As we acknowledge yet another anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and contemplate the current state of the pro-life movement, I am inclined — as a historian should be — to look to the past for some guidance. As I see the abortion controversy and the accompanying pro-life movement enter its fifth decade, I am drawn to the slavery controversy which likewise lasted many decades.
The movement to abolish slavery was spearheaded by evangelicals. They were not the only members of this movement, but they were clearly in the vanguard. The movement consisted primarily of para-church associations and organizations that took direct action in helping the slaves. Though local churches usually did not play a direct role in this movement, they did educate and inspire their members to participate directly in the para-church groups.1
In the Heart of the Battle
When it comes to the pro-life movement of today, as with the abolitionist movement in the 19th century, Christians primarily work outside the church. They lead and contribute to various anti-abortion groups, which do everything from lobbying Congress to organizing prayers in front of abortion clinics. But the para-church organizations that — more than any other — are in the heart of the battle and have their boots on the ground are crisis pregnancy centers.
These centers, like the abolitionist organizations of old, are oftentimes led by evangelical Christians, staffed by evangelical Christians, and receive much of their financial support from evangelical Christians (and in some cases, from local churches). While it is clear that one of the foremost goals of these centers is to save the life of the innocent — unborn human beings — they also seek to provide for the needs of the mother, baby, father, and family before, during, and after the pregnancy. Oftentimes, the greatest need of these individuals — their need for a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ — is also addressed by the Christians working in these centers.
I mention all of this to draw a line of similarity: Supporters of slavery in 19th century America violently denounced the American Anti-Slavery Society and the other organizations dedicated to abolitionism — and the same is true in the pro-life movement. Those who are committed to legalized abortion likewise criticize and attack pro-life organizations, including crisis pregnancy centers.
In the latest issue of Reviews in American History, I was intrigued to see this reality prove itself once again. The last article in this issue was a reflective piece on the Roe v. Wade decision by a historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She initially sought to establish herself as someone who could be objective about the abortion issue. But apparently not wishing to unduly alarm her fellow pro-choice historians, she listed out her pro-abortion credentials. As a part of this effort, she proclaimed, without elaboration, “I despise crisis pregnancy centers.”
This struck me as incredibly odd. Is it now necessary to despise crisis pregnancy centers in order to be considered a real pro-choice advocate? I thought the mantra of those who support abortion is that they are pro-choice. But how can people say they are a champion of “choice” if they simultaneously wish that one of the two possible choices did not exist? How can you advocate “choice” when you want to eliminate the “choice” of the crisis pregnancy center option? In addition, what is there to despise about crisis pregnancy centers? Is it despicable that in addition to seeking to save human lives they also minister to the hurting and needy, and invest in their lives?
Yet, the opposition to these centers is obvious and real. New York City and Baltimore recently passed laws that mandate that crisis pregnancy centers in their cities advertise and also announce to all potential clients that they do not provide abortion services or contraceptives, and to specify which, if any, medical services they do provide. Simply put, this is an attempt to discourage citizens from seeking their help. It is a government mandate that these clinics “de-market” themselves by highlighting what they don’t do.
What History Teaches Us
How should Christians respond to these attacks on crisis pregnancy centers?
First, Christians should see crisis pregnancy centers as arms of the church fighting for the oppressed, much like the anti-slavery organizations of Antebellum America. Secondly, we should take heart, remembering that the much-maligned abolitionist societies persevered and, in the end, prevailed. But, thirdly, we must remember that their success was not guaranteed and it came at a cost.
Many Christians worked and sacrificed, even when their prospects for success appeared bleak, in order to help slaves and abolish the practice. Likewise, Christians today should assess their efforts. Would you have been actively involved in the campaign to end slavery had you been alive before the Civil War? To what extent are you involved in the campaign to end abortion now? Some people contribute from behind a computer, or by walking the halls of the state legislature, or by preaching from a pulpit. These methods are good and necessary.
But don’t forget about those on the front lines — those who minister directly to those women who are scared, confused, and oftentimes desperate and needy; those who end up crying, rejoicing, and praying with those strangers who came through their doors just days or weeks earlier; those who are despised and targeted because they tell pregnant women that they have a choice. They are the ones who prove, better than anyone else, that Christians don’t just “love the fetus” but actually love all people, in word and deed.
For more on this topic, consult Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s classic Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery to see how Calvinistic evangelicals such as Arthur and Lewis Tappan created the American Anti-Slavery Society and did countless other things to free and help the slaves — and how other evangelicals supported and participated in those efforts. ↩