Are pro-life advocates guilty of moral compromise when they support incremental laws aimed at limiting the evil of elective abortion?

For example, when Texas passed a bill requiring abortionists to offer ultrasounds to any women considering abortion, most pro-lifers applauded the legislation. After all, studies show that women who see their unborn offspring via ultrasound overwhelmingly reject abortion. There’s no doubt the legislation will save lives.

Yet not all pro-lifers agree with an incremental approach. Some view ultrasound legislation, parental consent legislation, and partial-birth abortion bans as a gigantic permission slip to kill unborn humans provided you jump through a few administrative hoops.

For example, in reference to Ohio’s proposed heartbeat legislation that would restrict abortions after fetal heartbeat is detected, Patrick Johnson writes, “Do not murder has no exceptions….Consenting to the murder of one in order to save another is never justified.”

Johnson and others like him reject most incremental legislation and instead support state personhood amendments—-which seek to outlaw abortion by declaring the unborn “persons” from conception. As one such advocate once told us, personhood is the only way position that isn’t morally compromised since all incremental legislation ends with “and you can kill the baby.”

But are personhood advocates fair in the way they frame the debate over incremental legislation? Not all frame the debate this way, of course, but many do. We think their attacks on incremental laws are unfair and dangerous.

First, how does it follow that because we can’t save all children we shouldn’t try to save some? Pro-lifers are not the ones compromising when we support incremental laws aimed at limiting the evil of abortion. Rather, the abortionist is compromising because he’s forced to give up the current status quo—-namely, that any child can be killed at any point in pregnancy for any reason. Whenever we chip away at that status quo so that some lives are saved, we are not compromising, we are improving the moral landscape. Make no mistake, we do not intend to stop chipping away at the legal protections for abortion until all children are protected in law. But until that day comes, we will work to save as many as we can given current legal restraints.

Second, we reject the premise that pro-lifers who support incremental legislation are deciding who lives and who dies. They have no power to decide any such thing. Let’s be clear: The federal courts in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton have stripped the legislative and executive branches from having any say whatsoever on the unborn’s right to life. Instead, the courts—-and the courts alone—-have already decided that no unborn child has a right to life and can be killed for any reason the mother sees fit, which is why they currently disallow any direct legislation protecting all unborn humans. Instead of “consenting” to the deaths of some humans for the sake of saving others, we’re simply trying to limit the evil done until those court decisions are overturned.

Third, because the court-mandated abortion license is already extensive, the only thing state and local laws can do is limit that license around the edges—-which they do quite effectively—-while educating the public on the humanity of the unborn and the inhumanity of abortion. Thus, far from ending with, “and then you can kill the baby,” incremental measures really say just the opposite: “If you’re 14, pregnant, and want an abortion, you can’t kill the baby without your parents knowing about it.” Or, “If you aren’t shown the ultrasound, you can’t kill the baby.” Remember: The default position under Roe is that you can kill any baby. Incremental measures say, under certain circumstances, you can’t kill the unborn child. We believe that if you cannot ban elective abortion outright, you should work to limit the harm done.

Fourth, personhood advocates should be careful about making claims about pro-lifers compromising the cause. Was William Wilberforce guilty of “compromise” because he supported defunding the slave trade before it could be effectively banned? Was Abraham Lincoln a great compromiser rather than a great emancipator because he worked incrementally to end the American version of that monstrous evil? We have never stated—-nor have we heard Greg Koukl, Francis Beckwith, or any other pro-life thinker who favors the incremental approach—-suggest compromise on the complete humanity of the unborn or the inhumanity of abortion, even in so-called hard cases. What we suggest is that we accept legislation that represents a compromise from the other side for the purposes of saving lives right now. The law is compromising, not us. The law is 100% on the side of the pro-abort position right now. Movement in the pro-life direction represents compromise by our foes, not by us.

Finally, incrementalists have good reasons for shying away from outright bans on abortion. Currently, we do not have the votes on the federal courts to support such a move. If a state were to pass a bill banning all abortions, the federal courts would immediately enjoin it based on the legal precedent of Roe v. Wade. Until liberal judges are replaced with conservative ones willing to overturn or significantly chip away at Roe, we risk yet another layer of case law decided against us. The approach preferred by the absolutists would do nothing but hinder the pro-life cause.

So, we say “yes.” Yes, we support the same goal as personhood advocates—-that is, the complete protection of unborn humans. And yes, we support legislation that limits the evil done while we continue working to reverse the pervasive influence of the federal courts. That’s not compromise; it’s sound moral thinking.