I recently came across the initial reporting from Baptist Press on the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Reading these documents made me so grateful for the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC.

The attorney who filed the initial lawsuit in Roe v. Wade was a Southern Baptist and member of Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas. (BP interviewed her for a Jan. 29 story, see below.)

The lead paragraph of a Jan. 31 news analysis about Roe says the decision “advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.” The story also says the court was a “strict constructionist” court and not a “liberal” court. It also says there “is no official Southern Baptist position on abortion.” (See below.)

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January 29, 1973
Abortion Court Decision Interpreted by Attorney
By Robert 0′ Brien

A Southern Baptist attorney who activated the legal machinery resulting in the Supreme Court decision overturning abortion statutes in some 30 states said here the “Supreme Court decision does not absolve anyone of individual moral or religious responsibility.” Linda N. Coffee, a 30-year-old brunette sat in her Dallas law office and pondered the contrasting complexities of her stance on abortion – legal vs. personal.

It’s a stance which would legally allow more constitutional freedom for others than she would exercise as an individual, she said in an interview. She expressed fear “the emotional reaction to the ruling will result in failure to distinguish between the legal principle of the decision and the moral implications now left to the doctor patient relationship.”

“The abortion decision could be as widely misinterpreted as the Supreme Court’s prayer decision, but I hope not,” said Miss Coffee, daughter of Nellene Coffee, a secretary in the Texas Baptist Christian Education Commission. ”From my personal perspective as a Christian,” she said, “It would tear me up to have to make a decision on abortion except in the early stages. And I would have to have a compelling reason even then,” she emphasized, speaking as a person.

But, as lawyer, Miss Coffee authored a series of legal proceedings which led to the 7-2 Supreme Court decision. Crux of the pleadings, drafted originally by Miss Coffee for argument before a three-judge federal court in Dallas, centered on whether the state has a right to interfere in a doctor-patient decision.

The eventual decision, she explained, declared the state may not interfere with the decision to terminate a pregnancy until the fetus becomes “viable” sometime between the beginning of sixth and seventh months of pregnancy. ”But the decision does not say any doctor has to perform any abortion–or that any patient has to have one, Miss Coffee said.

She observed that the decision also denied the fetus status as a legal person under the due process clause of the 14th amendment. ”But the ruling does not relieve each individual of standing firmly behind his or her moral or religious viewpoint about what a person is or when life begins, she emphasized. Illegal personhood is separate entirely from a moral or religious view of personhood, added Miss Coffee, a member of Park Cities Baptist Church, Dallas.

Although “troubled” that few laws now exist throughout the country on abortion in the aftermath of the decision, Miss Coffee hasn’t decided “what laws, if any, should be drawn to cover the final three months of pregnancy. I tend to feel the state should be neutral on abortion because it should never appear either to sanction an abortion or to interfere improperly with a doctor-patient relationship.

“But I would have little personal sympathy for use of abortion as a contraceptive or to avoid personal responsibility,” she emphasized. Miss Coffee was originally retained to handle the case of a young, unmarried women in Dallas, who was denied an abortion because Texas law allowed it only in cases where the prospective mother might die. In early 1970 she agreed to represent “Jane Roe, ” who revealed her identity as Norma McCorvey in another Baptist Press interview.

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January 31, 1973
High Court Holds Abortion To Be ‘A right of Privacy’
By W. Barry Garrett

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision that overturned a Texas law which denied a woman the right of abortion except to save her life, has advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice. At the same time ‘the court struck down a Georgia law that imposed unconstitutional procedures, in getting medical approval for an abortion…

The two decisions raise numerous other questions which Baptists and others should seek to understand. Among them:

Question: Was this a Warren type or “liberal” Supreme Court that rendered the decision?

Answer: No. This was a “strict constructionist” court, most of whose members have been appointed by President Nixon.

Question: Did the Supreme Court violate religious propriety by its abortion decision?

Answer: The Roman Catholic hierarchy insists that the Supreme Court blundered by making an immoral, anti-religious and unjustified decision. It has vowed to continue the fight against relaxed abortion laws.

However, most other religious bodies and leaders, who have expressed themselves, approve the decision. Social, welfare and civil rights workers hailed the decision with enthusiasm.

The Supreme Court itself recognized “the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy. It said, however, that “we need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus,” the court continued, “the judiciary at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.

Thus, it appears to be the view of the court that it decided a constitutional question without attempting answers to the medical, philosophical or theological problems in abortion.

Question: What is the Southern Baptist position on abortion?

Answer: There is no official Southern Baptist position on abortion, or any other such question. Among 12 million Southern Baptists, there are probably 12 million different opinions.

Question: Does the Supreme Court decision on abortion intrude on the religious life of the people?

Answer: No. Religious bodies and religious persons can continue to teach their own particular views to their constituents with all the vigor they desire. People whose conscience forbids abortion are not compelled by law to have abortions. They are free to practice their religion according to the tenets of their personal or corporate faith.

The reverse is also now true since the Supreme Court decision. Those whose conscience or religious convictions are not violated by abortion may not now be forbidden by a religious law to obtain an abortion it they so choose.

In short, if the state laws are now made to conform to the Supreme Court ruling, the decision to obtain an abortion or to bring pregnancy to full term can now be a matter of conscience and deliberate choice rather than one compelled by law.

Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.

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4 thoughts on “Baptist Press Initial Reporting on Roe v. Wade”

  1. An important postscript on this is that it was not only SBC moderates and liberals that affirmed the Roe decision, but some conservatives did as well. No less than W.A. Criswell commented in response to the decision, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from the mother that it became an individual person, and it always has, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

    Of course Criswell later changed his mind, but it just goes to show more than anything that evangelical Protestants and Baptists were unprepared to speak with a united voice to this issue. We should be thankful that God has awakened in us greater moral clarity on the sanctity of life.

  2. Theresa says:

    Unfortunately this was presented as a legal question, not a moral question, and “reason” won the day. Unintended consequences mean that people do use abortion as a means of birth control, to avoid responsibility, and to terminate “defective” pregnancies.

    Ironically, “Jane Roe” or Norma McCorvey, had her baby and later renounced the pro-choice movement. She converted to Catholicism and has been active in the pro-life cause since 1995.

    It is a shame and reproach to the Christian Church that we did not unite in opposition both before and after Roe vs. Wade. It took years for the Evangelicals and Catholics to work together to help women in unwanted pregnancies and unite for life. Thanks be to God that the pro-life cause has quietly made progress in changing the hearts and minds of the people, especially our younger people.

  3. Russ says:

    these documents are really striking considering the current face of the SBC. Praise God for the work he is doing in the SBC.

  4. Adam Harwood says:

    Just noticed this interesting historical footnote: The second article was written by the son of Baptist Theologian James Leo Garrett, Jr.

    I Googled his son’s name and came up with this 1966 news release, which mentions Barry as a writer in the DC office. It also mentions his father, but not their connection.

    http://media.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/2229,11-Jul-1966.pdf

    The family connection I know to be true from a Christmas letter from Dr. Garrett.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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