Defining our Approach Choosing between Incrementalism and Absolutism
Should we approach pro-life issues on an incremental basis, gradually achieving our goals by compromise and exceptions? Or, should we settle for nothing less than full legal recognition of the sanctity for life? What are the merits for these positions? What are the drawbacks?
A couple of general points to start with:
1. Both incrementalists (those who favor working to end legal abortion through incremental laws like parental consent and abortion clinic regulations) and absolutists (those who would favor trying to end legal abortion only through laws that ban abortion outright) have the same goal. Both want legal abortion to end. Their disagreement is over strategy, not what they want the end result to be.
2. There is no place in a rational discourse on this topic for accusations about prolife individuals not being "truly prolife" or having ulterior motives. There is also no place for claims that laws which attempt to restrict abortion are "inherently evil." These claims and accusations do nothing to move the conversation forward.
With those points aside I'd also say I'm not sure I like the phrasing of the question above. For example, those who believe in an incrementalist strategy don't plan on stopping/settling until there is nothing less than full legal recognition of the unborn child. They're just going about reaching that goal in a different way than trying to take the whole cake with one swipe. I'm also not sure incrementalists want or need to compromise with pro-choicers. While laws that force minors to obtain their parents' consent before an abortion don't protect the life of every unborn child, I don't think I would label these laws, which are vehemently opposed by pro-choice organizations, "compromises." They are more like tiny steps which bring us closer to our goal.
I think the main questions in front of us when deciding whether to use an incrementalist strategy or an absolutist strategy is simply:
Which will work better? Which strategy will be more likely to end legal abortion?
And from what I've seen while being part of the prolife movement, the incrementalist strategy works better than an absolutist strategy which will only take an all-or-nothing-right-now approach to abortion legislation. I feel if the prolife movement focused all its legislative efforts on passing laws that banned all abortions at this moment in time then the progress we've made in the last number of years would come to a screeching halt and most likely start to turn in the other direction.
Incremental laws which regulate abortion clinics have done some amazing things. In Mississippi there is only one abortion clinic. All the others have closed up shop. In Michigan, the number of abortions performed annually has been cut nearly in half in the last two decades and is at its lowest point since abortions have been reported to the state. The states with the lowest grades from NARAL typically have much lower abortion rates (usually somewhere around 10 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44) than the states who are favored by NARAL.
These prolife victories certainly aren't the end goal but I believe they bring us closer to it. These laws not only help decrease the number of abortions but also give prolifers a chance to educate the public on abortion and win hearts and minds. Abortion becomes seen no longer as a necessary right but as something which is so onerous it needs to be restricted as much as is currently possible.
Meanwhile, when the absolutist strategy is used as it recently was in South Dakota, the results are less impressive. In South Dakota, which is arguably one of the most conservative and prolife states in our country, a referendum on a law to ban all abortions received only 44.5% of the votes and when not enough votes were garnered, some prolifers quickly starting pointing fingers at other prolifers. One wondered what would have happened if more prolife groups had joined their efforts while another prolifer claimed the ban failed because it focused too much on how abortion hurts women and not enough on how abortion kills unborn children.
Why is it that those in favor of trying to ban all abortions often immediately point the finger at other prolifers when their efforts fail? Instead of possibly rethinking strategy, the response I typically see from absolutists when they fail is to lay the blame on other prolifers who don't agree with their specific strategy.
But what if the South Dakota ban had received a majority of votes? Would it have saved the life of one child or would it have been immediately challenged in court and eventually ruled unconstitutional? If it was ruled unconstitutional, what then? Another complete ban leading to another court battle leading to another unfavorable ruling? How would that move us closer to our goal?
When Roe falls, the national debate over abortion will become 50 separate debates over abortion. In some states like South Dakota, an abortion ban which included exceptions for rape and incest would likely meet the approval of a majority of voters. If such a ban with exceptions passed, this wouldn't mean that prolifers would have to stop in their efforts to gain legal rights for unborn children conceived in rape. Instead, it would allow them to work for the last small piece of the puzzle when they've already put the vast majority of it together.
If the question before us is what strategy works best and is most likely to bring us to a point where every unborn child is protected by law I see the incrementalist strategy as the strategy with the most merits and the least drawbacks.