The Problem with Abortion Abolitionism, and an Appeal to Prolifers to Work Together

Note from Randy: Over the years, we’ve received numerous comments and feedback from those who consider themselves abortion abolitionists. I honestly appreciate their passion to see abortion ended. Any sincere prolifer would be ecstatic if abortion were made illegal. Unfortunately, their methods and philosophy, and their antagonistic stance to other prolifers, are often problematic.

Scott Klusendorf explains that the assumption behind these abolition groups is that “pro-lifers have the power to immediately end abortion but simply won’t. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pro-life advocates do not have the power to say which children live and which ones die. The federal courts have already said that no unborn children have a right to life. In that legal environment, the principled pro-lifer is an immediatist morally and an incrementalist strategically. That is, while pro-lifers remain committed to the principle that every unborn human should be legally protected, they work to save as many lives as possible given current political realities.”

Certainly we can and should pray for and work toward the day when abortion is illegal and ending an unborn child’s life is unthinkable. In the meantime, may prolifers work together, in a spirit of humility and grace. I like to put it this way: to win a war, it takes the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Special Forces, Navy Seals, etc. Anyone who thinks their group or branch of the Armed Services is the only way of fighting the war or accomplishing the mission is simply wrong. The same thing is true of those who believe their strategy to end or prevent abortions is the only one that is right or effective. 

My thanks to Scott for this article explaining the problems with abolitionism and giving a defense of prolife incrementalism.

Saving Some, Standing for All: A Defense of Pro-Life Incrementalism

(And the Problem with Abolitionism)

By Scott Klusendorf

Now that the Supreme Court has let stand (for now) a Texas pro-life law that prohibits abortions after fetal heartbeat, the knives are out for pro-lifers, and not just from pro-abortionists. Abolitionists are also in the hunt to gut pro-life legislative efforts.

Consider this year’s Southern Baptist Convention. Delegates affirmed an abolitionist resolution that calls the SBC to be a “prophetic voice to abolish abortion” immediately and without exceptions. Incremental strategies advanced by pro-life advocates—the abolitionist resolution declares—are nothing more than appalling “regulatory guidelines” for determining “when, where, why, and how” adults may intentionally kill innocent pre-born children. Put simply, pro-life gains to date—such as parental notification and consent laws, late-term abortion bans, or heartbeat bills—have done nothing but sanction evil. Any incremental strategy rather than immediate abolition is a shameful sin leaders must confess, lament, and repent of because it makes them complicit in abortion.

The delegates tried to soften the resolution by amending it to say that the SBC “will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion.” But the addition leaves untouched abolitionist language that unequivocally condemns incrementalism as an appalling sanction of murder that “challenges God’s Lordship over the heart and the conscience, and rejects His call to repent of sin completely and immediately.” The implications for Christian fellowship are troubling. William Ascol—the pastor who sponsored the resolution—used a 2020 sermon to say SBC churches should summarily disfellowship Christian politicians who don’t vote along abolitionist lines. Virgil Walker, co-host of the G3 podcast, called pro-life incrementalism “an idol that really needs to be brought down. It’s actually a golden calf.” In short, pro-life advocates are not only mistaken; they are willfully sinning. Denny Burk summarizes what follows if abolitionists are right about that: “It would obligate churches to shun pro-lifers through church discipline. . . . They have to remove the impenitent sinners from among them.”

Are Pro-Life Advocates That Bad?

Imagine a world in which wife-beating is legal. Three governors—Bob, Abraham, and Caleb—all claim to oppose it. Bob has the political power to protect all women, but when the state legislature sends him a bill banning spousal abuse outright, he vetoes it and demands exceptions for men 35 or younger. He appeals to pragmatism: “Come on, younger men have difficulty controlling their emotions and may snap if their wives burn supper, fail to discipline the children, or withhold sex. That’s reality. The solution is not punitive laws, but state-funded counseling for men.”

Abraham, meanwhile, wins election in a state notorious for wife-beating. Previous attempts to ban it outright failed miserably. Abraham is sickened by this lamentable state of affairs and vows to protect all women in law. However, he does not yet have the votes to do it. Nevertheless, he does what he can. He signs an executive order freeing state employees from abusive spouses. They may leave home and keep their jobs without fear of arrest. Two years later, his party—which more or less opposes wife-beating—picks up a slim majority in the legislature. True, the votes still aren’t there to ban the practice, but he keeps pushing. He signs legislation that forbids hitting your wife with blunt instruments. A month later, he secures two more bills, one protecting teenage girls from forced marriages to older, abusive men and another that forbids striking any woman older than 50. Those last two bills alone will protect an estimated 20,000 women. He signs all three incremental bills and vows to do more.

Caleb governs a state where attempts to ban wife-beating have similarly failed. The state legislature scrapes together just enough votes to send Caleb identical legislation to that signed by Abraham. Caleb swiftly vetoes it on grounds that incremental legislation that regulates when, where, and how men may beat their wives is sinfully motivated and consents to the abuse of those women left unprotected.

Which governor did the right thing?

According to abolitionists, only Caleb. But the abolitionist claims are flawed and unfairly represent pro-life efforts to limit the evil of abortion.

1. Pro-life advocates and abolitionists agree on principle—We should protect all unborn humans.

They disagree on practice when you cannot immediately do that. For the pro-life advocate, there are two ways to practice war. If you have superior forces, you quickly crush the opposition and enforce political victory. If you do not, you fight a war of attrition, wearing the enemy out by constantly chipping away at his strongholds. When one falls, you come back for more. You never quit. From 1974 to 1983, pro-lifers advanced several human life amendments and human life bills, hoping to gain a quick and decisive victory for all unborn humans. When those efforts failed, pro-lifers began practicing a second strategy aimed at limiting the evil of abortion insofar as possible given current political realities. While not abandoning our principle of total protection for all unborn humans, we practiced incrementalism to save as many lives as we could along the way. Abolitionists insist that pro-life advocates employ a sinful means (incremental legislation) to achieve a good end (saving children). But the abolitionist claim is question-begging since the debate over incrementalism is precisely about whether compromising legislatively equals compromising morally.

2. The abolitionist claim that incrementalism is wrong in principle raises troubling questions.

Abolitionists insist that incremental laws are a sinful rejection of God’s sovereignty and legitimize murder. However, if incremental pro-life laws are inherently sinful, which incremental laws currently in force do abolitionists wish to repeal right now? Incremental laws save lives. For example, the Charlotte Lozier Institute estimates that the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal and state matching Medicaid funds for most abortions, alone saves 60,000 lives a year (2,409,311 total since 1976). Should we let those children die in exchange for abolitionist purity? This is a problematic question for abolitionists and one they’ve dodged in public debates with pro-life advocates. Incremental laws make it tougher to operate abortion clinics, forcing some to close. That’s why Planned Parenthood fights these laws tooth and nail. If a bill was introduced banning all abortions but did not address lives lost to IVF procedures, would abolitionists support it?

3. Pragmatic doesn’t always mean evil.

True, it could be evil if I justify wrongdoing with an appeal to pragmatism, like Governor Bob. Bob is not opposing evil. Instead, he is formally cooperating with it. He wants exceptions and intends to enshrine them as permanent law. But “pragmatic” can also mean prudent. Consider Abraham. He lacks the votes to ban abuse outright (his true intention), but has them to protect teenage girls and women older than 50. If he doesn’t sign the bill, 20,000 women go to sleep that night unprotected. So, he signs the bill and pushes for more, as everyone around him—including his political enemies—knows he will do. Unlike Bob, Abraham’s overriding concern is not the justification of (or surrender to) an immoral principle, but the limiting of evil as far as possible given current political restraints. He’s still in the fight for good, doing all that can be done to save as many women as possible.

Put simply, if by pragmatist you mean Abraham, I guess you could say pro-lifers are pragmatists. They refuse to let children die who can be saved with incremental legislation. Abolitionists, meanwhile, trade lives for the alleged purity of their principles. They are willing to sacrifice children whose lives could be saved today in hopes of securing an ideal future in which all children are protected. Steve Hays sums it up well: “Abolition can only succeed on the backs of babies it relegates to the grave in the short term.”

4. Pro-life advocates are not consenting to the killing of unborn humans left unprotected by incremental legislation.

Suppose I’m a prisoner of war captured by a ruthless enemy. My captors take me and hundreds of my men on an 86-mile death march where those falling behind are promptly shot. As the ranking officer, I secure a concession from my captors that allows exhausted soldiers a 20-minute reprieve to recover and get moving before they are shot. My fellow officers join me running up and down the line saving as many men as we can. As a result, 400 men who fell behind resumed the march and after the war returned home to their families. Tragically, 500 others could not resume the march and were shot.

By saving some, did I consent to the killing of those left behind? Of course not! Nor was I consenting to the legitimacy of the death march. When I secured the concession from my captors, I did not say, “Give me 20 minutes, then you can kill the wounded soldier.” I gave no such consent! Rather, given the wicked hand I was dealt, I limited the evil done as far as possible given the realities confronting me. Unlike Governor Bob who had the power to stop evil but didn’t, I was forced to operate from a position of weakness. I didn’t choose the lesser of two evils. Rather, as Kevin James Bywater clarifies, I chose to lessen evil. True, the situation was evil, but not because I secured a concession from my captors. It was evil because my captors forced upon me a cruel reality: keep my men moving or watch them die. Given the situation, it is not evil to save those you can.

5. Abolitionists wrongly assume that pro-life advocates have the power to stop abortion but simply won’t.

This is fantasy. Like Governor Abraham, pro-lifers have no such power. The federal courts have declared that no unborn humans have a right to life. Given that judicial reality, pro-lifers can’t wave a magic wand and make abortion go away. Abolitionists reply that laws permitting abortion are null and void and that pro-lifers who work to limit their evil impact wrongly cede to Caesar the ultimate authority to dictate from on high who lives and who dies. But as Steve Hays points out, the objection confuses moral authority with legal authority. Biblically understood, God is indeed the ultimate moral authority who will righteously judge all humans. Genuine Christians recognize and acknowledge that truth. However, to abolish abortion in a constitutional republic like ours, pro-lifers need legal authority, which they do not yet have in sufficient measure to protect all children. In short, declaring that abortion-permitting laws are null and void does not make them null and void. Given pro-lifers lack legal authority to save all children, it’s not evil for them to protect as many as they can.

6. We are all incrementalists, including abolitionists.

When abolitionists introduce a total ban on abortion in one state but not all of them, they are working incrementally. They are practicing what one writer calls “local political incrementalism.” In doing so, they are not saying, “We consent to killing the baby in those other states where we did not introduce a bill.” As long as there remains a political union between states that protect life and those that don’t, pro-lifers have no choice but to function incrementally, in this case, state by state.

We can’t help but function incrementally when confronting evil. It was right to end slavery in 1865 even though legally sanctioned segregation was not abolished for another 100 years. Even if we ban abortion, we still have the evil of discarded IVF embryos to contend with, not to mention other reproductive technologies that treat children as commodities.

Then What?

How would an abolitionist strategy play out in the real world? Have abolitionists prudently considered the implications of their views?

Pro-lifers are hopeful the Supreme Court will strike a fatal blow against two cases that enshrined the abortion license, Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Mississippi case it will hear on December 1 represents our best chance for that outcome. If Roe and Casey fall, abortion will no longer be a constitutional right at the federal level. Individual states can then set their own abortion policies. Without that incremental win, attempts to abolish abortion in any given state are dead on arrival.

Here’s why. Suppose that Roe and Casey survive challenge. Nevertheless, a state defies the federal courts and signs into law an abolitionist bill banning all abortions, without exceptions. What then? As more than one pro-life leader points out, a move like that is akin to secession. Don’t expect the federal government to look away. For millions of Americans, abortion is a sacrament that cannot be challenged. As happened with civil-rights integration in the 1950s and 1960s, troops will be sent in to enforce federal law. Abortion clinics will remain open. Then what?

Pro-lifers and abolitionists share two things in common. First, they agree in principle that every unborn human deserves the protection of law and we must not rest until that happens. Second, both are forced to function incrementally. Given that shared reality, there’s room for candid discussions about tactics and strategies. If abolitionists want to join that conversation in good faith, they are welcome.

This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition and is used with permission of the author.

Photo by Tessa Rampersad on Unsplash