NOTE: The content below expresses the views of the individual named as the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.
Evangelicals and Abortion: An Historical and Theological Study

Evangelicals and Abortion: An Historical and Theological Study

EVANGELICALS AND ABORTION: An Historical and Theological Study

by J. Cameron Fraser, D.Min.

(Former Pastor and Stated Clerk in Classis Alberta & Saskatchewan of the Christian Reformed Church, now focused mainly on writing and editing)

These are the first two chapters of a proposed book. Sam Logan kindly suggested that they be posted on the WRF Blog in order to solicit responses and suggestions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


The writing of this book arose out of a conversation with a middle-aged pastor who had expressed astonishment at learning that evangelical Christians had not always believed that human life began at conception. Instead, they had understood this to be the Roman Catholic position.  As someone who has been a strong advocate of the pro-life position for decades, I understood my friend’s bewilderment and shared his concern.  But as a lifelong Reformed evangelical of a “certain age,” I also knew that the evangelical position on abortion that we might like to think is an obvious reading of Scripture is less than fifty years old. And, as I have increasingly come to believe, it has not always been as faithful to Scripture as we might think.

I also believe that being more biblical involves trying to understand better the factors that lead some women to consider abortion and to reject the alternative of adoption. This is not to say, as a few younger evangelicals (or ex-evangelicals) are now saying, that Scripture should lead us to a pro-choice position or, at the very least, an ambivalent view about the value of fetal life. I want us to become more biblically pro-life, not less. But we need to frame our defense of the pro-life position around theologically orthodox claims, not cultural assumptions that may, in the end, prove unsatisfactory. Ultimately, our defense of fetal life needs to rest on our understanding of God himself and what it means to be made in his image.

This book, which is part history and part theology, is a letter of sorts to fellow-evangelicals, about how we got to where we are today in our view of abortion and where we need to go from here.  It explains the relationship of modern evangelical thinking on abortion to the long history of thinking about unborn human life in the history of the church, and it covers in detail the debates over abortion that occurred among evangelical Protestants in the 1960s and 1970s, as they were grappling with Catholic pro-life arguments and attempting to figure out which ones they should adopt themselves.  After tracing this history, I examine more recent evangelical pro-life thinking and offer a gentle corrective to some of its wrong theological assumptions, while also respectfully endorsing the areas in which it reads the Bible correctly. I include my own argument for valuing fetal life that is based on a Reformed Christian understanding of the imago dei. Then I conclude with some suggestions about biblical alternatives to the tragedy of abortion. My hope and prayer is that this survey will not only give evangelical Christians a better sense of their movement's history (with both its successes and failings in the area of pro-life advocacy) but will also equip them with the theological and philosophical arguments needed to defend human life from a God-centered perspective. May it also be an encouragement to those practicing biblical responses based more on Christian love than political advocacy.


1. Evangelicals and Abortion: Women’s Rights and Religion

I am a man and a minister, and a senior one at that. In the eyes of some (perhaps many), these factors automatically disqualify me from having anything relevant or helpful to say about abortion.

I do agree that abortion is a woman’s issue to the extent that it obviously affects women more directly than men, although in too many cases the absence of support from the men in their lives is a factor in their choice to abort. It is also fair to say that men, along with women, have been in the leadership of the abortion rights movement. One thinks of Dr. Bernard Nathenson (1926-2011) in the United States, before his conversion to the pro-life side of the debate, Dr. Henry Morgentaler (1923-2013), the pioneer of abortion rights in Canada, or British MP David Steel (now Lord Steel of Aikwood) who introduced the UK abortion bill in 1967.

I find it demeaning to women when men (as well as women) speak of abortion as a woman’s right to control her own body as if there were no other considerations and as if there were not an equal number of women opposed to its widespread availability, with many of them involved in leadership positions in the pro-life movement. It is one thing to say, as Bill Clinton once did, that abortion should be safe, legal and rare, or that it is a tragic but sometimes necessary choice that should be kept safe and well regulated as much as possible, especially in the later stages; but it is quite another to see it as one among many positive rights of women to be actively promoted. I am offended when men like the late Henry Morgentaler dismiss any suggestion that abortion can have negative effects on women as anti-abortion propaganda.[1]

It does seem true that for many women there appear to be only positive consequences (relief, career advancement, financial freedom etc.) A not untypical experience quoted approvingly by the Religious Coalition for Abortion Choice is of a 21-year-old woman who had an abortion at 16: “Even though I love children, I had no doubt that an abortion would be the right thing in this particular situation. That was five years ago, and every time I think about it I always have the same feeling ---- relief, almost a sense of deliverance. It would have been unbearable to have had to live with that mistake for a lifetime. My life was changed in this experience, transformed. I like to think I’m stronger now, more able to be my own person. I can’t help think that making that decision was probably the beginning of a new life for me.”[2]

There is even an organization called “Shout Your Abortion” that encourages women to be proud of their decision to abort. But it is also undeniable that there are least some women who are emotionally and spiritually damaged (even occasionally physically or in rare cases fatally).[3] The 1987 book, Aborted Women: Silent No More tells the harrowing stories of women who felt coerced into abortions and deceived about their potential consequences.[4] Another book by a woman who was active in Lutherans for Life is Helping Women Recover from Abortion: How to deal with the guilt, the emotional pain, and the emptiness.[5] Even Morgentaler recognized that forcing a woman to undergo an abortion against her will “is likely to cause psychological damage and difficulty in her relationship with those who forced her to do it.”[6]

The National Women’s Coalition for Life is an umbrella organization representing 1.3 women. It sponsored Real Choices, a research project conducted by Frederica Mathewes-Green, exploring the reasons women choose abortion, and exploring alternatives that included reaching out to pro-choice advocates for cooperation through an organization founded by Mathewes-Green called the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice.[7]  As Mathewes-Green once famously wrote, “No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.” This statement in a Policy Review magazine article was “not just picked up by sympathetic pro-lifers, but it was ‘Quote of the Week’ in Planned Parenthood’s Public Affairs Action Letter, and ‘Quote of the Month’ in The Pro-Choice Network Newsletter. Despite the profound differences and suspicion between the two sides, apparently all agreed that abortion was a miserable choice.”[8]

In 1994, Mathewes-Green published her findings in book form, then again in 1997 and 2013. Alternate chapters are interviews with women who regret their abortions, many of whom feel guilty, and some of whom are now actively pro-life. Interestingly, most if not all of the women had Roman Catholic backgrounds, which may account for their lingering sense of guilt. The author also points out that “Among all women having abortions nationwide, one in six says she is an evangelical or born-again Christian.”[9] (A 2015 Lifeway study found that four in ten women who have abortions are regular churchgoers, yet only 7% of them talk to anyone at their church about their decision, fearing judgment.)[10]

 Which brings me to the role of religion in the abortion issue. As the studies referred to by Morgantaler indicate (see note 1), those with religious backgrounds are the most likely to experience regret and guilt after an abortion. Morgantaler devotes a chapter to “Abortion and Religion,” where he surveys the positions of various religions, then advocates secular humanism, noting that “Humanists wish to see women attain equality with men and be given all the same opportunities to realize their full human potential. It is clear that this goal will never be reached unless women are allowed to control their reproduction, which means effective contraception and access to safe abortions when necessary.”[11] This is not to say that all women who claim to feel no guilt are self-consciously secular humanists, or that all who feel guilty are from a religious background or are practicing Christians, but it does indicate that religious beliefs play a role.

In 1984, Dr. Bernard Nathenson was still an atheist, but on his way to conversion to Roman Catholicism, although that did not officially take place for another dozen years. In 1979 he had co-authored Aborting America with Richard Osling, then the Time magazine religion editor.[12] It told of Nathenson’s involvement as a co-founder (with another man, Larry Lader) in 1969 of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, later renamed National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), and now the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.  Nathenson claims, among other things, to have falsified the number of women who had died from illegal abortions. (“There were perhaps three hundred or so deaths from criminal abortions annually in the United States in the sixties, but NARAL in its press releases claimed to have data that supported a figure of five thousand.”)[13] NARAL adopted a policy of targeting the Catholic Church as the main opponent of abortion (which was largely true at the time) to win over mainline Protestants to their cause. The Rev. Howard Moody, then pastor of the Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was instrumental in forming the Clergy Consultation Referral Service, “a sizeable group of Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis joined at the hip by a common disdain for restrictive abortion laws.”[14] This evolved in 1973  into the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.

Then, with the advent of ultrasound in the 1970s, Nathenson was able to witness a real time abortion taking place. This led him to begin rethinking his commitment to the movement he had helped found. Finally, in 1984, perhaps naively thinking that what had convinced him would do the same for others, he produced and narrated The Silent Scream, showing a 12-week-old fetus “being torn to pieces in utero by the combination of suction and crushing instrumentation by the abortionist.” The abortionist in question, after viewing the film, “was so affected that he never did another abortion.[15] This film was followed up by another, Eclipse of Reason, in full colour, dealing with late term abortions.

Ronald Reagan, who was US president at the time, said that if everyone in Congress could view The Silent Scream, abortion would be outlawed in America. Not only did this not happen, there was a flood of negative reaction from abortion rights advocates, claiming the film was manipulated and inaccurate. Nathenson ended up sending it Dr. Ian Donaldson in Scotland, the founder of ultrasound, informing him that “the New York Times had run several editorials saying that it was a fake. Donaldson looked at the tape and said that it was absolutely genuine” and swore an affidavit to that effect.[16]

More recently, Abby Johnson, a former prize-winning Director of a Planned Parent facility, published Unplanned, which became the basis for a controversial film of that name. Despite being Director of the clinic, Johnson had not actually witnessed an abortion taking place until she was called to assist with one when no one else was available. She was horrified by what she saw on the screen and soon resigned her position.  She subsequently formed And Then There Were None (ATTWN) to encourage abortion workers to leave the “industry,” providing financial and other support to those who do.

Once again, extravagant claims were made about the effectiveness of Johnson’s revelations, but equally they were met with a flood of denials from Planned Parenthood and others, even questioning whether the abortion in question had taken place. When the dramatized film version of Johnson’s story was produced and shown in movie theaters, it provoked demonstrations, denials of its scientific accuracy, and threats such that some movie theaters had to hire additional security.

Why the backlash? Why was not everyone convinced of the evils of abortion, as Reagan had predicted they would be back in 1984? Why, as the scientific evidence of fetal life has become more widely available, such that virtually no one claims now that it is just a blob of cells, has societal acceptance of abortion increased rather than disappeared, with an increasing number of polls indicating that most respondents identify as “pro-choice”?

In reality, the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are misnomers. Nathenson documents how the abortion rights lobby “sold” abortion to the general public by making it a matter of choice. Polls regularly show a small minority of Americans (and other nationals), being in favor of abortion at any stage of development, a smaller percentage opposing abortion except to save the mother’s life, whereas most are somewhere in the middle, believing there should be some restrictions, but unwilling to impose a blanket restriction. The net effect, by making it a matter of choice, is that a woman’s choice must be respected, even up to the admittedly minority of cases that involve viable fetuses or even what have come to be termed (by the pro-life side) live birth abortions; that is, late term or partial-birth abortions where the fetus is partly delivered alive and its head crushed.         

On the other hand, the label “pro-life” reinforces the perception that abortion is the only issue pro-lifers are concerned about. Journalists are encouraged to use abortion rights and anti-abortion.[17] “Pro-abortion” in the sense of wanting the procedure to be generally available, and “anti-abortion” would be more accurate, but we are more or less stuck with the monikers chosen by each side.

Back to the question of why increasing scientific evidence has not turned the tide against “abortion on demand,” but rather the reverse, the answer is that the abortion debate is not about biological science. Science has established that the life in a woman’s womb is human life. It is not some other form of life. The question has shifted to whether that human life is potential or actual, or whether or not it is an actual person before birth. If not, what is to prevent abortion at any stage of development? If on the other hand, the life in the womb is of a tiny human person, is abortion ever justified? Should the lives of living, breathing grown women have more value than those of unborn fetuses? These I submit and hope to demonstrate, are deeply religious question.

This is not to say that being religious, or even a professing Christian, makes one automatically pro-life. As noted, several mainline Protestant churches belong to the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights and speak of being “prayerfully pro-choice” (see note 2). However, underlying this difference with pro-life evangelicals is a fundamentally different attitude to the authority of Scripture and other central doctrines to be discussed in the next chapter. Also, despite the Roman Catholic Church’s unequivocal stand on abortion, there is a dissenting group based in Washington DC called Catholics for Choice (originally formed in 1973 as Catholics for a Free Choice). Again, there are underlying theological differences. According to the Pew Research Center, Islam, Buddhism and Orthodox Judaism (along with the Baptist National Convention) have no clear position on abortion.[18] However, I am not speaking of religion in a generic sense, but as that has been historically understood by those who call themselves evangelical, hence the title of this book.

2. Evangelicals and Abortion: Some Background

Late in 2019, the retiring editor of Christianity Today (CT), Mark Galli, penned an editorial to the effect that then President Donald Trump should be removed from office on moral grounds. The editorial sent temporary shockwaves throughout the secular media, not accustomed to criticisms of Trump by those they understood to be representative of mainstream evangelicalism, namely religiously motivated right-wing Republicans. Some opined that the CT editorial represented a shift in evangelicals’ support for Trump, eighty-one percent of whom had voted for him in the 2016 election, many of them because of his commitment to nominate pro-life judges, a priority that enabled them to turn a blind eye to Trump’s many and obvious moral failings.

Others downplayed the significance of CT as compared to the “millions” who are represented by TV evangelists and the like. The New York Times offered the opinion that nothing would change as a result of the CT editorial. This proved to be largely correct, but the short-lived controversy over Mark Galli’s editorial raises the question of who is an evangelical and who speaks for evangelicalism. There are a number of published works on this subject, one of which, Who Is an Evangelical? by Thomas S. Kidd has as its sub-title, The History of a Movement in Crisis, indicating at the very least the need for clarification.[19]

In 1994, evangelical historian Mark Noll published his award-winning The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, bemoaning the anti-intellectualism of contemporary evangelicalism. "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."[20]  Nearly two decades later, another evangelical historian, Carl Trueman, wrote a short booklet on The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in which he postulated that “The real scandal of the evangelical mind currently is not that it lacks a mind, but that it lacks an agreed-upon evangel.”[21] A few years earlier, Ronald J. Sider wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World.[22] Another writer, Randall Balmer, announced that “After a long and lingering illness, Evangelicalism died on November 8, 2016. On that day, 81 percent of white American evangelicals who for decades claimed to be concerned about ‘family values’ registered their votes for a twice-divorced, thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator whose understanding of the faith is so truncated that he can’t even fake religious literacy.”[23]

The last quote above is taken from a series of essays in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump, edited by Ronald J. Sider and published in the 2020 election year. (Apparently Sider was recruited as editor by two others, Bandy X. Lee of Yale School of Medicine and Chris Thurman, a psychologist and author, both evangelical academics who did not think they had enough clout in the evangelical world to list their names as editors.) As with all such collections, some essays are better than others and there is some unnecessary repetition that comes across as overkill. One possibly valid argument is that, whereas Trump was good for pro-life and religious values in the short-term, he may have hurt them in the longer term by providing ammunition for the “liberal establishment” to “hate” evangelicals even more. [24]

Such is the confusion surrounding the definition of “evangelical” (and this is merely a sample). No wonder, then, that the secular media is confused. It appears that while more liberally-minded evangelical intellectuals are talking to themselves, their existence is mostly unknown or ignored in the public square.


Kidd and others focus largely on the history of evangelicalism in America, but the movement is broader and longer than that. The most commonly accepted definition is one offered by David Bebbington, Professor of History at Stirling University in Scotland. Bebbington’s terminology is somewhat technical, but what it boils down to is that evangelicals believe in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible, in the need for personal conversion (Bebbington actually places this first), the centrality of the cross of Christ for our salvation, and in “activism,” which includes world missions as well as social action. In his landmark work, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Bebbington traces the roots of evangelicalism to the Evangelical Revival in England that crossed the Atlantic as the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century. At the same time, he also recognizes that “Historians regularly apply the term ‘evangelical’ to the churches arising from the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The usage of the period justifies them.  Sir Thomas More in 1531 referred to advocates of the Reformation as ‘Evaungelicalles.’ Yet the normal use of the word, as late as the eighteenth century, was ‘of the gospel’ in a non-partisan sense.”[25] This is not surprising given that the term evangelical is derived from the Greek euangelio, meaning “good news” or “gospel.”

In 2008 Michael A. G.  Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart edited The Emergence of Evangelicalism, a collection of essays challenging various aspects of Bebbington’s thesis, with a response from Bebbington.[26] In a separate article in the Evangelical Quarterly, a scholarly British publication, Stewart takes respectful issue with Bebbington’s “massively-researched volume” and argues that there have been evangelical movements throughout church history. In “Did evangelicalism predate the eighteenth century?” Stewart begins: “If you or I had asked this question in evangelical company prior to 1989, we would certainly have drawn very blank looks. For until that year [the year Bebbington’s book was published], it was taken as an elementary truth” that evangelicalism as we know it “stood in an unbroken succession of vital Christianity extending backwards to at least the Reformation of the sixteenth century and perhaps beyond.”[27]

Besides his own historical research, Stewart quotes the late J. I. Packer, one of the most recognized and respected Reformed theologians of his day. Writing in 1978 of the Christianity “which we inherit from the New Testament via the Reformers, the Puritans, and the revival and missionary leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Packer adds, “The reason why I call myself an evangelical and mean to going on doing so is my belief that as this historic evangelicalism has never sought to be anything other than New Testament Christianity, so in essentials it has succeeded in its aim.”[28] Stewart references another “senior evangelical theologian,” John Stott, to much the same effect.[29] (New York Times columnist David Brooks once quoted Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center as saying “if evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose.”)[30]


That said, there is no question that the American church has had its own unique evangelical history, beginning with the fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century that sought to preserve biblical Christianity at a time when mainline denominations and seminaries were being overtaken by more liberal forms of Christianity. Over time, fundamentalism came to be associated with a narrower vision of the gospel focusing on end time prophesy, withdrawal from anything considered worldly (including politics) and a legalistic lifestyle.

Then in 1947, Carl Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism and a new movement, neo-evangelicalism was born, with Fuller Theological Seminary in California as its flagship academic institution and CT, founded by Billy Graham with Carl Henry as its first editor, as its flagship publication. The National Association of Evangelicals had already been founded in 1942.

 Neo-evangelicalism sought to represent a more intellectually respectable, open-minded form of evangelicalism. Billy Graham’s “cooperative evangelism” was typical. A greater concern for social issues, once identified with the “social gospel” of liberalism was another development. In time, this movement split into more “conservative” and “liberal” or “progressive” wings, in part over the nature and extent of biblical authority. Progressives also highlighted social issues, like the causes of poverty, and race relations that have come to be associated with left-wing politics. Evangelicals for Social Action and the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, are examples. In 2020, Evangelicals for Social Action became Christians for Social Action, largely in response to the identification of “evangelical” in the public mind with Conservative evangelicals who have focused more narrowly on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. These issues are not mutually exclusive from a biblical point of view, or even within modern evangelicalism. It is more a matter of emphasis and perception. (Some African-American church leaders with evangelical-compatible beliefs avoid using the term because of its past history of racism, even slavery—another reason for the name change above.)

Yet another development came in 1979 when fundamentalists like the late Jerry Falwell Sr., abandoned their avoidance of politics and formed the Moral Majority, out of concern for the moral drift since the Supreme Court decisions outlawing school prayer (1963) and legalizing abortion (1973).  In 1989, the Moral Majority was disbanded, with Falwell declaring, "Our goal has been achieved…. The religious right is solidly in place and … religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.”[31]

Ten years later, two disillusioned former leaders published Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?, warning from experience of the danger of placing one’s hope for moral change in political activism. Their warning seems to have gone largely unheeded, with the religious right firmly in place, claiming “unprecedented” access to the White House during the Trump presidency. Falwell’s son and namesake (prior to his fall from grace) was among them, as was Billy Graham’s son Franklin. Others are more associated with the “prosperity gospel” and its message of health and wealth.

The term “evangelical” became a household word in America along with the concept of being “born again.” In 1975, Charles Colson published Born Again, the story of his conversion from Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man” to evangelical Christian and founder of Prison Fellowship. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter was running for President of the United States. Carter made no secret of his Christian faith and so a reporter asked him if he were born again. Carter replied that he was, and the term “born again,” along with the moniker “evangelical,” entered the vocabulary of everyday English. Time magazine proclaimed 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.”

Carter may have been a born again evangelical, but his policies proved to be too liberal for some of his fellow evangelicals, leading to the emergence of the Moral Majority which claimed credit for the 1980 election of Republican President Ronald Reagan. Since then, the term “evangelical” has come to be associated with the Republican party and its “religious right.”[32] Traditional family values and (over time) opposition to same-sex marriage came to be hallmarks of evangelicalism in the public mind, but the dominant issue throughout has been abortion. However, opposition to abortion has not always been the defining characteristic of evangelicals.


The anti-abortion (pro-life) movement used to be associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Daniel K. Williams in Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade documents how, prior to the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in all fifty of the United States, anti-abortion activity had been driven mostly by Catholic doctors, lawyers, clergy and laypeople.

The Catholics who launched the pro-life movement grounded their campaign not only in their Church’s natural law theology, but also in the twentieth-century American liberal values of individual rights, legal protection for minorities, and societal recognition of human dignity. Many of the people who first began speaking against abortion in the 1930s, as well as those who created the first right-to-life organizations in the mid-1960s, were Catholic Democrats who were committed to New Deal liberalism.[33]

So, what happened? “Only after Roe v. Wade, when the pro-life movement’s interpretation of liberalism came into contact with another rights-based movement—feminism—and it became clear that pro-lifers would not be able to win the support of the Democratic Party, did the movement take a conservative turn. Yet because of the movement’s liberal origins, its position in the Republican Party remains an uneasy one even today.”[34] The American media now regularly associates opposition to abortion with evangelicals rather than Roman Catholics. While the Roman Catholic Church still officially opposes abortion, and many of its members are involved in the pro-life movement, several high-profile Catholics, such as current US President Joe Biden, openly support abortion rights. The same is true of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

In The Right Turn in Conservative Christian Politics How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, Andrew R. Lewis, building on Williams’ work notes that whereas rights based advocacy has been identified with Catholic social justice and the political left, evangelicals have historically been committed to maintaining public morality and it was this emphasis, rather than fetal rights that informed their opposition to abortion in the mid-to-late 1970s. Lewis rightly credits Francis Schaeffer with mobilizing evangelicals against abortion. In doing so, he “brought much of the Catholic human rights approach to abortion into evangelicalism, yet simultaneously many of his appeals focused on lax morals, not human rights.” [35]

As Williams makes clear, Catholic social justice theory has always had an affinity with issues usually associated with the political left: social programs for the alleviation of poverty, opposition to the death penalty etc. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have a different history that includes approval of slavery in the American South and opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1960 under Martin Luther King Jr. Thus, recent attempts to link the pro-life movement with the abolition of the slave trade in the eighteenth century or the more recent civil rights movement can come across as a little disingenuous, even though it was evangelicals like William Wilberforce and his colleagues in the Clapham Sect (in the UK) who were at the forefront of the movement to abolish the slave trade, while seeking to promote public, improved working conditions for chimney sweeps and textile workers, as well as prison reform.  Wilberforce also founded what came to be known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

A contemporary evangelical who has sought to promote a consistently pro-life position is Ron Sider, former executive director of Evangelicals (now Christians) for Social Action who in 1987 published Completely Pro-Life: Building a Consistent Stance on Abortion, the Family, Nuclear Weapons, the Poor. Sider is from a Mennonite background with a pacifist tradition and not all evangelicals will agree with his stance on nuclear weapons, or even all his prescriptions for relief of poverty, but he is at least to be commended for seeking to promote a broader vision of what it means to be pro-life, while pointing out some of the inconsistencies that exist among professing Christians on both the political right and left.[36]

More recently in the context of the 2020 US Presidential race, Sider, along with Fuller Seminary President Emeritus Richard Mouw, launched Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden and issued the following statement:

As pro-life evangelicals, we disagree with Vice President Biden and the Democratic platform on the issue of abortion. But we believe a biblically shaped commitment to the sanctity of human life compels us to a consistent ethic of life that affirms the sanctity of human life from beginning to end.

Many things that good political decisions could change destroy persons created in the image of God and violate the sanctity of human life. Poverty kills millions every year. So does lack of healthcare and smoking. Racism kills. Unless we quickly make major changes, devastating climate change will kill tens of millions. Poverty, lack of accessible health care services, smoking, racism and climate change are all pro-life issues…Therefore we oppose “one issue” political thinking because it lacks biblical balance.

Knowing that the most common reason women give for abortion is the financial difficulty of another child, we appreciate a number of Democratic proposals that would significantly alleviate that financial burden: accessible health services for all citizens, affordable childcare, a minimum wage that lifts workers out of poverty…[37]

The reason for quoting this here is not to signal agreement with voting for Joe Biden or the Democratic Party, which includes access to “safe and legal abortion” among the rights of women for which it will fight.[38] Besides, as a Canadian-Scot, I am not in a position to do so even if I wished to. It is, rather, to indicate that there are prominent evangelicals who take a centre-left position politically and do not fit the caricature of extreme right-wing single-issue conservatives.[39] Not that all signers were necessarily centre-left politically. They included, for instance, Joel Hunter, a long-time political conservative and former mega-church pastor who in 2006 was elected president of the Christian Coalition, identified with the religious right. Two years later, he wrote A New Kind of Conservative,[40] advocating a broader pro-life approach to politics, became a friend and pastoral adviser to Barak Obama, but then voted for Trump in 2016. The signers of this document experienced considerable push-back from fellow-prolifers who, among other things, questioned the use of the label “pro-life” for issues other than abortion.[41]

Following the election, Sider blogged that, among other things he would work hard with the Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden “to urge the Democrats to say that as they continue to believe that abortion should be legal and safe, they will also want abortion to be rare and will embrace policies that promote that.”[42] Commendable as this is, it seems a forlorn hope and an overestimation of the influence Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden can have on the administration. Biden, a practicing Catholic and widely acclaimed to be a decent man with a history of working across the aisle, once supported the Hyde amendment that prohibits federal funds being used to promote abortion. More recently, likely under pressure from the more radical left of the Democratic Party, he has reversed that position and stated publicly that, should the Supreme Court reverse Roe v. Wade, he would intervene to make it the law of the land.[43] One of his first acts as president was to sign an executive order funding abortion, not only in the US but also abroad, which could be interpreted as an act of American imperialism. Vice-President Kamala Harris has stated frequently that she would fight to protect a woman’s right to control her own body (a euphemism for abortion).

The sad irony is that several of the “progressive” policies of the “radical left” in the USA, such as universal health care, a social safety net and a fair taxation system, racial reconciliation, gun safety, and care for the environment, are considered mainstream in other industrialized nations. It is the linking of these issues to “abortion on demand,” as well as suppression of the religious rights of those opposed to same-sex marriage, that continue to drive so many evangelicals into the opposite camp.

The tragedy of the Trump presidency is that he did accomplish some positive things, such as nominating judges who believe in judicial restraint and were subsequently approved by a Republican controlled (if bitterly divided) Senate. He also declared January 22 as National Sanctity of Life Day each year of his presidency and actively promoted the pro-life cause, such that its leaders said he was the best friend they had ever had in the White House. He said that Roe v Wade was a judicially flawed decision. There are legal experts who would agree with this, but Trump’s credibility was compromised by his own repeated attempts to use the judicial system to overthrow the 2020 election results, not to mention his many other flawed decisions, such as his government’s treatment of children separated from their parents at the US-Mexican border in an attempt to control illegal immigration. No wonder more than one writer suggested in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump (as noted above) any short-term good he did for conservative (and pro-life) Christians will likely be overshadowed by the damage he did to the Christian reputation.

A pro-life evangelical who was a Republican, but won the grudging respect of his previous critics on the left, while losing support on the right was the late C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General in the Reagan Republican administration. In his autobiography, Koop recounts his brutal confirmation hearings as Surgeon General during which liberal attacked him viciously for his known anti-abortion views. His conservative supporters, on the other hand, seemed interested only in having him promote those views. When in fact, Koop adopted a more broadly pro-life stance by launching an anti-smoking campaign that took on the powerful tobacco lobby and advocating sex education in schools and condom use by active homosexuals “foolish enough” not to practice abstinence in order to prevent the spread of AIDS, he found that previous foes like Ted Kennedy became his staunch supporters, while previous admirers, like Jesse Helms of the famous Helms amendment that prohibited the use of federal government funds to support abortion, either dropped out of view (as in Helms’ case) or became active critics. These included fellow-evangelicals.

Koop writes: 

Castigation by the political right, although disappointing and unpleasant, did not duly upset me; after all castigation seemed to be their business. But I did feel a profound sense of betrayal by those on the religious right who took me to task…. Everyone, or at least those who did not know me, said that I had changed. Conservatives said I had changed and they were angry. Liberals said I had changed, and they were pleased. But I had not changed at all…. My whole career had been dedicated to prolonging lives, especially the lives of people who were weak and powerless, the disenfranchised who needed an advocate: newborns undoubtedly who needed surgery, handicapped children, unborn children, people with AIDS.[44]   

 Koop includes a chapter on abortion, in which he gives some fascinating background on how he came to participate with Francis Schaeffer in the 1979 book and film series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? That more than anything else was responsible for alerting evangelicals to the evils of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Later, as Surgeon General, he was asked to prepare a report on the health effects of abortion on women. In the end, he concluded that there was not sufficient scientific evidence to support either the “pre-conceived beliefs of those pro-life or of those pro-choice.”[45] The television networks, instead, reported that he “had issued a report confirming that abortion produced no evidence of negative health effects on women.” Koop scrambled to correct that misinformation, but the damage was done. One pro-life leader was reported as saying that Koop had “buried the pro-life movement.” Although he was in fact aware of anecdotal evidence of the negative effects on women’s mental and emotional health (as well as physical on occasion), he believed that the entire focus of the proposed report was misguided. “The issue of abortion is not to be decided in terms of its effect upon the mother, but in terms of its effect on the unborn child. The effect upon the mother is unclear; the effect upon the unborn child is clear—and fatal.”[46]

Koop was particularly stung by criticisms from fellow-Christians, “people who should know better, people who knew that Jesus commanded our love for one another. And it takes more than just saying it.…My feelings of sorrow and disappointment increased because I was convinced that my fellow evangelicals had not only failed to understand my position, but had also refused to muster the intelligence and scholarship to try. I believed, however, that no matter how they reacted, I had done the right thing.”[47]

In The Right to Life, the Right to Die, Koop makes it clear that he is personally opposed to abortion, except in those rare cases (in Western society, that is) where a mother’s life is genuinely in danger. He used to make exceptions for other hard cases such as rape, based on Christian compassion as he then understood it. But following a conversation with a nurse about rape and the sovereignty of God, he says that whether it was the conversation or “whether it was the slow pressure of what [he] he had read in the Scriptures concerning the certainty of life,” he found himself saying “My position on abortion is essentially Roman Catholic but for different reasons.”[48] However, as a matter of public policy, he saw room for compromise, in the interests of saving at least some unborn lives; a compromise neither side of the debate seemed to want:

The rhetoric comes straight from the days of World War II. Both sides, pro-life, pro-abortion, are fond of using terms like “battle ground,” “combat,” “war,” and “battle.” Neither side seems to be winning any converts to its position. Sometimes I think both sides have forgotten why they are fighting…. I wonder if each side has not forgotten the human element that originally prompted the debate: the innocent unborn child, the agonized pregnant woman…

Anti-abortionists cannot simply rail against abortion; they must press for whatever legal, social, and economic changes are necessary to make childbearing equitable and fair. They should be willing to do anything they can to bring conceived children to birth…. Ethical compromise was impossible. But I did see the possibility for a practical compromise that would at least lower the numbers of abortions, lower the number of unborn children whose death was sanctioned by our laws and society…

I have always been surprised that liberals, usually so concerned about the underdog and the disenfranchised, have failed to champion the rights of unborn children. Nor did I understand some ardent feminists who see abortion as a weapon in the feminist struggle, a tool to oppose those traditionalist males determined to keep women in their place by denying them “control over their own bodies.” The extremes of both sides, I realized, did not seek compromise; perhaps they did not even seek resolution. They were in it for the battle.

But there were many others who were weary of confrontation and who might listen to a better way, who would welcome concentration on the root of the problem…[49]

On the occasion of Koop’s death, Mathew Miller wrote an article on “How the Evangelical Church Awoke to the Abortion Issue: The Convergent Labors of Harold O.J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop.”[50]  In part, he was responding to a CNN Belief Blog by Jonathan Dudley which claimed that it was Jerry Falwell who “spearheaded the reversal of opinion on abortion in the late 1970s.” There were several responses to Dudley which led him to quickly backtrack 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 these early efforts, however…”

In seeking to set the record straight, Miller acknowledges that 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.” These three men were Harold O. J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop.

Brown was a Harvard-educated historian and theologian who was working as the associate editor of Christianity Today when the Roe v. Wade ruling was announced. He wrote the lead article in the magazine's next issue, "Abortion and the Court" (CT, Feb. 16, 1973). “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).”

 In 1975, Brown and Koop met in a meeting space provided by Billy Graham in Montreat to launch the Christian Action Council (CAC) “which became the leading Protestant 'right to life' advocacy group on Capitol Hill” with Brown as chair. “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.”

 In 1961 Brown had met Francis Schaeffer, then a “relatively unknown 'man from Switzerland.'” Brown arranged for Schaeffer to give the second annual “Christian Contemporary Thought” lectures on Harvard's campus: 

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 Should 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.

This friend was Koop who had treated the Schaeffer’s daughter Priscilla in 1948 and subsequently developed a friendship with the Schaeffer family. This led to his participation in the book and film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Released in 1979, this project “did what no effort over the previous six years had succeeded in doing: it broke through.”

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…. Schaeffer would die in 1982 [actually it was 1984], 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]. 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." As a reward for his pro-life efforts, Koop would be appointed by Reagan to be his Surgeon General in 1981…

Matthew Miller concludes:

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.[51]



 [1] I am basing this on personal experience of confronting Morgentaler on a radio call-in talk show back in the 1980s. In his book, Abortion and Contraception, Morgentaler is slightly more nuanced. He cites a 1972 research study conducted in Quebec which showed that “four out of five women who had a medical abortion in safe and sanitary conditions felt mainly relieved.” The women “who felt intense regret or persistent remorse fall into two groups: the first felt that abortion was against their ethical or religious principles (in all these cases, Roman Catholicism); the second had strong pressure exerted on them to terminate their pregnancies by people close to them,” but “a woman who is truly determined to terminate her pregnancy does not regret the act…. Fortunately, the women who experience intense feelings of guilt after an abortion are a minority.” Morgentaler notes that the study he is basing his findings on (Rinfret, Giroux, and Boucher) “dealt with French-Canadian women in Montreal. It is encouraging to see that these women were able to shake off rather easily the guilt imposed on them by the Catholic Church. This is a trend which is continuing to this day. Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Abortion and Contraception (Toronto: General Publishing, 1982), 101-04.

[2] From RCRC’s booklet, Prayerfully Pro-Choice, 25. Quoted in Michael J. Gorman and Ann Loar Brooks, Holy Abortion? A Theological Critique of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 18.

[3] Bernard N. Nathenson, M.D. writing in 1996, devotes the better part of a chapter of his memoir to gruesome accounts of botched abortions, including fatalities to clients, under legal abortion. See the 2013 edition of The Hand of God: A Journey From Death To Life By the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing), 114-27.

[4] David C. Reardon, Aborted Women: Silent No More (Westchester, ILL: Crossway Books, 1987).

[5] Nancy Michels, Helping Women Recover from Abortion: How to deal with the guilt, the emotional pain, and the emptiness (Minneapolis, MN: 1988).

[6] Morgentaler, 49.

[7] Among the several endorsements for Frederica-Mathewes-Green’s book, Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion (Linthicum, MD: Felicity Press, 2013) is one from noted feminist author and theorist Naomi Wolf, who writes: “As a pro choice activist concerned with getting at the root of why so many women choose abortion, I could only wish that her approach would be the one adopted by the pro-life movement in general.”

[8] Mathewes-Green, Real Choices, 1.

[9] Mathewes-Green, Real Choices, 107. Cf. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Facts in Brief, March 15, 1993. “AGI goes on to report that Catholic women are as likely to have abortions as all women nationally; Evangelical women are half as likely.”

[10] Angie Weszely, “Telling the whole story about abortion during election season,” PROgrace, September 9, 2020. Accessed October 21, 2020.

[11] Morgantaler, 142.

[12] Bernard N. Nathenson, MD, with Richard N. Ostllng, Aborting America (USA: Life Cycle Books, 1979).

[13] Nathenson, The Hand of God, 92.

[14] Nathenson, The Hand of God, 105.

[15] Nathenson, The Hand of God, 148.

[16] Nathenson, The Hand of God, 149.

[17] The Associated Press Stylebook, 39th ed (New York: Basic Books, 2004). Referenced in Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016, xi.

[18] David Masci, “Where Major Religious Groups Stand on Abortion,” Pew Research Center, June 21, 2016 ( Accessed January 31, 2021.

[19] Thomas S. Kidd, Who is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2019).

[20] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[21] Carl Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Chicago, IL: moody Press, 2010), 41

[22] Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: 2005).

[23] Randall Balmer, “Donald Trump and the Death of Evangelicalism,” in Ronald J. Sider, ed., The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 78.

[24] George Yancey, Trump the Last Temptation,” in Sider, 124-26.

[25] David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 1.

[26] Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth J Stewart, The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities

 (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2008). An American edition titled The Advent of Evangelicalism was published in the same year by Broadman and Holman, Nashville, Tenn.

[27] Kenneth J. Stewart, “Did evangelicalism predate the eighteenth century? An examination of David Bebbington’s thesis” in Evangelical Quarterly, 77.2 (2005), 135. An entirely different perspective in Evangelical Quarterly by Robert Letham, (with a response by Donald Macleod), asks provocatively “Is Evangelicalism Christian?” (Evangelical Quarterly, 67:1, [1995], 3-33), precisely because of evangelicalism’s supposedly recent emergence, thereby cutting itself off from the history of the Christian church in its entirety.

[28] Stewart, “Did evangelicalism predate the eighteenth century? 135. Cf. James Packer, “The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ: Some Evangelical Reflections,” in Churchman, 92 (1978), 102.

[29] Stewart 136. Cf. John Stott, “A Plea for Evangelical Christianity” in Christ the Controversialist (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 27-46; and Evangelical Essentials (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVasity Press, 2000).

[30] David Brooks, “Who is John Stott?” in The New York Times, November 30, 2004.

[31] Patrick Allit, Religion in America Since 1945: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 198.

[32] According to research by New York University professor Patrick J. Egan, as reported in Christianity Today, October 2020, p. 17, the probability that over a four-year period, a conservative republican will start identifying as “born again” is 1 in 25. The probability that over the same amount of time a Christian liberal Democrat will stop identifying as “born again” is likewise 1 in 25. Besides, research by the Barna Group indicates that 38% of the US population accepts the label of “evangelical,” but when asked a series of nine questions used to define the term, just one in five of self-professed evangelicals met the criteria used in a 2006 survey. If this is true, it suggests that polling of self-confessed born-again evangelicals is more than a little skewed. accessed October 10, 2020.

[33] Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 4.

[34] Williams, Defenders of the Unborn, 4.

[35] Andrew R. Lewis, The Right Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars

 (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 24.

[36] Sider’s best-known book is Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, originally published in 1978 by InterVarsity Press. Some of his economic prescriptions for ending world hunger were criticized and he later published a revised edition in 1984 that took some of these criticisms into account. Further editions have followed, most recently by Thomas Nelson n 2015.

[37] “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden,” Ron Sider Blog, October 2, 2020. Accessed the same day.

[38] It continues, “We oppose and will fight to overturn federal and state laws that create barriers to women’s reproductive health and rights, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment and protecting and codifying the right to reproductive freedom.” 2020 Democratic Platform, 42, Accessed October 23, 2020.

[39] It seems fair to say that those evangelicals who fall into the centre-left category are mostly intellectuals, a number of whom signed the above statement, but who unfortunately do not get the public media exposure given to more populist evangelicals (although the Washington Times and a few other media outlets did take notice of the formation of Evangelicals for Biden). For the most part, secular media outlets reference evangelicals as the core group of Republican supporters.

[40] Joel C. Hunter, A New Kind of Conservative (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008).

[41] See, for instance, Peter Jones, “A Plea to My Evangelical Friends for Biden,” October 23, 2020, Cornwall Alliance For the Stewardship of Creation, Accessed October 23, 2020. Jones responded to specific claims that various issues, like universal health care, were pro-life issues.  See also “The Case Against Pro-Life Voting for Joe Biden,” the, October 7, 2020. Accessed October 7, 2020. These were among the more respectful responses.

[42] Ron Sider, “Biden Won. Now What? November 7, 2020. Accessed November 8, 2020.

[43] In response at a town hall to a well-dressed young woman concerned that an unwanted pregnancy might interfere with her future educational plans.

[44] C. Everett Koop, M.D., KOOP: The Memoirs of America’s Family Doctor (New York: Random House), 216.

[45] Koop, KOOP: The Memoirs of America’s Family Doctor, 276.

[46] KOOP: Memoirs, 278.

[47] KOOP: Memoirs, 279.

[48] C. Everett Koop, MD. The Right to Life; The Right to Die (Wheaton, ILL: Tyndale House, 1976), 14.

[49] KOOP: Memoirs, 280-282.

[50] Matthew Miller, on “How the Evangelical Church Awoke to the Abortion Issue: The Convergent Labors of Harold O.J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop,” Reformation 21, March 4, 2013, Accessed October 20, 2020.

[51] Francis Schaeffer came under considerable criticism in later years from erstwhile admirers who had benefited from his countercultural critique in the past, especially during the 1960s, but now saw him as identifying with the right-wing fundamentalism of the Moral Majority. This was, in part, due to his subsequent books, A Christian Manifesto, (1981) in which he seems to embrace a form of the Christian America myth about the Founding Fathers, and Whatever Happened to the Evangelical Church? (1984) which was a defense of biblical inerrancy against neo-evangelical views that the Bible is infallible but not inerrant in matters of science and history, and an attack on the moral decline in American society seeping into the evangelical church. However, William Edgar, who knew him well and had conversations with him about these things, interprets Schaeffer’s later developments as consistent with previous ones. In A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer was careful to point out that “we should not wrap Christianity in our national flag” and “Throughout he was concerned to show that the Christian faith should not be conservative but revolutionary. A conservative is just pert of the status quo, whereas revolutionaries are a minority that must buck the tide.” William Edgar, Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality (Wheaton, ILL: Crossway, 2013), 76. Cf. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, (Westchester, ILL: Crossway, 1982), 5: 485-86.


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