This weekend will mark the 38th observance of Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. On that Sunday, churches across the country lament what former Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear called the “greatest moral tragedy of our day” — the evil of abortion.
While Christians use the day to pray and mourn for the preborn who have been lost, many are not aware the annual church event originated in the White House.
On the 10th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, President Ronald Reagan wrote an essay about abortion that was published in The Human Life Review and later issued as a book titled “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation,” the only book ever published by a sitting U.S. president. The essay is one of the most forceful defenses of life and the strongest denuciations of abortion ever issued by an American president.
“The real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life?” wrote Reagan. “The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother’s body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being. The real question for him and for all of us is whether that tiny human life has a God-given right to be protected by the law—the same right we have.”
“I have often said we need to join in prayer to bring protection to the unborn,” added Reagan. “Prayer and action are needed to uphold the sanctity of human life. I believe it will not be possible to accomplish our work, the work of saving lives, ‘without being a soul of prayer.’”
A year later, Reagan issued “Proclamation 5147 — National Sanctity of Human Life Day, 1984,” which notes, “Since 1973, however, more than 15 million unborn children have died in legalized abortions — a tragedy of stunning dimensions that stands in sad contrast to our belief that each life is sacred.” The proclamation designated Sunday, Jan. 22, 1984, as National Sanctity of Human Life Day: “I call upon the citizens of this blessed land to gather on that day in homes and places of worship to give thanks for the gift of life, and to reaffirm our commitment to the dignity of every human being and the sanctity of each human life.”
Reagan would go on to issue the proclamation annually until he left office in 1988. His successor, George H.W. Bush continued the tradition, as did George W. Bush. The practice was discontinued during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but resumed under Donald Trump. In one of its final acts before the swearing in of a new president, the Trump White House issued a proclamation in 2020. President Joe Biden has not issued a pro-life proclamtion in either 2021 or 2022.
Today, tens of thousands of churches across America observe the Sanctity of Life Sunday. But when Regan’s first proclamation was issued, adopting the observance stirred controversy because much of the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights.
As former ERLC president and pro-life pioneer Richard Land says, “When the convention members were trying to get a Sanctity of Life Sunday, the staff of [Christian Life Commission] fought against it in the Denominational Calendar Committee. When they couldn’t get the Sunday blocked, they tried to get it moved to another time of year so as to not associate it with abortion, but with war and peace issues.” At the 1985 convention, the trustee chairman of the Chrisitan Life Commission (an entity that would later be reorganized as the ERLC) offered an amendment for a “Concern for Life” date to be in April so it wouldn’t coincide with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. That amendment was rejected, though, after pro-life advocates spoke in favor of the committee’s recommendation favoring a Sanctity of Life Sunday in mid-January.
Since then, the SBC has consistently designated a Sunday in January as Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.