Is incrementalism the right strategy to end abortion?

The Modern Abortion Abolitionists

An MSNBC feature on AHA co-founder Toby Harmon came from a left-leaning slant, but did not expose the “fanaticism” the reporter was looking for.

In my previous article, I described how I spent a week in a timeshare in New Orleans while attending Operation Save America’s National Event with Abolish Human Abortion (AHA) founders T. Russell Hunter and Toby Harmon. AHA sees itself as a movement and not an organization. They do not have members or affiliates. They strongly advocate non-violent, peaceful resistance to abortion. Groups that brandish the AHA logo understand that there is a philosophy behind the Abolitionist cause. There is also a certain amount of baggage as there is with any ministry that fights abortion aggressively. This infamy tends to weed out the pro-lifers who like AHA’s graphics and slogans, but cannot go the whole way and adopt their ideology and tactics.

Map of AHA Societies throughout the Unties States. Click to view an interactive map with contact information.

There are about 70 Abortion Abolitionist Societies throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and England. Do not call them “pro-life” or an “organization” or they will immediately correct you. Although the theology of the group cuts across a wide swath of the evangelical spectrum, they tend to be covenantal in their thinking and not pietists.

Abortion Abolition Society leaders from Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Florida and England in a late night discussion

What I noticed while fellowshipping with several of the Abortion Abolitionist Society leaders last July is that they tend to be rigorously consistent in matching their theology with their activism, which is a trait absent in many pro-life groups. They also tend to be young, intelligent and highly committed to the cause of Abortion Abolition.

There is among them a duality of personalities. They tend to either be movement leaders or serious theological-philosophical scholars. The movement mentality tends to be very different from the scholar mentality. For the movement leader, everyone should either be for the cause or against it. You are either hot or cold. Those who accept some ideas, but not all, are compromisers. Jesus was a movement leader. So were the Apostles Peter, James and John.

The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, had the ability to live in the Gentile world as a Jew. He was called to write scholarly treatises on the faith, not in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, but explaining them to the world in a way that some of the Jewish Apostles could not initially grasp. Similarly, Luther and Calvin had a movement mentality. You were either for the Reformation or you were against it. A scholar like Erasmus who wanted to accept some aspects but not others was demonized.

Movement leaders set things in motion and then the scholars systematize, critique and solve the problems that arise within the movement. T. Russell Hunter is that rare combination of both. He’s a charismatic leader and a student of history. I therefore see great promise in the Abortion Abolitionist movement. Among these leaders there is a precision of rhetoric and a gifting for branding and marketing the message through social media. This has been effective in reaching and converting younger generation leaders to the abolitionist call.

Abolitionist Society leaders teamed up with Operation Save America in July 2014 at an outreach to the Louisiana State University Campus.

As a student of the effort to end abortion over the past 25 years, I am critical of a few of AHA’s tactics and stances. However, I consider the vast majority of their Christian theology, strategy and practical logistics to be sound and biblically based. The strategy to boldly state that we want to end abortion at the outset and settle for no moral compromise is correct. I believe that some initial problems created by their penchant for polemic posturing will be corrected in time. Some attacks by outsiders are based straw man arguments – stating that “Abolitionists believe or practice this or that …” when they deny it. Other attacks are based on outright lies.

I found it interesting to watch an MSNBC feature on Toby Harmon. The reporter for the left-leaning news network stated that she was expecting to find wide-eyed fanatics in the Bible Belt leading a protest. Instead she found reasonable, intelligent young men and women trying to dialog with high school students.

More importantly, the Abortion Abolitionist movement is evidence of a paradigm shift in the pro-life movement back to the original view that abortion must be abolished – not with a pragmatic, political, social or economic argument – but on the call to embrace the sacred Truth that we are each image bearers of God and the call to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Slavery and Abortion: A Comparison

The comparison between slavery and abortion is not a new concept, but it has been developed in the last few years with the reemergence of William Wilberforce as a popular figure in the modern evangelical culture. When we look at the arguments used by pro-slavery advocates in Wilberforce’s day, there is an eerie similarity to that of the pro-abortionists.

Two hundred years ago, those hoping to maintain the institution of slavery liked to argue that slaves living free in Africa were subject to violence, famine and sickness and were better off as slaves on a New World plantation. Today, those arguing to maintain abortion rights like to argue that it is better for a fetus to be aborted than to be born into a family who will abuse the child.

British legislators in the time of Wilberforce worried that if Great Britain abolished the slave trade, it would be taken up with vigor by France, Spain and Holland. American pro-abortion advocates argue that if abortion is banned, poor women will still seek illegal abortions and rich and middle class women will simply travel to places where abortion is legal.

Slavery advocates trumped up fears of uprisings, massacres and rebellions led by freed slaves. Pro-aborts like to argue that thousands or even millions of women will die of illegal abortion if it is outlawed.

Slavery was often defended as a “necessary evil” that was profitable for commerce and to support the British economy. Abortion is often defended because women who cannot afford a child will have to sacrifice their income, education and career. Therefore abortion is necessary to support their private economy and by extension helps the national economy.

Slavery defenders claimed that slaves were treated humanely. Slavery abolitionists showed photos and sketches and published narratives to show slaves were treated harshly. Abortion providers tell patients that their preborn children are only cells or “potential life.” Abortion Abolitionists show photos of perfectly formed preborn children killed through abortion and the grotesque horror done to them.

Abolitionists were called dangerous religious fanatics and told to keep their moral and religious beliefs to themselves. Those fighting abortion today are portrayed by the liberal media as dangerous fanatics.

Every generation has its moral evil. Every generation has an abolitionist movement to oppose the evil.

Incrementalism vs. Immediatism: Who is right?

The most interesting comparison between slavery and abortion, however, is a current controversy within the sanctity of life movement itself. As it was 200 years ago, there are those within pro-life groups such as Americans United for Life and National Right to Life whose policy in the past 20 years has been to only advocate bills that are incremental in nature and to include rape and incest exceptions in hopes of avoiding a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade until the Supreme Court bench is “stacked” with conservative justices and it can be effectively overturned. Then there are those within the Personhood movement and the Abortion Abolitionist movement who advocate first recognizing that all human beings are Persons from conception with the right to life because they are created in the image of God.

Both sides of the debate agree that William Wilberforce is a model. There is no question that the abolition of slavery serves as a model for an effective model to end abortion. However, even though Clarke Forsythe wants to give Wilberforce the credit for being the moral center of the debate to abolish the slavery in the 19th century, he faults him for being a moral crusader who focused his efforts throughout his lifetime on being the president of “no less than 69 societies” dedicated to social reformation. In other words, Forsythe criticizes Wilberforce’s moral absolutism in treating many social issues, when he should have been a practical incrementalist centered on one issue – ending the slave trade.

At the height of Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish the slave trade, he published the first of only three books he wrote in his lifetime, A Practical View of Christianity. This took to task the false, dead Christianity of many within the Church of England and other denominations as not being true to a lifestyle renewed by faith in Jesus Christ. Wilberforce methodically covers a variety of topics that apply to everyday life. Far from being a preachy polemic against society’s ills, he takes the time to reason with the reader, leaving them with arguments, according to one reviewer, that are “intelligent and well reasoned, make perfect sense and cause the reader to wonder how it is that they hadn’t thought of it before.”

Wilberforce also understood that the moral atrocity of slavery was allowed to continue not due to the ungodliness of the slave holders, but due to the inaction of Christians. According to Wilberforce, the source of all of society’s ills was the Church failing to preach and practice authentic Christianity. Wilberforce understood that without the engine of revival in the Church, no reformation of society will ever take place.

In Politics for the Greatest God, Forsythe argues that Wiberforce’s wider focus on anything other than the slave trade was a “weakness” and a “personality trait that may have actually distracted him.” This attitude represents in a microcosm the error of the pro-life movement. While it is true that students of history bring their own filters and read their own experience to interpreting what motivated a great figure, it is much more likely than an evangelical Christian who has had a born-again experience can interpret the intents and purposes of a man who was impacted by the First Great Awakening. Thankfully, William Wilberforce was more than a lawyer working for an anti-slavery organization dedicated to using a natural law argument to convince the Parliament to incrementally do away with a human atrocity. He was a voice calling for repentance with the zeal of a Gospel preacher, while using a Divine eloquence and empathy toward his hearers.

Clarke Forsythe is a non-Catholic using Roman Catholic nomenclature regarding the “virtue of prudence.” As an advisor to the American Catholic bishops, he is largely responsible for the bishop’s opposition to Personhood in many states – even though the official position of the Vatican is for Personhood. Judie Brown, the president of American Life League, wrote the following rebuttal using a more Gospel-centered argument.

With all due respect to Forsythe and his colleagues, it is my fervent belief that the pro-life movement is at a critical crossroads. It is imperative for each of us, upon examining our own attitudes and praying for guidance, to choose God’s way and stay the course; regardless of the barbs, the public insults and the efforts to undo what we are putting together in the various states and at the federal level in our quest for human personhood.

We are not at war against legal positivists and secular humanists; we are engaged in a battle with evil. Forsythe concludes by saying, “There are other goals that are more important — and more achievable in the current environment — than an illusory test case to ‘challenge Roe’ based on questions that the current justices simply aren’t asking.”

Contrary to that view, I would argue that it is not wise for us to base our efforts on paying attention to the “questions that the current justices” are asking, but rather to make absolutely certain we are faithful to God in our public witness to the questions He will be asking when we face Him, as each of us surely will, at the judgment.

Judie Brown hits the nail on the head. Our strategy isn’t primarily legal or political, but spiritual. Indeed the goal of Personhood is often thought of as a legal strategy to challenge Roe. In reality, the leaders of Personhood believe that due to our petitioning and education efforts the culture will be so changed in time that Roe will be ignored, and the right to life will be recognized for all human beings, much the same way that Americans ignored the Dred Scott case that declared a black slave to be a non-citizen without the right to liberty. This can only occur as we change the culture.

Much in the same way that Wilberforce failed by bringing the same Slave Trade Act year after year, it was the debate in British Parliament spilling over into the popular culture that eventually changed public opinion in England. In the same way, debate over Personhood is bringing the debate over when life begins into the culture. So the number one goal of Personhood is education. We don’t educate by debating a woman’s right to privacy or whether abortion clinics should be safer for women. We put the focus squarely on the imago Dei, the biblical truth that all human beings are created image of God. We are endowed with the right to life from conception, not because Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution gives us this right, but because God himself declared it as a creation ordinance.

The reason Wilberforce prevailed is because he fought with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Only the Gospel preached in power – as it was in Whitefield’s and Wesley’s day – can change the heart of our nation and restore our culture to Godliness. This is the reason why it has always been the church that is at the head of social reform movements that bring about greater morality in society.

The Present Crisis

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

– James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis”

When the “fireside poet,” James Russell Lowell, penned these words in the 19th century, the “present crisis” was the institution of slavery. If 21st century Christians are truly concerned about the present crisis confronting America, we must set about to restore our nation with the same evangelical zeal. This includes rescuing babies, but the strategy is to preach the whole truth of the Word of God.

The call to national repentance is what fueled the abolitionist movement. Practical steps in the forms of laws and amendments followed, first the spiritual temperature of the culture was intensified by the Gospel. The same was true of the Civil Rights movement over 150 years later when Martin Luther King outlined this call with great eloquence in his Letter From Birmingham Jail.

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.

Lawyers and politicians are those who barter with money and power. The job of a lawyer is often to defend a position that he knows is not true. The work of a politician is often to compromise principle in order to gain a pragmatic foothold upon which to climb. The job of a Christian Reformer is to call the nation to repentance and to agitate the consciences of individuals in order to force them to confront a moral evil that they would otherwise deny.

In the time of Basil of Caesarea, the Christians had the majority in fifth century Rome, but abortion and infanticide was allowed to continue in the pagan backwater districts. The collagen of aborted infants was even used a cosmetic among Egyptian merchants and brought a high price. St. Basil used a program of agitation, education and political activism to bring an end to abortion and infanticide in the Roman Empire – and as a result abortion remained a criminal offense for over 1400 years in all parts of Europe.

It is a historical fact that social evils – abortion, infanticide, racial genocide and slavery – have been brought to an end when Christians have agitated, educated and lobbied for political change and legal relief. But the culture always changes first as it is leavened by the Gospel and then laws and politics follow.

Definitions: Amelioration, Incrementalism and Immediatism

There is a debate going on within the pro-life movement over the morality of incrementalist or immediatist efforts and which is the more effective strategy.

Abolitionists are often accused of advocating an “all or nothing” strategy. Therefore, it is thought that abolitionists do not seek to save lives any way they can even while calling for a total abolition of abortion. According to T. Russell Hunter, this is a strawman since abolitionists teach that 50 percent of their work ought to be assistive or “ameliorative” in nature. The “all or nothing” accusation is meant to deflect from the contradiction of stating that life begins at conception while advocating measures that allow for the killing of some preborn children and attacking those that are principled on the truth of the imago Dei.

Incrementalists are often accused of compromise if they phrase a step-by-step approach to eliminating abolition as a strategy. The reality is that some incremental tactics are moral if they don’t explicitly allow for some human beings to be killed while trying to end abortion. Other incrementalist strategies are compromised.

Unfortunately, the debate is often muddled because there is confusion is over the terms, amelioration, incrementalism and immediatism.

Amelioration is simply the act of making something better or an improvement to the human condition. Amelioration is not necessarily a compromise with evil. In the time of slavery, amelioration efforts were those that tried to ease the suffering of slaves while slavery was still legal. Likewise, we can work to make the conditions better in a society that condones abortion on demand. Crisis pregnancy centers and sidewalk counseling offer assistance to women seeking abortion. These attempts are ameliorative. In and of themselves, they can never end the abortion holocaust, but they are good attempts to make a pregnant woman’s situation better and in turn save some lives today.

Incrementalism is the strategy of working to abolish abortion little by little. It is what Wilberforce called gradual abolition. In terms of the fight against abortion, we use the term incrementalism to speak of restrictions on abortion or regulations on clinics. Incrementalism can be either compromised or moral.

Compromised incrementalism includes any law that identifies a class of human life we may kill while identifying a class of human life we may not kill. An example of this would include rape and incest exceptions. Compromised laws include those abortion clinic regulations that begin with the language, “A physician performing or inducing and abortion must …” In the end, compromised incrementalism undermines the sanctity of life argument by including exception for who we may murder.

In my opinion, this is a difficult area to discern whenever we consider implications over objective wording and explicit legal intent. For instance, a 20-week abortion ban does not explicitly state that 19 week-old preborn children may be killed. The law does not say, “Make sure the gestational age is under 20 weeks and then you can kill the baby.” To claim that the law says this is to use an argument from silence, which is a logical fallacy. The difficulty here is not the wording or the moral intent. The problem is that many of these measures are probably a waste of time in the effort to end abortion. That is, we will never end abortion by taking baby steps. One law advocates parental consent. Another law puts restrictions on partial birth abortion. Although some might consider these laws moral, we have to consider if they are effective. Do they simply reinforce the goal of “safe, legal and rare” abortion in the culture at large?

Moral incrementalism might include measures such as defunding Planned Parenthood or advocating bills that would recognize the Personhood of the preborn in cases not directly related to abortion. Moral incrementalism would also include a state-by-state approach in ending abortion.

Another factor to consider when determining if a bill is compromised or moral is the language itself. A parental notification law that would require minors to get parental permission before killing a preborn child is different than a law that require all minors to get parental consent before having any medical procedure in general with no exceptions. The effect of both of these laws is identical in intent. Both may have the effect of curbing some abortions. However, the difference in the second case is that we are not codifying with legal language a class of human beings that we may murder with impunity. The same principle can be applied to a law encouraging or requiring all pregnant women to undergo an ultrasound or a law requiring surgeons at all out-patient clinics to have hospital privileges. These laws can never end abortion, but they might morally ameloriate the problem by saving some lives.

Having said that, I am not naïve and realize that even within the Personhood and Abortion Abolitionist movements there is going to be disagreement over what is moral and what is compromised. Further, there will be even greater disagreement on what will be effective and what will be counter-productive. To discern the difference will often take the wisdom of Solomon.

Immediatism is the strategy of calling for the end to a moral atrocity – a crime that murders or diminishes the dignity of an image bearer of God. Immediatism may take various forms, but it is really just one strategy – which is the Church taking to the highways and byways a call to compel all people to repent and to come into the kingdom of God. In every generation, there is one sin or social evil that exemplifies mankind’s rebellion toward God and denies that we are made in the image of God. In our generation, the most prominent example of that is abortion.

It is a strawman argument to say that some pro-life advocates want “compromised incrementalism” merely because the measures they support cannot end all abortion. It is also a strawman argument to say that some Abortion Abolitionists are “absolutists” meaning that they want an all or nothing approach and will refuse to save some lives unless they can save them all.

It is hoped that the goals and efforts of the Abortion Abolitionist movement will be better understood by the incrementalists who oppose the idea of immediatism. Abolitionists use other tactics in the short term to save lives and call individuals to repentance. The goal is national repentance, but it begins with individuals. It is also hoped that Abolitionists will realize that many pro-life Christians are in sync with the theology and practice of Abortion Abolition and have been since the time of Basil of Caesarea, event though they may not choose to use the label “Abortion Abolitionist” or identify themselves with the growing numbers of Abortion Abolitionist Societies.

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