PBP310H: Incrementalism in Pro-Life Politics

What is incrementalism? Is it ethical? Is it prudent?

Let's start with a video from We Need a Law, discussing incremental initiatives, such as their International Standards law - a late-term abortion ban.

Incrementalism is a political strategy to reach a goal through achieving success in small, discrete increments, rather than all at once. In this seminar, we'll discuss:

  • Incrementalism vs. Immediatism: Is incrementalism ethical or prudent?
  • Gestational Limits: Why some pro-lifers oppose this particular incremental measure, and how to respond

First, we'll look at a debate between incrementalism and immediatism that we can see from a movement of anti-abortion abolitionists, to help more clearly articulate our principles. Then, we'll turn to the Canadian debate over gestational limits and which kinds of incremental measures are acceptable to apply those principles.

Abolitionism: Incrementalism vs. Immediatism

There is a small but vocal movement of abolitionists, in particular in the United States, who argue that immediate abolition is the only moral response to abortion, and gradualism or incrementalism is immoral / a betrayal.


Abolitionists use the term "pro-life" as a pejorative, and criticize all three arms of the pro-life movement:

  • They oppose the secular approach of the educational arm (based on science and human rights), and argue that you must share the Gospel explicitly to fight abortion (rebuttal: Why we fight the way we fight)
  • They oppose the pastoral arm for seeing the post-abortive as victims rather than seeking punishment and justice
  • They oppose the political arm for incremental measures, and argue that the only moral response is to advocate for immediate abolition

They say:

  • The term “pro-life” expresses a moral opinion, what you think; abolition expresses moral action, what you aim to do about it
  • Pro-lifers prefer gradual, over immediate, abolition
  • You can be a secular pro-life; you cannot be a secular abolitionist
  • Pro-lifers prefer common ground; abolitionists prefer to proclaim the Gospel
  • The pro-life movement argues that we should focus on saving the babies. The abolitionist movement argues that we should focus on converting the culture. Abolitionists believe that saving souls holds the key to saving babies.

Today, our focus is specifically on political strategy. (We've addressed why we take a secular role in apologetics and the relationship between pro-life activism and Christian ministry in other webinars.) While this debate exists mostly in an American context, understanding the criticisms of immediatists can help us to clarify our principles on incrementalism.

  • T. Russell Hunter, AHA vs Gregg Cunningham, CBR (2015): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oi4vVTae30
    • The Tree: 54:30-1:04:50
      • If it's an injustice/sin, then abolish it immediately (not “overnight” but “work while the day lasts” for immediate and total abolition); opposed to gradualism
        • Argues that supporting incremental laws is some how endorsing or condoning sin1)
      • We must call the nation to repentence for national sin – there is no talking about abortion in a way that it's not a spiritual issue, secular people need to hear about sin also
    • Cunningham position: 28:30-33:05
      • “We are moral absolutists, but strategic and tactical incrementalists, not because we want to be but because we must be”
        • Strategy: how the ends will be achieved by the means
        • Unstated: there's a confusion between the education/prophetic arm's role (moral immediatism) and the role of the political arm (strategic incrementalism)
      • Hunter presupposes that the pro-life movement has the power to end abortion right now, and we just choose to not do it… he says the only solution is the “magic wand” solution (or miraculous, but suggests AHA are the only ones praying)
      • Professor Michael New published a peer-reviewed study of post-Casey state legislative restrictions and regulations on abortion reduce the abortion rate and save lives: https://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF11C45.pdf
      • Totally against rape exception, “but I can count” – knew he didn't have the votes to pass legislation without a rape exception, but that introducing a very narrow rape exception could default Planned Parenthood's very broad rape exception. Cunningham. Not one single abortion had been funded by the state under that narrow rape exception when he checked. “I put the rape exception in to save babies' lives, and it did.”
      • There's a secular and a spiritual argument, but we'd better be able to make secular, human rights and social justice based arguments for those for whom the spiritual arguments would not resonate. We don't talk Greek to the Romans or Roman to the Greeks. (Yet create an opportunity to share the Gospel, working with campus ministry, etc)
    • History of Social Reform
      • Hunter misrepresents Wilberforce was an immediatist and opposed incrementalism (or at least repented of his support of incrementalism)
      • Wilberforce: moral immediatist but strategic and tactical incrementalist.
        • He started fighting the slave trade, instead of slavery, because “he could count.”
        • On the way, he supported legislation that forced slave ships to be redesigned, and they made arguments related to pain and suffering of the slaves
        • Wilberforce also supported legislation that banned slave traffic from foreign ports, so it could only involve British ports, totally incremental
        • His last speech to Parliament talked about compensating slave holders for emancipation, and he was attacked by abolitionists for it; he knew he had to do it to get the votes, for the abolition of slavery
      • Abraham Lincoln
        • sat on the emancipation proclamation until he thought he could make it, and excluded the border states, in order to preserve the union
      • Martin Luther King Jr.
        • Moral immediatist: argued against segregation and racism in all forms
        • Strategic incrementalist: picked his battles carefully, strategically, incrementally, for political change

Scott Klusendorf says the immediatist argument is fundamentally flawed, and summarizes Gregg Cunningham's position:

  1. First, it assumes that pro-lifers have the power to immediately end abortion but simply won’t2)
  2. Second, the immediatist argument assumes no steps are better than any steps
  3. Third, immediatists get their history wrong
As Princeton University professor Robert George points out, “public opinion and other constraints may limit what can be done to advance a just cause”:
Politics is the art of the possible. . . . 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.

Pro-life advocates are not satisfied with the status quo; they abhor abortion and would stop it immediately if they could. They are not “regulationists” who decide which babies live and which die. They have no such power. Instead, they work to pursue the good and limit the evil insofar as possible given current legal realities. That is not compromise.

So, we must be moral immediatists, but strategic incrementalism. That's how social reform happens.

Gestational Limits

FIXME Gestational limits debate now at PBP411H

FIXME it gets more complicated when you look at other legislative initiatives…

  • AFLO opposed Molly Matters - see the comments
  • AFLO opposes Bill C-233 (Sex Selective Abortion Act) - though CLC has supported it
    • Made a distinction between M-412 (just condeming sex selective abortion), and a law (C-233) which some feel cannot be supported because it makes sex selective abortion illegal but they believe it implies that all other abortions are licit

Extra Content

  • Clarke Forsythe, Politics for the Greater Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square3) FIXME quick notes from someone who has read the book
    • Philosophy of Prudence: Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas
    • History of Social Reform: William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln
      • “partial advances, even if they are no more than limitations on an existing unjust law or condition, can create momentum for progress”4)
    • Critique of Incrementalism
      • Legitimizes abortion
      • Provides political cover for those who want to attract pro-life voters while keeping abortion legal
    • Defence of Incrementalism
      • Debate over incremental laws serve an educational purpose, e.g. partial birth abortion ban
      • Incremental laws keep abortion debate alive politically
      • Incremental laws have been effective at lowering abortion rates
    • Political prudence means seeking to achieve the maximum change possible at a given time

FIXME incrementalist step (age verification) helping shut down pornogrpahy sites https://dailycaller.com/2023/08/08/major-porn-sites-shutting-down-state-age-restrictions/

Caleb VDW: Laws forbid things, what an incremental law forbids is evil, and well worth forbidding, forbidding one thing does not endorse any things not forbidden by that particular law For example, if the law against murdering born persons were up for debate today, with the options of either A) continuing to forbid the murder of born persons, or B) not forbidding any murder whatsoever, the “incrementalist” would be able to argue consistently against scrapping laws against murder, whereas the “immediatist” would have to argue that such a murder law excludes preborn children, and is therefore an evil law. There is also no logical reason why this logic ought to be constrained to the specific injustice known as murder. So once you hold the “immediatist” view, you cannot consistently defend any law except an absolutely perfect omnibus bill that forbids every injustice worth forbidding without exception, since apparently by not forbidding an injustice e we would be condoning it.
Caleb VDW: Incrementalism ad we hold it is often compared to the incrementalism after the American civil war. A major difference there is that the American slavery incrementalism argued that we ought to work in increments while immediately abolishing slavery was well within their reach (as evidenced by the fact that in the end slavery did, in fact, end immediately), whereas our “incrementalism” is instead an argument that we ought to end abortion as immediately as possible while recognizing the unfortunate fact that an immediate end to the whole trade is unachievable at this time. The difference between electing to use increments when immediate solutions are available, and electing to use increments because immediate solutions are not, is very morally relevant, and very frequently ignored by those desperately trying to stay atop their apparent moral high ground.
Forsythe, Politics for the Greater Good, 13.