Bioethics, Ethics, Pro-Life

Debate Overview: Pro-Life Incrementalism vs. “Abolitionist Immediatism” – Gregg Cunningham vs. T. Russell Hunter

I do not take credit for this image and use it under fair use.

I do not take credit for this image and use it under fair use.

I’ve been looking forward to this one, folks. Here we have a debate between Gregg Cunningham and T. Russell Hunter on “Pro-Life Incrementalism vs. Abolitionist Immediatism.” T. Russell Hunter, a member of the group “Abolish Human Abortion,” argued for “Abolitionist Immediatism,” which is effectively the position that we must only work for the immediate ban of abortion. He issued a challenge to so-called “pro-life incrementalists”–those who would allow for “gradual” steps to legislate abortion (i.e. banning abortions for gender selection, etc.)–to debate the topic. Gregg Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Bioethical Reform, took up the challenge.

I took the time to watch and reflect on this lengthy debate. Here, I provide an overview of the debate with summaries of the statements made throughout [I do not summarize the Q+A session]. My next post on this debate will be a commentary on the debate itself and the arguments presented therein. Here, I will stick as closely as I can the arguments as they are presented. I will not offer analysis of the arguments in this post. In my next post on this debate, I will go over many of the arguments found herein and offer reflections on the debate.

I’d love to read your thoughts on the debate. You can watch the debate here.

Hunter Opening

The debate between incrementalism and immediatism is ancient. It is ultimately a debate between “God has said” and “Did God really say?” [He quotes this.] Immediatism is not suggesting that something happens overnight, but is rather the working towards immediate action. American abolitionists against slavery were immediatists–they believed that slaves ought to be instantly set free. These immediatist abolitionist saw any incremental solution to slavery as something that would prolong the institution of slavery and opposed it entirely. They saw slavery as a national sin and the nation needed to immediately repent of the institution of slavery.

After citing a few abolitionists, Hunter argues that Wilberforce was an immediatist, not a gradualist as many pro-life incrementalists have argued. Total abolition, according to Wilberforce, is the only acceptable solution to slavery. Any delay allowing slavery to continue for even an hour undermines the notion that slavery is sin. Martin Luther King Jr. was also an immediatist and argued for the immediate ending of segregation and racial injustice.

Ultimately, the call for the immediate repentance and the doctrine of immediatism is found in the biblical prophets (Isaiah 1:16-17 among others).

Cunningham Opening

We [at the Center for Bioethical Reform] are moral immediatists but strategic and tactical incrementalists. This is not because the desire is only for incremental legislation, but because strategically it works. Hunter’s position presupposes that the pro-life movement has the power to end abortion right now but chooses not to. Strategically, we should work to save every baby by passing every law that the courts and public will allow.

Hunter’s position includes a number of factually incorrect statements. The pro-life position is not losing the battle over abortion. The pro-life position is not eager to compromise, nor is it comfortable with the current status. Hunter’s approach suggests that he is the only one praying; but the pro-life movement prays, but also works to pass every law to save every baby possible in the here-and-now. Peer-reviewed study shows that legislation that restricts or regulates abortion are saving babies’ lives. Abortion rate is falling in states in which funding is cut off, parental or other requirements are in written law, and the like. We can save those babies these laws save en route to abolishing abortion.

Pro-life lawmakers have put their seats on the line to try to draft pro-life legislation, and they have lost their positions due to their own pro-life views. Yet they have been proven to be effective–these laws save lives. Again, Cunningham asserted that we may be absolutists morally, but strategically must be incrementalists because that saves lives now.

Sometimes we need to compromise on our laws in order to get them passed and save lives now. (He uses an example of the rape exception clause and his own use of the rape exception clause in order to prevent Planned Parenthood from defining the clause, thus saving lives by making it as narrow as possible.) Years later, the evidence showed that not one abortion had happened with a rape exception clause, and this saved babies lives immediately, despite Cunningham himself being against rape exceptions.

Hunter is mistaken on William Wilberforce, who was a moral absolutist, but a strategic incrementalist. Wilberforce started off fighting the slave trade rather than directly abolishing slavery, and this demonstrated that he was out to save lives and end as much slavery as he could. Legislation Wilberforce supported forced slave ships to be redesigned and worked to put laws through that restricted the ports slave ships could use, etc. He worked incrementally to restrict and slow down slavery through slave trade as much as possible.

Hunter Rebuttal

Wilberforce did not author the bills that attacked the slave trade. He only sometimes voted for them and “often ridiculed” them.

There is no talking about abortion without talking about it as a spiritual issue. “Secular people need to hear that abortion is sin also.” It is people’s hatred of God which leads them to abortion. To modify bills to get them passed by including compromises regarding restrictions is “writing an iniquitous decree to pervert justice.” Every child who is aborted is an image bearer of God and one of our neighbors.

Making an occasion for sin allows it to grow. Through incremental legislation, abortion is perpetuated. When bans are placed on things like partial birth abortion, it is an attack on method, not on abortion itself. Thus, inevitably abortion methods will change and the banned method will end, but abortions will continue. Whenever one method is ended, another method takes precedence and abortion continues. Partial birth abortions are morally equivalent to any earlier abortion, and when we work to make things like that illegal, abortion continues and people focus on things like partial birth abortion rather than abortion at large.

Cunningham Rebuttal

The inescapable conclusion of Hunter’s argument is that until we can outlaw abortion, we should be utterly indifferent to the slaughter of the babies that we can save now. Instead, we should be committed to saving every baby that we can now. While we move towards the goal of ending all abortion, we should not allow those babies we can save to die.

Wilberforce gave a speech to Parliament in which he advocated paying compensation to slave owners for their freed slaves weeks before his death. He did this because he didn’t have the votes to get abolition without compensation. This was a strategic move, not indicative of the moral absolute of ending slavery now.

Hunter’s argument that pro-life incrementalists imply that abortion is okay when they try to regulate abortion is absurd on its face. It is not as though by saving a baby because dismemberment laws were passed, someone is then advocating the position that abortion that is not dismemberment is suddenly okay. Incremental legislation saves and changes what it can when it can; it does not at all imply that the whole system is acceptable.

Hunter criticizes those who spend times fundraising, but the very images he uses that show abortions would have been impossible without fundraising and the professionals who take the photographs and obtain the images.

Cross Examination

[I do not type up every question and answer in these Cross-Exam portions.]

Cunningham: Hunter is critical of pro-life people working with secular people and the like in order to try to end abortion. If, hypothetically, your child falls into a swimming pool, would you quiz the paramedics about their worldview before letting them resuscitate your child?
Hunter: I would want them to resuscitate my child. That’s a straw man. When we fight evils, we do need to fight them on God’s terms. If we want the power of God on our side, we should not join hands with a “God-hating worldview” because secular worldviews are the very things that make abortions possible. Making strategies with people who adopt the worldview that allows for abortion perpetuates abortion.

Cunningham: I’m not the one who decides what the limits are on legal restraints for abortion. The public decides what the restraints are by what they will allow and vote for. Hunter’s position suggests that pro-life advocates have the power to end abortion now and choose not to do it. This is mistaken because attempts to end all abortion immediately continue to fail to be voted in.
Hunter: I would not put a bill forward to begin with.
Cunningham: Do you care about the lives of the babies?
Hunter: Yes.
Cunningham: Then why do you suggest we shouldn’t vote for legislation that saves these babies lives?
Hunter: Children are not increments.
Cunningham: We can do both.

Cunningham: Why can we not work to save babies through incremental legislation while working to end abortion entirely?
Hunter: You can do both as long as you don’t undermine the whole project. The rape exception is always brought up. People begin to believe that murdering children is okay if exceptions are in place.

Cunningham: Do you understand the difference between a moral immediatist (with strategic incrementalism) and pure incrementalism or compromise?
Hunter: Yes.
Cunningham: Why do you insist on conflating the two?
Hunter: Because if you undermine your own immediatism, you are what the word of God says someone who perverts justice.

Cunningham: Should we allow these babies to die rather than enact incremental legislation? [This is a key portion of the debate. See the transcript of this entire question and answer here.]
Hunter: Abortion is evil and it is one of the things that the powers and principalities of darkness endorse. If they can keep abortion going by deceiving people into becoming gradualists, then that will be allowed.
Cunningham: Let’s be both [incrementalists and immediatists]. Let’s be both.

Hunter: Is it that you don’t want to deal with immediatism, or do you just want to avoid the conversation about immediatism?
Cunningham: I’m determined to save that baby [through incremental legislation], and that’s an immediate kind of thing. We can be both immediatists and incrementalists. It is a false dilemma.
Hunter: Do you believe we have to fight abortion as abortion and sin?
Cunningham: We have to use clauses which the courts will allow because they strike down legislation that is complete ending of abortion.

Hunter: How do you do “both” [immediatism/incrementalism]?
Cunningham: The way people have continually done both. We can talk about abortion as sin and as a human rights violation, while working to end as much of it as we can. It does not have to be either/or. Hunter tends to be binary without justification.

Hunter: Do you think the church is doing enough to work against abortion and do you think that incremental bills encourage apathy?
Cunningham: The church is not doing enough and we are not educating our pastors enough to combat abortion.
Hunter: I see apathy tied into incremental legislation because when I ask pastors to help and go to abortion clinics and the like, I hear them cite their support of incremental legislation.
Cunningham: The reason for this is because the pastors are poorly trained.

Hunter: Do you think that people are more likely to oppose abortion if we convert them? Do you think it is a wise strategy to deal differently with secularists and Christians?
Cunningham: We don’t know who believes what. It is not either/or. We make sure both sets of people here both sets of argument, including getting the opportunity to share faith in Christ.
Hunter: I have e-mails from you saying you bring different displays to Christian schools and state schools. Do you think it is folly to try to call the nation to repent of abortion?
Cunningham: We should work to make every argument we can make to save the life of every baby whose life is imperiled, and this includes passing every law we can pass now to save every baby we can.

Hunter Closing

Isaiah 30 (reads). Pro-life incrementalists are like the Israelites running to Egypt instead of God. People, instead of trusting in the word of God and going into conflict with the people of the age, go and look at the laws to see what they can get within the current federal ruling. We must cut down the tree itself rather than the branches. Incrementalism is not in the Bible. It is not in the historical record. If you believe and trust in God, then you would be an immediatist.

Cunningham Closing

We don’t have to do either immediatism or incrementalism, we can do both. Hunter doesn’t find incrementalism in the Bible, but it is in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 3 shows that God reveals revelation incrementally. Mark 10 shows that the Law was incrementally revealed over time regarding divorce laws, which became much more restrictive over time, working with people over time. Regarding the temple tax, Jesus saw that he did not owe the temple tax, but he paid it anyway in order to compromise and pick the battles. It is possible to save babies incrementally and not do so to the exclusion of trying to save all the babies. Hunter’s position does not save babies now. The position does not allow for the love of Christ.


I will be offering analysis of this debate in a coming blog post. Please feel free to comment yourself on what you think of the debate and the arguments put forward therein here (and on the future post as well).


Debate Between Gregg Cunningham and T. Russell Hunter– Scott Klusendorf, a major pro-life speaker and author, offers his reflections on this debate. He also has links to some other analyses.

Is it Wrong to pass incremental pro-life laws?– Here is a snip of the debate from the cross examination portion in which T. Russell Hunter is challenged on whether he would choose to save lives with incrementalism or let babies die for the sake of immediatism.

Debate: Pro-Life Incrementalism vs. Abolitionist Immediatism– a link to the debate.

The image used in this blog is not mine and I do not claim rights. I use it under fair use.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


5 thoughts on “Debate Overview: Pro-Life Incrementalism vs. “Abolitionist Immediatism” – Gregg Cunningham vs. T. Russell Hunter

  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Great article!

    Posted by Vincent S Artale Jr | May 20, 2015, 7:53 AM
  2. I’m looking foward to your analysis. Personally I think incrementalism is realistic

    Posted by SLIMJIM | May 21, 2015, 5:54 PM


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