Just in time for the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Washington-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) pledged to bring its “moral force to bear” to ensure “full coverage of abortion services” through Obamacare’s tax-funded state insurance exchanges set to begin in 2014. Of course, as part of last year’s deal with pro-life congressional Democrats, President Obama signed an executive order that his administration claims will prevent federal funding of abortions. At the time, RCRC denounced that “an unconscionable deal” for offering any potential impediment to government facilitated abortion. Pro-life skeptics doubt the executive order ultimately will have much legal force. And pro-abortion rights groups like RCRC will determinedly push against it.
Mostly Mainline Protestant groups founded RCRC (originally less euphemistically called the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights) in 1973 in the immediate wake of Roe v. Wade to ensure widespread religious backing for the U.S. Supreme Court’s overthrow of state restrictions on abortion. For years RCRC was based in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, which is the headquarters for most Mainline Protestant lobbies. The primary author of Roe v. Wade was Justice Harry Blackmun, himself an active United Methodist. RCRC in its early years got funding form the Playboy Foundation and later from philanthropies like the Ford Foundation. In recent years RCRC has been headed by a black Baptist pastor and has emphasized outreach to historic black denominations. But revealingly, no historic black denominations belong to RCRC, whose membership primarily includes nearly all white denominations like the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Liberal Mainline Protestant support for abortion rights, and rejection of the historic ecumenical Christian stance against abortion, partly resulted from the sexual revolution of the 1960s, partly from prejudice against Roman Catholicism, partly from exaggerated ecological scenarios about over-population, and partly from an elitist preoccupation with suppressing ostensibly unmanageable growth in lower income and racial minority communities. Ironically, although Mainline Protestant elites were often in the forefront of backing the Civil Rights Movement, they were often simultaneously dehumanizing the unborn in ways that would especially afflict racial minorities.
So it was entirely appropriate that a small but persistent pro-life caucus for United Methodists hosted a former civil rights activist for its January 24 Sanctity of Life service in the Methodist Building. The official United Methodist General Board of Church and Society stalwartly remains within RCRC, defending abortion rights at every turn. But the Methodist pro-life group borrows the lobby office’s chapel on every anniversary of Roe v. Wade for some subversive worship. This year’s speaker was Edwin King, a Mississippi Methodist clergy, medical ethicist now retired from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and a white veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. He was a close associate of famed Mississippi black civil rights warrior Fannie Lou Hamer, whose pro-life views his sermon spotlighted.
“Mrs. Hamer said to me that we should see the white racism in the legalization of abortion,” King recalled visiting her after the Roe v. Wade decision. “She said that whites had always tried to control blacks, from slave breeding while slave marriage was denied to a share cropping system that depended on large families but now there were too many blacks in America so this new genocide was the answer to the victories of the Civil Rights Movement.” Having not yet seriously considered the issue, King was convicted by Hamer’s strong words. “She was a new prophetic voice telling me and others that abortion is murder.”
King noted that U.S. abortion rates have been dropping but nationally, a “black child in the womb is twice as likely to be killed as a white child.” And in Mississippi, the black unborn are three times as likely to be aborted as whites. “There are many reasons for this,” he admitted, citing “poverty, lack of education, women raising children without a father present, abortuaries located in cities and close to black and Hispanic populations, but, as Americans, as Christians, we surely know that such racial differences in the slaughter rate must indicate some racist aspect that we have not yet understood or acknowledged.”
Hamer lost her job and her home because of her civil rights work in Mississippi. Shots were fired into the house where she stayed with friends. She later was badly beaten and permanently injured after a 1963 arrest. Perhaps most famously she was a passionate spokesman for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the state Democratic Party’s all white delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention. Hamer was a major irritant to Lyndon Johnson for disrupting the desired harmonious coronation. She got seated at the 1968 Democratic Convention and remained politically active until her premature death in 1977.
Like Hamer, King also paid a steep price as a white civil rights activist in 1960s Mississippi, enduring jailings and beatings. He recounted having been in the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill before, when he and others sought sanctuary there after being tear-gassed at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration on the U.S. Capitol grounds. Hamer and King, like the recently deceased Sargent Shriver, recall an almost disappeared strong liberal tradition that was devoutly religious, both Protestant and Catholic, and ardently pro-life.
“The greatest witness people of my Movements can make today is that we never thought we would live to see most of the changes we proclaimed,” King recalled with civil rights successes in mind. “We have a rare blessing that some of us did live so long and do understand the doubts and depression of many struggling for the Right to Life.” The civil rights veteran promised: “What we are now doing is not pointless, is not fruitless, and must be done in faith.”
Will the sterile amorality of groups like RCRC prevail in their quest to insinuate abortion into every aspect of American life? Or is the old civil rights veteran correct to be hopeful? The angels, and tides of history, almost certainly side with the latter.