Gregg Cunningham argued for the former; T. Russell Hunter argued for the latter. The debate took place in Tulsa, in front of Hunter’s supporters. View the debate here.
Background and Structure
T. Russell Hunter and Abolish Human Abortion (AHA) attack pro-lifers for allegedly “regulating” abortion rather than calling for its immediate abolition. They insist pro-life incremental strategies are not only mistaken, they are based on evil compromise and because of that evil compromise, we are losing the abortion fight. On the web and in social media, AHA is primarily known for its attacks on pro-lifers, often with a strong dose of spiritual superiority. For example, Hunter affectionately refers to my own position on incremental legislation as "crafty" and "sinfully motivated," comprised of "delusive nonsense" that leads weak minds astray with "false doctrine" (Facebook post March 20). Elsewhere, AHA attacks the pro-life group Justice for All for allegedly ignoring sin and later calls pro-life apologist Josh Brahm's worldview "demonic." Almost without exception, every attempt to challenge these claims is met with the assertion that pro-lifers are attacking a strawman and, due to unrepentant sin, don't really understand what AHA stands for. When Jill Stanek wrote her review of the debate, an AHA supporter named Toby immediately attributed to her the worst possible motives and all-but damned her to Hell. "Instead of dealing with incrementalism or immediatism on Biblical terms, she chooses to make an idol out of the abortion fight. Her career is more important to her than her soul. When the light of scripture is shown on her wicked endeavors she, in the reaction of covering up sin, attempts to shoot the messenger and further compound her sin. If her position was a good and true one, she wouldn’t have to resort to strawman arguments and ad hominem...I pray she repents."
That's not the language of someone eager to engage his critics with thoughtful responses. It's the rhetoric of a spiritual weirdo with a severe prophet complex . What he can't secure with a syllogism, he'll pick up with a spiritual power play. Indeed, one high-up AHA rep requested that I publicly repent for not posting his link announcing the pending debate. That my Facebook page is mine to post or not post as I please apparently never crossed his mind. The arrogance of such a request is mind-blowing.
Rewind to late last Fall. T. Russell Hunter issued a very public challenge calling for any pro-life leader to debate him on incrementalism. Gregg Cunningham, a former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Executive Director of the Center for Bioethical Reform, accepted. The formal debate structure was as follows: 20-minute opening statements, 15-minute rebuttals, 15-minute cross-examination, 5-minute closing statements. An informal audience Q&A followed the formal debate.
Gregg Cunningham won the formal exchange handily and he did so early by pointing out a fundamental flaw in Hunter’s argument—namely, the mistaken claim that pro-lifers have the power to end abortion immediately but won’t. Again and again, he exposed Hunter’s fallacious either/or reasoning by demonstrating that pro-lifers don’t have to choose between incremental legislation that saves some children right now or total abolition that saves all at a later time. Rather, they can advance both strategies simultaneously and save many lives in the process. Cunningham also demonstrated a superior grasp of social reform history, noting that while Wilberforce, Lincoln, and Martin-Luther King were in principle moral absolutists, in practice they functioned as strategic and tactical incrementalists—as do pro-lifers today. During cross-examination, Hunter stumbled badly when asked if those babies saved through incremental legislation should have been left to die. When he refused to give a clear answer—despite being repeatedly pressed to do so—the debate was effectively over. In short, Hunter could not preach his way to victory, even when invoking his understanding of Scripture. His claim that incrementalism is not found in the Bible was decisively refuted when Gregg cited three examples from Scripture where God dealt incrementally with His people.
Cunningham clearly did his homework for this one. Read on for a fuller analysis. Meanwhile, Jonathan Van Maren reviewed the debate here and Jill Stanek here and here and here.
SUMMARY OF THE DEBATE
1) Opening Statements
T. Russell Hunter framed the debate between incrementalism and immediatism in spiritual terms. The debate is not new, but old. It's rooted in the enmity between the woman and the snake--namely, a clash between "God has said" and "Did God really say?"
Hunter definied “immediatism” not as “overnightism,” but as a principle of immediate action as opposed to gradualism. He claimed that immediatism is seen theologically in the gospel—namely, the command to “work while the day lasts”—and in the abolition movements in America and in Britain. American abolitionists, the first street preachers in America, were immediatists "who believed the slaves ought be instantly set free" and brought under the protection of law. They believed that laws permitting slavery were an affront to God's holy commandments and thus were null and void. Such laws should be instantly abrogated, not regulated with incremental schemes that prolong the evil. In short, incremetalism is a substitute for immediate abolition. Slavery demanded immediate abolition because slavery was a national sin for which the nation(s) must repent instantly.
Hunter further insisted that William Wilberforce was not an incrementalist and “it’s ridiculous to say he was.” Rather, Wilberforce repented of incrementalism. Regulation of evil was not an option for him. Nor was it for Martin Luther King or the biblical writers. “The roots of immediatism are on the lips of every single prophet of God.” Pro-life incrementalists, by regulating abortion instead of calling for its immediate abolition, are to blame for its continuation. The culture is deeply immoral and merely addressing abortion won’t get the job done. We need an immediate call to repent and believe the gospel.
Gregg Cunningham followed with his opening, insisting that Hunter’s argument was fundamentally flawed because it assumes that pro-lifers have the power to immediately end abortion but simply won’t. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pro-life advocates do not have the power to say which children live and which ones die. The federal courts have already said that no unborn children have a right to life. In that legal environment, the principled pro-lifer is an immediatist morally and an incrementalist strategically. That is, while pro-lifers remain committed to the principle that every unborn human should be legally protected, they work to save as many lives as possible given current political realities. In short, Hunter is misstating facts: Pro-lifers aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They’re appalled by it. But unlike Hunter, they realize you can’t just “wave a magic wand” and make abortion go away. So, while they don’t willingly choose to be incrementalists, they function that way legislatively in order to save as many lives as they can.
Citing the work of Dr. Michael New (University of Michigan-- see here and here, reg. required), Cunningham argued that incremental laws are indeed saving lives everywhere they are passed. He challenged Hunter’s claim that legislators who sponsor incremental laws are compromising with evil. Citing his own efforts as a Pennsylvania State Rep who authored and sponsored several such bills always with a view toward getting the strongest protections he could, Cunningham replied, “It’s painful to hear T. Russell Hunter belittle men and women who put their seats on the line to save as many children as possible.”
Gregg then challenged Hunter’s historical claims. William Wilberforce was in principle a moral absolutist, but in practice a strategic and tactical incrementalist—as are pro-lifers today. While firmly committed to the principle of complete abolition, Wilberforce went after what he could get. For example, he supported legislation to refit slave ships so the suffering could be reduced. He introduced limitations on slave traffic in shipping ports. He did all this while working tirelessly for complete abolition. He took these incremental steps to get the votes to eventually ban the slave trade altogether. Here in the states, Abraham Lincoln worked incrementally to abolish slavery. He withheld his Emancipation Proclamation until 1863, and even then, it only declared slaves free in the South not the North! Were both these men guilty of compromise? Cunningham concluded, “We will give an account to God for babies we could have saved but didn’t.” And we don’t have to choose between preaching the Gospel and exposing abortion. “We can do both” with a combination of spiritual arguments and human rights arguments.
2) Rebuttal Speeches
In his rebuttal speech, T. Russell Hunter claimed that Wilberforce never authored incremental bills. He insisted that abortion-opponents can’t compromise by offering such bills. We must repent. Instead of putting a compromised principle in front of unsaved people, “Secular people need to be told to repent of sin.”
As for Cunningham’s claim that pro-life incrementalists are constrained by political realities imposed on them by the federal courts, Hunter replied that we have the power to stop abortion immediately “because we serve a risen King and have the Holy Spirit as a helper.” Using the image of a tree to represent abortion, he insisted that pro-life incrementalists are content to cut-off branches rather than taking an ax to the root of the tree. For example, they ban partial-birth abortion, only to have other methods creep up. Focusing on late-term abortion doesn’t get at the root; it sends a message to the public that other abortions are okay. In short, pro-life incrementalists deny the power of God when they refuse to call for the immediate abolition of abortion.
Cunningham began his rebuttal by summarizing Hunter’s position as follows: “Until we can outlaw killing that unborn baby, we can’t work to save any.” He insisted that Russell is “so prophetic” that he lacks love for those children who are saved by incremental legislation. Unlike immediatists, “I won’t let savable babies die.” Gregg went on to say that, again, Hunter gets Wilberforce wrong. Wilberforce, like pro-lifers today, did not compromise on principle, only tactics and strategy. When you don’t have the votes, you get what you can while you continue working for complete victory. That’s sound moral thinking! Not once did Wilberforce compromise principle. Nor do pro-lifers today. Indeed, the history of social reform has both immediatism and incrementalism. Russell only acknowledges the former.
Cunningham once again appealed to history, noting the incremental examples of John Adams and Martin Luther King. During the debate for Independence, Adams knew he didn’t have the votes to abolish slavery. Thus, he allowed southern states to retain slavery in order to pull them into the Union where the principles in the founding documents would eventually abolish the practice. If those southern states weren’t pulled into the Union, they’d remain separate slave-holding nations. Thus, in principle Adams was an immediatist but in practice an incrementalist. He used the latter to get the former. Likewise, Martin Luther King, recognizing he didn’t have the votes for immediate civil rights, worked to achieve what he could in each political cycle.
Gregg then confronted Hunter on his hostility toward professional pro-life activists who raise funds for their projects. “Russell Hunter uses our abortion photos—which happened because we had professional activists who fundraise. Russell just lets me do his fundraising for him.”
3) Cross Examination
During the cross-x, each speaker had fifteen minutes to ask questions of the other. Gregg went first. Noting that T. Russell Hunter was critical of pro-lifers who work with secularists to save babies, Cunningham asked the following: “If your two-year old daughter stumbles into a swimming pool, are you going to quiz the paramedics about their theology before working with them to save your kid?” Hunter replied the question was a silly strawman of a complex issue, but Cunningham persisted. When Hunter eventually said that he would work with the paramedics, Gregg replied (paraphrase), “So you will work with [secularists] to save your own kid, but you won’t work with them to save other kids?” Then, holding up Dr. New’s research on the effectiveness of incremental bills for saving lives, Cunningham asked, “What about these babies? Should we allow them to die instead of passing incremental legislation that would save them?” Hunter initially said “no,” but when Cunningham pressed him for clarification, he called the question a “charade” because if all incrementalists would become immediatists, we could put the ax to the root and end abortion. Gregg continued, “For the record, Russ didn’t answer the question. Should these babies have been allowed to die instead of passing the incremental legislation that saved them?” When Hunter again declined to answer and called incremental victories “shallow,” Cunningham again held up Dr. New’s study and asked, “Are you saying this guy made this stuff up when he said these laws save lives?” Cunningham also asked if Lincoln was wrong to be both an immediatist in principle and an incrementalist in practice. Hunter replied that Lincoln did not credit incrementalists with the abolition of slavery.
During his cross-x, Hunter asked Gregg if he wanted to “constantly strawman” the immediatist position or simply avoid it. “Do you really not understand [immediatism]?” To which Cunningham—pointing to a screenshot of unborn humans—replied, “I’m going to make this as simple as possible. I’m determined to save that baby, and that baby, and that baby, whether a few seconds old or not, and that is immediate action. It’s a false dilemma to say we can’t both talk about abortion as sin and talk about it as a human rights violation.” Hunter’s second question was about Christian involvement: “Do you believe the Bride of Christ is sitting in the pews instead of fighting abortion because it is putting it’s faith in incremental legislation?” Cunningham agreed it is a problem, but not the one Hunter imagines. The big problem is we can’t win without the church, and we won’t win the church without more full-time paid activists who can train seminarians, etc., yet Hunter attacks those working full-time. But how can we win when secular institutions crank out full-time professionals to support abortion and we have part-time volunteers? Hunter then asked if Gregg knew that Wilberforce called slavery wicked and criticized gradualism? Gregg replied that Hunter was conflating two different things—Wilberforce’s principles and Wilberforce’s practice. That is, Wilberforce hated gradualism in principle and wanted to abolish slavery immediately, but in practice knew he didn’t have the votes. Thus, he worked incrementally to take what he could get. He wasn’t either/or—incrementalist or immediatist. Rather, he pursued both strategies simultaneously. Again, Wilberforce did not compromise on principle, only on strategy and tactics. Hunter next asked if the atheist at a pro-life display is more likely to become anti-abortion by converting to Christ or by hearing human rights arguments. Once again, Gregg pointed out that Hunter was engaging in either/or thinking when it is both/and. We present both sets of arguments—gospel arguments and human rights arguments—because we don’t know who the atheists are. We should pray for revival and work to save every baby we can. It’s not either/or. Finally, Hunter asked if Gregg agreed the partial-birth legislation was a waste of time. Gregg replied PBA legislation had a big impact on changing public opinion on late-term abortion and that never in the history of social reform is everything accomplished all at once, as Hunter wrongly thinks. Instead, individual victories matter because they save lives.
4) Closing Statements
Hunter spoke first and quoted Isaiah 30, making the claim that incrementalists don’t challenge the status quo, but say, “What can I do within the law?” He insisted that incrementalists are under a false delusion thinking incrementalism is the way forward. They are “placing their hope in Egypt.” If Christians would repent of incrementalism and become immediatists, we could lay the ax to the root of the abortion tree and end the practice. Incrementalism is not found in the Bible.
Cunningham replied by appealing for both incremental and immediate action. That’s how social reform campaigns always work. Gregg then gave three examples of incrementalism in the Bible. First, Paul (1 Cor. 3) works incrementally to convey hard truths to weak brothers in the faith. He gives them milk instead of solid food. He revealed God’s law to them incrementally so they could digest it. Second, Jesus (Mark 10:4) says that God instructed Moses to relax the law on marriage because the people were not ready for tough divorce codes just then. Gradually, however, Christ toughens those laws. Jesus said this! Third, when Peter asked about paying the temple tax, Jesus compromised and paid lest he offend weaker Jews. Jesus was skillfully picking his fights! Studies show we can save babies incrementally, and we don’t have to do that to the exclusion of saving them as immediately as we can. Cunningham concluded by saying he was deeply troubled by Hunter’s insensitivity to the babies saved by incremental legislation.
5) Audience Q&A
The Q&A is not part of the formal debate, so I won’t say much about it other than to point out one weak spot for Gregg during that time. I’ve noticed that almost always, the winner of the formal debate gets aggressive questions from his opponent’s frustrated devotees. This was certainly true in this exchange, where the audience was almost exclusively made up of those supporting Hunter’s position, which didn’t seem to trouble Cunningham. In the first question directed at Gregg, an AHA devotee asked if CBR had a written policy, a waiver, instructing people not to preach the gospel at GAP displays. Gregg said he didn’t have any waiver documents with him and even if he did, the language in them is constantly evolving. He further said CBR wants people to be discerning, but does not foreclose on volunteers sharing the gospel when opportunities arise. That’s true. But it didn’t directly answer the question about the waiver. But, again, even if Gregg had such a waiver, it would not destroy his case that we can both preach the gospel and make human rights arguments. At best, it would only show that in the case of that waiver (assuming it foreclosed on sharing gospel content), he was inconsistently applying his own position. It wouldn’t prove the both/and principle wrong, especially when other pro-life groups like LTI, Created Equal, and others effectively integrate both sets of arguments.
Outside that one question, Cunningham commanded the field the entire night. Again and again, he corrected Hunter’s cherry picking of history. He repeatedly demonstrated that Hunter was falsely creating an either/or framework when it was truly both/and—meaning we should work incrementally to save as many lives as we can while simultaneously working to end abortion outright. Cunningham also demonstrated that for a guy who constantly accuses his critics of straw-man arguments, Hunter was guilty of misrepresenting the incrementalist view. That is, pro-life incrementalists are not satisfied with the status quo—they would stop abortion immediately if they could. Nor are they “regulationists" who decide which babies live and which die. They have no such power. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has already said that no unborn humans have a right to life. Thus, while incrementalists work to change that, they try and save as many lives as they can right now.
The most troubling moment for Hunter was the cross-x when Gregg repeatedly asked him, “Should these babies saved by incremental legislation have been allowed to die?” Hunter was grilled on that point and never fully answered the question, as the clip of the exchange demonstrates. Here is the transcript:
GC: I’d like to return to the question with which I began, which Russ hasn’t answered. Should we allow these babies to die rather than enact incremental legislation?
GC: I’m sorry?
TRH: Like, should we allow – should we allow babies to die?
GC: Should we allow these – because…
TRH: The charade is – the charade is not even what we’re talking about – the incrementalism/immediatism debate. Focusing the ax at the tree, getting all the people who follow incrementalism to become immediatists and help put that ax to the branch – to the root…
GC: Would you answer this question?
TRH & GC: [unintelligible]
Moderator: That was the last question. Russ, go ahead and answer that, and then we’re gonna end this.
GC: Just for the record, Russ didn’t answer the question: Should we have allowed these babies to die, which this university professor says would have died had that legislation not been enacted. Should we have allowed them to die rather than enact the incremental legislation?
Moderator: Okay, Russ, answer that question, then we’ll change.
TRH: Um, well, I firmly believe that abortion is evil, and it is one of these things that the powers and principalities of darkness and high places are very in to. It’s the crown jewel of darkness, and I actually believe that if they can keep abortion going by deceiving people into becoming gradualists, they will do it. And if to deceive them they have to give them empty, illusory victories, and law professors may claim that babies were saved, they’ll do it. But I – if someone goes to an abortion mill and shoots a doctor, a baby might be saved that day, but that’s not going towards abolishing abortion. It’s not establishing justice that day [unintelligible] a baby that day.
GC: May I ask for clarification for your answer? You’re saying this guy’s making this up?
TRH: Uh, no, I have to read it. But I’m just saying that convincing people to be gradualists by saying, “Hey look, we saved some,” while they’re still being – I’m pretty sure that you can convince people to be gradualists for the next 40 years…
GC: Hey Russell, let’s do both. Let’s do both. Let’s do both.
Hunter never once said how his policy of immediatism plays out in the real world. How, exactly, does it work to insist on the immediate abolition of abortion? Got the votes for that? Here is where Hunter’s argument is truly self-sealing. He states that if only all incrementalists would become immediatists, we could take the ax to the root and win. So there you have it. When you can’t explain how your strategy actually works in the real world, you just fault your opponents for your failure to execute. This reminds me of faith healers who blame the victim for “not having enough faith” when he doesn’t immediately recover from a systemic illness.
Commenting on the debate, Dr. Marc Newman, professor of rhetoric at Regent University and well-known debate coach, writes:
"Many people's hearts are still hard, so I am going to 'by all means save some.' There will, one day, be an accounting and God will not judge us incrementally but absolutely. But until that day comes, we do what we can, share the truth in its entirety, and accomplish as much as our present circumstances allow. I do not have the internal luxury of feeling good about the purity of my legislative agenda while thousands of human beings that I could have saved perish, while not saving any of the others either. Abortion rights advocates love the absolutists because they can portray them as extremists. They fear the incrementalist because they know that once people begin to consider that SOME human lives before birth are worthy of protection, they will have to craft some kind of justification for why that protections should not be extended to others prior to birth. And that, my friends, would be a much tougher sell than the scorched earth story our opponents are telling now."
Regarding Hunter's claim that you must go right to the Gospel when talking to unregenerate people about abortion, this, too, is rooted in fantasy. Dr. Newman writes, "By making a case for the gospel, Hunter neglects the fact that the gate is narrow and few are those who find it. That means that Christianity will always be in the minority. In a democracy, you need to be able to make an argument that appeals even to those who don't share your spiritual underpinnings."
Cunningham demonstrated a superior grasp of social reform history. Puzzling to me was Hunter’s claim that Lincoln never acknowledged incrementalism as a solution to slavery. Really? No less than Frederick Douglass had a different take, as Princeton Professor Robert George points out:
“Of course, politics is the art of the possible. And, as Frederick Douglass reminded us in his tribute to Lincoln, public opinion and other constraints sometimes limit what can be done at the moment to advance any just cause.” Applied to abortion, George continues: “The pro-life movement has in recent years settled on an incrementalist strategy for protecting nascent human life. So long as incrementalism is not a euphemism for surrender or neglect, it can be entirely honorable. Planting premises in the law whose logic demands, in the end, full respect for all members of the human family can be a valuable thing to do, even where those premises seem modest. Fully just law would protect all innocent human life. Yet sometimes this is not, or not yet, possible in the concrete political circumstances of the moment.”
Hunter’s reply was that pro-life incrementalists don’t trust the power of the risen Lord and thus don’t embrace immediatism. But wait. If Hunter truly believes the power of the risen Lord enables us to end abortion immediately, why wait for us? Doesn't that same power enable small groups as well as large ones? If so, stop blaming the pro-life movement for not joining your immediatist crusade. After all, the gospel proclamation began with just twelve men, accompanied by signs and wonders, proclaiming the power of the risen Jesus in the very city where he was crucified in the face of hostility far worse than Hunter faces today.
And they did it incrementally. As Dr. Newman points out, the salvation of many people took place gradually.
"Look at Acts 17, with Paul on Mars Hill. He preaches a sermon during which he, quite interestingly, doesn’t cite a single scripture, but does invoke the local religion, philosophers, and poets. At the end, some scoff, some convert, and others say that they want to hear more on this subject. Similarly, God in his foreknowledge and omnipotence, could convert all of the elect in the womb, but he does not. C.S. Lewis came to Christ incrementally: from an atheist, to a mythologist, to a theist, to a Christian — and this road has been traveled by many others. God saves people in much the same way that incrementalists save children. God makes it clear that it is His desire that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:3-4), and that He takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ez. 33:11). Nevertheless, we all come, one at a time. This one gets saved, then that one. Imagine if the apostles waited until they crafted a strategy that resulted in the salvation of everyone before they actually began evangelizing? The Church would have been strangled in its cradle. No. The Apostle Paul says that he works separately among the cultures in all ways that don’t require him to compromise the core of the faith, becomes all things to all men, that by all means, he might saves some — not all, some (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Paul even declares that he will live as one under the law, even though he is not under the law, if by doing so he can save some. If Paul was an incrementalist, count me in."
In short, if Paul and the other apostles didn't immediately end the social ills of their day by applying the power of the risen Christ, what makes Hunter think he can do so today?
Another example of Hunter’s either/or fallacy was his illustration of the atheist. Hunter asked Cunningham, “Do you think the atheist viewing a pro-life display is more likely to oppose abortion after converting to Christ or before?” Setting aside for the moment that unbelievers can recognize the moral wrong of abortion just like they can the moral wrongs of slavery and discrimination, note it can work the other way as well: The pro-life case draws agnostics towards a Christian worldview. For example, professor Hadley Arkes, once a secular Jew (agnostic), eventually embraced Christian theism precisely because the soundness of the pro-life argument forced him to reconsider his ultimate philosophical foundations. Speaking of his own journey toward theism Arkes writes:
"It came through my involvement over many years in the pro-life movement. I've been moving in this direction for a long while, perhaps more than 20 years. The process is often the reverse of what is told in the media. The media suggest that we're pro-life because we're religious, when in fact, many of us are won over by the force of the moral argument and the evidence of embryology. Then we're drawn to the Church that defends that argument."
This fits with my own experience. When non-Christians encounter a Christian theist who graciously and persuasively makes a case for life, they sometimes take a deeper look. They reason that if Christianity has something intelligent to say on a key moral issue of our day, perhaps its other claims deserve a second look. A skilled apologist knows how to make the best of the opportunity. For example, once a non-believer agrees that moral truths exist, it’s natural to gently ask, “Have you committed moral crimes? If so, should you be punished for them?” Now we are at the threshold of the gospel. In short, it's not a one-way street. Sometimes the gospel opens eyes on abortion. Sometimes abortion pics awaken our need for the gospel. Both bring God glory because truth is proclaimed.
Ultimately, Hunter’s ax to the root analogy is God-limiting. He wrongly takes one of the ways that God restrains evil in the world—changing hearts through the gospel—and asserts that it is the only way that God restrains evil, thus ignoring the role of cultural engagement that results in good civil government. Truth is, God gave both the church and the government a role to play. Civil law may not change hearts, but it restrains heartless men who are hardened to the gospel. As Wayne Grudem points out,
“One significant way that God restrains evil in the world is through changing people’s hearts when they trust in Christ as their Savior (see 2 Cor. 5:17). But we should not turn this one way into the only way that God restrains evil in this age. God also uses civil government to restrain evil, and there is much evil that can only be restrained by the power of civil government, for there will always be many who do not trust in Christ as their Savior and many who do not fully obey him.”
Exactly. As Gregg pointed out again and again, pro-life Christians don’t have to choose between preaching the gospel and reforming culture. They can do both.
Later in the exchange, Hunter quoted verses from the major prophets without any attempt to provide exegetical support for applying them to pro-life advocates today. Cunningham, however, did provide exegetical support when he refuted Hunter’s claim that incrementalism isn’t found in the Bible. Gregg provided three specific examples of God working incrementally with people who weren’t ready for tough truths. Again, for a guy who believes he knows the Gospel and Scripture better than compromising incrementalists, Hunter demonstrated a surprising lack of biblical knowledge. Gregg really schooled him on that point.
At the end of the day, Hunter picked a fight with a pit bull and got chewed up in his own yard. This was a public-relations disaster for AHA and served to solidify its brand as being more about attacking pro-lifers than stopping abortion. If Hunter wants to fix that, he better stop grinding his ax against pro-lifers—immediately.
Without even getting into moral issues, there's a lot of *pragmatic* problems with incrementalism, and I wonder if they were even addressed in this debate. If we want to be fair to an opposing argument, we don't want to choose a weak representative of it. Let me give you an example of a signature piece of incremenalism legislation: the partial-birth abortion act. I'm sure you aware of how barbaric the procedure of partial-birth abortion is, so I won't go into it, but sufficit to say that it even made many hard-core pro-abortion-choice people uncomfortable. And already you've got 80% of Americans who feel late-term abortions should be illegal. So partial birth abortion was a PR nightmare for the pro-abortion side. The partial-birth abortion act eliminated this. I hear you say, "Yes, but this act saved babies". I very tempted to respond, "Not the other 99.83% of abortions", but let's address the few. All the abortionist has to do is find another way to perform the abortion -- and they do. This is basically like making a law that says, "you can't use Zyklon B, you must use Zyklon C". Even if you could prove that this legislation saved an actual baby, we've enacted it at a enormous price: we've inadvertently made people in America feel better about the abortion industryReplyDelete
Hi Paul, Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree that PBA legislation did not save many children. Those drafting the legislation had a different purpose, which you correctly note: public education. Where you and I differ is on results. I don't think our side paid a high price for the PBA debate. To the contrary, it was a win for us and a huge loss for our opponents precisely because it forced the public to think about abortion in moral terms rather than preference ones. Our critics admit this.ReplyDelete
For example, during the PBA debate, abortion-choice columnist Anne Roiphe wrote: "The anti-abortion forces will again display horrible pictures of the technique, which they call partial-birth abortion. Although few in the abortion rights movement take this approach seriously, it has emotional resonance and erodes public support for all abortion." (“Moment of Perception,” New York Times, September 19, 1996.)
She's wasn't the only one concerned. "When someone holds up a model of a six-month-old fetus and a pair of surgical scissors, we say 'choice' and we lose," wrote feminist Naomi Wolf. (“Pro-Choice and Pro-Life,” The New York Times, April 3, 1997.)
Later, in a 1998 article in George Magazine, Wolf states: "The brutal imagery, along with the admission by pro-choice leaders that they had not been candid about how routinely the procedure was performed, instigated pro-choice audiences' reevaluation of where they stood." As a result, "the ground has shifted in the abortion wars." ("The Dead Baby Boom," George Magazine, January 27, 1998.)
Cynthia Gorney, author of Articles of Faith, a book about the abortion wars, says that serious damage has been done to the pro-abortion side. "One of the dirty secrets of abortion is it’s really gruesome, but nobody would look at the pictures. With partial-birth, the right-to-life movement succeeded for the first time in forcing the country to really look at one awful abortion procedure." (Cited in Larry Reibstein, “Arguing at a Fever Pitch,” Newsweek, January 26, 1998.)
In 2008, the Los Angeles Times published a joint op-ed piece by Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, acknowledging that abortion-choice advocates are in deep trouble because pro-lifers are reframing the debate around pictures. “In recent years, the antiabortion movement successfully put the nitty-gritty details of abortion procedures on public display, increasing the belief that abortion is serious business and that some societal involvement is appropriate.” (Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman, “Abortion’s Battle of Messages,” Los Angles Times, January 22, 2008)
In "Amazing Grace" (the story of William Wilberforce) there's a great scene where Wilberforce wines and dines some members of parliament, then takes them on a cruise up the river to see a slave ship. The sight and smell were revolting and sickened everyone. Though his incremental approach had years to go before achieving ultimate success, Wilberforce's visit to the slave ship--a modest first step that didn't save one slave that day or even the next--eventually helped right the British Ship of State.
I think we're doing the same thing when we use legislation to reframe the abortion debate away from "choice" to what's being chosen.
Thanks again for your reply, Paul.
"I don't think our side paid a high price for the PBA debate"ReplyDelete
I agree with you there. What I'm thinking about is the effect of the passed *law*, and not the debate itself. There's a lot of second-order effects of these laws, and I think sometimes we just pretend like they don't exist. Let's suppose for a second that PBA had never become illegal. So in the last decade, the abortion movement would have entered the age of social media and ubiquitous portable cameras with legalized PBA. Just imagine what would have happened to public opinion of abortion if say someone took a cell phone video of a PBA, and it went viral on social media. This would have been a PR nightmare for the abortion side. This will now never happen, thanks to the PBA law.
So my point is that we should consider the possibility that much of this incremental legislation is a blessing in disguise for the pro-abortion-choice side. In incremental legislation, we take the parts of abortion that are most intolerable to moderates, and eliminate them. But after we do that, the moderates can tolerate abortion much easier. And so moderates stop caring about abortion -- and when that happens, we can't be surprised when pro-life policies aren't exactly a number one priority among our supposedly pro-life Republican politicians. So while this is certainly a second-order and unintended effect of incremental legislation, we can't just pretend that the cost doesn't exist.
Hi Paul, Thanks again for your thoughts on PBA legislation. First, D&E abortion remains legal and we do have footage of it and have for years (see Nathanson's "Eclipse of Reason" and various videos from CBR at abortionno.org), yet the public outrage is restricted to those who actually see the clips. If gruesome D&E footage has not gone viral, there's no reason to think PBA footage would play better.ReplyDelete
Second, rather than deal with imaginary (though possible) second-order effects, consider these concrete ones which flow directly from the Carhart decision:
1) Carhart puts important premises into our legal system that need to be there for future legislation. That is, for the first time since Roe, the Court upheld a law which restricted abortion, though I agree the law does little to protect unborn children right now. Still, the upholding of ANY restriction is an important first step legally. Prior to 1998, 30 states passed laws prohibiting PBA. In all but two states, federal judges threw out the restrictions as unconstitutional. Now, with this most recent SCOTUS decision, state lawmakers will once again be emboldened to propose new limits on abortion.
2) The upholding of the PBA ban suggests the right to an abortion is not absolute, nor can it be supported by appealing to the Constitution. That sends an important message to state legislators around the country.
3) For the first time, the Court upheld a bill that did not contain a "health" exception. (The bill had a "life" exception--a very different thing.) Thus, the Court chipped away at the ruling in Casey and Roe/Doe.
4) Most important, the Court rejected the "possible worlds" facial challenges put forth by abortion-advocates. That challenge simply said that if ANY possible (not plausible) objection could ever conceivably be raised regarding the Constitutionality of an abortion restriction, that restriction should be thrown out. Up till now, that's exactly what the federal courts have done. Not any more. That's a nice step forward for our side. As Hadley Arkes points out,
"In a piece last January in First Things (“The Kennedy Court”) I anticipated that Kennedy would try to resolve the case in the most limited way by simply rejecting the decisions in the lower courts to strike down a law on abortion in a “facial challenge.” In most cases, a facial challenge will be accepted only when there appear to be no conceivable circumstances in which the law could be constitutional. With laws on abortion, however, the situation is inverted: The federal judges have been willing to enjoin the enforcement of these laws in facial challenges if there is any conceivable circumstance in which the law might be unconstitutional. Kennedy has now made it clear that this inversion of the law has been ended, and that is no small point: It means that laws on abortion will be allowed to work, to have their effect; that they will not be struck down flippantly on the basis of airy speculations offered by people who object to having abortions restricted. The laws would not be challenged then unless there is a concrete case of someone actually denied an abortion that could clearly be tested."
Arkes says more about that in an NRO piece I link to below.
Thanks again for your thoughts, Paul.
Scott, thanks again for your response. I understand that many "abolitionists" believe they are morally superior to those who don't favor their strategy. I don't believe this for a second. We have the same goal, but different strategies. I just don't believe that the incrementalist strategy digs deep enough and gets at the root of the problem. A hundred years ago, having to explain that abortion is wrong would be met with a collective "duh" -- even the secular public knew it was an evil to be abolished. So why suddenly is it the case that so many people find abortion acceptable? Also, I recall reading that you're not just a pro-life advocate, but also a bioethist. That means your aware of what could be coming down the pipeline -- things that could dwarf the abortion crisis. Things portrayed in the movie "Gattaca" might not be that far off -- and nickle-and-dime pro-life legislation will not have helped us.ReplyDelete
Hi Paul, I appreciate the moderate tone of your remarks, a stark contrast from the shrill rhetoric of AHA. Suppose we toss all incremental strategies right now and adopt your position. What now? Human Life Amendment? Been there, failed. Human Life Bill? Been there, failed, despite multiple proposals in the 70s. Personhood Amendments? Failed everywhere tried. Given that history, what is your plan and why is it better than what pro-lifers are currently doing with some success in state houses in 20-some states? How will you beat the courts? How will you sufficiently turn public opinion to accomplish an immediate end to abortion? I think you make the same mistake Gregg points out in the debate--namely, you assume an either/or framework when it's truly both/and. That is, pro-life advocates are absolutists in principle but incrementalists tactically. Put simply, while continuing to work for the protection of all children, we save as many as we can in route to getting there. That is not, as you say, a "nickle-and-dime legislative strategy, but one that puts important premises in the law as I noted above.ReplyDelete