Why I Am an Incrementalist/Eliminationist and Not an Abolitionist

“Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked” (Ps 82:34).[1]

Since every human life is made in the image of God and human life begins at conception, we should desire and seek to overturn the 1973 SCOTUS decision and its offspring that made abortion on demand a right protected by law. In all instances in which I speak of the elimination of abortion, I retain the exception of saving the mother’s life, which is an extreme rarity. I mention it only for clarity.

The pro-life march was founded by anti-abortion activist and Roman Catholic convert Nellie Gray in 1974 to protest the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion nationwide in Roe v. Wade.[2] The march has continued as a public demonstration against this assault on prenatal human life for forty-eight years.

Pro-life means, by definition, anti-abortion and describes those who fight to eliminate the legal right to abortion in America. But, of course, in any group of millions of people, there will be differences of opinion. For example, some pro-lifers add rape and incest as exceptions, but that was never the main thrust of the movement. For the record, I oppose both exceptions and the logic behind them. But if those were the only allowable reasons for abortion, it would reduce every one million abortions to just about 3000. And that is a victory I would take while still fighting to eliminate all abortions.

When the pro-life movement began, it was to stop abortion. But, because of the philosophical justification of abortion, we knew that the fight to legalize infanticide and euthanasia would follow, and it has. But the battle to eliminate abortion is a battle about the nature of life, and if we win that battle, the others will reverse.

Abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, slavery, and the German Holocaust, are predicated on a quality of life view, whereas ending those happens when the sanctity of human life is valued. Let me contrast the two.
Quality of Human Life: Those born of human beings are valuable, but not intrinsically so, not equally so. That depends on the criteria of the day for what it means to be human. Those in power set this quality. It is a quality given but not inherently possessed as one created in the image of God.

Sanctity of Human Life: Every human is a person from conception and possesses intrinsic value because of being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). That creation is reaffirmed in our Declaration of Independence, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.

Two hundred and fifty years of arguments in America for the sanctity and humanity of all human life have been based on those biblical and constitutional truths. These are included in the views of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., the pro-life movement, and the lesser-known but significant 1968 Sanitation Workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee.

Therefore, humans are so from conception and should not be enslaved against their will. Likewise, innocent humans should not be eliminated because they do not meet certain standards of the day, regardless of what those standards are or who sets them.

I have been involved in the pro-life cause for forty-four years, and all I have been associated with were fighting to eliminate legal abortion. Unfortunately, the reality is that we cannot end abortion any more than we can end murder, rape, thievery, or any other sin. But we can stand for the sanctity of human life and make abortion illegal. This legal change would shift the norm of our society from a quality of life ethic to a sanctity of life ethic, replacing a culture of death with a culture of life.

Today, some of my Christian brothers and sisters are a part of the Abolish Human Abortion movement. The Oklahoma Society of Abolish Human Abortion founders came out of the church I pastor, Trinity Baptist Church, Norman, OK. They fight to end legalized abortion in America, and every true pro-lifer can stand by them in that goal even if abolitionists often unjustifiably disparage pro-lifers. Their attitude and spirit that their way alone is right permeated their approach to other issues as well, which ultimately resulted in many of them being church disciplined by our church and eventually removed several years ago. This same attitude is often reflective of the abolitionist movement.

As with those who wanted to end slavery and fought to make it illegal but would not join the slavery abolitionist movement because of their tactics, methods, and strategy, so it is today with many pro-lifers, including myself, who do not team up with the abolitionists in everything they do. We join them to end legalized abortion but do not join them in their mindset or methods.

To maintain a separation from the abolitionists is not tantamount to being any less resolved in the quest to eliminate legal abortion, their comments to the contrary notwithstanding. It is to say we reject abolitionists mischaracterizations of the pro-life movement and what it has stood for, fought for, and accomplished. We reject the all-or-nothing approach of the modern abortion abolitionists movement. It is not a rejection of their goal but their strategy, tactics, and misrepresentation of the heartbeat of the pro-life movement, what they derogatorily refer to as incrementalism.

The all-or-nothing approach of the abolitionists, as used in this article, refers to many abolitionists contempt for the incremental/elimination approach. In contrast to abolitionists, the incremental/elimination approach celebrates every legislative gain in potentially or actually decreasing the number of abortions, access to abortions, and the stature of abortion as a right while always maintaining the fight for the total elimination of legal abortion.

The all-or-nothing designation does not refer to what an abolitionist might do in ministry outside of how I use it in this article; unfortunately, some abolitionists mischaracterize my use of the term. [3] Considering the title of the article and the following juxtapositions as seen, for example, in my reference to the 2021 SBC Resolution and slavery, I believe I made it lucidly clear what is meant by the description; therefore, to infer that I use the term to speak about abolitionists’ involvements outside of the context of this article is a misrepresentation of the article.

A couple of months ago, I sat through a message by an abolitionist on this issue. He is a good and godly man whom I love and respect. But he demonstrated the same mischaracterization of pro-lifers that I have seen before by other abolitionists. By doing so, he and other like-minded abolitionists end up attacking and misrepresenting those who are some of their most ardent cohorts in the battle against abortion and for the sanctity of human life. They malign those who have fought to minimize the legality of abortion and share their ultimate desire to eliminate legalized abortion. They, thereby, hurt the cause of saving babies’ lives.

Abolitionists operate on a save all or none approach to ending abortion. For example, they will support an abolitionist candidate who has no chance of winning and, thereby, cost a pro-life candidate the election, who would, if elected, fight to reduce and end abortion. Their support of an abolitionist candidate who cannot win enhances the chance of victory for the vulgar pro-abortionist, who will unabashedly promote the idea of abortion as a human right along with every other unthinkable human debauchery.

Pro-lifers operate on a save as many or all approach to ending abortion. For example, we will support a pro-life candidate with a chance of winning who seeks to end abortion and also take every opportunity to reduce the number of abortions until legalized abortion is eliminated.

Abolitionists regularly mischaracterize and denigrate any approach that incorporates incremental measures as compromising or being complicit in abortion, merely managing and regulating abortion, or even in some sense supporting the continuation of abortion. In some cases, I have heard them calling pro-lifers to repent.

SBC 2021 Resolution by abolitionists to Abolish Abortion was presented and passed, which for the record, I voted for even though I did not agree entirely with all the wording. Following are three of the Resolves of the Resolution.

It says in part: RESOLVED, “That the messengers of the SBC meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15-16, 2021, do state unequivocally that abortion is murder, and we reject any position that allows for any exceptions to the legal protection of our preborn neighbors, compromises God’s holy standard of justice, or promotes any God-hating partiality (Ps 94:6; Isa 10:12; Prov 24:11; Ps 82:14).” (italics added)
The implications of this wording mischaracterize pro-life battles as allowing for exceptions to legal protection rather than the reality of seeking to save as many babies as we can at that moment, with an unrelenting passion for saving them all.

RESOLVED, “That we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion because it challenges God’s Lordship over the heart and the conscience, and rejects His call to repent of sin completely and immediately (Gen 3:1; John 8:44; Rom 2:14-15; 2 or 11:3).” (italics, embolden added)
Notice the wording “incremental approach . . . challenges God’s Lordship . . . and rejects His call to repent.” The word alone was an amendment to make the resolution acceptable to pro-lifers, which was essential for its sure passage and a rejection of the abolitionist’s all-or-nothing approach.
Thus, the abolitionist’s version just said, We will not embrace an incremental approach to ending abortion. That is an intentional disparagement of the pro-life movement. Stated another way, abolitionists say they defend only the all-or-nothing approach. Abolitionists will only support legislation or other measures that end all abortions. In contrast, pro-lifers will fight and pray for the elimination of abortion while we simultaneously support legislation or other measures that reduce the number of abortions until all legal abortions stop. Elimination of all abortions at one particular moment and eliminating as many abortions as possible at a given moment are not mutually exclusive.

RESOLVED, “That we humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion, and of any apathy, in not laboring with the power and influence we have to abolish abortion.”[4] (italics added)

The italics highlight another unnuanced misrepresentation of the pro-life movement. Neither I nor anyone I have known, read, supported, or fought with for 44 years sought to legitimize or regulate (manage) abortion. We always, without exception, fought to use whatever measures were available to save some babies, or even one baby, from the barbarianism of abortion even when saving all was not possible at the moment. And while we celebrate the victory of saving some babies, that victory in a battle was never a signal that the war was over. On the contrary, it never reduced our dedication to ending all abortions.

The pro-abortion armies understand the pro-life strategy, which is eliminating the legal right to abortion in America. They know the goal has always been the elimination of legal abortion on demand. Yet, while we steadfastly hold to this lofty goal, we simultaneously snatch as many babies as we can from the evil tortures of the inhumane doctor’s agenda until God gives victory. Only the abolitionist’s language indicates a misunderstanding of this passion of the pro-life movement, while pro-lifers and pro-abortionists understand it well.

Therefore, pro-lifers do not need to lament standing to save some lives, even though we could not save all any more than those who freed only some slaves or one slave through various measures need to repent because they could not save all from slavery or end slavery by their efforts. Because we have been unable to stop legalized abortion does not mean we need to repent any more than Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust needs to lament because he saved some but not all. His story is the basis for the movie Schindler’s List.

Does Anna Murray, the woman who helped Frederick Douglass escape from slavery, need to repent because she did not free all slaves? No! Such logic is sophomoric and even devilish. Frederick Douglass did not think she needed to repent. He married her! Then, they fought together to end slavery. Others who fought to end slavery did not think Anna needed to repent as Douglass rose to be one of, if not the, leading voice to end slavery. Similarly, those who survive abortion become the most powerful and credible voices against abortion, like our own Josiah Presley.

Because we have not been able to overturn Roe vs. Wade and abolish abortion does not mean we need to repent any more than Corrie Ten Boon needs to confess hiding and saving some Jews from the Nazis even though she and her family could not save them all, much less topple the Third Reich. They and histories countless and often nameless other defenders of human life are not failures, nor are they compromisers because their acts did little when compared to the numbers of those who perished. No! A thousand times no! They deserve not our criticism or condemnation but our praise and thanksgiving. We rightly honor them as heroes, as are those who have fought for decades to end abortion in the pro-life movement or those who fought for two centuries to minimize, reduce, and eliminate the presence of slavery even though they did not live to see that day.

Slavery: The fight to end slavery took over 200 years compared to the 49 years we have been fighting abortion on demand. Many who fought to end slavery, who took an incremental/elimination approach, opposed the abolitionist’s all-or-nothing approach and some of their tactics and rhetoric, but they did support the abolitionist’s goal to end slavery, as do pro-lifers today who believe the goal is to end abortion on demand.

When slavery was legal, laws about slavery varied between the states. In some states, it was legal (these states wanted it legal in all states); in some states, it was illegal (they generally wanted it illegal in all states). Because of these laws, an escaped slave could remain free in some states, but in other states, they were returned to their slave masters.

In 1854, the Kansas/Nebraska Act was passed. It canceled the Missouri Compromise, which said slavery was not legal in those areas. This Act made Kansas and Nebraska two new territories with sovereignty to vote on legalizing slavery. The territorial vote, if passed, would extend slavery to more of the country, enslave more people, and reduce the number of places for escaped slaves to live free. It produced all kinds of uprisings on both sides of the issue. That issue was a battle line in the 1856 elections between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in 1818, and remained a slave until his escape with the help of a free black woman, Anna Murray, whom he later married. Once free, he changed his name to Frederick Douglass, by which he is still known. He became an intellectual giant, an orator extraordinaire, a leader of black people, an avid abolitionist, and a leader against slavery during legalized slavery and in reconstruction after the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

In an abolitionist essay entitled, “What Is My Duty as an Anti-Slavery Voter ” published April 25, 1856,[5] Douglass advocated voting only for abolitionist candidates and was adamantly against incrementalism like abortion abolitionists are today. It was all or nothing.

In a subsequent essay by Douglass on August 15, 1856 (almost four months later) entitled “Freemont and Dayton”[6] (the two Republican candidates), he changed his view from supporting only abolitionist candidates. His essay gave seven reasons for the change although I only mention three.

The essay begins by saying, “The readers of our journal will observe that the honored names which, for some time, stood at the head of our columns, as its candidates for the president and vice-president of the United States, have been withdrawn . . . we deem it proper frankly to announce our purpose to support, with whatever influence we possess, little or much, John C. Fremont and William L. Dayton, the candidates for the Republican Party for the presidency and vice presidency of the United States.”[7] They were the candidates in 1856.

In his first reason, he said “he desired that abolitionist candidate Gerrit Smith win the election, saying his name is synonymous with unadulterated abolitionism.”[8] He said, “Of all men beneath the sky, we would rather see this just man made president.”[9] However, he and other abolitionists would not vote for him because he could not win; they, therefore, chose to vote for some victory potentials rather than a failed all or nothing candidate who could not win, and accordingly, would only garner votes to no avail. This would thereby increase the chances of proslavery candidates winning.

Following is the third reason Douglass gave for changing his position. “Right anti-slavery action is that which deals the severest deadliest blow upon slavery that can be given at that particular time. Such action is always consistent, however, different may be the forms through which it expresses itself. Again, in supporting Fremont and Dayton, we are in no wise required to abandon a single anti-slavery truth or principle which we have hitherto cherished and publicly advocated. The difference between our paper this week and last week is a difference of policy, not of principle.”[10] (italics added) Meaning abolition and incrementalism are not mutually exclusive.

In the fourth reason, he says, “Beyond all controversy, the commanding and vital issue with slavery at the approaching presidential election, is the extension or the limitation of slavery. The malign purpose of extending, strengthening, and perpetuating slavery is the conclusion of the great mass of the slaveholders. The execution of this purpose upon Kansas, is plainly enough the business set down for the present by the friends of slavery, North and South. And it cannot be denied that the election either of [James] Buchanan [Democrat] or [Millard] Fillmore [Know Nothing candidate] would be the success of this malign purpose of slave power . . . The fact that the slaveholders had taken a united stand in favor of this measure, is, at least, an argument why anti-slavery men should take a stand to defeat them.”[11] (italics added)

Thus, Douglass and others’ change meant that their anti-slavery stands against pro-slavery would be at every point that supports or advances slavery. Pro-lifers do the same with abortion, incrementalism without sacrificing the goal of eliminating abortion.

Douglass went on to say, “The South has tendered to us the issue of slavery extension; and to meet the slave power here is to rouse its most devilish animosity. It is to strike hardest, where the slaveholders feel most keenly. The most powerful blow that could be given at that point would, in our judgment, be the election to the presidency and vice presidency of the republic, the candidates of the Republican Party.”[12]

He and other abolitionists who sought the elimination of hellish slavery but did not vote for the abolitionist candidate because he could not win, said of their stance, “There is not a trafficker in the bodies and souls of men, from Baltimore to New Orleans, that would not crack his bloody slave whip with fiendish delight over the defeat of Fremont and Dayton.”[13] [the Republicans] This is the nature of choices and particularly elections in our present world.

Douglass further said, “We shall support Fremont and Dayton because there is no chance whatever in the present contest of electing better men than they . . . Bitter indeed, would be the reproach and deep and pointed would be the regret, if, through the Radical Abolitionists, victory should perch on the bloody standard of slave rule, as would be the case if Fremont and Dayton were defeated, and Buchanan and [John C] Breckinridge elected.”[14] Meaning abolitionists support of abolitionists who have no chance of winning helps the pro-slavery side and hurts the anti-slavery side. The choice to not vote for someone who can win and do the most good helps evil triumph. Then, as today, many people who opposed slavery and fought to see it end did not work with the abolitionists, even though the ultimate goals were the same.

The incremental/elimination approach means taking every step possible to eliminate, restrict, or diminish the stature and presence of abortion on demand. Stopping any abortion now is the right approach and in no way undermines the quest to eliminate all abortions. There is nothing inherently contradictory, mutually exclusive, or that results in more babies being killed in a pro-life position that sees value in an incremental approach while maintaining a goal of elimination. Abolitionists seem willing to sacrifice unnecessary casualties along the way until the war is won, whether the fight is against slavery or abortion.
Read the writings of slaves while slavery was still the law of the land. They contained thanksgiving to God for one white person who was nice to them; thanksgiving to God for one state in which a slave could escape and remain free; thanksgiving to God for one less person in slavery; thanksgiving to God for one person, like Douglass, who escaped the inhumanity of slavery; thanksgiving to God for one vote, one act, one law against slavery.

Legislation can slow or reduce the evil, carnage, and brutality of slavery and abortion. So why not support it if it can? Laws have a tutorial effect. Why not save babies at a particular stage of growth even if we cannot, at the time, save all? Am I to say, no, I will not support legislation that potentiates saving thousands or even millions of babies because it does not save them all? I, for one, will not speak so callously.

We have not eliminated murder, rape, and a galaxy of other crimes, but we do fight to reduce them by spiritual, moral, and legal means, and that in no way hinders our quest for the total elimination of them. And it does save some lives.

I will fight with every means available, whether by incremental steps or the final death blow to legalized abortion on demand. I will fight and speak to save them all, but if I can only save some, I will save some; if I can only save one, I will save one. I will not be held captive to the all-or-nothing mindset.
If I can save some or one through adoption, I will. If I can save some or one through demonstration, I will. If I can save some or one through intervention, I will. If I can save some or one through legislation, I will. If I can save some or one through proclamation, I will. Until one day, by God’s grace, we save them all.

[1] This was originally preached as a message entitled, The Elimination of Abortion: Incrementalism or Not?
[2] Tara Isabella Burton, The March for Life, America’s biggest anti-abortion rally, explained, Vox.com, 1/18/18, https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/1/18/16870018/march-for-life-anti-abortion-rally-explained, accessed 3/28/20. See also Mark Memmott, Nellie Gray, Founder Of ‘March for Life,’ Dies, NPR, 8/15/12, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2012/08/15/158820517/nellie-gray-founder-of-march-for-life-dies, accessed 3/28/20.
[3], Here is an example of someone misunderstanding my article and the contextual meaning of the term, all or nothing, “Ask the Pastor,” accessed 5/4/22.
[4] WHEREAS, over the past 48 years with 60+ million abortions, traditional Pro-life laws, though well intended, have not established equal protection and justice for the preborn, but on the contrary, appallingly have established incremental, regulatory guidelines for when, where, why, and how to obtain legal abortion of innocent preborn children, thereby legally sanctioning abortion, and

WHEREAS, since 1980, the SBC has passed many resolutions reaffirming the importance of human life at all stages of development, but we have yet to call for the immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise, and

WHEREAS, our confessional statement, The Baptist Faith and Message, according to Article XV, affirms that children from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord; and further affirms that Southern Baptists are mandated by Scripture to speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death, now, be it therefore

RESOLVED, that the messengers of the SBC meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15-16, 2021, do state unequivocally that abortion is murder, and we reject any position that allows for any exceptions to the legal protection of our preborn neighbors, compromises God’s holy standard of justice, or promotes any God-hating partiality (Ps 94:6; Isa 10:1-2; Prov 24:11; Ps 82:1-4), and be it further

RESOLVED, that we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion because it challenges God’s Lordship over the heart and the conscience, and rejects His call to repent of sin completely and immediately (Gen 3:1; John 8:44; Rom 2:14-15; 2 Cor 11:3), and be it further

RESOLVED, that we affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law, and be it further

RESOLVED, that we humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion, and of any apathy, in not laboring with the power and influence we have to abolish abortion, and be it further

RESOLVED, that as Southern Baptists we will engage, with God’s help, in establishing equal justice and protection for the preborn according to the authority of God’s Word as well as local and federal law, and call upon pastors and leaders to use their God-given gifts of preaching, teaching, and leading with one unified, principled, prophetic voice to abolish abortion, and be it finally

RESOLVED, that, because abolishing abortion is a Great Commission issue, we must call upon governing authorities at all levels to repent and “obey everything that [Christ] has commanded, exhorting them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance by faithfully executing their responsibilities as God’s servants of justice, and working with all urgency to enact legislation using the full weight of their office to interpose on behalf of the preborn, abolishing abortion immediately, without exception or compromise (Mark 6:18; Matt 28:18-20; Rom 13:4, 6). https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-abolishing-abortion/ accessed 12/9/21.
[5] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 108.
[6] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 113.
[7] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 113.
[8] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 113.
[9] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 113.
[10] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 114.
[11] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 114-15.
[12] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 115.
[13] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 115-16.
[14] Nicholas Buccola, editor, The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 116.

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Ronnie W. Rogers