Over the last few days both Toby Sumpter (pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, ID) and Douglas Wilson (pastor Christ Church of Moscow, ID) have responded to Joel McDurmon’s and my critique of Wilson’s comments on incrementalism and abolitionism. For the record, the link to the podcast in which Douglas made comments about abolitionism is here, his first “smashmouth incrementalism” article is here, Toby’s response to our critique is here, and Douglas’s response is here.
Though I appreciate the dialogue from these two Muscovites, I cannot yet say that either Toby or Douglas have addressed my concerns. Toby’s article was of more substance, so I’m thankful to him in particular for offering some more meat to chew on. Even if some of that meat is past its expiration date. Wilson’s second “smashmouth” article makes clear that Douglas Wilson has solid pro-life credentials. Some of that past action is commendable, but it is also not the point. No one was saying, however, that Douglas Wilson isn’t pro-life. Quite the opposite. He is very much pro-life. So much so that he shares in the standard pro-life compromises we have become used to seeing over the last 40-plus years. The problem isn’t a lacking of “pro-lifeness,” the problem is the pro-life movement. For this reason, there is really no need in this debate to flex one’s prove pro-life credentials.
Incrementalism is, quite rightly, compromise
Before I can address some of the more substantial positions advocated by Toby (and seconded by Douglas) I should address some confusions and misunderstandings.
Douglas’s recent article seems to imply that we are saying the same thing while I am now more than ever confident we are not. This is made very clear by Douglas’s unqualified affirmation of Toby’s article—an article in support of the recent 20-week ban. The same ban that we (Joel and I) unequivocally oppose and did so clearly in our article. This flattening-out of ideas and important distinctions characterizes both Douglas’s and Toby’s responses. It creates an unhelpful obfuscation that only leads readers to misunderstand what is being said. In Douglas’s second “smashmouth” article, he writes;
Now in McDurmon’s and Reasnor’s response to my piece they rejected, quite rightly, any approach whatever that concluded with “and after that you can kill the baby.” For not one moment in all these years have I countenanced that kind of thinking. After that, we demand the next thing.
However, that is not at all what we wrote. Pay attention to the difference. What we wrote was this.
Any bill that functionally could end with “and then you can kill the baby” reinforces the dehumanizing and godless nature of abortion, and it is on that very highway.
We are talking about the specific legislation. We are not talking about a vague approach that advocates for inaction after a pro-life bill is passed. We are not talking about supporting legislation and then failing to do more, we’re talking precisely about the legislation itself. This includes the very same legislation Toby and Douglas are here supporting. It includes something that could indeed functionally end the way we mentioned, and which Douglas concedes we would be “quite rightly” rejecting.
When a pro-life law only protects some of the preborn, it could functionally end with “and then you can kill the baby.” Even if that legal reality is just assumed or implied in something like a 20-week ban, it is still an implied, legalized and encoded, recognition of the right to murder a child. No Christian can support this consistently with their faith. Furthermore, many (though not all) pro-life legislation explicitly contains language that states that its purpose is limited and not meant to hinder “women’s right to abortion access.” This is because much legislation is written in a way to abide by Roe v Wade—to work within the legal paradigm that decision created and not defy it. The goal of such legal maneuvering is to evade any Roe v Wade challenge, not to overturn Roe v Wade. Let me be as clear as I possibly can. Any bill, political action, or rhetoric, that betrays the legal and ethical foundations for which we are fighting is “incrementalism” and is opposed by abolitionists. We cannot gain that for which we are fighting by betraying the very ideas we are attempting to establish.
So, is Wilson wanting to appear to agree with us, while at the same time rejecting what we are really saying? I don’t know. Maybe we need to be clearer. All I can do is repeat the same distinctions I did before.
In a similar apparent confusion, Wilson and Sumter both call us “all incrementalists.” We are not all incrementalists. Wilson states that,
But, as Toby points out, we are all incrementalists. McDurmon and Reasnor distinguish their position from “overnightism.” Yes, exactly. Can we talk?
Yes. I’d like to talk. But no, we are not all incrementalists. I’d like it if we weren’t talking past each other. In order to have that sort of edifying dialogue, however, we can’t dismiss or neglect key distinctions. Wilson points out that we distinguish immediatism from overnightism, but we also distinguish incrementalism from our immediatism. He points out that we make one distinction, but then moves forward not even making mention of the more important distinction—the very one that separates our ideas.
Abolitionism and immediatism (one tenet of five) does not in any way set up an expectation for overnight or immediate change. Not at all. In Toby’s article, he commented, “As Doug likes to say, God is perfect but He is not a perfectionist.” To apply that good quotation to this discussion, it should read “God uses increments but he isn’t an incrementalist.” God is not an incrementalist or an overnightist. There are differences. There is also a third option: the option described in detail in our first response, immediatism. This is a no-compromising strategy that does not accept any political means that betray the very values we are seeking to establish.
In my first response, I made the comparison between personal repentance and covenantal or corporate repentance. Some took issue with this, complaining that incrementalism is legitimate when we’re dealing with institutions or corporate bodies but not legitimate when dealing with individuals. However, when the Prophets of God called Israel to repent, they called for immediate repentance on the corporate level as well, even with the understanding that Israel may take years if not generations to change. The prophets never offered up deals or strategies to partially repent now and maybe a little bit more repentance later. No. Not at all. They were smashmouth in the only sense one should be: smashmouth immediatists. They were not incrementalists, but Abolitionists of idolatry. They were not naive in thinking Israel will be perfect the next day, but they did not lessen the commands of God because of the wickedness of men. They did not suggest and support plans to repent only gradually. In other words, God’s secret providential plan for the abolition of abortion is not in conflict with our duty to call for total and immediate abolition of abortion. That duty extends to acting in accordance with that call and only using our influence to support actions consistent with that call.
Distinguishing between “incrementalism,” “overnightism,” and “immediatism” may seem tedious to some readers, but critics of abolition have driven us to develop these terms precisely over time, and it is not simply a semantic difference. When pro-life commentators like Wilson or Sumter enter the discussion without the same careful distinctions, or do not honor those terms in the same way, it causes problems. If Wilson defined “smashmouth incrementalism” as abolitionists define “immediatism” there would be less of an argument. Words do matter. While differing definitions could still cause confusion, but we would have unity on the substance of the discussion. However, that is not the case here. We are not on the same page, no matter how nice that would be.
Another confusion that should be cleared up is demonstrated in this statement from Wilson:
If someone has compromise in his heart, then geographical incrementalism (approved by McDurmon and Reasnor) could be just as problematic as that posed by “after twenty weeks” legislation.
This use of terminology in Wilson’s characterization of Joel and me is problematic and in line with the overall confusion. This is how Joel and I mentioned about the “geographical” ethics of abolition:
Geographically-bounded abolition is not a form of incrementalism.
Yet Wilson says that McDurmon and Reasnor approve of “geographical incrementalism”? We do not. We approve of geographical abolition. The indispensable distinction is that geographical abolition is contained by jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the right to speak or say what the law is. “Incrementalism” in this debate does not refer to the limits of jurisdiction, but to self-imposed (and unrighteous) limitations when speaking the law within that jurisdiction.
For example, again, I cannot repent for someone else’s sin, and Idaho cannot abolish abortion for Oklahoma. An uncompromised abolition of abortion within jurisdictional bounds is not “incrementalism” in the same way that repenting of your own personal sins but not your brothers sin does not make you guilty of false repentance.
Increments are not neutral
Wilson sets up a theological foundation for compromise when he refers to “compromise in his heart.” He adds,
But the compromise is always in the heart, and not in the nature of the increment. Our reply should sound like Nancy Pelosi on gun control.
This is little more than an appeal to the subjectivity of “good intentions,” and it forms the basis for political compromise. It means, in other words, as long as political compromise comes from a “good heart,” it is not really compromise. The compromise is not in the neutrality, it’s only in the heart. If the heart is therefore good, so will be the increments compromised. As Joel and I argued in the previous article, this is a reliance on moral neutrality. It makes the increments implicitly neutral—free from ethical import and freed from ethical judgment or scrutiny. To quote myself,
For incrementalism to be accepted as ethically justifiable, its proponents, like Wilson, must assume moral neutrality for our civil magistrates and their actions.
Wilson admits this. He does care so much to examine the “nature of the increment.” He only wants to judge the heart. This turns the Biblical principle on its head. We are to judge all things. There is no neutrality. Some readers may even get sick of reading “no neutrality” over and over again, but until this basic ethical concept is understood in its pervasive reality, we should keep hitting that note.
Jeff Durbin, for example, is absolutely right when he makes the same point:
Our culture of death believes in the moral “right” to kill their developing humans. That’s not merely a “political” issue. That’s a moral issue. And placating to the unbeliever by pretending neutrality when we fight against it is also a moral issue. It is immoral to fight abortion from a “neutral” position.
Too much evil has been perpetrated by men whose hearts are full of genuinely good intentions. How we fight for justice matters as much as our idea of what justice is. Wilson tried to align abolitionism with the violence of John Brown in his previous piece, but he does not seem to see it is his own view that partakes more of that type of moral autonomy. John Brown was in sin because his method was sinful. Would Wilson defend John Brown if he could charitably discern that John Brown’s intentions were pure? Would Douglas only examine his heart, or would he also examine his methods? Christian civil ethics do not revolve around intentions, but actions, too. It is not the job of the magistrate to judge the heart of man (with very limited exceptions), but his actions. This is a standard of utmost importance.
There is, however, some limited theonomic principle regarding intent that may be relevant.
Murder and Ageism
Toby Sumpter makes reference to this principle:
The other way of overshooting would be insisting that mothers be prosecuted for first degree murder. Yes, mothers are complicit in the murder of their babies, but the Bible makes distinctions between certain degrees of guilt and Western law has developed those principles. Those sorts of violent or clunky tactics really do set the movement back.
There is a theonomic idea that distinguishes between intentional killing from unintentional killing. We can think of it as the difference between manslaughter and murder, but Toby’s (and by endorsement Wilson’s as well) leaning on this principle is lacking for primarily two reasons. First, this principle applies to an accidental death of a man. Not a planned out and intentional death that you delusionally refuse to acknowledge as murder. For example, if a racist murders a black man, he can’t make the argument that his punishment should be less than death because he personally dehumanizes black men. Saying that the mother guilty of abortion is innocent of murder (or guilty of some lesser crime) because of her sinful delusion that the preborn is not an Image Bearer of God, is like saying that the lynch mob is not guilty of murdering the black man because they too have dehumanized their victim.
Second, even though accidental death is different than justifying murder because of even genuinely held pro-abort ideas, what does scripture say about accidently causing the death of the preborn? I’ll let Dr. North answer that. In reference to Exodus 21, he writes:
It was clearly understood by Christians that anyone who caused a premature birth in which the baby died or was injured had committed a criminal act, despite the fact that the person did not plan to cause the infant’s injury or death. The abortion described in the text is the result of a man’s battle with another man, an illegitimate form of private vengeance for which each man is made fully responsible should injury ensue, either to each other (Ex. 21:18-19) or to innocent bystanders. If this sort of “accidental” abortion is treated as a criminal act, how much more a deliberate abortion by a physician or other murderer! Only when pagan intellectuals in the general culture came out in favor of abortion on demand did pro-abortionists within the church begin to deny the relevancy of the introductory section of the passage.
This anti-abortion attitude among Christians began to change with the escalation of the humanists’ pro-abortion rhetoric in the early 1960’s. Christian intellectuals have always taken their ideological cues from the humanist intellectuals who have established the prevailing “climate of opinion,” from the early church’s acceptance of the categories of pagan Greek philosophy to the modern church’s acceptance of tax-funded, “religiously neutral” education. . . .
Only when Christian anti-abortionists freely and enthusiastically admit that the Bible demands the public execution for all convicted abortionists, and also for the women who pay for them, will they at last be proclaiming the Bible’s judicial requirements.1
Even a sincere belief, therefore, that abortion is A-OK isn’t an argument against murder being murder. Furthermore, intentionality in this case isn’t even relevant according to Dr. North and Exodus 21.
Take note that North references “religiously neutral” education. Though Douglas certainly isn’t a public school advocate, the arguments Christian public school defenders use assume the same thing: neutrality, only in their case, neutrality of education. Douglas uses the same argument in defense of incrementalism. But neither education nor laws, not even parts or increments of laws, are neutral.
Another theonomic principle is the idea of victim’s rights. Favoring the “heart” of the murderer over the genuine victim turns this principle upside-down. The emphasis of justice is not rehabilitation to the criminal, but restitution for the crime. We must make sure that we don’t spit on the victim of murder for the sake of the criminal.
Abolitionists insist we hold the criminals accountable. Wilson calls the abolitionist petition to do this in his state “unbiblically draconian,” and Toby calls the principle “violent and clunky,” but it is nothing more than the basics of what God’s law requires—that is, Theonomy. But if the answer to purportedly harsh-sounding petitions and views regarding murder is a rejection of Theonomy, what is the alternative? By what standard are we replacing these so-called “draconian” principles? Try to discern the heart of every murderer? Of every aborting mother? Create a special class of Image Bearer of God that should be treated different than newborns, teenagers, or gray-bearded rhetoricians? God’s Law is not complicated on this point. Men complicate it for various reasons. Play the Huff-post card by calling the theonomic position “draconian,” but without a real alternative besides good-hearted compromises, Huff-post wins. Any position that would treat the preborn as less protected than a newborn should be rejected as utterly ageist, duplicitous, and unrighteous.
Fake bans and lies, damn lies, and statistics
Toby provides us the opportunity to discuss a specific example of incrementalism. This is the meat I mentioned above—something substantial that we can discuss. Toby says he supports the 20-week abortion ban, or the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” This act attempts to restrict abortion to 20 weeks (with numerous exceptions) because the preborn could possibly feel pain at that point. The ethical principle of this act is, in essence, if you are unable to feel pain, it’s okay to murder you. The theological argument against this intrinsically compromised act has already been made. Some practical thoughts, however, are that it will not overturn Roe v Wade, it will not save babies, and it will only further engrain ageist law and ideas in our culture.
There’s very little evidence to indicate that a bill like the 20-week ban saves lives even in the short-term. There is, however, reason to suspect that it condemns lives in the long-term.
The numbers being thrown around about how many it’ll save are taken from how many are aborted currently post-20th week. This means that the “statisticians” are only using one factor to make their claim. It is sloppy at best, and dishonest at worst. There are many different factors, and past laws have shown that when a regulation is passed the market shifts slightly to adjust to the regulation. The demand for abortion has remained steady for forty years. With this stable demand, the abortion industry has shown flexibility in how they offer abortion.
If Ford, for example, makes 100 trucks a year to meet demand, but 10 of those trucks do not meet a new regulatory standard, what happens? Does Ford only make only 90 trucks next year, or does Ford meet the regulatory standard and the market demand and still make 100 trucks?
Regulationism works in a similar manner in the abortion market. When one method (like partial birth or dismemberment) is outlawed, the demand for abortion remains relatively the same and the market shifts to account for that change. So instead of 15,000 dismemberment abortions, they just shift to another method. Those 15,000 abortions don’t just go away. A bill like the 20-week ban will do even less than this.
Furthermore, as readily-available access to hormonal and abortifacient birth control methods increases, the correlating statistic that decreases is the pregnancy rate. But we also know that these statistics tracking pregnancy rates do not track conception pre-implantation and early first trimester pregnancy. So, while the official total abortion percentage has decreased slightly over the last ten to fifteen years, the pregnancy rate they are using decreased and the reason why that rate decreased is at least partially because of uncounted abortions. It is not just padding the stats, it is padding them twice.
Simply put, don’t buy into the sound-bite numbers. They serve more of a PR and political purpose than a scientific purpose. Regulations in the abortion market put economic pressure on the “mom and pop” local abortion clinic while driving business to monoliths such as Planned Parenthood. While pro-lifers celebrate tiny and old abortion clinics closing down, the reality is that larger “providers” such as Planned Parenthood are eating up that demand and supplying the market with new, huge, and well-funded abortion mega-clinics. That’s the reality on the ground.
Pro-life laws defend Roe v Wade
It is a little known fact, but in the arguments of the Roe v Wade decision, one of the most devastating arguments the pro-choicers made was that the pro-life laws already on the books in Texas did not recognize the humanity and the legal rights of the unborn. Not even before Roe v Wade. If you murdered your baby before Roe v Wade in Texas, and pretty much everywhere in the US, you got a slap on the wrist. That’s it. Texas did not treat abortion as murder before Roe v Wade, and that was used as a legal foundation for why it should be accessible to women in general. From the Roe v Wade decision itself:
When Texas urges that a fetus is entitled to Fourteenth Amendment protection as a person, it faces a dilemma. Neither in Texas nor in any other State are all abortions prohibited. Despite broad proscription, an exception always exists. The exception contained [410 U.S. 113, 158] in Art. 1196, for an abortion procured or attempted by medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother, is typical. But if the fetus is a person who is not to be deprived of life without due process of law, and if the mother’s condition is the sole determinant, does not the Texas exception appear to be out of line with the Amendment’s command?
There are other inconsistencies between Fourteenth Amendment status and the typical abortion statute. It has already been pointed out, n. 49, supra, that in Texas the woman is not a principal or an accomplice with respect to an abortion upon her. If the fetus is a person, why is the woman not a principal or an accomplice? Further, the penalty for criminal abortion specified by Art. 1195 is significantly less than the maximum penalty for murder prescribed by Art. 1257 of the Texas Penal Code. If the fetus is a person, may the penalties be different?2
Did you catch it? A few reasons for why abortion in America is considered a legal right is because of exceptions, partiality in the law against the pre-born, and most startling, a denial that the mother is not a principal or accomplice to murder. Incrementalism, as defined by abolitionists of all ages, is not a slow victory. It is a cornerstone of defeat. This is not “hyper-machismo” or “sentimentalism.” It is a recognition of the reality straight from the history of American law and the decision of Roe v Wade itself.
This is one of the primary rhetorical or philosophical problems with incrementalism. The effectiveness of incrementalism does not and cannot work both ways. A lack of consistency on the pro-life end is, and has been, used with great effect to establish even greater access to abortion. Regarding abortion, a lack of principled consistency (incrementalism for example) is philosophically and ethically, practically and effectively pro-choice. Any compromise that a pro-lifer makes is not neutral, but will be grounded in the pro-choice worldview. How much fecal matter would you like in your water? Would you drink a cup with a little less than before? What works for Nancy Pelosi, Saul Alinsky, and Marxists shouldn’t be emulated by Christians. They can gradually add their filth to the water and that method works for them, but I’ll take some pure water, please. Considering this, if we could save 1% now (unlikely at best), are we doing so at the expense of actual abolition? Are we begging for scraps that only keep us under the heels of bloody Supreme Court “justices”? For every compromise, we not only fail to abolish abortion, we further delay and set back the abolishing of abortion. We have no way of knowing how many children that condemns, but I dare say that it is far greater than any small percentage that could be “saved.”
Because Toby pointed out that I didn’t address the “smashmouth” qualifier in Wilson’s article, I will do so now. Being an aggressive and confrontational incrementalist still leaves you with being an incrementalist, and incrememntalism is inherently wrong. The problem isn’t the tone we take or the modifiers we use to describe it. The problem is the incrementalism. Being aggressively and confrontationally compromising is hardly a fix for anything.
- Gary North, Victims Rights, 100–101. [↩]
- Roe v Wade, http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/410/113.html, footnote 54 [↩]