In Defense of Pro-Life Incrementalism

Last month Alabama passed the strictest abortion ban in the nation. Most legal experts believe the law will be struck down by the federal courts and that the Supreme Court will simply ignore it. But while it won’t be effective in ending abortions, the law has been successful in re-launching the decades old debate between two groups of pro-lifers: incrementalist and immediatist.

Pro-life incrementalism means supporting legislative actions that affirmatively protect the unborn and women, reduce abortion, and have the potential to pass current constitutional scrutiny. The alternative for pro-lifers is immediatism, the idea that incrementalism should be rejected and that the most, or only, moral position is the immediate and total abolition of abortion. The extreme form of this position claims that “allowing abortion in some cases along the way to its total abolition is neither strategically sound nor consistently Christian.”

Almost all principled pro-lifers are in some sense immediatist, since our ultimate goal is the immediate end of the practice of abortion. Where the difference lies is in the question of what we should do now since we do not have the power to immediately end abortion. The incrementalist position is that we should work to save what children we can through taking actionable steps to put limits and restrictions on abortion. The immediatist position is that we should reject incrementalist legislation and work only for the immediate abolition of human abortion through constant efforts of moral persuasion

Failure of Immediatism

The extreme immediatists believe that incrementalism is sinful. The more moderate immediatists simply believe incrementalism is defeatist. In an article for First Things, “Against Pro-life Incrementalism,” Philip Jeffery says,

Those arguing for incrementalism are right to point out that we don’t live in an ideal world and must make pragmatic calculations about how to move the pro-life cause forward. But we must escape the defeatist mentality that animates incrementalism. We are not going to make progress if we do not take bold steps forward.

Jeffery has it exactly backward. Since Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973 the immediatists 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 extreme immediatists would say that “number of lives saved” is not the metric by which the issue should be judged. As one immediatist group says, “This fight is not an issue of what seems practical, achievable, or reasonable. It is an issue of obedience to God. We must make no compromise with sin or the means of fighting sin.”

I can appreciate their appeal to purism, for Christians have too often adopted an ends-justifies-the-means approach to political action. Far too many Christians use opposition to abortion to justify supporting any incompetent, corrupt, and immoral politicians simply because they may have some indirect means of affecting the abortion debate (such as appointing judges). But the immediatists are wrong, as I’ll explain below, in claiming that using legislative means to protect the unborn is in itself a “compromise with sin.”

To their credit, though, the extreme variation is at least consistent; the more moderate immediatists are less so. The moderates claim to appreciate the fruits of incrementalism (i.e., babies not killed) while thinking the approach should have never been tried. They argue that we are wasting time and resources on passing laws when we should be changing the culture. For example, in his article Jeffery says,

Pro-life critics of the Alabama law make a mistake common among conservatives of all kinds: They confuse political strategy with cultural strategy. Even while assuming a sharp boundary between the political fight against abortion and the cultural one, they propose an incrementalist strategy in the law as the way to victory in both battles.

Once again, though, the immediatists have nothing to show for their efforts. They’ve had four decades to “change culture” and yet polls show almost no change in the percentage of Americans who support abortion. The incrementalists have managed to spare the lives of thousands of children despite not convincing the broader culture.

Case for Incrementalism

The case for immediatism is weak. But what is the case for incrementalism?

Almost a decade ago, Justin Taylor interviewed Clarke Forsythe, a pro-life lawyer who serves as the senior counsel for Americans United for Life. Forsythe says that the key political virtue for citizens in a democratic republic is prudence, which is “practical wisdom” or “right reason about what is to be done.” As an intellectual virtue, Forsythe says, political prudence challenges political leaders and voters with four questions:

Are they pursuing good goals?

Do they exercise wise judgment as to what’s possible?

Do they successfully connect means to ends?

Do they preserve the possibility of future progress when the ideal cannot be immediately achieved?

Prudence judges in any particular circumstance whether an incremental strategy is the right one, says Forsythe:

When it is not possible to completely prohibit a social evil, it is both moral and effective to limit it as much as possible. When the ideal is beyond our power, it is moral and effective to seek the greatest good possible. Prudence instructs us that an “all-or-something” approach is better than an “all-or-nothing” approach in politics. One of the reasons is that progress is almost always a result of momentum, and momentum—in the face of countervailing obstacles—is often produced by small victories.

[. . .]

An all-or-nothing approach, by contrast, is rarely prudent (I can’t think of an example) and rarely produces change, and when nothing is the result, it doesn’t create the needed momentum to produce change. This reality is reflected in the simple truth that it’s always good (a good goal) to limit an evil.

Most Christians are not incrementalists because we are against immediatism. We simply reject immediatism because it is currently imprudent. The reality is that we don’t have the political power to save all the babies. But we can save some.

If we want to pursue the good, exercise wise judgment as to what’s possible, successfully connect means to ends, and preserve the possibility of future progress when the ideal cannot be immediately achieved, we should continue to support pro-life incrementalism.

UPDATE: A quote by Philip Jeffery was mistakenly attributed to Ryan Everson’s article “Why Pro-life Incrementalism Is Dead.” I apologize for the error.

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