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Abortion abolitionists speak out at Southern Baptist Convention

The debate over legislative approaches to ending abortion is gaining momentum

Brian Gunter (front) speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans last week Associated Press/Photo by Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser

Abortion abolitionists speak out at Southern Baptist Convention

Last week, Louisiana pastor Brian Gunter finally got to pose a question he waited a year to ask.

It was the second day of the 2023 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans. Brent Leatherwood, president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, finished delivering the commission’s report to the thousands of Southern Baptists gathered for the meeting. When the SBC president opened the floor in the massive meeting hall to questions, Gunter was the first in line.

“Dr. Leatherwood, you previously stated that you do not believe a mother should be criminalized if she chooses willfully to have an abortion while that child is in the womb,” Gunter said, referencing Leatherwood’s answer to a question Gunter had asked in a similar setting at the 2022 SBC meeting. “So my question for you today is, should that same mother be criminalized if she willfully chooses to murder that child after that child is born?”

Southern Baptists have heard questions like this before.

In 2021, at the annual SBC meeting in Nashville, a majority of delegates, known as messengers, voted to pass a resolution authored by pastors that called for “the immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise.” The authors belonged to the growing abortion abolition movement, which calls for making abortion illegal and unthinkable in all cases. Abolitionists view the incremental steps of the mainstream pro-life movement as unBiblical because they promote laws that allow legal abortion under certain circumstances and give legal immunity to the mothers of aborted babies.

At last week’s SBC meeting in New Orleans, the question of women serving as pastors in the denomination took center stage, and messengers did not consider an abortion-related resolution. But abolitionists at the meeting—including Gunter—found ways to raise the issue, forcing laypeople, pastors, and leaders in the SBC to consider the ideology and the theology of the abolitionist position. And as in previous years, abolitionists used the 2023 meeting as a venue to invite Christians to join the cause.

After the 2021 meeting, Gunter eventually left his role as outreach director at Louisiana Right to Life. In 2022, he lobbied for a Louisiana bill that would have classified abortion as homicide, enacting penalties for all parties involved in the baby’s death—including mothers. That move faced pushback from pro-life groups, including from leadership within Gunter’s own denomination. Brent Leatherwood signed an open letter from pro-life leaders to lawmakers in all 50 states. In it, the signers said they “oppose legislative and policy initiatives that criminalize women who seek abortions.” Largely due to the opposition from state and national pro-life groups, the Louisiana bill died.

In response to Gunter’s Wednesday morning question, Leatherwood repeated some of the pro-life points from the 2022 letter. While he stated his conviction that “abortion is murder,” he emphasized that mothers with unplanned pregnancies are also vulnerable and have been “preyed upon” by a culture that promotes and accepts abortion.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to be there with her to offer her refuge,” Leatherwood said, adding that he supports laws that penalize abortion providers—not mothers. “We have to make sure that we’re not doing the bidding of Planned Parenthood—of achieving their goal of casting the pro-life movement and our churches, with our gospel convictions, as anti-woman rather than [being about] saving babies and supporting mothers.”

Gunter didn’t like the answer. But the question itself was just another way to introduce—or reintroduce—abortion abolitionism to the thousands of people listening. The day after he asked the question, Gunter said dozens of pastors had already contacted him through email, text, and social media to thank him for his question or to get more information. He said some became convinced of abolitionism because of his question to Leatherwood and their follow-up conversations. “That one question … it caused many Southern Baptist pastors to have their eyes opened,” he said.

Leatherwood later told me that he agreed with pastors across the denomination who want to see abortion completely eradicated. But he said he disagrees with abolitionists about the best way to achieve that goal, and he worries that abolitionist views don’t persuade many Americans to vote to protect preborn life.

“I think the best way forward right now is continuing to help our culture see the humanity and dignity of each preborn child,” he said, adding that pro-lifers should focus on laws that prosecute abortionists, abortion centers, and abortion drug manufacturers.

Other abolitionists used the SBC meeting to highlight their views. During the Q&A time after updates from each of the denomination’s seminaries, abolitionists asked the seminary presidents about their views on abortion legislation.

Richard Henry, a Southern Baptist pastor in Kentucky, asked Midwestern Baptist’s president if he supported applying homicide laws to all people. Henry said abolitionists hadn’t arranged a plan for him to do that.

“For me, it was … an open opportunity and to kind of get more clarity and to also put the question to the thousands of people that are sitting there, and people watching online, that there is a distinction” between being pro-life and abolitionist, Henry said. He added that he, like Gunter, became convinced of the abolitionist view at the 2021 meeting, when the convention voted on the resolution.

Mike Ritter was one of the laypeople in the audience, listening. He attended the meeting with pastors, elders, and staff members from his church in Texas. Ritter said he has adopted the abolitionist view within the past year and a half. He doesn’t know where many in his own church stand on the issue. He thought the questions to SBC leadership force “our convention and our entities to be more thoughtful about these things,” he said, adding that he hopes the message inspires individual churches and members, not just leaders. Other conference attendees I spoke with agreed with Ritter that abolitionists are a minority in the denomination and that the issue is still relatively new. But they recognize that there’s a growing energy among the abolitionists.

Juan Sanchez, a pastor in Austin, Texas, said he spoke to an abolitionist for the first time last week while at the meeting. In the conversation, Sanchez recognized links between the young man’s view of abolitionism and specific theological views he held about the end times and how Old Testament law applies today. Sanchez noted that not all abolitionists are driven by this man’s theological views, but he said the conversation helped him understand the position of many abolitionists.

“It was helpful for me to know, okay, now, I understand that this is not just an issue of abortion,” he said. “This is an issue of theology, this is implications of theology applied to one specific area of life.”

Leah Savas

Leah is the life beat reporter for WORLD News Group. She is a graduate of Hillsdale College and the World Journalism Institute and resides in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband, Stephen.


I so appreciate the fly-over picture, and the reminder of God’s faithful sovereignty. —Celina

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