Barber/ERLC Swing and Miss (Again) at Abolitionism

Wesley RussellAbolitionism, Southern Baptist Convention

Few things in the evangelical landscape of the west have caused a more polarizing response than that of the abortion crisis. More specifically, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has been torn over the issue for the better part of its existence. Whether through weekly sermon applications, daily evangelism, or annual resolutions, Southern Baptists have had much to say about this issue. That is a good thing in and of itself. After all, our Lord has much to say about this issue as well.

God has smothered the pages of Scripture with divine decrees that His people are to treat all humans with the equal value in which He created them. Yet, it seems this has become a mere catchphrase for those who find themselves in the middle of this discourse. Do Southern Baptists believe that the preborn actually are of equal value? If so, why wouldn’t they be willing to take a stand on providing the preborn with equal justice? If equal justice, why not equal protection? This is where the SBC finds itself in an unfortunate rift. Many of the saints involved in the fight to end abortion have bound themselves to a particular ideology. Usually, one of two.

1. Gradualism/incrementalism (defining ideology of the Pro-Life Movement)

2. Immediatism (defining ideology of the Abolitionist Movement)

Gradual incrementalism seeks to end abortion gradually by standing for and standing behind incremental methods of both evangelism and legislation.

Immediate abolitionism seeks to end abortion immediately by standing for and standing behind immediate and complete methods of both evangelism and legislation.

The majority of the SBC holds to the former, some by default and some by conscious assessment of the two ideologies. That certainly is true for the current president of the convention, Bart Barber. There might not be an individual more loudly sold out to the cause of gradual incrementalism than he. It does not take long to find content from Bart expressing his absolute favor of the gradualist movement and his devout disdain for the immediate abolition movement.

Recently, in Volume 8, Issue 6 of the ERLC’s ‘LIGHT Magazine’, Barber wrote a piece entitled “A Pro-Life Response to Abolitionism’s Critiques,” an article in which he sought to respond to the critiques of many immediate abolitionists’ open and thorough critiques of mainstream, pro-life incrementalism.

In this article, I endeavor to honestly and lovingly engage with many of the tragic misrepresentations and incomplete arguments that Barber made. I hope this bridges a gap and stimulates Christian conversation about six issues at hand in this discussion.

Claim 1: Abolitionists Let Women Die

 “Although I have yet to encounter a Southern Baptist whose position is, ‘OK, just let them both die, then!’ some abolitionist laws have avoided the necessary exclusions.”

This is not the first time that Barber has made this claim. Sadly, there have been many Twitter threads and dialogue at convention meetings where this claim has been made. There are a few problems with this claim.

Abolition bills do deal with situations like ectopic pregnancy in various ways including restating or strengthening existing defenses like self-defense and duress. Barber’s response to this has been that providing or strengthening a defense is not enough: “Physicians should not have to appear in court repeatedly to bear the expense and burden of proof to show that their saving the life of the mother by ending the life of the baby in an ectopic pregnancy or similar situation was warranted.”

Barber’s point is that a defense is something you raise in court after you’ve been charged. So he’s concerned that a doctor who treats an ectopic pregnancy could theoretically be forced into court for every ectopic pregnancy they treat and have to offer their defense before being let go.

But this is not how prosecutors anywhere operate. In their analysis of Idaho’s recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion, left-leaning legal blog JDSupra wrote that even though the Idaho law makes such over-prosecution possible, that doesn’t mean any prosecutors would be stupid enough to do so: “Of course, as a practical matter, prosecutors are unlikely to pursue cases in which affirmative defenses are likely to apply.” Prosecutors don’t pursue losing cases, and they especially don’t pursue losing cases against abortionists and mothers. Bart’s concern is a non-issue.

Even as a non-issue, Bart’s problem is not fundamentally with abolition bills: his problem is with the entire American legal system and almost all pro-life bills that operates with affirmative defenses. Unless he is suggesting the federal government and all states get rid of affirmative defenses and make them explicit exemptions, he needs to stop raising this objection. All an abolition bill does is make existing law apply to children in the womb.

Further, some abolition bills like HB3326 in Barber’s home state of Texas, even provide explicit exemptions: “Conduct is justified if the conduct charged is a lawful medical procedure performed by a physician or other licensed health care provider and intended to remove an ectopic pregnancy that seriously threatens the life of the mother when a reasonable alternative to save the lives of both the mother and the unborn child is unavailable.”

It is a perpetuation of a lie to claim that abolitionists or abolition bills are not supportive of saving the mother’s life in dangerous medical situations.

Barber’s misrepresentation of what is an actual abortion also has to be mentioned. Regarding ectopic pregnancies, there are categorically different procedures for those tragic cases. These are called “salpingostomy and salpingectomy,” according to the Mayo Clinic. The rationale for such treatments being legal is that they are not the cause of the baby’s death, but might indeed save the mother’s life. Barber, however, classifies these medical procedures as abortion, writing that these procedures “take the ectopic baby’s life to save the mother.”

Claim 2: Aborting Mothers are Victims

“Are women who get an abortion victims? Of course they are.”

The claim and narrative of the “second victim” has been a cancerous growth onto modern evangelism. He further claims, “I agree with the preacher who said in a sermon, “Women are pressured by the men who impregnated them to get abortions. Women are pressured by their families to get abortions. They are pressured by the stigma that they think will come to them to get an abortion. . . . They are . . . victims, and . . . scripture speaks to that.’”

Of course, it is sometimes true that women are pressured to murder their children. But the theological issue here is: does external pressure and temptation to sin exonerate sinners? Is this what God has said in His word?

James 1:14-15 clearly states, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Humans are tempted when they are lured and enticed by their own desire. It is afterward that when the sinful desire conceives that it gives birth to sin. Humans are not merely tempted by external sources and outside pressures but each individual is guilty of their own sins. The theological implications to the second victim narrative are enormous, and when handled wrongly, make one guilty of what Isaiah says in 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.”

There is clearly one victim in every abortion and that is the child who has their life unjustly taken from them. Especially in light of the word “victim” quite literally meaning, “one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent.”

Imagine if we used this logic for other sins that are crimes. Are people raised by rapists, pedophiles, and murderers victims when they rape, molest, and murder because of their circumstances which tempted them into sinful crimes? Of course not.

When parents choose to murder their children, God will hold them accountable to that sin and so should we. Bart somewhat acknowledges this by saying, “Our preaching of forgiveness for abortion is an ongoing affirmation of the fact that women who consent to an abortion are morally and spiritually culpable for abortion.” This is where the catastrophic inconsistency lies. If every woman, in every abortion, every time is a victim, then can they simultaneously be morally and spiritually culpable? There is no biblical category for what Barber is grasping for here. There is no category set aside for innocent murderers or guiltless violence.

If they are culpable then should we not call them to repentance? Why, of course. How can we do such a thing if we treat them as victims?

This is not to say that women are never victims in abortions. In 2022, a man in Texas (where Bart has claimed abortion was fully banned) was accused of sneaking an abortion pill into a woman’s drink. This woman is absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing and without a shadow of a doubt a victim. The mindful, knowledgeable, and willful abortion of a child by the woman, though? That is murder and the child is the only victim.

Claim 3: Abortion Laws Shouldn’t “Mandate” Prosecution

“Should abortion laws mandate the prosecution of women who seek or obtain an abortion? I think not. I think it is unjust, unnecessary, and unwise to include in abortion laws the prosecution of women who seek or obtain an abortion.”

Barber thinks not but God thinks so.

The first point which must be noted is that no law “mandates” prosecution. That’s not how laws work, and this is another example of Barber’s legal ignorance (and that of Light Magazine’s editors) rearing its head. Laws make possible the prosecution of crimes but prosecutors have discretion regarding whether to bring charges to court. No law binds a prosecutor into pursuing a certain sentence when the facts of the case don’t warrant it.

Second, what is the biblical definition of being “unjust” or “unwise?” God must be our standard for such claims and His Word must inform every thought when approaching these topics. What does God’s Word say about justice? What is the Christian’s role in administering justice?

To simply put it:

Do not turn a blind eye to the abortion holocaust happening among you or God will turn to you in anger (Lev. 20). Open your eyes and speak up for the mute (Prov. 31:8-9). Do what is right (Prov. 21:3) and love your preborn neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31).

In Mark 12, when Jesus says, “love your neighbor as yourself,” he is quoting from Leviticus 19:18. Just before that God says,“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (verse 15). Meaning, if you want to love your neighbor—especially your preborn neighbor—show no legal partiality to them and judge them in righteousness. Judge them according to the righteous standard God has given us: the one that says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6).

Barber continues on this point with a flurry of acrobatic hoop-jumping, arguing that:

  • The abortionist is the one operating the abortion tools.
  • Prosecuting women for abortion is unnecessary because they can already be prosecuted under conspiracy laws.
    • Mostly false.
  • Those who would be prosecuted would mostly be those who are coerced.
    • Completely, embarrassingly false. We can only speculate, but it’s unlikely that a truly coerced woman would ever be prosecuted. Only a wicked, heartless prosecutor intent on career suicide would ever prosecute a coerced woman. It is primarily women ordering abortion pills online who would be prosecuted if an abolition bill were enforced.
  • Most pro-life organizations and many Southern Baptists historically haven’t supported fully criminalizing abortion.
    • True, and damning of the Pro-Life Movement.

It also must be noted that Barber frames equal protection for preborn children as “singl[ing] out women for prosecution.” No abolition bill does any such thing. They just make preborn children equal under law, which means that anyone who murders them can be prosecuted.

Barber’s humanistic, emotional appeals against the full criminalization of abortion are weak even by their own standard, and are a vomitous abomination by the standard of scripture.

Claim 4: Incrementalism Isn’t Compromise

“Does it amount to sinful compromise to apply wisdom to the pro-life cause and to act strategically toward the long term goal of ending legal abortion? Of course not.”

Is it sinful to show partiality? Of course it is. From Genesis to Revelation God reserves some of His strongest, most intense warnings for people who show partiality. Barber is attempting to make a case for gradualism here—a case that many made in the slavery abolition movement that prolonged slavery—by conflating wisdom and pragmatism. He says, “Pragmatism is bad when it is an excuse for disobeying God. But sometimes pragmatism is just a word to describe wisdom employed to obey God.”

Pragmatism is not an issue of nuance—it is a philosophical worldview, one that is categorically distinct from the Christian worldview. C.S. Pierce and William James established the pragmatism movement in the United States in order to prove that the, “meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief.

So the issue for Barber and his gradualist constituents is not one of methodology but one of theological principles. When your approach to ending abortion causes certain individuals to have less justice and inconsistent protections under the law, it should be defined as sinful compromise. The Lord does not call for delayed justice, He calls for immediate, “true justice” (Zechariah 7:9).

Christians should not seek simply to approach abortion practically and never pragmatically. They should desire to approach the murder of the preborn principally and Scripturally. As Clay Hall (Oak Grove Baptist Church, Paducah, KY) says, “We should not just do something about abortion, we should do the right something for the right reasons.”

Barber further contends:

[S]ometimes pragmatism is just a word to describe wisdom employed to obey God. The case law in the Torah often represents pragmatic wisdom employed to apply the principles of godliness to the situations of daily life. Such biblical case law includes explicit exceptions to murder laws based upon some of the very factors that have appeared above in this essay (uncertainty about intent, duress, etc.).

God led Moses to apply the sixth commandment not in an absolute way, but with a wisdom that created cities of refuge and manslaughter laws and, notably, specific situational laws surrounding the death of a child before birth.

This a conflation of God justly differentiating between categories of homicide and man choosing to write laws which deny some preborn children of all of their rights and legal equality, thereby “making the fatherless prey” (Isaiah 10:2).

Barber continues:

The abortion abolition movement has, so far, been unable to pass legislation even in the most pro-life states in the Union. Anyone who seriously cares about protecting babies from death by abortion must recognize the importance of passing legislation nationwide to end abortion. But members of this movement tie the pro-life movement to the laws least likely to pass.

This is a sleight of hand often practiced by pro-life leaders. Barber is correct that an abolition bill has yet to pass. But those who say this seem to always conveniently forget to mention why these bills haven’t passed: namely, the people who say this typically are the reason they haven’t passed.

It is first and foremost pro-life organizations who have stood against bills to abolish abortion at every turn, most famously in Louisiana when the ERLC (which publishes Light Magazine and is an SBC entity) signed an open letter with 75 other pro-life organizations opposing and killing the Abolition of Abortion in Louisiana Act. Prior to the pro-life organizations mobilizing against the bill, it sailed easily through committee by a 7-2 vote. The pro-abortion forces couldn’t stop it. But after the pro-life organizations came out against it, nearly all of the legislators who supported it in committee flip-flopped and voted against it on the House floor. (Hear the full story here.)

The best outcome would be these pro-life and national SBC entities repenting and supporting the abolition of abortion, but second best would be for them to get out of the way.

Claim 5: Bart Wants to Talk

“I want to be able to sit across the table from abortion abolitionists. I want us to be able to address one another respectfully and to work with one another where it is possible to do so.”

Then make it happen, Bart. Respond to Dusty Deevers’ text message.

This is one of the most disheartening parts in Barber’s article. It paints a picture of abolitionists that as being unwilling to have a conversation, when in reality, that is all we have been trying to do.

Through being attacked by entity heads on social media, muted at mics, the calling of questions at conventions, and slandered in published articles, abolitionist-incrementalist conversations have been shut down by the incremental pragmatists. The worst case of this by far was Barber’s Twitter thread targeting SBC pastor Dusty Deevers with numerous vicious and deranged lies such as, “unless you 100% agree with every jot and tittle of Deevers’s obsession with sending 16-year-old girls to prison for succumbing to the coercion of their parents to have an abortion, he will label you ‘against the innocent preborn.'” For his part in half-a-dozen savage, dishonest character assassinations of Deevers, all Barber apologized for was the use of the word “obsession,” something for which no one was asking him to apologize for.

Deevers — a pastor at Grace Community Church, Elgin, OK — has tried privately to seek reconciliation with Bart according to Christ’s exhortation in Matthew 18, yet has been consistently turned down and been subsequently, publicly misrepresented. To the authors of this article, Deevers said:

“As God commands of me, I have—along with the elders of my church—sought reconciliation directly with Bart from his slanders and lies and am willing and have offered multiple times to sit down across the table from Bart and have these conversations. However, at this point, that conversation would need to be moderated and documented in order stop any further distortion.”

So yes, have those conversations that you talk about, Bart. You don’t even have to seek them out. Your brothers have told you they will drive to Farmersville with their elders to meet with you and yours. Abolitionists have called and are still calling for these conversations with you personally and for moderated debate with SBC incrementalists generally. We want to see this happen as well. Let us labor to become of one mind towards whatever strategies and actions it takes to see abortion abolished by God, for God, and to the glory of God.

This article was written by Wesley Russell and James Silberman. Wesley is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Pikeville, KY. James is the Communications Director of Free the States.

Three things to do!
  1. Big tech is cracking down on our ability to reach you! Our social media reach has been greatly decreased in recent months. To make sure you are not missing important content and news about abolition bills from Free the States, sign up for email updates!
  2. Be an activist! Convert people in your community to abolitionism. The best brief resource in the Abolitionist Movement for turning pro-lifers into abolitionists is the Are You An Abolitionist pamphlet. The best quadfold for outreach to pro-aborts and evangelism is the Abortion is Murder And Everybody Knows it quadfold. You can pick up copies from the Free the States store, along with t-shirts, drop cards, stickers, and activism signs!
  3. Everything we produce is possible because of the support of our donors. Help fund the fight to abolish abortion! Help us add staff and expand our programs by becoming a monthly supporter of Free the States!