The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights: Persuading the American Baptist Church to Leave

John C. Rankin

(March 9, 2014)

In 1986, I was asked to present a biblical pro-life position at a regional conference between leaders in the American Baptist Churches (ABC) and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR). The ABC was considering removing their membership in RCAR.

As I spoke of the biblical nature of life and choice in Genesis 1 and 2, one RCAR spokeswoman in turn called me “anti-choice.” I asked her to define how choice relates to life, and she proved unable or unwilling. I stated how I was truly “pro-informed choice” in my position. Informed choice starts by affirming factual data, namely, the equal humanity of both the woman and her unborn child. She did not refute my definitions, but instead returned to the tautology of calling me “anti-choice.” Later the ABC rescinded its membership in RCAR.

In the various times I have been in a public forum with members of RCAR, they have taken aim against Exodus 21 and Psalm 139 (see “Two Important Texts” on this “Women and Their Unborn” webpage). This was the case with Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, its former President (and now dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts). She dismissed my exegesis of Exodus 21:22-25 in our two forums together, in February, 1994 at Yale Law School, and January, 1996 at an Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She did so, not by giving contrary evidence, but by simply saying it was nonsense.

This was also the case with Psalm 139 when I addressed a debate at the University of New Hampshire in September, 1989. There were three people on the pro-life side. And there were three on the abortion-rights side – a woman state legislator, a woman member of NOW, and a man who was a Methodist minister and member of RCAR.

When in the course of the evening I alluded to Psalm 139, the RCAR minister began to ridicule my interpretation of the text. He said it was “poetry,” and had no relevance to the biology or moral status of the unborn. He evidenced his argument by asking me if I seriously thought we were “woven together in the depths of the earth.” He said such a phrase reflects the primitive and unscientific basis of Israelite society, and as influenced by pagan religion. It was clearly the poetry of an unsophisticated society, he said.

I responded by asking if his seminary training included Hebrew, and knowledge of parallelistic structure. He said no. I then asked how he could make such an observation about a psalm written in a genre he knew nothing about. He did not respond. His question to me was both sarcastic and mocking in tone, as clearly evident to the audience and other panelists. I did not return any such attitude. Rather I treated him as an intellectual equal – since he brought up the question of poetry as a genre.

I then explained the nature of Hebrew parallelisms in poetic structure, and summed up the nature of the psalm’s focus on the presence of Yahweh, along with the reason why David is looking at the subject of the womb. In so doing, I explained that all Hebrew poetry is in service to the assumptions of verifiable history, and science and the scientific method. Accordingly, David is free to use metaphor and hyperbole to underscore such realities. As David is considering the remoteness of the literal womb where his inmost being has been fashioned by God, he speaks of the “secret place” as a parallel expression to the womb, then of “the depths of the earth” as a parallel expression to the “secret place.”

For David, the remoteness of the womb is both remote as a secret (unknown) place, and as unknown and remote as “the depths of the earth” (a different word than sheol is used here, in the sense of a place below the depths of a volcano). Thus, metaphor is in service to reality, as the poetic structure of this text so eloquently ratifies.

The RCAR minister did not challenge any of my exegesis. Later on in the evening, in response to something else he said, I began to refer to some exegetical background to frame my thoughts, and he interrupted. He complained that it was unfair for me to “get academic” again.