How the Evangelical Church Awoke to the Abortion Issue: The Convergent Labors of Harold O. J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop

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Matthew Miller

Editors' Note: Dr. C. Everett Koop was a founding board member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. You can purchase this month's featured resource, Classic Koop, which includes the essay referenced below, here.

With the news of C. Everett Koop's death, we are given the occasion to return to a question raised [in 2012] by a blog post on which provoked reactions far and wide. The question concerns exactly when and how evangelicals came to embrace the pro-life (or as it was known then, the right to life) position.

A week before the presidential election this past fall, Jonathan Dudley (author of Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, 2011) surprised many people with his provocative blog piece for CNN entitled: "My Take: When evangelicals were pro-choice."(1) Citing well-known statements in 1968 by Bruce Waltke printed in Christianity Today - and referring to the Southern Baptist Convention's express endorsement of abortion in 1971 - Dudley concludes that evangelical faith did not and thus does not entail a pro-life position (Waltke later changed his position, a fact Dudley fails to mention). Rather, Dudley would have us believe that the rise of the pro-life movement in evangelicalism was a late addition rooted not in core convictions, but in power politics. 

In his first piece, Dudley claims it was Jerry Falwell who "spearheaded the reversal of opinion on abortion in the late 1970's,"(2) a statement that does not bear the weight of scrutiny but conveniently served to shake the faith of wavering pro-life evangelicals days before they went to the voting booth. Several responded to Dudley, including Mark Galli at Christianity Today and Al Mohler on his blog, and Dudley quickly backtracked in a follow-up piece for The Huffington Post in which he acknowledged, though somewhat dismissively, the 'right to life' work of Francis Schaeffer and a group called The Christian Action Council prior to Falwell's entrance on the political scene. Dudley discounts the impact of those early efforts, however, returning to his thesis that the evangelical church was slumbering on the abortion issue up to the time when, "[i]n 1980, Falwell used his unparalleled platform to change all that."(3) 

It is true that the evangelical church was slumbering for several years after the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision. But it is not true that "Falwell changed all that." Instead, Falwell and the several other figures who took the lead of the pro-life movement in the 1980s were standing on the shoulders of three men whose paths and voices converged for a brief period of time in the mid-to-late 1970s, forming a powerful trio that finally awoke the evangelical church to the necessity of speaking up for the unborn.

And this past week, with the death of C. Everett Koop, the last of these three figures went to be with the Lord. Preceding him were Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) and Harold O. J. Brown (1933-2007). Together, Brown, Schaeffer, and Koop "successfully called evangelical leaders back from their flirtation with abortion," writes Allan Carlson, the President of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. "These three men made opposition to abortion a defining characteristic of late twentieth-century Evangelicalism."(4) 

Harold O. J. Brown

A Harvard-educated historian and theologian, Brown was working as the associate editor of Christianity Today when the Roe v. Wade ruling was announced. Harold Lindsell, then editor of Christianity Today, let Brown write the lead article in the magazine's next issue, "Abortion and the Court" (CT, Feb. 16, 1973). In his response to Dudley last November, Galli quotes from this editorial denouncing the Roe decision and hails the piece as "one of the finer moments in CT history." Unknown to readers, however, is that Brown was its author.(5)

Undeterred by initial and surprising indifference among evangelicals to abortion, in 1975 Brown became the editor of The Human Life Review, founded by James McFadden. No story of the nascence of the evangelical pro-life movement is complete without reference to the influence of this review, which early on included such illustrious contributors as William F. Buckley and Malcolm Muggeridge (and eventually Ronald Reagan).

Dudley mentions in his second piece the founding of The Christian Action Council in 1975 (which became the leading Protestant 'right to life' advocacy group on Capitol Hill), but he does not mention who founded it. Once again, Harold O. J. Brown was the tip of the spear. With meeting space provided by Billy Graham in Montreat, Brown met with C. Everett Koop for the initial planning meetings that led to the launch of the CAC in July, chaired by Brown. It is true that the early efforts of the CAC ran up against a brick wall of evangelical indifference (and even suspicion), but it was not from Falwell that help would arrive.

Francis Schaeffer

The story of how Brown met Schaeffer in 1961, and how Brown then arranged for the relatively unknown 'man from Switzerland' to come to Boston in 1964 to give the second annual 'Christian Contemporary Thought' lectures on Harvard's campus, is a remarkable one that has been documented by both Barry Hankins (2008) and Colin Duriez (2008). As a result of this relationship, Schaeffer was introduced to the American evangelical scene and quickly achieved an unparalleled celebrity status that he would leverage to draw attention to the right to life issue. 

The film and lecture tour for How Shall We Then Live (1976) served to awaken many evangelicals to the roots and implications of their own core convictions, and concluded by connecting the right to life issue to those core convictions, as Schaeffer parsed the Supreme Court's Roe decision in terms of his famous 'line of despair'. This pro-life material was considered risky, and Francis Schaeffer took some persuading to include it, as his son Frank has recounted in his controversial memoir (2007). But an old friend of the Schaeffer family took notice and soon joined them in what would become the tipping-point of this story.

C. Everett Koop

A renowned pediatric surgeon in Philadelphia, Koop, who had recently come to Christ under the preaching of Donald Grey Barnhouse at Tenth Presbyterian, treated  the Schaeffer's daughter, Priscilla, in 1948. Upon learning that they were to leave as missionaries for Switzerland in a few short months, Koop opened up about his own newfound faith, and a friendship was formed that would remain through the years.

Early on, Koop was convinced that "abortion amounted to taking a sacrosanct human life" (which explains his teaming up with Brown in 1975 to found The Christian Action Council). (6)

But on one Saturday in 1976, after spending the entire day operating successfully on three newborn babies that otherwise would have died, he sat in the hospital cafeteria with two of his colleagues and said: "You know, we have given over two hundred years of life to three individuals who together barely weighed ten pounds" to which one of his residents answered: "And while we were doing that, right next door in the university hospital they were cutting up perfect formed babies of the same size just because their mothers didn't want them."(7)

Koop says he knew then and there that, as a surgeon, he had to speak up more forcefully for the unborn. So he rose early the next morning and began to write, and by evening the next day had completed his 120-page treatise entitled The Right to Live; the Right to Die: Famous Pediatric Surgeon Speaks Out on Abortion and Mercy Killing. "I aimed the book primarily at Christian readers," he recalls, "as I sought to awaken the evangelical community to a vital moral issue they were choosing to ignore."(8)

Koop evidently kept Brown's articles close at hand as he put his own thoughts to paper. He quotes from Brown more than from any other source (other than the Bible), often whole paragraphs at a time. Koop's The Right to Live; the Right to Die would sell over 100,000 copies in the first year alone, and another 100,000 in the years that followed. 

After writing the book, Koop reconnected with the Schaeffers (father and son) to produce Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Released in 1979, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? did what no effort over the previous six years had succeeded in doing: it broke through. 

The Evangelical Embrace of the Pro-Life Position

Dr. Jean Garton, reviewing Whatever Happened to the Human Race? on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe, remembers, "As a result, there was a dramatic change in the abortion landscape. The powerful message of both the screen and printed versions of Whatever Happened to the Human Race? educated and energized an up-till-then largely uninvolved constituency-the Evangelicals."(9)  Brown himself remembered with great appreciation the impact of Schaeffer's and Koop's joint efforts: "Shown in churches, schools, and homes around the country, [the film] so thoroughly aroused viewers that the term evangelical has come to be synonymous with anti-abortion."(10)

In the years that followed, a 'second generation' would take the helm of pro-life advocacy, and we are familiar with their names: Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, and a host of others. And after their few years of potent convergence, Schaeffer, Brown, and Koop faced futures as different as their pasts. Schaeffer would die in 1982. Brown's Christian Action Council, of which he remained chairman, would shift its primary focus to founding Gospel-centered crisis pregnancy care centers with remarkable results (the organization is now known as CareNet).(11) Upon his death in 2007, Brown was remembered in Christianity Today as one whose "most prominent work was helping form and intellectually arm the pro-life movement."(12) As a reward for his pro-life efforts, Koop would be appointed by Reagan to be his Surgeon General in 1981, but pro-abortion advocates made Koop's confirmation hearings so tortuous that he emerged less interested in being a figurehead for the pro-life movement, choosing instead to make campaigns against smoking and AIDS the hallmarks of his appointment. He is widely remembered as the most famous Surgeon General in modern memory.


Perhaps it is because none of these three carried the mantle of the pro-life movement in the 1980s and 1990s that we hear relatively little of them as pro-life champions today - except recently, when the last of them has departed from us. But it is reasonable to suppose that without Brown, Schaeffer, and Koop, there may not have been a pro-life movement in the 1980s at all, nor in the years that followed. And while it's unlikely we'll see any monuments in the near future singling out these three remarkable individuals, we would not only be forgetful, but truly ungrateful, if we did not remember their courageous efforts to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

"Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them" (Rev. 13:14).


Matt Miller is the director of the C. S. Lewis Institute in Greenville, SC. His great passion is helping believers understand God’s Word more deeply and connect its truth to life in a meaningful and comprehensive way. Matt has previously served as a senior pastor, theological translator, and adjunct seminary professor.

4. Allan C. Carlson, Godly Seed: Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2011), 154.
6. Koop, Koop: The Memoirs, 333.
7. Koop, Koop: The Memoirs, 332-333.
8. Koop, Koop: The Memoirs, 334.
10. Brown, "Protestantism, America, and Divine Law," 19.
11. This change in focus was largely attributed to the vision of Curt Young, who served as the Executive Director of the Christian Action Council from 1978-1987.
12. Susan Wunderlink, "Theologian Harold O. J. Brown Dies at 74," Last accessed November 23, 2012.