Paul D. Simmons, a Christian ethics professor who a quarter century ago became a lightning rod at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for advocating a woman’s right to abortion, died March 17 following an illness. He was 82.
Walter Shurden, a former colleague who served as dean of Southern’s theology school in the early 1980s, described Simmons as “for my money, the most brilliant, courageous and progressive Christian ethicist among Baptists of our time.”
“A man of deep faith, he took on the hard issues and never winced,” Shurden, who later taught nearly 25 years at Mercer University, commented on Facebook.
A native of Tennessee, Simmons began teaching at the Southern Baptist Convention-owned seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, as a Garrett graduate teaching fellow and instructor in Christian ethics while working toward his Ph.D. He joined the faculty in 1970, received tenure in 1975 and was promoted to full professor in 1982.
When the issue of abortion shifted from the courthouse to the church house with the U.S. Supreme Court 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, Simmons called on Southern Baptists to recognize “the place of personal conscience in moral decision-making” for individuals facing the dilemma of abortion.
“Since men will never know the threat and terror of childbirth, nor be faced with pregnancy — wanted or otherwise — they are poor arbiters in the abortion debate,” Simmons said at a conference on bioethics sponsored by the SBC Christian Life Commission in 1976. “Even so, men are the power brokers — politically, legally and morally — when it comes to setting the terms for abortion. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has moved to recognize the inequity confronted by women.”
In 1977 Simmons joined five other Southern Baptists on a list of 216 ethicists around the nation opposing “the absolutist position that it is always wrong to terminate a pregnancy at any time after conception.”
Declaring that “God is pro-choice” at a 1981 forum by the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, Simmons urged supporters of abortion rights to make it “clear that we believe there is a moral issue involved in pregnancy termination for non-therapeutic reasons” and that freedom to choose “is not a camouflage for a calloused attitude toward abortion after viability.”
“Since men will never know the threat and terror of childbirth, nor be faced with pregnancy — wanted or otherwise — they are poor arbiters in the abortion debate. Even so, men are the power brokers — politically, legally and morally — when it comes to setting the terms for abortion. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has moved to recognize the inequity confronted by women.”
Around the same time he testified before a U.S. Senate panel, calling a proposed anti-abortion law declaring that human life begins at conception “extremely problematic” on both theological and religious liberty grounds.
“The real concern is whether or not the fetus is to be regarded as a person, not whether it is a human life,” Simmons said. Most people agree that the unborn fetus is both “human” and “alive,” he said, but the question of personhood is “vastly more complex.”
Simmons said the “biblical portrait of person is that of a complex, many-sided creature who reflects God-like abilities.” He said ascribing such qualities to the zygote was contrary to his understanding of the Bible and objected “to this effort to impose one religious notion on those of us who do not subscribe to that belief.”
The Baptist Faith and Message, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official confession of faith, was amended in 1998 to affirm that “children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord.” Prior to 1980, however, SBC resolutions took a qualified pro-choice position on abortion.
In 1971, Southern Baptists supported legislation to “allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother.”
A resolution in 1974 affirmed that stance as “a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder.”
That consensus began to unravel with the rise of the Religious Right, a constellation of Christian political factions that in the 1980s mobilized voters around socially conservative positions on public policy issues such as school prayer, abortion and homosexuality.
By 1990 the SBC marched in lockstep with the Religious Right leaders such as Jerry Falwell, while moderate and progressive voices formerly in leadership were banished to breakaway groups including the Alliance of Baptists and the nascent Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
In the first meeting after conservatives gained control of Southern Seminary’s board of trustees in April 1990, the majority passed a resolution declaring abortion “the greatest moral issue faced by Christians today.”
That meeting also brought forth a trustee resolution disapproving of Simmons’ activities related to abortion rights and warning that continued advocacy “may be considered sufficient grounds for dismissal.”
A trustee committee investigated Simmons for heresy in 1992, but an attorney advised that as a tenured professor, he could be fired only for teachings contrary to the seminary’s Abstract of Principles doctrinal statement or for violating his contract.
Trustees voted down a proposal to buy out his contract for $362,000 over six years, opting instead to seek dismissal through formal heresy charges. In the meantime, new controversy emerged over a film that Simmons had shown to a master’s level class on sexual experiences of quadriplegics described on campus as sexually explicit, prompting him to take early retirement at age 56 in January 1993.
Simmons went on to teach as clinical professor in the department of family and geriatric medicine at the University of Louisville. He was a founding trustee of Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and former president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In 2012 he joined a lawsuit objecting to tax dollars allegedly being spent on religious indoctrination by the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children and in 2015 went to court to oppose taxpayer funding for a Noah’s Ark theme park being built by the fundamentalist Christian ministry Answers in Genesis.
Visitation begins at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, at Pearson Funeral Home, 149 Breckinridge Lane in Louisville. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, March 25, at Broadway Baptist Church, where Simmons was a member.