A Case For Why The ERLC Of The SBC Is Incorrect In Affirming, “We state unequivocally that any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women is not pro-life and we stand firmly opposed to such efforts.”

On May 12th, 2022, the National Right To Life pro-life organization sent out a letter stating:

“Women are victims of abortion and require our compassion and support as well as ready access to counseling and social services in the days, weeks, months, and years following an abortion. As national and state pro-life organizations, representing tens of millions of pro-life men, women, and children across the country, let us be clear: We state unequivocally that we do not support any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to include such penalties in legislation.”[i]

            If abortion is murder, as the pro-life movement has consistently claimed, this is already a shockingly inconsistent position – that someone guilty of murder should not face “any” kind of punishment – however, perhaps the most shocking part of this letter is the signature at the bottom from Brent Leatherwood from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

In this article, I seek to show why this position is (1) inconsistent with basic reason, (2) inconsistent with the SBC, (3) inconsistent with Church History, and (4) inconsistent with Scripture.

Inconsistent With Basic Reason

            The pro-life movement stands on the basic assertion that life begins at conception. It is an indisputable, biological fact that at the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg, a new and unique genetic code is in existence (a zygote).

Now, rejecting the naturalistic materialist position that there are no immaterial realities, one must allow that the soul comes into existence at this moment as well. Without getting into extensive argumentation, the soul must come into existence here because: One, it did not eternally exist, so it must come into existence; and two, the soul continues on after the heartbeat, and the brain waves, and our breathing have ceased, so it must be attached to our very DNA, and not something our DNA produces. Basically, our DNA determines we will have a body with lungs, and those lungs give us the ability to breath, but breathing is merely a bi-product of the former, and so on. So, the soul must be fundamentally “attached” (if you will) with the originating material product of personhood. Sperms will die, and eggs will be ejected, so the zygote is the originating material product of personhood. So too it must be seen as the origin of the soul. As the Christian author Tertullian (155-220 AD) wrote, “We contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does” (The Soul, 27).[ii]

Therefore, if a human being in the womb is a human being in every sense of the word, except for a difference in size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency,[iii] then that human being should have equal protection against murder as every other human being. I am not denying that there are situations where a woman who has an abortion is not culpable at all, such as a forced abortion under sex trafficking, but I am saying that the vast majority of abortions are not cases like this, and if abortion is not made illegal, even from the side of the woman, then women are still able to kill babies by pills in their homes and other forms of abortion that does not require an abortionist.

If you affirm a woman who murders her 6-month old, or her 6 year old, or her 16 year old should receive some kind of legal ramification, but you do not believe a woman who murders her baby in the womb by pill should receive some kind of legal ramification, then you are not consistently pro-life. It is either a life or it is not a life. I do not deny the woman may have a troubled life, and is perhaps a victim in some sense of the term, or that women are a victim of the abortion industry itself, but neither do I deny that many serial killers experienced childhood abuse[iv], and more – being a victim does not justify the crime. Notice, this is the same logic pro-choicers use: “What if the baby grows up in a bad environment, or poor, or…” The pro-life position is to reject this line of reasoning, and say, “You don’t get to kill poor kids.” This defense that the woman isn’t guilty simply because she’s a victim of the abortion industry, or circumstance, is the same foolish reasoning. The identity or circumstance of a human being does not remove their personhood or guilt, which is why I contend that this position is inconsistent with basic reason.

Inconsistent With The SBC

            At the SBC Annual Meeting of 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee, the Southern Baptist Convention voted on and affirmed the Southern Baptist Resolution On Abolishing Abortion. The majority agreed to affirm this statement, which in Article 13 says,

“RESOLVED, that the messengers of the SBC meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15-16, 2021, do state unequivocally that abortion is murder, and we reject any position that allows for any exceptions to the legal protection of our preborn neighbors, compromises God’s holy standard of justice, or promotes any God-hating partiality (Psa 94:6; Isa 10:1-2; Prov 24:11; Psa 82:1-4).”[v]

They also affirmed in Article 14 that furthermore:

“We will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion because it challenges God’s Lordship over the heart and the conscience, and rejects His call to repent of sin completely and immediately (Gen 3:1; John 8:44; Rom 2:14-15; 2 Corinthians 11:3).”[vi]

Notice the operative word “alone”, which was added in order to receive the majority approval. This not only shows that the SBC allows for abolitionist laws, but ultimately agrees with them, as the “incremental approach” is simply to incrementally make abortion illegal until it is fully abolished.

Once again, abortion is not fully abolished if the woman who takes an abortion pill, or uses a coat hanger, receives no legal penalty for it. Women who do not utilize abortionists are free to murder their babies, if this position is held. As Article 15 says, “We affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law.”[vii] Or, Article 16, “We humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion.”[viii] How is saying that “any” legal penalty brought against the mother is to be “firmly opposed” consistent with the above statements affirmed by the SBC? It is not. Plus, it is not consistent with Scripture (see below) and the SBC is an organization that affirms Scripture, which is why I contend that this position is inconsistent with the SBC.

Inconsistent With Church History

            At the SBC meeting in Anaheim, California, Brent Leatherwood, President of the ERLC, made a statement in response to a question about the letter, saying, the National Right To Life organization thought it right to send a letter showing “what the principles of the pro-life movement are”,[ix] clearly affirming the letter’s statement. However, this position is a foreign position to the earliest testimonies we have from the Christian Church. As you will see below, the early church clearly labeled abortion as murder, and thought it should be treated as such, and specifically referenced abortion by pill as murder (only Tertullian references abortionists, though surely all would affirm their guilt too). Plus, two of these quotes explicitly list a ten year punishment, which shows they were not against “any” punishment. I will list all of the quotes below:

THE DIDACHE “The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).

ATHENAGORAS “What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers? . . . [W]hen we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it” (A Plea for the Christians 35 [A.D. 177]).

TERTULLIAN “In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. 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 birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed” (Apology 9:8 [A.D. 197]).

“Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs [of the child] within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery.

“There is also [another instrument in the shape of] a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of embruosphaktes, [meaning] “the slayer of the infant,” which of course was alive. . . .

“[The doctors who performed abortions] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and [they] pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive” (The Soul 25 [A.D. 210]).

“Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does” (ibid., 27).

“The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion [Ex. 21:22–24]” (ibid., 37).

MINUCIUS FELIX “There are some [pagan] women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. And these things assuredly come down from the teaching of your [false] gods. . . . To us [Christians] it is not lawful either to see or hear of homicide” (Octavius 30 [A.D. 226]).

HIPPOLYTUS “Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!” (Refutation of All Heresies [A.D. 228]).

COUNCIL OF ANCYRA “Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees” (canon 21 [A.D. 314]).

BASIL THE GREAT “Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not” (First Canonical Letter, canon 2 [A.D. 374]).

“He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an axe at his own wife and kills her, is guilty of willful murder; not he who throws a stone at a dog, and unintentionally kills a man, or who corrects one with a rod, or scourge, in order to reform him, or who kills a man in his own defense, when he only designed to hurt him. But the man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it dies upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway, and rapparees” (ibid., canon 8).

JOHN CHRYSOSTOM “Wherefore I beseech you, flee fornication. . . . Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit?—where there are many efforts at abortion?—where there is murder before the birth? For even the harlot you do not let continue a mere harlot, but make her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to prostitution, prostitution to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then do thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with his laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine” (Homilies on Romans 24 [A.D. 391]).

JEROME “I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother. . . . Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when, as often happens, they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder” (Letters 22:13 [A.D. 396]).

THE APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTIONS “Thou shalt not use magic. Thou shalt not use witchcraft; for he says, ‘You shall not suffer a witch to live’ [Ex. 22:18]. Thou shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. . . . [I]f it be slain, [it] shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed” (Apostolic Constitutions 7:3 [A.D. 400]).[x]

It is clear that anyone aiding and abetting in an abortion was guilty of murder according to the early church, which is why I contend that the position of the ERLC is inconsistent with Church History.

Inconsistent With Scripture

            Finally, and most importantly, the ERLC’s affirmation of the letter’s statement is inconsistent with Scripture.

Scripture unquestionably teaches that the life in the womb is a life. Take Luke 1:41, where John the Baptist leaps in the womb at the presence of Jesus in the womb, or Isaiah 49, where Isaiah says he was formed in the womb to be God’s servant, similar to Jeremiah 1; or, take Jeremiah 20:17, where Jeremiah remarks he wasn’t killed in his mother’s womb, and that, if he was, it would have been his grave, and so on. In fact, the ERLC does not disagree with this, and I would even go as far as to say, this is probably a big reason why they are pro-life.

After the first question about the letter was asked of Brent Leatherwood, another audience member asked, “Which law of God did [the mother who got an abortion] break?” Leatherwood moved aside, and a gentlemen from the stage went to the mic to answer. He said, “The Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shall not kill[xi]’”,[xii] and proceeded to shrug his shoulders with a questioning face, as if to say, “Duh!”

However, they missed the very point: One cannot consistently say that the woman who has had an abortion is guilty of murder, and yet, should not be treated as if they have murdered. What other crime would the ERLC argue in this way? School shootings? Rape? Molestation? Sexual abuse? Maybe the school shooter had a mental illness; maybe the rapist didn’t have a dad; maybe the molester was never hugged as a child; and maybe the sexual abuser was just really stressed. Does that give them a pass for paying for their crime? No, obviously not. As Romans 13:3 says, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (ESV). God has instituted government to punish criminals, and if abortion is murder, the mothers committed a crime.

A Comment On The Abolitionists’ Rhetoric

            Many abolitionists will be misrepresented at this point saying that they want “to execute women”; for instance, the news site Metro in 2017 wrote an article about popular abolitionist, Pastor Jeff Durbin of Tempe, Arizona’s Apologia Church, titling it, “’Hipster’ says he wants to execute women who have abortions.”[xiii] This is likely taken from statements where he says abortion is murder, and according to the law of God, murderers ought to be put to death (Leviticus 24:17). So, why is this a misrepresentation?

Says he wants to” First, the abolitionist position is not that an individual should get to execute women, but that the government has the right to punish criminals. If you are pro-life, and agree that abortion is murder; and, you agree with capital punishment for murder, then you would be inconsistent if you disagreed with capital punishment for abortion (this is not my or Durbin’s position – see below – but, I am simply making the point that, if abortion is indeed murder, then it must be treated like so). The position is simply, if life begins at conception, and so then abortion is murder, whatever the state’s laws on murder is, that should be consistently applied to all murder.

Instead, there are states, like New York, that removed the double-homicide charges against a murderer of a pregnant women to be able to pass their up-to-24-weeks abortion laws.[xiv]

Execute women” Second, when abolitionists like Jeff Durbin say a women ought to receive the death penalty, they are simply describing what is perfect justice and/or perfect law, according to God’s standard of justice. In a perfectly just world: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” and life for life (Exodus 21:24). Although Jesus calls us to a standard of mercy, the Apostle Paul still affirms that the government is in existence to maintain this type of justice against criminals. So, would the death penalty be within the realm of justice for abortion? Technically, yes, because it is a life for a life (if you are consistently pro-life), and the government “does not bear the sword in vain” (Rm. 13:4). However, saying that perfect justice is a life for a life, and that the government has the moral right to decree the death penalty, is a different thing than saying they should. For instance, Jeff Durbin, the same famous abolitionist we are talking about, told the New York Times this month,

“I do believe that the unjustified taking of human life, if provable, ultimately, justly, ought to be capital punishment. However, I don’t trust our system today to deal that out.”[xv]

I cannot speak for every person on the side of the Abolitionists, but I know that my view, Jeff Durbin’s view, and the view of the SBC’s On Abolishing Abortion does not require or even call for the actual legislation of the death penalty.

But The Culture Has Taught These Women Abortion Is Okay

            I have heard an argument that, since the culture, and American laws, have taught women that abortion is okay, this is why they should be seen as only a victim, and not guilty. But again, what other crime would we say this for? Are the cannibals in a far-off village without guilt because their chief said it was okay? Obviously not.

Likewise, Romans 1 tells us that the reason the human race affirms terrible beliefs and lives debased lifestyles is because they have rejected the truth that they know about God for their unrighteousness (vv. 18-19). We love our sin, and until God reveals His holiness, and glory, and majesty to us, we will riot in the streets for the “right” to kill our babies.

For all these reasons, and for the fact that the Abolitionist document affirmed by the SBC cites around 50 Scriptures, I contend that the position of the ERLC is inconsistent with Scripture.

So What Now?

            The call of the Gospel is to reason from God and His Word, not from what is popular, or palatable, or what the 74 other pro-life organizations say, but from God and His Word. As a Christian organization, the ERLC should affirm God’s Word and do the work of proclaiming the Gospel to these women – that, although you’ve sinned against a holy and perfect God, Christ has paid for sin, and anyone who puts her faith in Christ as Reigning Lord and Risen Savior may find forgiveness.

The ERLC should think twice in affirming letters written by generic pro-life organizations, and rethink their full view on abortion. My issue is not with incrementalism. My issue is with the ERLC’s official position being “unequivocally that any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women is not pro-life and we stand firmly opposed to such efforts.”[xvi] If this is the case, abortion is not murder, incrementalism is working towards nothing, and all our efforts are in vain.

God is not so inconsistent. And our Righteous God demands that we be consistent with His Word in our ideologies, in our thoughts, in our practices, and in our letter signing. Brent Leatherwood answered, “We agree on the bottom line — we want abortion ended. We want it ended today, we want it ended tomorrow, we want to end it as soon as humanly possible.” Respectfully Brent, the ERLC’s position does not and will not end abortion ever. Every abortion by pill will remain legal under your position, and the 7 to 2 favor of the Louisiana bill to immediately stop abortion was stopped by the letter you signed. May the Lord have mercy on us all.

[i] https://www.nrlc.org/uploads/communications/051222coalitionlettertostates.pdf

[ii] Tertullian, The Soul, https://www.churchfathers.org/abortion, 27.

[iii] Alan Shlemon, The S.L.E.D. Test, https://www.str.org/w/the-sled-test. This is a common argument against the pro-choice movement.

[iv] I was told that this example is “extreme”, but that’s exactly the point: Circumstance does not justify murder, and abortion is murder.

[v] SBC, On Abolishing Abortion, https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-abolishing-abortion/, Article 13.

[vi] Ibid., Article 14.

[vii] Ibid., Article 15.

[viii] Ibid., Article 16.

[ix] Southern Baptist for Abolishing Abortion, SBC Annual Meeting ’22 Questions on Abortion for ERLC, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNTUI98dEjs, 2:33.

[x] All of the above quotes from Church History were found on https://www.churchfathers.org/abortion.

[xi] The Hebrew term rasah is better rendered “murder”, as the ESV reflects.

[xii] Southern Baptist for Abolishing Abortion, SBC Annual Meeting ’22 Questions on Abortion for ERLC, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNTUI98dEjs, 7:03.

[xiii] Tanveer Mann, ‚Hipster‘ says he wants to execute women who have abortion, https://metro.co.uk/2017/02/27/hipster-says-he-wants-to-execute-women-who-have-abortions-6475717/, Feb. 27, 2017.

[xiv] Emily Zanotti, New York’s New Abortion Law Even Removes Protections For Wanted Babies, The Daily Wire, https://www.dailywire.com/news/new-yorks-new-abortion-law-even-removes-emily-zanotti, Jan 28, 2019.

[xv] Elizabeth Dias, Inside the Extreme Effort to Punish Women for Abortion, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/01/us/abortion-abolitionists.html, July 1, 2022.

[xvi] https://www.nrlc.org/uploads/communications/051222coalitionlettertostates.pdf

Nathan Walker

Nathan A. Walker is Jon Walker's son. He currently attends the College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral Ministry, with a Minor in Christian Studies. After graduation, he plans to pursue an Advanced M.Div., and, after that, a Ph.D. in New Testament.