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We’re all incrementalists now

The pro-life movement has to work within an imperfect system and use imperfect means to fight abortion

Pro-life activists rally at the National Celebrate Life Rally in Washington, D.C., on June 24, 2023. Associated Press/Photo by Kevin Wolf

We’re all incrementalists now

It has been a week of crushing setbacks for the pro-life movement.

On Monday, former President Donald Trump released a video in which he stated that abortion ought to be an issue worked out in the states, thus signaling that a second Trump administration would not pursue a gestational abortion ban at the federal level.

Then, on Tuesday, Arizona’s Supreme Court upheld the state’s abortion ban by appealing to an 1864 law still on the books. That’s technically a victory, but some leading Republicans in the state are criticizing the decision and running from it.

The irony is that while Dobbs allows states to set their own abortion policies, many Republicans in Arizona are apparently not even supportive of their own state laws restricting abortion. In other words, a lot of Republicans are racing to fall backwards into a functional pro-choice ethic because abortion is so politically flammable. This is, admittedly, morally depressing. Will this week’s events be the point in history that we will look back to and see the Republican Party coming out in defense of “safe, legal, and rare,” the moniker of Bill Clinton’s Democrat party in the 1990s?

Where does this put the pro-life movement? It’s no secret that post-Dobbs, the pro-life movement has no singular, agreed-upon strategy. In fact, it is in a state of shambles. What’s worse, everywhere where abortion has gone on the ballot, Americans have re-affirmed their strong preference for abortion. Abortion is a political loser for Republicans, many insist. In electoral terms, they may be right. Several generations of a liberty-as-license ethos in American culture have left Americans reliant upon abortion as the fail-safe for their sexual autonomy.

But I would like to suggest a strategy: Pursue whatever pro-life legislation is politically possible in your context and never work to advance abortion rights any further. This is technically what we would call an “ameliorist” perspective. Someone who wants to ameliorate something wants to make things better, step by practical step. Amid something like a wildfire, an ameliorist wants to stop the fire from spreading. An ameliorist wants to stop the spread of abortion, using whatever prudential means are available to work toward the ultimate goal of protecting the preborn child under the 14th amendment. That argument is already being made, even if still in an embryonic form. Respected legal scholars tell me that we are probably still a generation away from a conservative judiciary accepting this argument in full. But we must keep making it.

Regardless, let me say something potentially controversial: Unless opponents of abortion are willing to call for regime change, revolution, or civil war, then guess what? We are all incrementalists now. Incrementalism has been forced upon everyone. Everyone must work within an imperfect system using imperfect means to reach our eventual goal. Now is not the time for various (and genuine) pro-life forces to anathematize one another.

We never give up. We always make the argument. But we should accept what’s possible in each context where we find ourselves.

Even acknowledging an undesirable reality, we should always be arguing for a national abortion ban, even while understanding that the political winds make that less likely for the foreseeable future. If the Democrats want to federalize the issue, so should Republicans. We never give up. We always make the argument. But we should accept what’s possible in each context where we find ourselves. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of reasonable wins that give the pro-life movement continued space and oxygen to make its case.

Let us save as many lives as possible and keep working to save more. We are not begging for scraps from the abortion lobby. We are merely acting within the constraints of democracy—if only because democracy is the least worst of all types of other government.

We need to stop posturing and we need to do politics. We must do the actual work of mobilizing, supporting, voting, and reaching people with good arguments and accurate information (by way of videos, TikToks, podcasts, articles, books, and everywhere else where people are). Everyone has a role to play.

We should register our complaints with both Biden and Trump even while acknowledging that the two are not equal in their commitments to abortion. Trump, whatever his actual convictions, would staff a White House far more amenable to pro-life Americans. Biden, meanwhile, is the hood ornament for the party of death. Acknowledging the excellent Supreme Court appointments made by Trump that ended Roe, let’s be clear-eyed in the moral differences between the two parties even while acknowledging the errors Trump and other Arizona Republicans have made this week.

Pro-lifers had better learn to work together while never failing to speak the foundational moral truth: Murdering preborn human beings is not a states’ rights issue. Why? Because no law that violates God’s natural law can ever be a just law, even if enacted within procedural constitutional grounds. It is wrong to murder a human being, so it is also wrong to murder a human being at any stage of life.

Any nation or state, red or blue, that does not bring the cover of legal protection to the preborn is a nation or state fundamentally at odds with the Declaration’s insistence that all are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights—life the first amongst them.

It’s quite simple: A nation that knows Justice Taney was wrong in Dred Scott is the same nation that should know Joe Biden and Donald Trump are wrong in denying the pre-born equal protection under the 14th Amendment. It’s the only morally consistent position to hold. If the enslaved is equal in their humanity, so is the pre-born in theirs. Let us all work towards that end, in Jesus’s name.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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