Working Toward the End of Abortion
A Pro-Life Response to Abolitionism’s Critiques
For 42 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has maintained a consistent position on the question of abortion: Human life begins at conception. From that moment, every human being is made in the image of God, and the life of every human being is sacred. From the earliest moments of human existence, God has clearly and consistently taught people that it is wrong—grievously wrong—to take the life of any other person without compelling and just cause.
For these reasons, Southern Baptists have passed more than 20 resolutions across four decades opposing abortion and working toward the abolition of abortion.
The commitment to that undergirding principle of the sacredness of human life and the wrongness of murder is clear and consistent in the Bible. In the case law of the Torah, however, the application of that principle to specific circumstances reveals greater complexity regarding appropriate punishment and regarding the recognition of exceptions and of mitigating circumstances. People who share the same underlying principles can sometimes see differently how to apply them in law.
Pro-life, pro-choice, and the abortion abolition movement
Since the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade purporting to have found a constitutional right to abortion in “emanations” and “penumbras” of the actual text of the Constitution, two groups have emerged within our society. The Southern Baptist Convention has overwhelmingly sided with the group that calls itself “pro-life.” Standing in opposition to us has been a group that calls itself “pro-choice.”
For nearly 50 years, people who have taken a stand for life have weathered numerous accusations from the pro-choice movement. They say that we only care about babies before they are born, although Evangelical Christians are among the most generous people in society in funding charities to help families who face poverty or other challenges. They say that we just want to exercise patriarchal control over women’s bodies, although the majority of the babies whose bodies they want to control and destroy through abortion are women.
It is only in the most recent years that people who have taken a stand for life find that they are the targets of slanderous attacks not only from adherents of the pro-choice movement but also from people who share the pro-life movement’s commitment to the abolition of abortion. These attacks have arisen from a group that rejects the pro-life label and instead styles themselves the “Abortion Abolition” movement.
Proponents of both the pro-life movement and the abortion abolition movement affirm in common the same underlying principles: that life begins at conception, life is sacred, abortion is a wrongful taking of life, abortion should be abolished, and the law should make abortion a criminal act. It may mystify many people to discover that two groups who share those beliefs in common could come to have a volatile relationship with one another.
Answering questions of contention
Below, I will explore several questions that have emerged as points of contention between pro-life Southern Baptists and the abortion abolition movement. I will examine relevant biblical texts, explore commonalities and differences between the two movements, discuss why cooperation may be threatened by those differences and whether it should be, and explain why I affirm the traditional pro-life position on each question.
1. Should abortion laws contain an exception for cases where the life of the mother is in imminent danger and the baby cannot be rescued?
Of course, they should. If the baby cannot yet live outside the mother’s womb and the mother dies, the baby is also going to die. When society faces a choice between two deaths or one, we should choose to save the only life that we can save. Although I have yet to encounter a Southern Baptist whose position is, “OK, just let them both die, then!” some abolitionist laws have avoided the necessary exclusions, and some Southern Baptists have opposed them for a variety of other spurious reasons.
Some presume to mandate medical procedures that do not exist in the present state of medical technology. A proposed bill in Ohio (HB 413, introduced in 2019) required physicians removing an ectopic pregnancy to “[attempt] to reimplant an ectopic pregnancy into the woman’s uterus” (line 5377-5388 of the bill as introduced).1Ohio State Legislature, “As Introduced, H.B. No. 413,” https://search- prod.lis.state.oh.us/solarapi/v1/general_assembly_133/bills/hb413/IN/00?format=pdf, Line 5377. It is, at present, impossible to reimplant any baby. We are designed to initiate the implantation process once, just days after we were conceived. Having done so, we cannot do it again.
Ectopic pregnancies involve babies who have already undergone that implantation process and have changed and grown significantly past that stage of development. Skeptics may cite two unsubstantiated reports of successful embryo transfers, one from 1917 and the other from 1999, but no studies were performed to verify that the babies eventually delivered were the same as the babies involved in the ectopic pregnancy, and no one has been able to repeat these purported cases of successful embryonic reimplantation. This would be a welcome and life-changing technology should it be developed, and we should pray for the day when it becomes viable, but we cannot base our laws upon medical treatments that do not exist.
Others say that the procedure to take an ectopic baby’s life to save the life of the mother is not abortion. Those who repeat that claim are indeed factually representing the state of the law under pro-life (rather than abolitionist) legislation. That is an important fact to note, because pro-choice activists will falsely claim that pro-life legislation prevents saving the life of a mother with an ectopic pregnancy. As the Heritage Foundation’s Emma Waters explained in her online article “It’s Time to Set Record Straight on Ectopic Pregnancies and Abortion”: Pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg attaches to the lining of a woman’s uterus. In an ectopic pregnancy, the egg implants outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tube.2Emma Waters, “It’s Time to Set Record Straight on Ectopic Pregnancies and Abortion,” The Heritage Foundation, https://www.heritage.org/life/commentary/its-time-set-record-straight-ectopic-pregnancies-and-abortion.
The key phrase is the first one. Waters is saying that taking the life of the ectopic baby is not abortion because “pregnancy begins” at implantation into the uterus. But an abolitionist bill in Louisiana explicitly sought to change that definition of when pregnancy begins. Louisiana law already makes abortion illegal. HB813, introduced earlier this year, sought to remove all language about implantation from Louisiana’s existing laws.3Louisiana State Legislature, “Original, H.B. No. 813,” https://legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1259299, 2. If abolitionists had succeeded in passing this law as they had written it, the definition of abortion in Louisiana would have included procedures to take the life of ectopic babies.
The rationale behind removing language about implantation is likely motivated by a sincere and noble purpose—to address the rising role of medical abortion (contrasted with surgical abortion) and to ban “morning after” pills in abortion legislation. The unacceptable result of the Louisiana law was to remove an important protection for those who save the lives of women who face the tragedy of an ectopic pregnancy. Such repercussions must be considered in the course of responsible lawmaking.
One final line of argumentation denies that any such thing exists as a case where the life of the mother is in imminent danger and the baby cannot be rescued. Prominent Southern Baptist abortion abolitionist Bill Ascol stated in a Jan. 21, 2020, sermon to his church in Owasso, Oklahoma, “Abolition bills do not contain any exception for abortion. Arguments of . . . the life of the mother—those are very sentimental arguments, emotional arguments, but they’re specious arguments, because we have technology today that can address every one of those things.”4Bill Ascol, “Sanctity of Life Sunday,” Owasso, OK: Bethel Baptist Church, 19 January 2020, starting at 20:00.
Ascol’s speculation notwithstanding, pregnancy can and does threaten the lives of pregnant women sometimes. Such situations are rare with healthy mothers, but not every woman who becomes pregnant is healthy, and a pregnancy can imminently threaten her life before fetal viability. Also, around 2% of all pregnancies result in an ectopic pregnancy, and even in a legal regime in which doctors are free to take the ectopic baby’s life to save the mother, ectopic pregnancies still are the leading cause of maternal death in the first trimester of pregnancy. This represents fewer than 5 out of every 1,000 pregnancies, but without treatment to prevent the death of the mother, that number would rise precipitously.5Poonam Rana et al, “Ectopic Pregnancy: A Review,” Archive of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 21 June 2013, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23793551/; J Schneider et al, “Maternal Mortality due to Ectopic Pregnancy: A Review of 102 Deaths,” Obstetrics & Gynecology, May 1977, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/850569/. Life-threatening situations do sometimes arise during pregnancy, and the right approach is to make exceptions for those situations in the law.
2. Are women who get an abortion victims?
Of course they are. Southern Baptists have said so consistently for decades. Prominent pro-life organizations have consistently held this position.
I agree with the preacher who said in a sermon, “Women are pressured by the men who impregnated them to get abortions. Women are pressured by their families to get abortions. They are pressured by the stigma that they think will come to them to get an abortion. . . . They are . . . victims, and . . . scripture speaks to that.”6Ascol, starting at 26:30.
Also, women are victims of a decades-long campaign by organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL to lie to them about the biological development of babies in the womb and to depict before them a parade of horribles that will allegedly follow the end of legal abortion.
3. Are women who get an abortion culpable in the abortion?
Of course they are. In public sermons, private pastoral counsel, and national resolutions, Southern Baptists have said that “the gospel of Jesus Christ grants complete forgiveness for any sin, including that of abortion.” Our preaching of forgiveness for abortion is an ongoing affirmation of the fact that women who consent to an abortion are morally and spiritually culpable for abortion.
4. Should abortion laws mandate the prosecution of women who seek or obtain an abortion?
I think not. I think it is unjust, unnecessary, and unwise to include in abortion laws the prosecution of women who seek or obtain an abortion.
I believe it is unjust because the woman obtaining the abortion is not the murderer. Think of it this way: What is the murder weapon? It’s a set of surgical tools, right? Who operated the murder weapon? The abortionist did. The abortionist is the murderer, and any law banning abortion should identify the abortionist uniquely as such.
But didn’t this essay just declare the woman to be morally and spiritually culpable in abortion? If so, why should abortion laws not hold them legally culpable? Surely there is some prosecutable role that the woman plays? Is she guilty of murder-for-hire? It depends. Often the woman is not the person paying for the abortion. Sometimes it is the father of the baby. Sometimes it is her father. Sometimes it is you and I and other American citizens paying for the abortion by way of our taxes.
Is she guilty of soliciting the abortion? It depends. Was she coerced? Pro-life advocates like Lila Rose and David Daleiden have filmed Planned Parenthood workers arranging to provide abortion services to what they thought were pimps who wanted to secure abortions for sex-trafficked girls. How often does this happen? The post-Dobbs world is a new one. We’ve all seen the “Shout Your Abortion” women on YouTube videos who brazenly obtain and celebrate abortions. The preponderance of women like that are going to travel for abortions to jurisdictions where abortion is still legal.
As a result, the women subject to prosecution by laws banning abortions are going to be the women who cannot travel to a different jurisdiction. The percentage of those women who are coerced is going to be higher than it was pre-Dobbs. So, what is the legal culpability of the woman? That can be a difficult question to answer.
Here’s a question that is never difficult to answer: What is the legal culpability of the abortionist? Prosecute the abortionist. That’s always the just thing to do.
But what about that “Shout Your Abortion” activist? Is there no legal recourse for differentiating between her and a frightened teenager or a victim of sex-trafficking? I think it is unnecessary to single out women for prosecution in laws banning abortion because most states already have criminal conspiracy laws on the books. If performing an abortion is a crime, and if the abortionist is held guilty by the law, it is likely possible under existing law to prosecute any obviously and egregiously culpable woman for criminal solicitation or criminal conspiracy.
The state would bear the burden of proving not merely that the woman had an abortion performed upon her but also that she actively conspired with the abortionist in the commission of that crime. This is a more just situation than placing the burden upon the woman to prove some affirmative defense against a murder charge related to abortion. Let abortion abolitionists seek to prosecute women under these existing laws if they must, and if they cannot meet the requisite burden of proof, then it is in no way necessary or just to take the burden of proof away from these activists and place it upon the woman instead.
I also think it is unwise to write laws banning abortion such that they prosecute the mother. So did our forefathers who wrote laws like the pre-Roe abortion ban in Texas, which did not prosecute the woman getting an abortion. So do Southern Baptists in our pro-life resolutions down through the years. So do the many pro-life organizations, who have actually passed legislation and accomplished pro-life victories up to and including the Dobbs decision. Before explaining why, it may be appropriate to take up another question that sometimes divides mainstream pro-life Southern Baptists from those in the abortion abolition movement.
5. Does it amount to sinful compromise to apply wisdom to the pro-life cause and to act strategically toward the long-term goal of ending legal abortion?
Of course not. And yet, some abortion abolitionists would brand this kind of thinking as “pragmatic”—a pejorative in their ranks. I myself am suspicious of pragmatism when it is used as an excuse to disobey God’s Word. I recall attending a conference years ago where one of the employees was talking about whether the office of pastor should be limited to men. He said, “Using women in senior leadership positions in churches is a trend. I’m not interested in hearing your biblical arguments against it; I’m just telling you that you’re going to be behind the times if you don’t do this.” Pragmatism is bad when it is an excuse for disobeying God.
But sometimes pragmatism is just a word to describe wisdom employed to obey God. The case law in the Torah often represents pragmatic wisdom employed to apply the principles of godliness to the situations of daily life. Such biblical case law includes explicit exceptions to murder laws based upon some of the very factors that have appeared above in this essay (uncertainty about intent, duress, etc.).7Exodus 21:22-25, 22:1-2.
God led Moses to apply the sixth commandment not in an absolute way, but with a wisdom that created cities of refuge and manslaughter laws and, notably, specific situational laws surrounding the death of a child before birth.8Exodus 21:22-25; Joshua 20:1-9. The pro-life strategy that the Southern Baptist Convention has affirmed since 1980 is an example of this second kind of pragmatism—wisdom employed in obedience to God’s commands.
In accordance with that commitment to applying biblical wisdom to the cause of ending abortion, it is unwise to try to prosecute women seeking abortions. First, anything that is unjust and unnecessary is also unwise, and I have already sought to demonstrate the injustice of such a law and that such a new provision in the law is unnecessary. Abortion bans that prosecute the abortionist are the wise course of action.
Second, if you are a fiscal conservative who wants to see the end of legal abortion, it is unwise to pass abortion bans that prosecute the mother. How much prison space will be necessary at public expense to incarcerate those who would provide illegal abortions? Not much. How much space would be necessary to incarcerate all the women caught seeking illegal abortions? Quite a bit more. And yet incarcerating all the providers ends abortion just as effectively as incarcerating all the women seeking abortions, only at far lesser cost to taxpayers.
Third, if you care about protecting life outside your own Southern, pro-life jurisdiction, then it is unwise to pass abortion bans that prosecute the mother. Mercifully, we are nowhere near establishing theocracy or theonomy in the United States of America. Consequently, the only way to end abortion state by state is to persuade people who are not yet convinced and to coalesce pro-life support behind legislation that can move the ball forward.
The abortion abolition movement has, so far, been unable to pass legislation even in the most pro-life states in the Union. Anyone who seriously cares about protecting babies from death by abortion must recognize the importance of passing legislation nationwide to end abortion. But members of this movement tie the pro-life movement to the laws least likely to pass.
Beyond promoting legislation that perhaps unintentionally drives voters away from legislation with greater chances to advance the cause of ending abortion, members of the abortion abolition movement often actively and intentionally oppose such legislation. In 2019, the Kansas Supreme Court offered a state judicial ruling similar to the federal Roe ruling. In it, the court held that, although the text of the state constitution contained no mention of abortion, a right to abortion was implied by the content of the state constitution. In 2020, Kansas voters had the opportunity to vote on the “Value Them Both Amendment.” The effect of this proposed constitutional amendment was to overturn the ruling and to make it constitutionally permissible for the Kansas State Legislature to pass laws banning abortion.9The full text of the proposed amendment was “Because Kansans value both women and children, the constitution of the state of Kansas does not require government funding of abortion and does not create or secure a right to abortion. To the extent permitted by the constitution of the United States, the people, through their elected state representatives and state senators, may pass laws regarding abortion, including, but not limited to,laws that account for circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother.” https://valuethemboth.com/faqs/.
It is important to realize that the proposed amendment was not itself any sort of legislation about abortion; rather, it simply would have untied the hands of the legislature so that they could craft specific legislation. Some abortion abolitionists in Kansas actively campaigned against the passage of this constitutional amendment, doing so because the proposed amendment sought to empower the legislature to make exceptions for rape and incest. Mind you, the proposed amendment did not itself make any exception for rape and incest; it merely clarified that there was no prohibition in the state constitution barring the legislature from doing so. Bewilderingly, then, when pro-life legislators sought to amend their constitution to gain the freedom to pass pro-life laws, some abortion abolitionists sided with pro-choice activists to oppose that proposed amendment. How is this wise? It is not.
Members of the abortion abolition movement have opposed what they call “incrementalism”—the passing of heartbeat laws, ambulatory clinic laws, fetal pain laws, ultrasound laws, and all of the other regulations that have paved the way, ultimately, to the Dobbs decision. Not only has the adoption of incremental laws proven to be fruitful in overturning Roe, but those laws are also the only laws that have been proven to be fruitful in any way whatsoever. Every win against the abortion industry in America has been secured through the blessing that God has poured out upon the mainstream pro-life movement as applied through incremental legislation. To make that argument at all is to be labeled a pragmatist by many in the abortion abolition movement. Most Christians just call it wisdom.
6. Can pro-life Southern Baptists and abortion abolitionist Southern Baptists cooperate with one another?
One would hope so. What makes it difficult to do so is that so many leading members of the abortion abolitionist movement regard everyone outside their movement as sinners who need to repent of not agreeing with them on all of the issues mentioned in this essay.
Because Southern Baptist legislator Jeff Leach prefers the pro-life approach over the abortion abolition approach, prominent movement-website “Free the States” declared that he “[Delivered a] Death Sentence to 110,000 Preborn Human Beings.” That’s slanderous. Because Sens. Greg Treat and Jason Smalley of Oklahoma prefer the pro-life approach over the abortion abolition approach, Ascol declared that they should be summarily excommunicated from their churches.
To many in the abortion abolitionist movement, every pro-life Southern Baptist is doing a deal with the devil and has the blood of aborted babies on their hands.10https://freethestates.org/2019/04/jeff-leach-delivers-death-sentence/; Ascol, starting at 23:20; https://freethestates.org/abolitionist-not-pro-life/.
Leaders like Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell Sr., Adrian Rogers, and James Dobson were fighting for the lives of preborn children before many of the current leaders of the abortion abolition movement were even born. Faithful pastors across the country stood before congregations that were overwhelmingly accustomed to voting for Democrats and led them to adopt the pro-life cause; current abortion abolitionist pastors condemn these leaders as compromisers while leading congregations that came to them already solidly pro-life and Republican as a result of the work of the very leaders whom they accuse of cowardice and compromise.
When members of the abortion abolitionist movement repent of their ongoing slander against these captains and rank-and-file soldiers in the pro-life cause, which they can do without abandoning their preferred approach, cooperation between the two groups will be much easier to accomplish.
I want to be able to sit across the table from abortion abolitionists. I want us to be able to address one another respectfully and to work with one another where it is possible to do so. But for my part, I will not remain silent while they attack those whose efforts God is blessing to accomplish the most in opposition to abortion.
- 1Ohio State Legislature, “As Introduced, H.B. No. 413,” https://search- prod.lis.state.oh.us/solarapi/v1/general_assembly_133/bills/hb413/IN/00?format=pdf, Line 5377.
- 2Emma Waters, “It’s Time to Set Record Straight on Ectopic Pregnancies and Abortion,” The Heritage Foundation, https://www.heritage.org/life/commentary/its-time-set-record-straight-ectopic-pregnancies-and-abortion.
- 3Louisiana State Legislature, “Original, H.B. No. 813,” https://legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1259299, 2.
- 4Bill Ascol, “Sanctity of Life Sunday,” Owasso, OK: Bethel Baptist Church, 19 January 2020, starting at 20:00.
- 5Poonam Rana et al, “Ectopic Pregnancy: A Review,” Archive of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 21 June 2013, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23793551/; J Schneider et al, “Maternal Mortality due to Ectopic Pregnancy: A Review of 102 Deaths,” Obstetrics & Gynecology, May 1977, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/850569/.
- 6Ascol, starting at 26:30.
- 7Exodus 21:22-25, 22:1-2.
- 8Exodus 21:22-25; Joshua 20:1-9.
- 9The full text of the proposed amendment was “Because Kansans value both women and children, the constitution of the state of Kansas does not require government funding of abortion and does not create or secure a right to abortion. To the extent permitted by the constitution of the United States, the people, through their elected state representatives and state senators, may pass laws regarding abortion, including, but not limited to,laws that account for circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother.” https://valuethemboth.com/faqs/.
- 10https://freethestates.org/2019/04/jeff-leach-delivers-death-sentence/; Ascol, starting at 23:20; https://freethestates.org/abolitionist-not-pro-life/.