How Abolitionists Worked Incrementally to End Slavery—and the Implications for Prolifers Today

How Abolitionists Worked Incrementally to End Slavery—and the Implications for Prolifers Today November 11, 2021

In a recent blog, I shared an article by Scott Klusendorf: “Saving Some, Standing for All: A Defense of Pro-Life Incrementalism (And the Problem with ‘Abortion Abolitionism’).”

As we expected, many who call themselves “abortion abolitionists” took issue with Scott’s article and my posting it. I have heard from many of these people in the past and have tried to look at their arguments objectively. That’s not easy to do, partly because they consistently and strongly portray “prolife” Christians—including many of us who have invested considerable time, effort, and sometimes sacrifice to save the lives of unborn children—as  “unchristian” and actually at fault for the fact that abortion is still legal in America.

Here’s a direct quote from one Facebook comment: “If they [prolifers] would abandon their anti-Christian, God-opposing ideology, and start holding their politicians accountable and supporting God’s Word, instead of prolife’s ideology, abortion could end in two years through the entire country. It is the prolife ideology that allows this atrocity to continue.”

There was a time when using the term “prolife” was taking the moral high ground. Now, the high ground is taken by using the term “abolitionists.” It’s an effective term because nearly all of us realize the original abolitionists were on the morally correct side of the slavery issue, and it also implies most Christians who are prolife do not want abortion to be abolished.

On the contrary, every prolifer I know would love for there to be no abortion! We just believe that given the prevailing mindset of our culture, it is simply impossible to achieve New Earth realities right now. Therefore, we think we should do our best to save however many unborn children we can through personal intervention in nonpolitical contexts (that’s what I focus on through my writing and speaking and conversations) as well as legislative efforts which can be very effective in certain parts of the country. However, in many places (such as where I live outside of Portland, Oregon) there is no hope of passing such bills when they advocate eliminating all abortions by criminalizing them.

No Room for Pragmatism?

In my experience, and it is considerable, “abortion abolitionists” have insisted there is no room for compromise or pragmatism, and that abortions should be treated as all other murders and criminalized with appropriate punishment—some believe capital punishment—under civil law.

This has the advantage of moral consistency, as did the logic we used in the rescue movement that sent many of us to jail and to court in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We said, “If three-year-olds were legally being killed every day at a building in our city, what would Christians do?” Our point was, if we really believed the unborn are fully human, shouldn’t we intervene for them as we would for toddlers?

I was arrested seven times and sued by several abortion clinics, and by God’s grace we succeeded in the clinics having to be closed on the days we were present. Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups did studies showing that when women came for abortions and were turned away because of the presence of peaceful rescuers, 25% would never set up another appointment and would have their babies. To us, that was wonderful news! When a clinic had 40 abortions in a day, and it was shut down through our presence, that meant 10 children’s lives had been saved!

I tell this story because I keep hearing from abortion abolitionists that those who aren’t part of their movement are unwilling to take radical steps on behalf of the unborn. Because of my prolife efforts, I lost my job as a pastor, went to jail, and couldn’t make more than minimum wage for twenty years. That’s very small suffering in the larger scheme of things, but I think I can say I am not casual in my dedication to stopping abortions (which is saving children) nor am I inherently opposed to radical thinking and action.

Attempting to Apply the Golden Rule

I have been reading abortion abolitionist comments on my Facebook page and the articles they’ve linked to, and watching videos they sent me. I had hoped to write about those today, but it might be several weeks before I can put my thoughts together. We’ll see.

For now, I want to say that I believe many abortion abolitionists are sincere Christians who genuinely care about unborn children. They have listened to the arguments of intelligent and articulate leaders and have come to the uncompromising conclusion that their approach—and theirs alone—to saving unborn children is the right one. Several have made clear they believe all other “prolife” approaches don’t go far enough and therefore are sinful.

Their “save all babies” approach sounds pure and undefiled, but in my opinion their utter opposition to incremental prolife efforts amounts to “Save all babies, and unless we can, let’s not save any.” (I realize they would never say it that way, but that’s what it sounds like. I’m sure some of them have a more balanced approach. I just haven’t heard it yet.)

So why am I looking over abortion abolitionist material? Because I want to be fair and open to the possibility that I’m wrong, whether entirely or partially. Obviously, I don’t think I’ve been wrong (do any of us?), but I’m asking God to give me insight in the knowledge that sometimes I certainly have been wrong. If I want others to be open to my viewpoints, I should be open to theirs.

In these last few years I have seen a jarring number of Christians despising each other about masks, social distancing, vaccinations, and political candidates. I don’t want to fall prey to the acidic, demeaning ways Christians have treated other brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe these violations of Christian love and unity blatantly violate the commands of Jesus and hinder the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing unbelievers to Christ. (I recently wrote an article for Desiring God that addresses this vitally important issue that is hurting churches and undermining our gospel witness.)

This is why in a future blog, I plan to link to podcasts and articles so people can hear for themselves what abortion abolitionists are saying. In my book hand in Hand I say we should not base our appraisal of Arminians by listening to what Calvinists say they believe, nor should we base our appraisal of Calvinists by listening to what Arminians say they believe. I am absolutely convinced to understand any position, you must listen to its proponents, not its opponents.

I confess I have been treated in demeaning and dismissive ways by some (though not all) abortion abolitionists, and I do not want to reciprocate that. The golden rule is not, “Do to others what they do to you,” but “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” That’s why I’m asking God for understanding, and the ability to set aside my preconceptions and believe the best of my brothers and sisters whether or not they do the same. I want to have civil dialogue and not misrepresent or slander fellow believers.

The Incremental Abolition of Slavery

Now to my focus in the remainder of this blog: I’d like to demonstrate that the abolition of slavery, which the term abolitionists is historically derived from, actually happened in increments over many decades, with the hard work of many who opposed slavery and used different means to attempt to end it.

Consider this article on ending slavery in the state of Virginia, which talks about incremental steps. Even the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 didn’t end slavery, since it applied only to the Confederate States. Over a year later Virginia finally outlawed slavery in the entire state, including parts which had been loyal to the Union.

Another year later came the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. Had that amendment not been ratified then, surely the efforts to abolish slavery would have continued, even if they’d taken decades. While the ideal would have been the immediate change of the law everywhere, in a world where those who understand what’s right and wrong aren’t always in control (have you noticed?), the ideal is not always immediately possible. Therefore, righteous people must labor to change all that can be changed, while working towards all that should be changed.

One of my great heroes is William Wilberforce. He is credited as the primary human agent to bring about the end of slavery in England. In an article called “The Incremental Nature of Change,” Tim Challies summarizes some points from Talking About Good and Bad Without Getting Ugly, written by Paul Chamberlain, a professor at Trinity Western University:

Wilberforce was a realistic man and knew (to borrow a cliché) that Rome was not built in a day. He knew that the kind of change he desired would take time, for it required the British people to adopt a whole new mindset. They had to be led to see that slavery was an afront to the God-given value of human beings, even those of a different skin-color. They had to see that the conditions of slavery were an abomination to a nation that claimed to be Christian. They had a lot to learn—a lot to understand. This would take time.

Wilberforce, then, was willing to accept incremental improvements. For example, at one point he supported a bill, passed on a trial basis, that would regulate the number of slaves that were permitted to be transported on a single ship. Previously slaves had been laid in rows on benches, chained on their sides with the front of one pressed against the back of the next. Following the legislation, improvements were made. However, the bill implicitly and explicitly supported the continuance of slavery. Wilberforce saw it as a step in the right direction and was willing to support it. Another time he voted for a bill that required plantation owners to register all of their slaves. While this bill also supported slavery, Wilberforce saw that a registry of slaves would keep plantation owners from adding to their number of slaves by buying them from illegal slave smugglers.

Wilberforce saw these incremental changes as accomplishing two goals. First, at the very least, they improved the living and working conditions of slaves. While slavery may continue, at least the slaves were afforded a greater amount of dignity, even if it continued to be minimal. Second, he believed that affording slaves greater rights set the Empire on a slippery slope. Having acknowledged the humanness of the slaves, people had to admit that slaves were something more than animals. The British Parliament had given approval to bills that Wilberforce knew would lead to nothing short of abolition. And of course his beliefs proved to be correct. The incremental changes for which he lobbied proved to be the starting point for the eventual abolition of slavery.

Year after year, while both unbelievers and Christians denied or ignored reality, Wilberforce suffered sleepless nights, plagued by dreams of suffering slaves. Finally, in 1807, against incredible odds, Wilberforce saw the slave trade outlawed. But even that was not the end to slavery; rather, it was a big step (otherwise known as an increment) toward ending it. Parliament still insisted that those who were already slaves should not be freed. Wilberforce and the other abolitionists labored over 25 more years for the emancipation of existing slaves. Wilberforce died in 1833—three days after the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery passed its second reading in the House of Commons, bringing legalized slavery in England to its final end.

Can you imagine any British opponent of slavery in 1807 saying that they would refuse to vote for ending the slave trade unless all slaves were immediately freed? Sure, ideally, you would want every slave freed. But any way to end some slavery was better than not eliminating any slavery. And even when slavery was ended, it fell far short of establishing full legal civil rights for the former slaves. That didn’t happen for more than a hundred years, and even then, the racism beneath the surface couldn’t be eliminated.  I also recommend this article that depicts the many anti-slavery tactics employed decade after decade, ultimately leading to the abolition of slavery. Imagine if one group stepped forward and said, “We will stand against all incremental efforts to end slavery in America. We will oppose all laws that free some slaves and not others, and we will fight all legislation that increases the rights of slaves but fails to give them absolutely equal rights.”

Though these idealists might have had pure motives, and perhaps would have slept better at night knowing they didn’t tolerate compromise, judge for yourself how effective they would or would not have been in actually ending slavery. Certainly their standard would have failed to help present slaves. I think it’s a worthy point that historically the true abolitionists in countries such as England and America normally favored, embraced, and frequently used innumerable incremental means to bring about their ultimate goal, the end of slavery.

Where We’re at Today

The implications for the prolife movement today are obvious. As Scott Klusendorf pointed out in his article, we are all incrementalists, including abolitionists: “When abolitionists introduce a total ban on abortion in one state but not all of them, they are working incrementally. …We can’t help but function incrementally when confronting evil. It was right to end slavery in 1865 even though legally sanctioned segregation was not abolished for another 100 years. Even if we ban abortion, we still have the evil of discarded IVF embryos to contend with, not to mention other reproductive technologies that treat children as commodities.”

Suppose I’m on an ocean beach, and I see a sinking boat. I see people in the water and hear some crying out. I see people flailing their arms. I dive into the water and swim as fast as I can to get to them. By the time I get there, the entire ship is below water. Some are injured, and there are no life preservers. Among those struggling are five children. I grab hold of the closest child and hold her head above the water. I swim to another child and hold her up, but when I hold both up, my head is under water. I make my way to a third child, but I realize that if I attempt to swim them all to shore, we will all drown. Two is the most I can possibly save. Even when I sink under, hopefully I can hold my breath then come up for air often enough to swim them both to shore.

This is a terrible moral dilemma. Who am I to choose to save some and let others drown? If two children have the right to be saved, don’t all five? Of course. But what is the alternative to attempting to saving only two? To let them all drown? Two is an increment of five. Saving two is not as good as saving five. But since I can’t save five, shouldn’t I do what I can to save as many as I can?

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward” (Mark 9:41). Notice the value He places on doing small measures of grace to the extent that we can. He did not say, “Unless you can save a child from a life of abuse and poverty, you should not do anything for him.” He also did not say, “Unless you can give a cup of cold water to all thirsty children, you shouldn’t give one to any of them.” Giving a cup of cold water to a child is a small thing which may or may not lead to greater measures to help that child. Jesus does not take an “all or nothing at all” attitude toward helping the needy. A cup of cold water was an increment, but it was a very good increment.

Every day, on average, there are over 2,000 abortions performed in the U.S. There’s much work to be done—and the good news is that every one of us can do something to help women and children in need. May we, in our hearts and actions, have mercy on the smallest and weakest of God’s precious children, and do what we can to rescue and help as many of them as possible. May we  reach out in love and compassion to their mothers. If we can’t reach them all right now, let’s reach as many as we can. And meanwhile let’s all work toward ending child-killing, just as the original abolitionists freed and aided what slaves they could, while working toward the goal of ending all slavery.

Browse more prolife articles and resources, as well as see Randy’s books Pro-Choice or Pro-Life: Examining 15 Pro-Choice ClaimsWhy ProLife? and ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments.

William Wilberforce photo: Wikimedia Commons

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