Southern Baptists voted to approve an abortion resolution in anticipation of an upcoming Supreme Court ruling that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
Messengers gathered in Anaheim, California, for their Annual Meeting this week where they voted overwhelmingly in support of the denomination’s pro-life efforts, theological commitments and outreach in ministry.
Resolution 7, called “On Anticipation of a Historic Moment In the Pro-Life Movement," urged that the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson reverse Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case which reaffirmed Roe.
A draft majority opinion of the justices' ruling in that case, in which Roe was overturned, was leaked to the press on May 2.
On Wednesday afternoon, Southern Baptist seminary presidents spoke to messengers about what is happening at their institutions, while a motion was proposed from the floor to abolish the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the denomination’s policy arm. During this time, several messengers came to the microphone to inquire about where leaders in the denomination stood on abortion.
They specifically asked about whether or not Southern Baptist leaders would back proposals revamping laws to apply homicide statutes to the unborn, a policy goal that “abortion abolitionists” have advocated in some states. The most favorable response given to such a question came from Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
“We understand that homicide is the death or the killing of a human being. The unborn baby, I believe, from the moment of conception until natural death, is a human being deserving of that protection. The law has means of making discernments and distinctions in agency and that means moral responsibility and in context,” Mohler said.
“How we make that apply in the question of abortion where even in terms of, say, a miscarriage, things may be difficult sometimes, medically, to define — I believe the law is capable of making those distinctions in the same way we have different degrees of murder, we have different kinds of indictments possible of criminal charges. So in other words, I believe that there are many cases in which, demonstrably, there is not just an abortionist who should face criminal charges but a woman seeking an abortion.”
“That is something that we believe the law should pursue," he added. "We also understand that that is not something that is likely to come in all 50 states anytime soon.”
A messenger from the floor who spoke in favor of the motion in favor of abolishing the ERLC argued that the agency is compromised and is not giving voice to the views of Southern Baptists, including on the issue of abortion.
Dr. Richard Land, president emeritus of the ERLC, who served at the helm of the entity from 1988 to 2013, urged messengers to vote to reject the measure. He noted the hard work Southern Baptists have done for decades in defense of the unborn.
Land said that he could not think of a worse time to defund the entity in light of current circumstances. The nature of the job of heading the ERLC means disagreements over many issues are bound to happen, he said, but scrapping the agency is misguided.
“At the precise moment when after 50 years of effort, we are on the verge of having Roe v. Wade overturned, that will immediately lead to a battle in all 50 states in the state legislatures and Southern Baptists will be leading that charge. And the ERLC is perfectly primed to be a resource, to be a help, and to help share information among the 50 states,” Land said.
“To defund the ERLC because you’re unhappy with some of what it may have done would be like taking a cannon to destroy a mosquito. The mosquito dies," but there are "great, great calamitous consequences overall,” he asserted.
Messengers subsequently voted overwhelmingly to reject the motion to abolish the ERLC.
The language in this year’s resolution did not contain language like last year’s motion that might be called “abolitionist” in that it slightly spurned what has long been the mainstream approach of pro-life advocacy among Southern Baptists, known as “incrementalism.”
Though messengers at last year’s annual meeting passed it by a large majority, notable SBC ethicists voted against the resolution. They explained at length in The Public Discourse why they found the language troubling and strategically unworkable and maintained that many messengers did not adequately understand the resolution.
Some within the SBC have criticized the ERLC’s signing of a letter from the National Right to Life Committee urging Louisiana state lawmakers not to support an abolitionist bill in that state, stressing the importance of not assigning criminal penalties to women who undergo abortions.
One messenger from Louisiana, a pastor who supported the contested bill, asked SBC leaders on the stage, “Is it your position that the mother who willfully kills her own child by abortion is never guilty before God and she should never face any consequences under the law?”
Addressing the issue from the stage, Brent Leatherwood, ERLC acting president, explained that the NRLC approached them and 75 other pro-life groups. They did so, he said, in the context of the likely demise of Roe and the need to delineate clearly for state legislators the principles of the pro-life movement given how states will soon have the chance to rework their laws.
“You’re not going to get me to say that I want to throw mothers behind bars,” Leatherwood said of the ERLC’s posture toward abortion-related public policy, adding that this view is shared by the SBC at large and the broader pro-life movement.
The messengers voted to adopt Resolution 7.
The SBC annual meeting concluded Wednesday. Next year’s annual meeting is slated to happen in New Orleans, Louisiana.