April 28, 2015

"We played the flute, and you did not dance": thoughts on Saturday's incrementalism vs. immediatism debate

On Saturday evening, I enjoyed a late dinner and viewed a live stream of a debate titled "Pro-Life Incrementalism vs. Abolitionist Immediatism." Gregg Cunningham of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform argued in favour of the incremental position, while T. Russell Hunter of the International Coalition of Abolitionist Societies, and the founder of the Abolish Human Abortion (AHA) movement, argued for the immediatist position. (Henceforth I will call the latter the "absolutist" position: while I have no particular prejudice against their preferred term, I just feel that visually, "immediatist" and "incrementalist" may appear too similar in print.)

The event, which took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was streamed live via YouTube and can still be viewed there.

My first post as a blogger for Faith Beyond Belief was about taking an incremental approach to ending abortion on demand. After viewing the debate, I firmly continue to stand behind that post. Quite frankly, I found Hunter's argument unconvincing.

Both sides made rhetorical missteps, but Russell Hunter came across as unprepared, strident, and preachy. (After Scott Klusendorf paraphrased a well-known legal aphorism while commenting on the debate on his Facebook page, an interesting side discussion ensued about its origin. Although the proverb is by no means original to him, it was Carl Sandburg who most famously quipped, "If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell." Hunter certainly did his fair share of yelling on Saturday night.)

After the debate, someone on the debate's event page posted that Gregg Cunningham "ended up conceding the debate" in his answer to one audience question: "If you had the opportunity, if a bill was presented to you, that would abolish abortion completely, except for one child, you had to let one child die, there was one exception, what would you do?" He replied, "The answer, quite simply, is no. . . . I would say, 'Get thee behind me, Satan.'" His response consciously echoed Hunter's, to whom the question was originally posed.

Supposedly Cunningham conceded the debate to the absolutist side because by his answer he admitted that he could not sacrifice the life of a single unborn child for the sake of the greater good. I didn't see it that way. Rather, I heard what I perceived to be a loaded question intended to manipulate emotions in favour of the absolutist side (the man who posed the question was wearing an AHA shirt). Of course there would be no practical benefit to such a law; the hypothetical was contrived for emotional impact, as if to compel Cunningham to tell that innocent little unborn baby to her face that she must die for the greater good. (I think the questioner must also have confused incremental strategy with utilitarianism.)

I suggest an alternative form of the question, one which I hope will preserve the same moral issue present in the one asked at the debate, but hopefully without the transparent emotional appeal:

If you had the opportunity, if a bill was presented to you that would abolish abortion completely, except that the law would not come into effect until the end of the month and the status quo would remain in the meantime, what would you do?

Of course, I would sign that bill in a heartbeat, because it would mean both a soon and definitive end to the scourge of abortion.

I would be curious to see how an absolutist would answer it, though. I would think that their devotion to ideological purity would catch them on the horns of a dilemma.

And in the final analysis, it's that purism that renders the "abolitionists" (I reject their claimed monopoly on that term) so irrelevant. Incrementalists see victory over abortion on demand as achieved in a series of small steps, some of which have resulted in victories. Absolutists see any sort of partial legal restriction on abortion as implicitly saying "then you can kill the baby" if those restrictions don't apply in his case. If you can't outlaw abortion all the way, they say, you shouldn't go at all. So far, this approach has achieved exactly zero successes. Maybe they should stop calling themselves "abolitionists" and adopt the label "armchair quarterbacks."

Members of AHA spend a lot of time outside abortion clinics, protesting what goes on inside and counseling women not to have abortions there. I have no doubt that they changed many minds, and deserve unqualified credit and praise for the good they have done. Their activities are praiseworthy, but they are not a vindication of the abolitionist strategy. Do sidewalk counselors persuade every woman who comes to the clinic for an abortion not to have one? Do they blockade the clinic to prevent everyone they don't persuade from entering? If not, are they not tacitly acknowledging that women are legally allowed to enter an abortion clinic and kill their baby? How is this not the abolitionists' own "then you can kill the baby"?

We need the absolutists' zeal. We need their calls to the church to awaken out of its lethargy and do something to stop the killing. What we don't need is the kind of almost priggish commitment to an ideology that has thus far probably not prevented a single abortion, and treats allies as enemies.