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Absolutism, Incrementalism and Abortion

By Scott McClare

The pro-life movement won a minor victory in Texas in July, when the legislature passed a law that made Texas the 13th state to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. The law also imposed further restrictions on the abortion industry, including requirements that abortion clinics meet the same standards as other outpatient centres, and that abortion doctors have admitting privileges in a local hospital.

Of course, the reaction of abortion-rights activists was predictable. The Texas legislature became a battleground, with competing pro-life and pro-choice demonstrators trying to drown each other out. If nothing else, the very vocal (not to mention crass) opposition of pro-choicers has belied the “safe, legal and rare” mantra that we’ve heard since the Clinton administration, as they fought tooth and nail against a law that would make abortion clinics safer, and abortion rarer.

The opposition from some pro-life advocates has been more surprising. A significant minority of pro-lifers, often associated with the “personhood” movement, will accept nothing less than the total abolition of all abortions, all at once. They regard any sort of partway position as a compromise at best, and advocacy of such positions by other pro-lifers as willing complicity in murder at worst. For example, one poster on a political forum that I read, accused such twenty-week abortion laws of “embedding, codifying, ‘legal’ permission to kill innocent people in our laws”; and, “Under this bill, every single child can be murdered, under the color of ‘law,’” amongst other things. Blogger Frank Turk’s recent critique of Abolish Human Abortion’s (AHA) position[i], as well as AHA’s rejoinder[ii], are also worthwhile reading.

In this particular debate, I take the position that I am calling incrementalism: that legalized abortion is best reversed in a series of small steps. As Christian apologist, I think not only is this good political strategy, but it is a morally defensible position. Christians should be free to take this view without fear of being biblically inconsistent. I will refer to the other position as absolutism, because of its all-or-nothing philosophy.[iii]Here are some reasons I believe that incrementalism is ultimately a more successful approach.

A step in the right direction is better than no step at all. Suppose that after a series of child drownings, your city passed stricter pool-enclosure by-laws to make it harder to access unattended swimming pools. However, a local objected that the by-laws are ineffective, since they won’t prevent the same children from drowning in lakes or bathtubs. While that may be true, at least accidental drownings in unsupervised pools will be eliminated, or at least drastically reduced.

Similarly, while banning late-term abortion won’t bring an end to allabortions, it will reduce them and make them harder to obtain. In Texas, abortion clinics are already closing because they can no longer operate under the stricter new regulations.[iv]Ending late-term abortion is not the end goal of the pro-life movement. It’s a start.

Advocating a ban on some abortions does not imply approval of the abortions that remain legal. This is a straw man argued by many absolutists: successfully outlawing late-term abortions implies permission to murder babies in the first and second trimester. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If two people are trapped in a fire, and I can rescue only one, that does not mean I want the other one to die. In a jurisdiction with no restrictions on abortion, all unborn children are already legal to kill. The “fire” is the present political reality, where criminalizing abortion outright is a practical impossibility. While a partial ban is a step in the right direction, the journey still isn’t over.

Incremental legislation can test the waters. A law partially restricting abortion may have a secondary purpose of gauging opinion on the issue, and learning whether further progress is feasible. It may also act as a litmus test, exposing who our actual political allies are. For example, Motion 312, introduced in Parliament last year, would have re-opened the debate on when human life begins. It was soundly defeated, even though it would not have changed the current status of abortion in Canada. There is currently nopolitical will in Canada to upset the status quo.

Incremental legislation keeps the debate in the public eye. If the pro-life movement makes progress in a series of small victories, then the issue is always open. You may support or oppose re-criminalizing abortion, but you can’t ignore it.

The absolutists are (mostly) right. I believe unequivocally that the unborn are human individuals. They are not superfluous body parts, nonviable tissue clumps, parasites, or punishments. They have intrinsic moral value, and are as worthy of protection as you or me. Taking the life of an unborn human being through abortion is murder because it is the unjust taking of innocent human life. I am an abolitionist: I want to see this murder end.

We can agree with our absolutist friends and allies that abortion is murder, that it deserves to be abolished, and that we need to convince our fellow citizens of this. We agree wholeheartedly on the goal. Where we disagree is the strategy by which this goal is best achieved.

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down our abortion law in 1988. Subsequently, the Conservative government tried to re-introduce restrictions on abortion. While Bill C-43 passed in the House of Commons in 1990, it was defeated in the Senate in 1991 – in part, because of the lobbying efforts of pro-choice feminists, but also because of absolutist pro-life advocates who wanted nothing less than a total ban on all abortions. To this day, Canada has no law whatsoever restricting abortion at any time for any reason. No government, Conservative or Liberal, has had the political courage to table one. Ideas have consequences.

By contrast, the British abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) devoted his career as a member of Parliament to ending slavery. He began by repeatedly introducing legislation in the House of Commons that would abolish slavery outright, and every time he was defeated, or his bill was buried in bureaucracy. Wilberforce persevered, however, and in 1806 he tried a new strategy:  a bill was introduced to prohibit British subjects from trading slaves to foreign territory, as a necessary measure in the war against France. His political opponents missed the implications of this bill until it was too late: it hobbled the foreign slave trade. This was soon followed by a bill prohibiting the export of slaves to territories captured by the British. In 1807, Parliament outlawed the slave trade, though not yet slavery per se. Meanwhile, Wilberforce’s abolitionist allies, such as Thomas Clarkson, campaigned tirelessly throughout England, gathering evidence against the slave trade, and speaking publicly, changing British hearts and minds.

Wilberforce was a committed abolitionist, and the end of slavery was always his end goal. However, if he had continued his original frontal assault against slavery, he may never have won against the more powerful political and economic interests that opposed him. Instead, he undermined slavery’s foundation, piece by piece, until the whole institution was unsupportable.  Three days before Wilberforce died in 1833, slavery itself was abolished throughout the British Empire.

Is this kind incremental change seen in scripture? Yes. After Elijah’s spectacular defeat of the false prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40), Elijah fled to the mountains in fear of his life. Hiding in a cave atop Mt. Horeb, he experienced a powerful object lesson. First, a great wind rushed through the mountains, powerful enough to tear them apart. But, we are told, “the Lord was not in the wind” (19:11). Nor was he in the earthquake or the fire that followed. Finally, Elijah heard “the sound of a low whisper” (19:12); here, at last, was God. He instructed Elijah to go to Syria and anoint a new king there, then to go to Israel and anoint Jehu king there, and finally, to anoint Elisha as his own successor. God had already dealt the idolators in the land a decisive, though partial, defeat at Mt. Carmel. Now, it was time for the more subtle, yet no less devastating, process of everyday politics. Elijah would not see the reform he longed for in Israel, but it came, nonetheless. Sometimes, God smashes the mountains. More often, he just puts the right people in the right place, and works through the still small voice of hidden Providence.


[i] Frank Turk, “A Mixed Bag,” Pyromaniacs, http://teampyro.blogspot.ca/2013/07/a-mixed- bag.html (accessed August 10, 2013). See also Frank’s follow-up posts, “A Lot More Bible  to Cover” (http://teampyro.blogspot.ca/2013/07/a-lot-more-bible-to-cover.html) and  “Running Around Without a Church” (http://teampyro.blogspot.ca/2013/07/running-around-without-church.html).
[ii]  Abolish Human Abortion, “A Response to Frank Turk (Part I): A Defense of Immediatism,” Abolish Human Abortion, http://blog.abolishhumanabortion.com/2013/07/a-response-to-frank-turk-part-i-defense.html (accessed August 10, 2013); see also “A Servant of the King” (http://blog.abolishhumanabortion.com/2013/07/a-response-to-frank-turk-part-ii-we-are.html) and “Running Around Without a Church?” (http://blog.abolishhumanabortion.com/2013/07/a-response-to-frank-turk-part-iii.html).
[iii] Some oppose the term absolutism because they feel it has negative connotations. I use it here simply as a descriptive label. AHA calls it immediatism, which might be confused at first glance with incrementalism as they both start with “I”. Others call it abolitionism, which I reject because it implies a monopoly on abolishing abortion that I do not believe they have.
[iv] Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, “Statement from Melaney A. Linton, President and CEO, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, on the Closure of Bryan, Huntsville and Lufkin Health Centers,” Planned Parenthood Action Center, http://www.ppaction.org/site/PageNavigator/tx_pphset_Statement_healthcentersclosing_MElaneyLinton_071813.html (accessed August 10, 2013).