Against Pro-Life Compromise: Responding to Denny Burk, Andrew Walker, et al.

James SilbermanAbolitionism

The passage of the Southern Baptist Resolution on Abolishing Abortion at the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Annual Meeting two weeks ago has sparked a slew of articles from pro-life SBC leaders opposing it. This article is the third installment in a series of articles here on the FTS blog responding to the anti-abolitionist pieces of these pro-lifers.

In Public Discourse, eight particularly accredited writers – eight SBC seminary professors/executives, one of whom is a former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) – signed their name to an article entitled “Why We Opposed an Anti-Abortion Resolution at the Southern Baptist Convention.” With those theological bona fides, you might think that the article mounted a serious, sustained Biblical critique of abolitionism; but you would be incorrect. Exactly one Bible verse was cited as a supposed anti-abolitionist proof text, and, as will be demonstrated, the verse is actually a distinctly abolitionist verse.

The authors primarily take issue with two aspects of the resolution:

  1. Its call for “the immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise,” which, in their view, doesn’t adequately deal with ectopic pregnancies and other life-threatening complications.
  2. Its rejection of pro-life gradualism.
Ectopic Pregnancies

The resolution does not address the issue of ectopic pregnancies. The reason for this is not an ignorance of the existence of ectopic pregnancies, nor an opposition to the treatment thereof. The authors did not explicitly address ectopic pregnancies because the treatment of ectopic pregnancies is not properly defined as abortion.

Most babies who implant somewhere other than the uterus die before any action to treat an ectopic pregnancy is even taken. Removing a child who has already died is not an abortion. In the case of those who do survive, it is important that we do not equivocate between preterm delivery of the baby (which will lead to the unintended and inevitable death of the baby) and the intentional destruction of the baby by D&E or D&C abortion. The former is an appropriate treatment of an ectopic pregnancy if the baby has no chance of survival. The latter is not.

This conflation of preterm delivery with intentional destruction also impugns grieving parents who are forced to deliver the child early. For these reasons, it is crucial that we do not define the treatment of ectopic pregnancy as an abortion.

Though doing so was unnecessary, abolitionists in Nashville did intend to address the issue to preempt any other such effort which would have made the exception too broad or defined abortion wrongly. Lacey Adamson, an abolitionist nurse and messenger from Ekklesia Muskogee in Muskogee, OK, was prepared to offer the following amendment which would have gone in between articles 13 and 14.

(14) RESOLVED, that we recognize that ectopic pregnancies are a tragedy during which medical triage is necessary, with doctors never ceasing to treat both mother and baby as human beings, and upholding the Hippocratic Oath by exhausting all possible options to save as many human lives as they can.

Any future attempt to address this topic in resolutions should be along these lines, rather than conflating ectopic treatment with abortion as the SBC professors advocate.

The SBC professors actually acknowledge that this narrower definition of abortion is a possible explanation for the wording of the resolution, but then argue that since the SBC has always defined ectopic treatment as abortion, the convention should continue to do so going forward. No justification is given for this argument, and indeed, no justification for this argument is conceivable. It never necessarily follows that because an error has been made in the past, it should continue to be made going forward.

Rejecting Incrementalism

The authors argue that abolitionism is “a little bit like Eisenhower setting the goal to capture Berlin but refusing to invade Normandy until all of France and Germany can be conquered at once. That would have been foolish. Of course the goal is the total conquest of the Nazis in Berlin, but that goal can only be reached incrementally. You have to land the troops in Normandy and fight your way through. Sitting on the beach in England and declaring your ‘total conquest’ principles would never have driven the Nazis out of France. You have to fight inch by inch, yard by yard, mile by mile until total victory is achieved.”

This argument indicates either that the authors possess an astonishingly poor understanding of abolitionism or have astonishingly little desire to represent abolitionism accurately. As we have explained ad nauseum on the blog and podcast, abolitionism is not overnight-ism. Abolitionists are not under the impression that the culture and politics will drastically change overnight or that the object of our protest will be abolished overnight.

Abolitionists understand, as our 19th century abolitionist predecessors did, that the fight to abolish a great societal evil is a struggle that will likely take years of toil and faithfulness. As William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the August 13, 1831 edition of The Liberator, “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be we shall always contend.” The abolitionism-incrementalism debate does not revolve around how long the battle takes (though the abolitionist strategy will certainly achieve the desired end more quickly). The debate revolves around what our demand should be.

The abolitionist demands the immediate abolition of the evil; calling the evil what it is, watering nothing down, and grounding our demands in God’s Word. The incrementalist asks for a compromise with the evil. The tragic consequence of this is that the incrementalist cannot ground their argument in anything substantial.

For instance, the abolitionist demand for abortion to be abolished can be grounded in God’s Word (“You shall not murder”) and in the U.S. Constitution (“[No state shall] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”). An incrementalist’s demand for a 20-week abortion ban or a heartbeat bill cannot be defended from God’s Word or the Constitution, as these laws – by implying the legality of abortion prior to the arbitrary standard they set for who counts as fully human – violate both.

Because incremental laws and the incremental arguments made in favor of them cannot be grounded in anything substantial, they are weak and impotent to change culture and politics. In some cases, these bills and arguments actually serve to move the needle in the wrong direction by dehumanizing the preborn children left unprotected or classified as non-humans by the arbitrary law (see point #3 of this article).

Compromise bills and arguments mean compromised foundations; compromised foundations mean no powerful prophetic witness from our demands; and no powerful prophetic witness from our demands means no positive cultural change from our demands. This is one of the many reasons immediatists demand the immediate, not the gradual, abolition of the evil. Abolitionists set a high bar with strong, principled demands, and the culture gradually moves toward us.

The heart of the abolitionism-incrementalism debate is about the difference in the demands we make. The SBC professors’ citation of the invasion of Normandy to argue that cultural and political change happens over time is granted, but has absolutely nothing to do with abolitionism.

(It has been suggested to me that, because of the frequency of this strawman being used against us, abolitionists shouldn’t use the phrase “incrementalism” and its variants, but instead refer to the strategy as “regulationism,” the terminology utilized by Thomas Clarkson and other abolitionists of slavery to describe the incremental strategy. We very well might go this direction with our phrasing in order to prevent pro-lifers from conflating different meanings of “incrementalism.”)

The SBC professors then cite the many previous SBC resolutions supporting incremental pro-life laws, again committing a form of the sunk cost fallacy: “It’s the error we’ve always made, so let’s keep making it!” This idea that it’s bad that the resolution renounces prior SBC pro-life resolutions was the most common argument among anti-abolitionists at the convention.

David Norman from San Antonio said, “This resolution repudiates every pro-life resolution ever passed by the Southern Baptist Convention. Therefore, I move that we lay it on the table… We are a pro-life convention. We are anti-abortion. But this resolution requires that we walk back from every pro-life resolution we’ve passed.” Norman’s motion was rejected by roughly 80 percent of the messengers, who apparently are perfectly happy to go in a different, more bold and explicitly Biblical direction.

ERLC researcher Josh Wester similarly argued that “We should be proud of that [incremental pro-life] legacy.” But the resolution passed, repudiations of previous pro-life resolutions intact.

The SBC professors’ next argument is, incredibly, from Proverbs 24:11.

“Deliver those who are being taken away to death, And those who are staggering to slaughter, O hold them back.”

Notice that Proverbs 24:11 does not say, “Deliver those who are being taken away to death, unless the supreme court authorizes their murder.” But pro-lifers operate as if this is what the Bible teaches. The pro-life assertion made by the professors that “all can’t be saved right now” is based on the presupposition that Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood are due our unconditional submission. It is based on the treatment of the supreme court as if it were the Supreme Being. Lest anyone think this is an exaggeration, Joe Pojman of Texas Alliance for Life told the Houston Chronicle in 2019 that “We could no sooner ignore SCOTUS than the force of gravity.” Scott Klusendorf of Life Training Institute said that we have to compromise with abortion because the supreme court has “already dictated from on high” that abortion is legal. This wasn’t just a slip. The pro-life leaders really act as if the supreme court justices were “on high.”

Equating the authority of the supreme court to a law of nature or referring to the justices with phrases related to divinity are a form of idolatry. In these instances, allegiance to the true and living God is reduced to a temporary alliance whenever God’s Word happens to match the supreme court’s opinion.

This is the understanding pro-life leaders operate from; and it flies in the face of scripture’s clear teaching. As Christians, we have no king but Christ. Every earthly authority is due conditional submission – conditioned upon the degree to which they are submitting to Christ. Christians do not submit unconditionally to anyone but God. When the supreme court tells our governing officials to authorize genocide, we must exhort our governing officials to resist the supreme court. Any other position – whether well-intentioned or not – is idolatry.

The resolution explains what actually rescuing those being led to slaughter looks like:

(9) WHEREAS, governing authorities at every level have a duty before God to uphold justice asserting their God-ordained and constitutional authority to establish equal protection under the law for all, born and preborn, by intervening, ignoring, or nullifying iniquitous decisions when other authorities, such as the Supreme Court, condone such injustices as the legal taking of innocent life (Daniel 3; 1 Kings 12; 2 Kings 11; Jeremiah 26:10-16; 36:9-31; 37:11- 21; 39:7-10).

The absurdity and immorality of incrementalism and unconditional SCOTUS subservience is obvious when discussed in the context of any other evil. In Resolution #8, the SBC declared that the Chinese government must “cease its program of genocide against the Uyghur people immediately” (emphasis mine). Had a messenger suggested weakening this language to demand only the gradual ceasing of the genocide, it would have been immediately recognized as a failure to be consistently Christian, and a failure to make a strong stand for the oppressed Uyghur people.

As was written in a previous installment of the SBC response series here on the FTS blog:

The idea that we are bound by some law of Constitution, nature, or nature’s God to unconditionally submit to the supreme court, up to and including submitting to their authorization of a holocaust, is both risible and contemptible. This would be perfectly clear if we trot out the toddler — to use Klusendorf’s thought experiment. If the supreme court ruled tomorrow that children up to age four can be murdered, none of these pro-life leaders would dream of telling the states to submit to that court opinion. Or to be a little more direct, if the supreme court opined that it was legal to kill people who oppose abortion, there would, of course, be no articles from pro-lifers demanding that we submit to that court opinion. Writing such an article would be unashamedly wicked and insane. But it is no less so in the case of preborn children, because there is no moral difference between preborn humans and born humans.

The suggestion that we should submit to the supreme court’s abortion jurisprudence can result only from either idolatry or the latent ageism which we all are apt to fall into on suitable occasions because the poisoning and ripping to shreds of preborn children is out of sight and out of mind.

Other Absurdities

That’s all as far as serious discussions go, but the SBC professors also made a few unserious arguments that have to be referred to as such. Still in the incrementalism section, they write: “Our problem with those who reject incrementalism is that they fail to act in the ‘day of distress.'”

Anyone who would accuse abolitionists of failing to act knows nothing of that which they speak. Though we still do not make up a majority of the anti-abortion people in America, our rallies for abolition at state capitols dwarf the rallies for incremental bills held by the pro-life establishment. In most states, abolitionists have a much larger presence at the abortion mills than pro-lifers. Abolitionists take great care to keep the term “abolitionist” synonymous with action, as opposed to the great mass of people who do nothing more than hold a pro-life moral opinion. If someone says they want abolition but doesn’t do anything about it, we would not consider them an abolitionist. There is not a more active group of people anywhere for any cause than the abolitionists.

The SBC professors also write that the resolution is “unhelpfully vague. To call for ‘abolition’ implies adopting the means to accomplish such an end. If they won’t adopt incremental measures like the Hyde Amendment or efforts to abolish Roe v. Wade, then we are compelled to ask: What methods are abolitionists willing to adopt to accomplish their aims? Armed resistance? Civil war? Civil disobedience? In gutting pro-life advocacy of any incremental success, it calls for a goal without explaining how it would be attained. Those who adopt a resolution implying drastic action owe us the clarity of what those actions are to be.”

The means were right there in article nine of the resolution, referenced earlier in this piece. The means by which abolition is achieved is by governing authorities at every level “asserting their God-ordained and constitutional authority to establish equal protection under the law for all, born and preborn, by intervening, ignoring, or nullifying iniquitous decisions when other authorities, such as the Supreme Court, condone such injustices as the legal taking of innocent life.” The idea that the means were unclear – or that the means necessitate civil war – aren’t serious arguments and shouldn’t be treated as such. Very simply, these are scare tactics on the part of the SBC professors. Abolitionism has always been a peaceful movement, and that is not going to change. This resolution is nothing more than the Church obeying Christ and demanding justice through interposition. If other actors involved respond to justice with violence, that’s on them.

The SBC professors then write: “There are other aspects of this resolution that give us pause. For example, it seems to hint at prosecution of post-abortive women. Traditionally, pro-life advocates have wanted to prosecute the abortionist, not the women. Also, the resolution makes no hint at the moral complicity of the men fathering the aborted children, and thus could suggest a misogynistic edge.”

The resolution calls for preborn children to be made equal under the law. That’s it. Equality for preborn children means the possible prosecution of any man or woman who knowingly and willingly participates in the murder of a preborn child. The suggestion that the resolution singles out culpable women for prosecution at the exclusion of culpable men is an outright lie. I take no joy in saying that and wish I didn’t have to, but there’s no way around it. There is absolutely nothing in the resolution that conceivably suggests a singling out of women or a “misogynistic edge.”

The willful conflation of the abolitionist desire for equality for preborn children with misogyny is the tactic of pro-aborts. The SBC professors lied, sinning against God and the pastors who authored the resolution. The SBC professors should issue a correction and apology.

Conclusion

Pro-life responses to the Southern Baptist Resolution on Abolishing Abortion are still trickling out, though there is not going to be a response from anyone or any group of writers more accomplished and esteemed than the SBC professors. Even so, their argument was almost entirely without scriptural reference. I wish I could say their article was entirely abiblical because the one attempt they made at a scriptural defense of regulationism was worse than making no Biblical argument at all. At times ignorant, and at times dishonest, this woefully poor attempt at refuting the Southern Baptist Resolution on Abolishing Abortion should be unpublished by the authors.