There has been a lot of conversation recently in Southern Baptist circles and beyond about the right way to fight against abortion. Perhaps you’ve heard about the debate over incrementalism or abolition. Essentially, those views represent two different camps within the broader movement of pro-life Christians seeking to end abortion. But before I dive into the specifics of each view, I wanted to say at the outset that both camps are comprised of faithful brothers and sisters who all share the same fundamental goal. In fact, even this current conversation about the way forward for the pro-life movement further reflects that the movement itself is a broad, diverse, and expanding coalition fueled by a passion to protect the unborn.
The first thing to say about the abolitionist camp is that they are laser focused on the goal of ending abortion. And because of that commitment, abolitionists dedicate their time and energy to calling for the immediate end of abortion. Through their activism and advocacy, they support legislation — focusing largely on bills in state legislatures — that would immediately outlaw abortion if passed and signed into law.
Additionally, abolitionists tend to oppose efforts to restrict abortion that fall short of abolition. And while they may do so for many reasons, a common refrain from abolitionists is that they cannot support laws that allow any lives to be legally aborted. Though I do not consider myself to be an abolitionist (for reasons I set forth below), I think their fierce advocacy in opposition to abortion plays a critical role in keeping the heinous and grievous nature of abortion before the eyes of the American public.
In a sense, the incrementalism label is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not aware of a single person in the incrementalism camp (of which I consider myself a part), who would not desire or support the immediate eradication of elective abortion. Incrementalism doesn’t mean that one supports the slow destruction of abortion. Instead, it means that one embraces a comprehensive approach to ending abortion — one that leaves every tool and resource on the table to advance the fight for life.
At root, I consider myself an incrementalist for one simple reason: I will support almost any measure designed to save the lives of unborn children. As a Christian, I believe that every life is sacred and precious because every single human being is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). And as an image-bearer, every person deserves to be treated with honor, dignity, and respect. That certainly means that every human being has a natural right to life. Though I don’t love the label, I’m an incrementalist because I will support a whole range of efforts to save more unborn lives — up to and including the total abolition of abortion.
Another reason I’m in the incrementalist camp is that I believe abolitionism is morally right but practically wrong. I stand alongside every person in the pro-life movement in opposing the Supreme Court’s wicked and devastating decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in all 50 states. More than that, I lament and oppose every legal effort to further protect or establish abortion in the United States. But despite my opposition to these things, I recognize that short of civil war — which no one is advocating — the only legitimate remedy to the status quo is through our legal system.
I respect the moral correctness of attempting to pass state laws to abolish abortion. But at present, if any state were to pass such legislation the federal court system would simply strike down that law as unconstitutional. And in effect, passing such a bill simply maintains the status quo. (I know some within the abolitionist camp predict more successful outcomes such as a cascade of states refusing to submit to the will of federal courts, but I am wholly unpersuaded that such scenarios represent even a remote possibility).
Instead, I’m convinced that the best way forward is to gain every inch of ground we can. This is the long-held strategy of the pro-life movement. And it is working. That strategy includes things like heartbeat bills, partial-birth abortion bans, pain-capable bills, informed consent laws, waiting periods, and more. Each of these are tools the pro-life movement has employed to save the lives of the unborn.
As Joe Carter has written, “Since Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973 the [abolitionists] have made absolutely no progress, while the incrementalists have helped to save the lives of thousands of children. Over the past 45 years, incrementalists have helped to pass hundreds of laws restricting abortion, including 45 in 2018.” The fact is, there are men and women alive today — attending school, raising children, following Jesus — who wouldn’t be here apart from these “incremental” laws. Moreover, with a still freshly-minted conservative majority on the Supreme Court, it is possible that one of these incremental state laws may lead to the weakening or reversal of the Court’s dreaded Roe decision.
Supporting incremental measures to reduce abortion isn’t choosing a morally compromised strategy over one that is morally pure. Rather, it is about choosing not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. It is reprehensible that the abortion regime remains firmly ensconced in America’s legal and cultural fabric. And because it is, I continue to have a deep respect for those who are committed to seeing the immediate destruction of abortion in America. But even so, I remain convinced that the best and most serious effort to reach that goal is found in the comprehensive strategy of incrementalism that seeks to take every step possible to end the culture of death and secure for us a pro-life future.