The pro-life movement is defined by its pursuit of one particular goal: create a society where abortion is unthinkable.
Pro-lifers want to build a world where babies are genuinely protected and their personhood is recognised, and where women are truly supported in pregnancy and beyond.
However, like many movements, the pro-life movement has differing views within it about how to achieve this goal. One of the main divergences of opinion concerns how we actually go about changing the law on abortion.
These two opposing views are known as incrementalism and absolutism.
Incrementalism is the view that in order to change the law in a hostile political and cultural climate, one must do so step by step. In other words, changing the law on abortion requires a gradual and incremental chipping away of the current law.
An example of an incremental change in the law would be a Bill that bans sex-selective abortion. It may not end abortion overnight, but the idea is that it saves some lives in the immediate term and affirms the personhood of preborn life, which may in turn lead to the eventual repeal of abortion law once the personhood of preborn life is irrefutable in law.
Absolutism is the view that such incremental changes are, essentially, concessions to the current culture and political climate. In order to change the law, one must aim for total repeal of abortion law. In fact, those who hold this view would oppose any political endeavours that seek to amend sections of the law as this would be seen as endorsing abortion for other reasons.
For example, if a Bill banning sex-selective abortion was successfully passed, this would—according to the absolutist view—endorse the idea that abortion was acceptable for reasons other than sex-selection.
Advantages and Disadvantages of each approach
Pros of Absolutism:
- It retains the pro-life movement’s focus on absolute repeal of the law
- It avoids the risk of conceding or negotiating for different changes to abortion law, whereas incrementalists could be accused of suggesting that certain types of abortion are more acceptable than others.
- If successful, it would end the practice of abortion immediately.
Cons of Absolutism:
- It risks the lives of babies being lost in the immediate term whilst focusing only on the goal of repeal, rather than seeking any incremental change to the law that could save lives
- It avoids pragmatism about what is politically possible and therefore gains little support from lawmakers—who are the ones actually able to change the law. For example, in a pro-abortion parliament and culture, it would be utterly unrealistic to obtain enough support for a Bill banning abortion outright.
- Refusing to negotiate on anything but full repeal may mean losing to a far more liberal abortion law. For example, in Canada, pro-life lawmakers favoured an absolutist approach when the law was changed and refused to make concessions. As a result, Canada ended up with one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world.
Pros of Incrementalism
- It focuses on changes that are immediately politically possible and realistic in a pro-abortion culture.
- It has been proven to save lives through incremental changes that prevent as many abortions from happening.
- All laws are made incrementally. This approach therefore works well within political and legal structures, and its pragmatism is favoured by lawmakers.
Cons of Incrementalism
- This approach is more successful at changing the law, but its pragmatic approach may mean it does not inspire enthusiasm amongst the general pro-life movement.
- It is a more gradual approach which won’t end abortion immediately
- It could distract from the central purpose of repeal by making the abortion fight about smaller aspects of the abortion debate—thereby losing sight of the bigger picture.
Same problem; different cause
These two approaches to changing the law are not unique to the pro-life movement; they were also apparent in the fight to overturn the abhorrent practice of slavery when the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was at its height. Amongst abolitionists of the slave trade, there were differences of opinion about how to change the law.
Ultimately, it was through a process of public campaigning for abolition, and incremental law change, that eventually saw the end of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
For example, Wilberforce publicly advocated for full abolition of the slave trade. However, politically it was a different matter. He never had the opportunity to vote explicitly to abolish the slave trade, so he had to make do with smaller changes to the law that eventually saw the law overturned.
For example, he supported a Bill that would regulate how many slaves were allowed on a single ship, which improved conditions for slave ships. Some might have argued that he was implicitly arguing for the continuation of slavery, but in fact this Bill helped improve conditions for slaves (surely a goal any abolitionist would vote for) and it recognised the humanity of slaves—thereby contributing to the eventual abolition of the trade.
Ultimately he advocated for full abolition and kept his focus on that end, whilst he also tried to obtain whatever was immediately politically possible to work towards that goal.
Same destination; different routes
Like the abolition of the slave trade, creating a world where abortion is unthinkable takes time. Both approaches are needed to turn the tide.
We are all abolitionists. We all agree about the destination we want to get to, we simply disagree about how to get there. But the pro-life movement doesn’t need to be split by these two camps; we need to see them as part of a whole that will contribute towards a society where abortion is unthinkable.