It Really Isn’t About Abortion

I’ve written before about the actual origins of the anti-abortion movement, as recounted by noted religion scholar Randall Balmer. Ballmer (whose account is confirmed by several other historians of religion) reminds us that it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe v, Wade—that evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.”

Objecting to abortion was seen as “more palatable” than what was actually motivating the Religious Right, which was protection of the segregated schools they had established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. 

According to Balmer,

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as 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 convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

Ballmer has reported on the anger at civil rights laws expressed by those running the segregation academies, and the strategic success of Falwell and Weyrich’s decision to tap into the ire of those evangelical leaders. They were, as he reports, “savvy enough” to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would encounter moral blowback. The anti-integration message worked for Evangelical leadership, but they would need a different issue to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.

Bottom line: the catalyst for the Christian Right’s political activism was not, as often claimed, opposition to abortion. The real roots of Christian Nationalism –as has become very clear–can be found in the movement’s racism and defense of racial segregation.

I thought of that history when I read this report from the DesMoines Register.

The number of abortions performed in Iowa climbed nearly 14% in 2020, after jumping 25% the previous year, new state data show.

Iowa had seen years of steady declines in abortions before 2019. But that trendline has changed. 

The state saw 4,058 abortions performed in 2020, up from 3,566 in 2019 and 2,849 in 2018, the new numbers show. 

The new data were shared with legislative staff Thursday by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The turnaround in abortion numbers came in the wake of Iowa’s 2017 decision to withdraw from a federally funded family planning program, which helped thousands of Iowans gain birth control supplies and information on how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The program was replaced with a state-run version, which barred Planned Parenthood’s participation and has served fewer Iowans.

If “pro-life” activists really wanted to reduce the number of abortions, they wouldn’t oppose family planning. They certainly wouldn’t fight so ferociously to ban sex education in the schools. And as numerous observers have noted, “pro life” is a curious label for people who are unwilling to have government provide any support for children once they are born. 

Perhaps the best summation of this hypocrisy is reflected in an oft-quoted observation from Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister:

“I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Thanks to the COVID pandemic, the hypocrisy of the Christian Right position has become especially clear. It’s obvious in the righteous indignation of GOP mask “refuseniks” and anti-vaxxers, who insist that they have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. That is a right they are unwilling to extend to women, even though a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy doesn’t endanger the community at large, as a refusal to wear a mask or be vaccinated does.

The origins of the cynically-named “pro life” movement are largely unrecognized, and I’m sure there are sincere people who believe that abortion is morally wrong. But the continued strength of the movement isn’t found in a concern for babies; it’s firmly located in the continuing belief of Christian Nationalists that women, like Black people, must be kept subservient.


  1. Interesting. I had not considered the racial undertone in the anti-abortion movement. To me it has always been clear that it is more about economic subjugation of women, but the racial aspect is new to me.

  2. I deduced it wasn’t only about abortion when Planned Parenthood was the primary, if not the only, target. Other clinics and hospitals perform abortions; is it religious or is it racial, and money has to come into this political “rallying cry” at some level. Or is it simply politics; it worked before, will it work again?

    Pence shut down all Planned Parenthood clinics in southern Indiana causing drug ODs and STD epidemics without the testing and aid found in those clinics for men as well as women. I have wondered how Pence’s religious clout hit so heavily in the southern part of this state and not other areas. We didn’t see statistics regarding a rise in birth rates or deaths from forced pregnancy or botched abortions.

    “If “pro-life” activists really wanted to reduce the number of abortions, they wouldn’t oppose family planning. They certainly wouldn’t fight so ferociously to ban sex education in the schools. And as numerous observers have noted, “pro life” is a curious label for people who are unwilling to have government provide any support for children once they are born.”

    That final sentence copied and pasted above brings politics to the forefront; it is Republicans who want to end public assistance and are fighting to destroy the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid systems as handouts.

  3. Thank you! More women need to read this. They have a right to know they’ve been morally guilted for decades by a political ruse cooked up by bullying, racist white men. This key can open a lock on many hearts and minds and lift an undeserved feeling of unworthiness.

  4. What Nancy said. The Republican white men have no keys to anything worthwhile. Their only vector is the control and subjugation of women and people not white. Since the Republicans and other right-wing leaners have NO social agenda that benefits anyone, they have to resort to this sort of backward crap to garner votes. Too bad so many are duped by this pathetic attempt at social engineering by those who understand little about the people in that society.

  5. I asked my grandson, he was in High School at the time, about being educated concerning Sex Education here in Indiana. He said abstinence was the message. How is this possible?? Are the bible thumper’s worried that Hustler Magazine will be used as the text book and “X” rated porn will be the movie shown to the kids.

    My go to answer for the Pro Life people is – If you disagree with abortion – Do not get one. That is not enough for them – They want to prevent other women from getting an abortion. Their attitude seems to be once the child is born they could care less about the birth mother or the child.

    I often wonder how many of the Pro-Lifers have adopted children or taken on a foster child. Has the Catholic Church approved “The Pill” yet.

    “It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry.”

    ― H.L. Mencken

  6. Maybe once we start taxing the churches, this nonsense will stop. But, I repeat myself.

  7. Although racism was a part of the equation, the real goal was power. Either way, their actions are certainly not Christ-like.

  8. If racist pro National Christians is real within either party it would be wise to reverse that trend by acknowledging the black communities rights. I talk with members of the black community all the the time that decry the philosophy of the Democrat party as it has abandoned their Christian values. Its difficult to see them walk away from the support that is being given to their communities in some ways but some are seeing how governments influence in other ways has damaged the family unit. Planned Parenthood can be used in rural areas to help in planning but the black community pastors are questioning why most are located in the cities.
    If CRT is true then why dont proponents of them back unions to be within Amazon and Google that consistently risen black pay. Racism is a problem, but as 1.2 million surge accross the border whose jobs sre being lost. The true racists are the social engineers that promise one thing looking into the past dont support the future of the black community.

  9. Like all cults the hard right insists on and tests regularly full on allegiance to the full dogma, no partial credit.

  10. Well, that’s an eye opener!
    But the tactic is not at all surprising, thinking, as I do, that there is nothing so venal that these folks would not stoop to it.

  11. I heard a GOP politician once say that in areas where women have easy access to birth control AND prenatal care, abortions are markedly reduced.

    Like most women I have mixed feelings about this issue especially with last trimester abortions that are not done due to the viability of the fetus or the mother’s health. Having said that, I am aware that this is rare.

    I did not know that the religous right used the pro-life stand as a cover up for their racism. It makes sense, though. When women living in poverty, many of whom are women of color, do not have access to reproductive health treatment, they can remain economically oppressed due to unplanned pregnancy.

    The religous right wants a world dominated by white men. They want women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. I have news for them. We are not going to get mesmerized by the feminine mystique again…..EVER. I run like a girl. Try to keep up with me you small minded white boys who refuse to address child sexual abuse and domestic violence.

  12. As someone who is against abortion and been to many meetings with pro-life advocates, I think I can speak with more authority on the issue than most people on here.

    Anyone who thinks that most people who consider themselves pro-life do not actually care about the life of the unborn, are fooling themselves. They 100% believe abortion is the taking of an innocent human life and they are deeply bothered by that. I know people on the left try to convince themselves that pro life people don’t actually believe that, that the abortion issue is really about something else, but I assure you it is not.

    The charge of hypocrisy has some merit, but not for the reasons articulated here. Being pro-life doesn’t mean you should support more and bigger government. The whole point of being a conservative is that you believe government programs often don’t work and sometimes makes things worse. So why would a conservative support those programs, even if pro-life? Likewise, I don’t agree that pro-lifers should also reflexively oppose the death penalty. There is a huge difference between innocent unborn human life and a murderer who forfeited his right to life. It’s not hard to make that distinction.

    Where hypocrisy has merit is what has happened during the Covid-19 pandemic. I saw many people who call themselves pro-life have utter disregard for the elderly who were the major casualties of the virus. Many of them also fought against things like wearing masks which is all about protecting others. Those aren’t even remotely “pro-life” positions. Part of the problem is that the pro-life movement completely hitched its wagon to Trump, so much so that whether Trump was for or against an issue defined what was “pro-life” position was. The pro-life movement became part of the Trump personality cult. I was so disappointed to see this.

    With all due respect to Sheila and those commenting on this blog, there is no bigger tone deaf claim than that the pro-life movement is really about men trying to subrogate women. If people spent any time around the pro-life cause, they’d quickly find out that most pro-life leaders are WOMEN, most of the people who feel passionate against abortion are WOMEN, and in many if not most polls, WOMEN are more opposed to abortion rights than men. In fact the demographic group that most supports abortion rights is generally MEN, 18-30. Wanna guess why?

    So the notion that the abortion issue is about men trying to keep women in their place could not be less true. Pro-lifers believe the fetus is developing human life deserving of protection. Pro-choicers focus instead on the woman’s bodily integrity and her right to make medical decisions regarding her body, even when it affects life growing inside her. Although neither side wants to admit it, both sides have positions which are very legitimate and logical.

    The abortion issue is never going to be resolved until both sides recognize the validity of each other’s position and reach a compromise as to what point during the pregnancy that the developing human life deserves protection. Roe attempted to do this by judicial fiat, drawing the line far too late. If Roe and its progeny are modified so states can (but are not required to) move the line back to 3 months (which will still permit 95% of abortions), then you’re finally going to see abortion rights finally fade as a political issue.

  13. Oh no you don’t Mr. Ogden !
    1. You are a man, sit down.
    2. It is about privacy. My body, my choice.
    3. Fetuses cannot survive outside a womb.
    4. That womb belongs to the woman carrying that fetus.
    5. That woman’s life is not ruled by a human life that can’t speak for itself.
    6. Medicine has improved greatly in the past 100 years and now women can prevent fetuses from being conceived!
    7. That medicine (birth control) is Not now and never has been 100% effective.
    8. Until that medicine is 100% effective, the woman has the right to her body doing what she wants, when she wants it.
    9. Did you know that as a dead person, your dead body has more rights than a pregnant woman?
    10. A dead body is sacred. You cannot take organs from a dead body without their permission prior to death no matter how many lives those organs can save.

    What I don’t understand most about you prolifers is that it’s always the woman’s body that is the problem. That woman did not get pregnant by herself. She was injected with a man’s juice and yet, he has no responsibility toward this fetus he helped create.

    11. Men can get 365 women pregnant in one year. Or more if he’s nasty.
    12. A woman can only get pregnant once every year.
    13. So do the math. This is a man’s problem, not a woman’s.

    No offense but I’m just waiting for society to leave women alone and stand by her in her hour of need.

  14. Way back early middle ages pre science the teaching of the Catholic Church was that men’s sperm contained human beings, and that women were just incubators to grow the baby. Some of that unfounded male importance carries over today in the structure of the Church, and into our political structures.
    Also the heirarchy of life is a Church & Political structure. Until women are free to realize their talents and gifts our culture won’t benefit from the full richness & balance that is there.
    I always heard that “you can’t legislate morals” from my old Catholic dad that was a lawyer; he
    survived the Klan, grew up in prohibition, and fought in WWll. He and mom who was a nurse in WWll had nine kids. I was their oldest girl, and went into nursing too. In this day and age opposing funding for pre-conception b.c. is not respectful of anyones rights. Abortion up to 3 mos. is a personal decision, that needs to be taken out of the political arena. It’s egregous that policians and Church heirarchy jerk people around by their primal urges.

  15. AgingLGirl – I am a man who has always agreed that “it’s not my call”. I am also a follower of christ. I know the argument from that point. What I also see – HUMANS can’t separate from their humanity from spirit. This is something that will never get settled in this life or any other. Unfortunately the Enemy is in full swing here on earth. Myself along with the skeptics included are blind to a lot of the smoke screens the Enemy uses to separate us from each other and morality. I also know that it is not my job or any others to claim “Right and Wrong”, “Good or Bad”. It says to look at the log in our own eye before we judge the person with a splinter in theirs. God/Jesus whomever you believe is your maker will be the only true judge. I am just supposed to follow Him and love others as he has loved me. Take care…

  16. Kudos, AgingLGirl, double Kudos! If those “pro-lifers” didn’t support health care coverage for Viagra and erectile dysfunction supplies but prohibit access to birth control, abortion would not be the problem it is today. It would have remained within the privacy of our homes and doctor’s offices.

  17. Paul Ogden missed the main point of the essay, that abortion is only an issue with the Pro-life groups, because somebody made sure it was an issue. By the time he even starts his argument, the bandwagon he is riding is already running at full speed. He has swallowed the bait hook line and sinker.

    AgingLGirl, Kodos.

  18. Thank you, AgingLittleGirl, JoAnn, ML, and Dan: As an adoptee, I will step forward here and say what I have said before: My birth mother’s body, her choice. She chose life for herself and for me. So butt out, back off and sit down, Paul! Her choice! Got it?

  19. Once again, Sheila, in a few short, succinct, to-the-point paragraphs you have hit the nail on the head. If one is ever in a quandary to understand what is behind an “apparent” Republican platform issue, the motivations is almost always, quite simply, to get more voters to keep them in power. The issue is never the issue. The issue is always to get more votes to stay in power. The abortion issue brought in the Catholic vote; that was the objective.

  20. I admire Sheila but as usual I disagree. We are WAY TOO EASY on those having sex outside of marriage. Rape is an extremely rare instance. Otherwise it is a lack of planning in most cases. Too much passion too soon with no self control. There is an entire industry making a fortune off this, which we all pay for. Why? Why is paying for lack of control of your passions a government issue? Pay for your own. Your body your choice, right? Paul Ogden, you came up in my eyes!!

  21. Paul Weyrich was interested in a political organizing tool and political opportunism. Subjugation of women was icing on the case.

    Sheila has rightly noted that the most extreme anti-abortion state legislators are the same ones who claim the right to do asand they wish with their own bodies on masking and vaccnating for COVID.

    If these and other pro-lifers really want to eliminate abortions – and not just Roe v. Wade – they will make birth control medications and procedures available for free to all the poor women who cannot afford them and resort to abortions. Otherwise, abortions will be us after Roe v. Wade just like they were BEFORE Roe. V. Wade.

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