clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Southern Baptist Convention rejected violence against abortion providers 20 years ago. Here's why.

Mike Huckabee speaks at the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.
Mike Huckabee speaks at the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.
Stewart F. House/Getty Images

The pro-life movement and its rhetoric is under scrutiny after a mass shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood left three dead and nine injured.

Some abortion opponents have made troubling remarks suggesting the violence at Planned Parenthood was either to be expected or was somehow deserved. "After all these years and millions of babies that have gone to their death, violence is to be anticipated," Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, told MSNBC's Irin Carmon. "Because it’s acceptable to violently kill a baby, so why isn’t it acceptable to violently kill other people?"

This raises an even more troubling question: If abortion is really no different from genocide or slavery, as many anti-abortion advocates say, and if the government refuses to do anything to stop it, then why wouldn't armed resistance be called for?

Unsurprisingly, this is a big question that has vexed a lot of people for a long time. And in thinking about this question and how the pro-life movement should answer it, it's worth reading what the Southern Baptist Convention — the country's largest Protestant Christian denomination — had to say about the issue 20 years ago in this document, the Nashville Declaration of Conscience.

Their lengthy argument deserves reading in full, but here are a few key passages:

"Thou shalt not kill" must be taken very seriously on both ends

2.2 The Bible teaches that each human life is sacred, for every human being is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). For this reason, each human life bears divinely granted and immeasurable value. Human beings are not free to take the lives of others, for those lives belong to God, their Creator.

The authors add that "an extraordinarily stringent burden of proof is imposed upon any who would seek to justify the taking of a human life." They argue that abortion takes a human life, and that abortion is only justifiable if it will save a woman's life.

Intentional killing is not an acceptable form of resistance to unjust laws

Even though the law doesn't punish abortion as murder and the government has "abdicated its responsibility" to protect the innocent, that doesn't mean individuals can take the law into their own hands.

5.2 First, we reject the argument some have made that such killings are valid as an act of defending the innocent from harm. We reply that according to both civil law and divine moral law private citizens are permitted to use lethal force against another human being only if this occurs as an unintended effect of the act of defending oneself or another against an assailant’s unjust attack. Private citizens are not allowed to intend to kill another human being and are not allowed to engage in premeditated acts of deadly force in order to accomplish what they intend. In other words, a private citizen can intend to stop, but not to kill, an assailant regardless of the final result. Attacks on abortion doctors fail this test.

The authors also reject the idea that the United States government has lost its legitimacy by legalizing abortion and therefore must be resisted. Legalized abortion isn't an imposition by an illegitimate regime, they say; it's a "failure of legitimate democracy" that must be corrected by changing hearts and minds. "The logic of revolution," therefore, doesn't apply here.

There are other ways to work to reduce abortions and change society

5.3 Furthermore, an act of homicide is unjustifiable if the attacker’s victim could have been adequately defended in any way other than causing the attacker’s death. We believe that the many pro-life measures outlined in section 4 do offer a range of constructive (even if not fully adequate) forms of defense of the lives of the unborn, and thus, the killing of abortion doctors is unjustifiable.

These "pro-life measures" include abstinence-based sex education, "crisis pregnancy centers" that steer women away from choosing abortion, working to elect more pro-life political leaders, and doctors conscientiously objecting to abortion.

Killing doctors won't really do much to stop abortions anyway

If extremists aren't convinced by these Southern Baptists' pleading for incremental change rather than "revolution," maybe this would do it:

5.4 We believe, further, that the killing of an abortion doctor in actuality does not constitute a meaningful defense of unborn life. This is the case because an abortion doctor is only one of the participants in the act of elective abortion, and not the most important one. It is the woman seeking an abortion who drives the process. The killing of an abortion doctor does nothing in itself to diminish a woman’s demand for an abortion. If abortion is legal, and she perceives no alternatives to abortion, she will find another abortion provider. As long as abortion is legal, if we wish to save the lives of unborn children we must influence the actions of women who are considering abortion. The best and most Christ-like way to do so is lovingly to provide her with viable alternatives to abortion. This does not absolve others, especially the baby’s father, who may be exerting enormous pressure on the child’s mother.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.