Distinct Biblical and historical interpretations motivate a movement of abortion abolitionists—and divide them from mainstream pro-lifers
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A bearded man in a black hoodie emblazoned with the word “ABOLITIONIST” stands at the front of a hotel conference room, holding up two inky pieces of art. Facing him on the rows of chairs filling the crowded room sit men in some combination of beards, ballcaps, and beanies, long-haired women in jeans or skirts, and kids of all ages—lots of them.
More than 200 people from across the country converged on Wichita, Kan., in March to rally around their opposition to abortion. But it wasn’t a pro-life event. These opponents to abortion reject the pro-life label. Instead, they call themselves abolitionists. Unlike most pro-lifers, they think the law should treat abortion as homicide, which would involve punishments for everyone involved, including the mother. Anything less, they say, amounts to sinful compromise.
The man with the hoodie, T. Russell Hunter, is the executive director of the abortion abolitionist organization Free the States. It’s his artwork, and he’s giving the pieces away to two people in the crowd gathered for the Abolition Now: Abolitionists Rising Conference. One piece shows a mountain on fire above the words “repent with us.” The other, a phoenix rising from a Bible. It’s the same symbol on the red T-shirts worn by young and old across the room.
“This happens to be based off of William Wilberforce’s family crest, which is an eagle in this shape,” Hunter says, referring to the British politician who spent decades working to abolish the slave trade in 18th- and 19th-century England. The symbol, Hunter says, represents abortion abolitionists rising from what the pro-life movement has done over the last 50 years in an attempt to end legal abortion in the United States.
Hunter hands the artwork to the two winners and calls up the worship leader—another bearded man in a hoodie, this time a red one. “Everything we do is worship,” Hunter explains. “If you read the prophets, if you read the Word of God, you will actually find that oftentimes whenever people aren’t trying to establish justice, God says he hates their worship. … So just to get our hearts right and oriented, let’s start out by worshipping the Lord.”
The song is “Why Do the Nations Rage?,” based on Psalm 2. “My Son, just ask of Me / And I will give the nations of the earth / For you to rule them with a mighty iron rod / For You to dash them all to pieces / And then pound them into dirt,” sings the group to the music of the guitar. “Until You spread Your fame and power and love abroad / Till all the nations bow before the Son of God.”
These self-proclaimed abolitionists want to bring that “mighty iron rod” down on the pro-life movement’s incremental legislative gains and its focus on secular and scientific—rather than purely Biblical—arguments. They say they’re returning to the strategy of Christian forebears who worked to abolish slavery through immediate criminalization and calling the nation to repentance. But they direct most of their invective at the pro-life movement, not pro-abortion groups—a strategy that threatens to divide the effort to protect unborn babies.
THE NEWS OUTLET Politico published the leaked draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision on the first Monday in May 2022. Two days later in Baton Rouge, La., state lawmakers voted an abortion abolitionist bill out of committee for the first time since Roe v. Wade. Since the early 2000s, abolitionist bills had died in states including Washington, Maryland, Indiana, Idaho, and Alaska without ever making it to a full chamber vote. But the Louisiana bill was headed to the floor of the state House, and it made headlines.
“Bill Classifying Abortion as Homicide Is Advanced by Louisiana Lawmakers,” announced The New York Times. “The proposal threatens to prosecute women who end a pregnancy.”
James Silberman, communications director at Free the States, remembers watching the committee hearing online from Oklahoma. Someone told him the bill might make it out of committee, but Silberman was skeptical. As the hearing drew to a close, though, he realized that’s exactly what was happening. “I was just like, ‘Holy smokes. All these pro-life Republicans are just voting in favor of this thing.’” The bill passed with a vote of 7 to 2, all Republicans voting in favor. One lawmaker, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, said “Absolutely” instead of the customary “Yes” when casting his vote.
The vote was big news for the abolitionist movement. Leaders organized a rally for May 12, the day the full House took up the bill. Silberman, Hunter, and other out-of-state abolitionists flew in for the big day. A few abolitionist leaders gave speeches outside the chamber before they headed in to start the long wait for lawmakers to finish discussing other bills on the calendar.
During the wait, word got around that a coalition of 76 pro-life organizations had just released an open letter addressed “to all State Legislators in the United States of America.” In the letter, groups including March for Life Action, Susan B. Anthony List, and National Right to Life and its state affiliates told lawmakers, “The tragedy of abortion isn’t limited to the unborn child who loses her life. The mother who aborts her child is also Roe’s victim. … Let us be clear: We state unequivocally that we do not support any measures seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to include such penalties in legislation.”
In reality, the text of the Louisiana bill itself did not once use the word woman or mother. It would have revised the state’s homicide laws so they would apply to abortion cases. The implication was that all parties involved in the intentional killing of an unborn child would be subject to the various possible offenses under the category of homicide, including first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter.
Abolitionists acknowledge that under these laws, the court system would weigh each abortion case individually. If a woman faced coercion or didn’t know that abortion kills a human being, for instance, abolitionists say she should not face prosecution. Also, women who had abortions in Louisiana before the law might take effect could not face penalties either. The law called for the state to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and enforce the law regardless of any federal court ruling that might deem it unenforceable.
In the committee hearing at the beginning of the month, pro-life lawmakers seemed happy with the wording. But after the committee meeting, state pro-life groups came out against the bill. Once that happened, Silberman said, he knew the bill wouldn’t pass. “But we just made all these groups say out loud what they don’t want to have to say out loud,” he said. Some abolitionists say pro-life opposition to bills like the one in Louisiana drove them to the abolitionist camp.
During the full legislative hearing, Rep. Seabaugh, who had enthusiastically supported the legislation in committee, presented an amendment that would, if approved, gut the bill. “House Bill 813 has a number of problems,” he said when presenting the amendment. One of them was the fact that the legislation would allow women to be prosecuted for their role in the abortions of their children. Another was that it called for the state to ignore Roe v. Wade and enforce the ban on abortion despite the 1973 court precedent. “We’re a nation of laws. We can’t do that,” he said. Under Roe’s precedent, a court would simply slap an injunction on a law like this, he added. “This bill’s passage would not prevent a single abortion. Not one.”
The amendment passed, and the bill’s sponsor withdrew the bill from consideration.
Five days later, Silberman and Hunter appeared on an episode of The Liberator Podcast, the Free the States YouTube program named after the antislavery newspaper of American journalist and slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. During a freewheeling 76 minutes, they bashed the pro-life movement’s opposition to the Louisiana bill, focusing on a May 6 statement from Louisiana Right to Life opposing the legislation. The statement referenced the state’s Human Life Protection Act, a law passed in 2006, set to take effect when the high court overturned Roe, that would prohibit abortionists from killing babies at any stage of pregnancy in most cases. “Louisiana does not need HB 813 to protect babies from abortion,” the pro-life statement said.
“There’s an analogy here in history,” Hunter exclaimed. “This actually happened when Wilberforce was putting forward legislation.” Wilberforce called for total abolition of the slave trade, but his opponents set a date to introduce its gradual abolition. “And then … every time he put forward a bill between then and that date, they were like, ‘Dude, we’ve set a date for when we’re going to do that.’” When the date came, they didn’t act on it. “It’s just delay, delay, delay, delay. It’s the game.”
PRO-LIFERS HAVE LONG claimed Wilberforce as a model for their movement to end abortion, but abolitionists say they are “taking back Wilberforce from the incrementalists.” They point to statements from Wilberforce’s “A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade” in which he calls the “gradual Abolitionists” “the only real stay of that system of wickedness and cruelty which we wish to abolish” and “the real maintainers of the Slave Trade.” Abortion abolitionists label as “iniquitous” any legislation that falls short of total abolition.
But many pro-lifers argue Wilberforce did take incremental steps toward the abolition of slavery. In his 2009 book Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square, Americans United for Life senior counsel Clarke Forsythe devoted a chapter to “Wilberforce’s Perseverance.” Forsythe—an employee and former president of one of the 76 organizations that signed the May 12 open letter to state lawmakers—writes that “Wilberforce and his allies consistently favored partial prohibitions when they could not achieve general and immediate abolition or emancipation. They sought regulations or partial prohibitions of the trade and of slavery.” He also cites Wilberforce’s willingness to first dismantle the slave trade before turning to the institution of slavery itself and his general awareness of existing “political realit[ies]” as he considered strategy.
When abolitionists face these arguments from pro-lifers, though, they double down and point to other abolitionists of slavery who criticized gradual abolitionism.
On Jan. 10, 2023, Pastor Josh Buice—founder and president of the online Christian network G3 Ministries—published an article on the G3 website. The piece supported abortion abolitionism and a new abolitionist bill in Georgia titled the “Prenatal Equal Protection Act.” Buice criticized pro-life groups for opposing the 2022 Louisiana bill, calling them “powerful groups who operate under the banner of pro-life and receive multitudes of millions of dollars from Christians and local churches.”
Like the Louisiana bill, the Georgia legislation would have applied the homicide code to abortion cases but didn’t call for the state to ignore Roe. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe in June 2022. But even without the barrier of Roe, pro-life groups still oppose abolitionist legislation. Those groups include the Life Training Institute, founded and led by experienced pro-life apologist Scott Klusendorf.
The week after G3 published Buice’s article, a writer at Life Training Institute outlined the “faulty thinking” behind the Georgia bill and said the claim that most pro-life groups were “raking in millions is just laughable, not to mention slanderous.”
A couple of days later, a man on Facebook shared the Life Training Institute article and accused “Scott and his crew” of being “Lovers of money, not babies.”
Klusendorf said he faces similar accusations about being financially motivated a few times a year. It’s given him the impression that abolitionists “tend to be bad faith actors, attributing to their opponents the worst possible motives,” which he says makes them “impossible to work with.”
But Klusendorf, like other pro-lifers, has practical reasons for opposing abolitionist bills. In his mind, they play into the scare tactics of very loud pro-abortion organizations that influence voters to support pro-abortion candidates and ballot measures. The result: more pro-abortion lawmakers, more pro-abortion laws, more babies aborted.
While he agreed that women have moral agency in their own abortions, the nuanced language of abolitionist bills—allowing varying punishments for varying levels of culpability depending on the woman’s personal knowledge or the level of external pressures—would only work under certain circumstances.
“That sounds great. But in the real world we live in right now, that’s not the way reality is,” said Klusendorf. “Right now, we’ve got a hostile press, hostile legislators, hostile government. And we’re supposed to move forward protecting unborn humans, while the press will play this up as that we hate women and want them incarcerated.”
Abolitionists dismiss concerns like Klusendorf’s as “worldly pragmatism.” They function by a different set of rules.
THE FIRST NIGHT of the 2023 Abolitionists Rising Conference in Wichita, a pastor in a jacket, tie, and salt-and-pepper beard preached on the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Dusty Deevers became an abolitionist in 2019 when he saw pro-life groups opposing an abolitionist bill in Oklahoma without providing any Scriptural basis for their position. He said that opposition led to a “mass conversion” event that brought many Oklahoma pastors and churches out of the pro-life movement and into the abolitionist movement.
To Deevers, the Great Commission should motivate the work of abortion abolition because it involves preaching the gospel and teaching people to observe God’s law. But it’s also cause for optimism. “The orders from high command are not, ‘I won the victory, now pack up the battlefield and head home,’” he preached. “It is, ‘I won the victory. Therefore, go and keep winning. Keep winning. There is no defeat.’”
Like many in leadership within the abolitionist movement, Deevers holds to a postmillennial eschatology. As James Silberman explained in a post on the Free the States blog, this view involves an “optimism that this world will be won to Christ” before his Second Coming. But even abolitionists who aren’t postmillennial in their view of the end times hold to a distinct view of how Christ’s kingship applies to culture and politics. T. Russell Hunter told me he wasn’t convinced of postmillennial eschatology but classified himself as “methodologically postmillennial.”
Hunter described this approach as “build[ing] the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven the best that you can. … Regardless of when Jesus comes back, if there’s a rapture, whether things get worse or things get better, you are supposed to be living as though Christ is actually King and is putting His enemies under His feet.”
In a heated 2015 debate with Hunter, pro-lifer Gregg Cunningham characterized Hunter’s abolitionist approach as “a magic wand solution” that assumes pro-lifers have the power over which abortions take place. Cunningham is the executive director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an organization that produces signs and other material displaying images of aborted babies—an issue already controversial among pro-life groups.
Rather than argue against the magic wand accusation, Hunter embraced it: “We actually do have [that power], and this is the main thing wrong with incrementalism.” He pointed to the resurrected Christ, the Holy Spirit, God’s Word, and the gospel as powerful tools in the hands of Christians seeking to end abortion. But he said the Church has instead put its faith in incremental pro-life legislation. “We can’t get the people of God to do it because they got incremental junk that they think is better!” Hunter yelled. “They’ve denied the power of God. … And they say the gospel of God cannot be brought into conflict with abortion, unless we have permission from the secularist!”
While some pro-life organizations are open about their attempts to stay away from Scriptural arguments against abortion, Scott Klusendorf at Life Training Institute said he always includes the gospel in his presentations. He doesn’t do it to convince people abortion is wrong but rather “because that’s the only way sinful human beings get right with their Creator.”
While he acknowledged the gospel can reform culture by changing hearts, his view of the gospel’s cultural influence is tempered: “I think Scripture is clear that most people reject the gospel.” Civil government, he said, is a means God has provided to restrain evil in society at large.
The growth of the abolitionist movement since its inception in the early 2010s is difficult to quantify. But abolitionists point to sympathizers who were once active in the pro-life movement or even opposed abolitionism as an example of how the movement has grown.
James Silberman worked for the pro-life group Created Equal before coming on staff at Free the States. He says he was pushed out over his budding abolitionist views. Created Equal declined our interview request. But after publication, a representative confirmed that Silberman chose to resign after the organization gave Silberman the option to leave or be terminated because of his public opposition to the group’s “top policy initiatives.”
Three of Silberman’s five fellow staff members at Free the States also formerly worked for pro-life organizations. He and others point to the growing support among pastors as evidence of the movement’s strength. At least two pastors who used to publicly oppose abolitionism spoke at the March Abolitionists Rising Conference. The movement has also received increasing support among some in the Southern Baptist Convention and from groups like G3 Ministries and Founders Ministries, a Baptist ministry based in Florida.
“The abolitionist movement is only going to grow,” T. Russell Hunter predicted. “Because it’s offering an answer that isn’t just different, but actually coheres with what these people believe from the Bible.”
—with reporting by Lauren Dunn
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the way James Silberman left Created Equal, including a response from the organization about the terms of his departure.