There has been an ongoing debate within pro-life and anti-abortion circles over immediatism and incrementalism. Though these debates have been ongoing for years, it is wise to take the time to ensure that as many people as possible understand the debate and the terms, for they are crucial. What is “incrementalism”? What is the alternative to incrementalism? Are there good versions of incrementalism? What is “immediatism”?
These terms, immediatism and incrementalism, are often misunderstood and misapplied. Although we do not wish to become contentious or divide over semantics, the differences between these two strategies are significant. It is not merely a matter of semantics. One may, theoretically support immediatism while calling it something else, but for the sake of clarity it is good to have a firm grasp on the historical meanings of these terms and how they are rightly applied by abortion immediatists. Only when we understand each other can we have a profitable conversation, and understanding the terms of the debate is the first step in this understanding.
The purpose of this article, though I have no interest in being neutral, is primarily to briefly clarify terms.
Perhaps one of the most clear and helpful definitions is that immediatism is a no-compromising strategy that does not accept any legal means or rhetoric that betray the very values we are seeking to establish.
Within the context of abortion abolitionism, immediatism is a strategy that calls for civil repentance as well as the establishment of justice according to God’s Holy and perfect Word. There is and can be no compromise in this standard, in the call to repentance and change based upon this standard, or in the goal at which this standard aims.
For example, if we lived in a culture where rape was legal and generally accepted as normal by half the population, any rhetoric, piece of legislation, or other action that assumed the criminality and sin of rape would be immediatist. An immediatist strategy could not include any language or action that implicitly or explicitly assumes the ethical and/or legal legitimacy of any rape. A law outlawing the rape of only white women, for example, would not be immediatist.
Likewise, an immediatist approach to abortion could not include any language or action that implicitly or explicitly assumes the ethical and/or legal legitimacy of any abortion. This would include laws banning different methods of abortion as well as laws banning abortions at certain levels of development.
Immediatism teaches that compromises on the core values of the end goal are harmful to the end goal.
Incrementalism is the strategy that is open to, believes in, and sometimes participates in legal and rhetorical actions that compromise the underlying values of those fighting for total abolition.
Within the context of abortion abolitionism, incrementalism is a strategy that calls for civil abolition as well as the establishment of justice according to any pragmatic and utilitarian methods that can be seen as helpful. By definition, compromises are seen as acceptable so long as there is a perceived trajectory towards the end goal.
For example, if we lived in a culture where rape was legal and generally accepted as normal by half the population, any rhetoric, piece of legislation, or other action that assumed the legal and ethical legitimacy of rape would be incrementalist as long as the action could be seen as a “step” in the right direction. An incrementalist strategy could certainly include any language or action that implicitly or explicitly assumes the ethical and/or legal legitimacy of rape. A law outlawing the rape of only white women, for example, would be an “incrementalist” law.
Likewise, an incrementalist approach to abortion could certainly include any language or action that implicitly or explicitly assumes the ethical and/or legal legitimacy of abortion. This would include laws banning different methods of abortion as well as laws banning abortions at certain levels of development. Heartbeat bills, twenty-week bans, partial-birth bans, pain-capable bills, rape and incest exceptions, and other similar types of rhetorical positions, bills, and legal positions would be seen as ethically justifiable within the context of an incrementalist strategy.
Incrementalism teaches that compromises on the core values of the end goal can be useful in reaching the end goal.
Increments aren’t automatically incrementalist. Not according to the historical understanding of the idea. The devil is in the “ism.” Consider pietism. It is not piety that we should be wary of, but pietism. Likewise, some increments are ethically/judicially legitimate. Incrementalism, as a term, is more than the sum of its dictionary definition parts. Any increment that does not implicitly or explicitly assume the legitimacy of abortion could be seen as justifiable and immediatist in essence.
One example of this is geographical abolition. A bill that totally abolishes abortion in the whole of a jurisdiction is not incrementalist. The USA abolishing all abortion in the USA but not abolishing abortion in, say, China is not incrementalist. Likewise, Oklahoma abolishing abortion in Oklahoma but not Virginia is also not incrementalist. However, if the USA abolishes abortion in Utah but allows it elsewhere, that would be incrementalist. It is a question of jurisdiction.
Immediatism is not overnightism. Immediatism understands the reality that abortion will most likely not be abolished overnight. This, however, does not justify preaching or demanding any goal less than total and absolute repentance and change. Immediatists understand that while we keep demanding and working to accomplish this goal, society may advance only in increments in the meantime. We do not denounce such advance, but we also continue to demand the full reality, and only the full reality.
Immediatism does not deny that God works progressively through history. Similar to how we call for total personal obedience while understanding that sanctification takes time, immediatism teaches total abolition while understanding that it will take time. Immediatism is a form of civil repentance, not simply change over time.
We cannot accept both incrementalism and immediatism. The two terms are mutually exclusive. Those who call for this sort of irrational compromise either do not understand the debate, or are intentionally trying to muddy the waters.
In nearly all debates and conversations over these issues, including the one with Doug Wilson, the terms have been repeatedly muddied and confused. This is unnecessary. I expect and understand that there will be disagreement, but when we obfuscate and equivocate in these conversations, nothing is gained but confusion.
This short article does not begin to argue for the position, so please take the time to read the “Smashmouth Incrementalism” articles between Doug Wilson, Joel McDurmon, and myself for a greater understanding of the debate. Also check out this article and its accompanying videos.