When the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision in late June, Christians of various traditions began to reflect on the incredible amount of work that had led up to this historic moment. Thousands of pregnancy centers throughout the United States and many pro-life organizations deserve our praise. Countless individuals over the past fifty years have worked tirelessly toward securing the right to life for the unborn—many of whom will only be fully recognized in eternity for their influential roles. Yet, there is one man in particular who made so much of this possible.
Francis Schaeffer is very much the “father” of the pro-life movement among protestants. Without his work and influence, Dobbs may never have come to pass. Garry Wills, in his book Under God, rightly notes that regarding the increase in pro-life activism, “One man deserves more credit than anyone else—Francis Schaeffer.” It was Schaeffer who developed the vision and framework for the pro-life movement as we understand it today. And yet, he was the exception during the early post-Roe years. Shortly after Roe was decided, former SBC president and pastor W. A. Criswell “felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.” Evangelicals in the middle of the last century were largely unconcerned about the atrocities of abortion, and were ambivalent toward activism on the matter. Advocacy for the unborn was deemed a “Catholic issue,” unimportant to many protestants.
Not to Francis Schaeffer.
Because human beings are made in the image of God, they possess inherent dignity. This principle influenced Schaeffer’s apologetics as much as it did his public theology. He embodied this doctrine in the way he conversed with skeptics and cared for the most vulnerable. He believed each and every individual—regardless of their age, status, race, nationality—had immeasurable worth as a human being.
Because of this, Schaeffer challenged the heinous practice of abortion, which he regarded as an assault on the imago Dei. Without the imago Dei, he argued, human life is cheapened and lacks value, leading to an increase not only in abortion, but also in infanticide, euthanasia, child abuse, pornography, torture, crime, and violence. Schaeffer understood that abortion did not operate in isolation; it opened the doorway to other evils.
Schaeffer wrote extensively on this topic in various books and articles. He does not mince his words. In The Great Evangelical Disaster, he writes: “You cannot be faithful to what the Bible teaches about the value of human life and be in favor of abortion.” In Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, Schaeffer criticizes abortion-on-demand, abortion techniques, live births after abortion, child abuse, and more. He was nothing short of prophetic in this regard, as many of these issues remain prevalent today.
Schaeffer encouraged Christians to bring legal and political action against hospitals that perform abortions and abortion clinics, and to mobilize pro-life voters in their community and work with lawyers and legislators toward overturning Roe. But he also emphasized the need to tangibly help young mothers and families who find themselves in crisis pregnancies—demonstrating his care not just for an issue, but for real people in real situations.
One of Schaeffer’s last publications before his death was an article titled “Christian Faith and Human Rights,” published in The Simon Greenleaf Law Review. In the article, he clarifies his concern for those he believes to be most endangered by the utilitarian worldview so prevalent in the West: the unborn and the elderly. Regarding abortion, he writes: “This protection [of rights] was for everyone, but it peculiarly was a protection for the weak. . . . Regard the unborn infant, and the newborn child who is allowed to starve to death because he or she does not come up to someone's concept of what is an adequate standard for life.” He continues: “And down the road a bit, the aged, who are seen and certainly will be increasingly seen as a demographic burden and nuisance, economically and socially.” Simply put, Francis Schaeffer cared about individuals made in God’s image, no matter their age. He embodied an all-of-life pro-life ethic.
For Schaeffer, the devaluation of human dignity and the devaluation of the rule of law are linked. He concludes the article: “There is an unbreakable link between the existence of this God and the unique dignity and worth of the individual human being made in His image. And there is an unbreakable link between the existence of this God and any sufficient basis for law, and specifically for inalienable rights.” Thus, Schaeffer believed that the objective truth of God, as revealed in the Christian Scriptures, not only informs our anthropology, but our politics as well. And God is not silent; he provides the answers to the difficult questions we grapple with in every sphere. We need only listen.
Today, post-Dobbs and nearly fifty years since Roe, we can be thankful for achieving this incredible milestone. We can rejoice with those who rejoice. And while there is more work to be done, we can be grateful for the faithful work of the “father” of the pro-life movement, Francis Schaeffer, who modeled for us a rich pro-life vision of ministry and action.
Christopher Talbot is program coordinator for youth and family ministry and campus pastor at Welch College. He is the author of Remodeling Youth Ministry.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.