Paul Prather

In America, we can’t talk rationally about abortion. How the debate moved to extremes.

It would be nice if we could sit down together and rationally discuss abortion. But we can’t.

Abortion is a complex religious, moral and legal dilemma that’s been hijacked by ideological absolutists.

Absolutists on the right, including conservative Christian leaders and Republican Party poohbahs, have long used Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said women possess a right to abortion, to gin up their base and raise money.

Absolutists on the left, including many leaders of the women’s movement as well as the Democratic Party’s elite, have made promoting unlimited abortion rights the litmus test of their political philosophy, and likewise have exploited abortion to gin up their base and raise money.

Despite all that, the majority of Americans — religious and non-religious, men and women, Republicans and Democrats — take a nuanced view of the subject. They don’t like abortion, but don’t want it banned.

This cultural battle is rife with irony.

In 1973, the Supreme Court’s Roe ruling was roundly praised by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical denomination and a powerful political force.

A typical Southern Baptist news agency piece said Roe advanced “religious liberty, human equality and justice,” says Joshua Holland of, the internet site of former presidential aide, television host and Baptist minister Bill Moyers.

Yet today, the Southern Baptist Convention ranks among Roe’s staunchest enemies.

How could this be?

Initially, Baptists and other evangelicals saw opposition to abortion as strictly a Catholic concern. The Roman Catholic Church has a unified womb-to-grave theology that not only opposes artificial birth control and abortion but promotes generosity toward the poor and opposes the death penalty.

Holland cites religion historian Randall Balmer, a first-rate scholar, as noting that evangelicals didn’t join the anti-abortion fight until 1979, six years after Roe.

“Evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons,” Holland quotes Balmer as arguing, “but … because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”

Baptist officials say it took them several years to wake up to abortion’s evils.

I’m not taking a swipe at Baptists or evangelicals generally. I’m pointing out that even some of our fervent anti-abortion crusaders initially saw Roe v. Wade differently.

Today, most U.S. citizens dwell between the extremes.

A 2018 Pew Forum study found only 25 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all cases, and an even smaller minority, 15 percent, think it should be illegal in all cases.

Roughly six in 10 women and men alike told Pew’s surveyors abortion should be legal in some but not all situations.

As for Christians, 61 percent of white evangelicals think abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, but two-thirds of mainline Protestants say the opposite.

While the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy staunchly opposes abortion, more than half of Catholics (51 percent) believe it should be always or mostly legal.

What’s easy to overlook is the word “most,” as in “most abortions” or “mostly legal.”

In fact, majorities of men and women, evangelicals and Catholics — and even Republicans and Democrats — appear to hold positions absolutists wouldn’t like.

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll reports a whopping 77 percent of Americans told its surveyors the Supreme Court shouldn’t overturn Roe v. Wade.

But those numbers, like Pew’s, are nuanced.

The NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found only 18 percent of respondents say abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her pregnancy, and just 9 percent say abortion should never be permitted.

A solid 61 percent say abortion should be significantly restricted, such as allowing it only in the first three months of a pregnancy or allowing it only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman.

Roe allows unrestricted abortion until roughly the sixth month of pregnancy.

Those who oppose abortion under all circumstances often characterize those who disagree with them as “pro-abortion,” but that’s wrong.

No matter where you come down on the thorny questions of when life begins or what rights pregnant women possess, every pregnancy contains at least the potential for a human life.

Abortion, then, gives people pause. Hardly anyone considers it a good thing. Most think it’s a bad thing. But they believe it’s sometimes the least bad thing.

Kentucky’s Republican legislature and Gov. Matt Bevin have placed the Commonwealth at the vanguard of a fresh drive to get abortions totally, or all-but-totally, outlawed.

The state legislature, with Bevin’s encouragement, has passed a series of severe limits on the practice, hoping one of the laws will provoke the test case by which the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

But if most Americans aren’t pro-abortion, they do believe a woman — at least in her pregnancy’s early months or in dire situations — has a bigger stake in the matter, and a keener awareness of her circumstances, than a company of old white-haired judges or lawmakers sitting in a wood-paneled room far away.

Which is what Roe v. Wade essentially was about.

Although most Americans don’t fully embrace Roe, they prefer it not be overturned. Yet the restrictions on abortion they do desire might not be possible under Roe.

The issue is complicated. Americans feel ambivalent.

They think abortion is troubling but not felonious. They want it legal but limited.

Meanwhile, the absolutists roll on.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at