the AMA voted in favor of legal reform. In the same year the National Organization for Women came out in favor of abortion, and feminists joined the cause. A number of states passed reforming legislation, along the ALI recommended lines, which would give physicians greater latitude in performing therapeutic abortions.

Another issue arose, adding to the apparent urgency: the "population explosion." In a few short years, experts said, the world would starve to death unless population growth could be stopped. This was one of those crises that rises in a media-saturated society, riveting attention until it mysteriously disintegrates. It made abortion into a strangely conservative cause, and raised a very different set of issues: not abortion as tragic choice, but abortion as crusade to save the world. The campaign for abortion-law reform began to turn into a campaign for abortion-law repeal. In 1969, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) was formed. Many denominations—Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians—supported their cause.

But the movement was beginning to outdistance its popular support. The American public was sympathetic to therapeutic abortion, but solidly against abortion on demand. In 1970 New York, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington repealed their abortion laws; by then, 13 other states had passed some form of reform legislation. But after 1970 resistance arose, and only one more state, Florida, passed a reform bill. In several other states, reform or repeal were rebuffed. In New York, the legislature tried to reimpose abortion controls, but these were vetoed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Thus the proabortion movement shifted its energy toward the courts, a tactical shift that was to prove fateful.

Who was against?

Press accounts of the late sixties and early seventies gave a clear picture of who stood against abortion: the Roman Catholic Church. This stereotype of antiabortionists was actively encouraged by proabortionists, who believed it would paint the opposition as narrow and sectarian. Actually, in the general public, Protestants were as likely to be against abortion as Catholics. Yet there was some truth to the caricature: Catholics brought determination and national organization to the cause. The bishops could and did draw up a national plan for opposing abortion, while Protestant antiabortionists remained splintered and disorganized.

It is startling to review the change in evangelical feeling as reflected in the pages of this magazine. The November 8, 1968, issue of Christianity Today carried several articles on contraception and abortion. One leading biblical scholar wrote, "Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul." A theologian mentioned the ALI reform proposals favorably. The articles concluded with "A Protestant Affirmation," the consensus of 25 evangelical scholars. On abortion, it read, "Whether or not the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord." The statement spoke of "a tragic moral choice" and endorsed the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' statement favoring therapeutic abortions for the life and health of the mother, in cases of rape, incest, or deformities.

By the next year, though, red flags had begun to fly. An editorial noted that under a new Maryland law numerous abortions were being approved on the basis of mental health. "No doubt most state abortion laws need revision," the editorial stated.

Evangelist Francis Schaeffer, who had only recently become well known, was making an impact among evangelicals with his strong warnings against abortion. Harold O. J. Brown, who would soon write strong Christianity Today editorials against abortion, felt Schaeffer's influence. So did a Bible college student named Randall Terry, who would become the leading spokesperson for Operation Rescue.

By 1971 there was no more talk in Christianity Today about therapeutic abortion. The direction reform was leading was clear. "Let it be no great surprise when America is subjected to severe judgment," an editorial read. In the same year, however, the Southern Baptist Convention "urged Baptists to work for legislation permitting abortion under certain conditions. These include: rape, incest, deformity, emotional health."

Roe v. Wade

Few anticipated the complete victory that Roe v. Wade gave to proabortionists in 1973. Though the Supreme Court claimed to offer no opinion about when human life began, it implicitly set the time at birth; and though the new law divided pregnancy into equal trimesters, allowing that the fetus might receive some protection in the last three months before birth, in practical terms—because it stipulated that abortions could be done at any time if the mother's mental health was believed to be in danger—the Court assured that an abortion could be done up until the very moment of birth.

Christianity TodaygreetedRoe v. Wade with a firestorm of criticism. "Christians should accustom themselves to the thought that the American state no longer supports, in any meaningful sense, the laws of God." That was a revolutionary thought to most evangelicals.

But CT was ahead of many evangelicals. In its news report on Roe v. Wade, it quoted prominent Southern Baptist pastor W. A. Criswell: "I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed." (He later repudiated this position.) It would be years before such a statement from an evangelical leader would be unthinkable. According to Brown, evangelicals simply could not imagine themselves lining up with Roman Catholics, nor could they imagine that the Supreme Court of their beloved nation (which they thought of as Protestant) would support a cause directly opposed to Christian values.

Few in the press seemed to understand how radical the justices' decision had been. Time gave it two pages in the back of the magazine; Newsweek gave it one. An editorial in the Christian Century proclaimed that "this is a beautifully accurate balancing of individual vs. social rights. … It is a decision both proabortionists and antiabortionists can live with."

Roe v. Wade demonstrates that fundamental moral conflicts should not be decided by fiat. The absolute polarization we currently experience is directly traceable to the Supreme Court's decision to take abortion out of politics and declare it a settled question. Those who opposed abortion had suddenly no recourse except radical action. The discussion had been about where to draw the line among tragic choices; the justices erased the line completely and said there was no room for further discussion.

Antiabortionists may someday have reason to remember this lesson, if they gain the power to stop abortion by fiat. As we have seen, restricting abortion works best when it is based on a wider consensus about the value of life. The first centuries of the church gained this consensus through centuries of witness. They spoke passionately against abortion as a part of their faith; they also suffered for their faith. Ultimately, their faith triumphed, and legal changes followed.

By contrast, the nineteenth century, though it passed antiabortion laws, seems not to have built a strong, public consciousness of the humanity of a fetus.

Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas touches on this issue when he notes the frustration of antiabortionists who fail to convince their opponents that a fetus is a human being. He says that more than logic is needed. "Christian arguments about abortion … have not merely failed to convince: they have failed to suggest the kind of 'reorientation' necessary if we are to be the kind of people and society that make abortion unthinkable. … Even if [we succeed politically], our success may still be a form of failure if we 'win' without changing the presuppositions of the debate."

That is what Christians in the first three centuries managed to do. They changed the world, not just the law.

This article originally appeared in the October 6, 1989 issue of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

Abortion and the Court | The Roe v. Wade decision runs counter to the moral sense of the American people.
Reversing Roe v. Wade | It may take more than a single court decision to counter abortion on demand.
You Say Choice, I Say Murder | Before prolife arguments can reach the undecided American, we have got to look at the language we use.

Roe v. Wade in a Nutshell presents abridged and full versions of the Justices' opinions in the case as well as the syllabus and transcriptions of the oral arguments.

Religious Tolerance.com looks at Abortion Facts & Opinions from both sides of the issue.

For further coverage of the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the current abortion debate, see Yahoo! full coverage. Yesterday's Christianity TodayWeblog included several links to abortion stories.

Previous Christianity Today articles about abortion in the U.S. include:

Prolife as Mafia? | Supreme Court to decide if racketeering laws apply to anti-abortion activities. (Jan. 15, 2003)
FDA Candidate Irks Abortion Pill Advocates | The Christian Medical Association says critics fear David Hager's "well-grounded" opposition. (Nov. 26, 2002)
Embracing the Unwanted | Chinese American Christians are starting to become more openly prolife. (May 9, 2002)
Doctors Slow to Prescribe Abortion Pill | Since RU-486's approval, rising safety concerns and common side effects have led to little use. (Nov. 12, 2001)
Whistleblower Fired | Nurse Jill Stanek's lawyer calls action retaliation for prolife views. (Oct. 26, 2001)
Bush's Prolife Strategy Questioned | White House chief of staff says abortion isn't on list of public policy priorities. (June 15, 2001)
Counteroffensive Launched on RU-486 | Abortion-pill critics allege safety concerns overlooked in FDA approval process." (June 15, 2001)
Virginia Okays Waiting Period For Abortion | NARAL says 43 prolife measures were passed at the state level last year. (April 2, 2001)
Bitter Pills | What does RU-486 change about abortion? (December 11, 2000)
House Passes Bill to Protect Babies Outside the Womb | Protection for infants who survive abortions draws 380-15 approval. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Partial Birth: What Next? | Louisiana's special assistant attorney general questions well-intentioned lawmakers. (August 7, 2000)
The Abortion Debate Is Over | Pro-lifers overestimated the average American's allegiance to logic. (Dec. 6, 1999)
Partial-birth Abortion Ban May Go to Supreme Court | Differing appeals court rulings increases chances of forthcoming decision. (Nov. 8, 1999)
Abortion Is Not a "Necessary Evil" | Why Americans oppose abortion but want to keep it legal. (May 24, 1999)
Refocusing the Pro-life Agenda | The pro-life cause is winning the battle of persuasion in the minds of many Americans. (March 1, 1999)
Abortion's Untold Story | How journalist Cynthia Gorney has helped both sides of the abortion debate to view the other side honestly. (April 27, 1998)
Wanted: A New Pro-life Strategy | Twenty-five years after Roe, and 37 million abortions later, we have to admit we are losing the fight. (Jan. 12, 1998)
Roe v. McCorvey | What made "Roe" betray the pro-choice cause? (Jan. 12, 1998)
States Approving Bans on Partial-Birth Abortion | Lawmakers are no longer waiting on federal bill. (October 27, 1997)
Pro-life Legislation Makes Strides | Laws already have been enacted in a dozen states to ban partial-birth abortion. (July 14, 1997)
Profamily Victories Tempered by Abortion Override Failure (Nov. 11, 1996)
Abortion Pill Seems on Fast Track | Pro-life activists say they will now concentrate their opposition efforts on grassroots education about the drug's potential dangers. (Sept. 16, 1996)
CT Classic: Arguments in Favor of Abortion Are Strong … | … if you accept one all-important assumption. (July 15, 1983)

More Christianity Today abortion stories can be found at our life ethics archive.

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