Bioethics, Ethics, Pro-Life

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

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 recently took the time to watch through a debate on pro-life method between Gregg Cunningham and T. Russell Hunter. I summarized the debate here, along with a brief introduction of what was seen to be at issue. Essentially, Cunningham endorses the position that we should pass laws to limit abortion as much as possible now while working towards the ultimate goal of ending all abortion, whereas Hunter argues that we must work only for legislation that will “abolish” all abortions now.

Cutting Off Branches vs. Save Babies Now?

T. Russell Hunter continually made the same error: reducing everything down to an either-or when it could just as easily be both-and. His analogy of the tree was used throughout the talk. Abortion is the tree, he argued, and we must cut the tree down rather than hacking off the branches which will then grow back. The tree is thus the whole of abortion, while the branches are the individual methods used for it, ways to advocate for abortion, and the like. His argument is that if we stop abortion with one method, another will grow up in its place. It’s a powerful image, but one that is ultimately full of rhetorical flair with little basis in reality.

Jill Stanek pointed out a number of problems with this analogy in her own analysis of the debate. First, she notes that the analogy is faulty because trees can spring up even from their roots, so hacking a tree down doesn’t necessarily end it. This point might seem trivial at first, but Hunter’s whole goal was to argue we need to cut down the tree so it can’t grow back (unlike the branches) to kill the tree. But the analogy fails because trees can grow back. Moreover, Stanek notes that when we cut down trees, we saw off the branches first anyway.

Second, and most importantly, Hunter’s analogy fails because he assumes branches can cut back. But this begs the question. Suppose there was a law passed that made abortion illegal after 20 weeks. How could a “method” or “branch” grow back in that place? It would be a total ban on all abortions past a certain point in time. Thus, there is no such thing as growing back. The branch would be dead, and we could move on to the next one. Cunningham also showed data demonstrating that even ending methods lowers the amount of abortions. So when a branch is cut off, the tree is weakened.

Finally, Hunter’s view entails that the children whose lives are saved by incremental legislation should have been left to die. Again, he would oppose (and the “Abolish Human Abortion” group has opposed) legislation to limit abortions or stop certain methods from being used. But this means that the babies that are demonstrably saved by such laws, according to Hunter, should have been allowed to die. This is an awful turn of justice into injustice.

False Dichotomy

Hunter’s position seems to be entirely based on a false dichotomy, which Cunningham pressed pointedly throughout the debate. Namely, the notion that one has to be either someone who works through incremental legislation, or one is someone who supports the immediate ending of all abortions now. But this is just false. Cunningham put it better than I can: the issue is that we can be immediatists morally–that is, we absolutely want to end abortion now–while being incrementalists in practice. We can work to stop all the abortions we can now, even though we want all abortions to stop.

Cunningham also accurately noted that Hunter’s position depends on the notion that if everyone who was a pro-life incrementalist got together right now, we could bring an immediate end to all abortions. But this has not played out in legislation. Cunningham himself noted this–if we don’t have the votes, we do not have the votes. Thus, we can work with legislation that we can get passed to save those babies that legislation can rescue now.

If Hunter wins this debate, the implication is that all of these pro-life laws that do not end all abortions now should be voted down. But what about the lives that those laws demonstrably save? Should we allow them to be aborted just because we can’t pass a law to save all babies? Obviously not.

Hunter’s position fails, and it does so spectacularly. It fails the tests in the actual legislative procedures, as strict pro-life legislation continues to fail to get any votes. It fails the test of accuracy, because pro-life persons can oppose all abortions ethically while working incrementally within the system we have. Finally, it fails to save babies now that can be saved through legislation.

One Question and Answer

I didn’t type up a summary of the Q+A session but at 2:24:19 on this video of the debate, the question was asked as to whether Hunter would be for a bill that abolished all abortion except for one child. Hunter briefly described a scenario in which someone came to him and offered this legislation: all abortion would be abolished in his name except for one child, who would be aborted. He graphically described the abortion. His response was “Get behind me Satan.” He argued that if you take this deal, you are compromising and you might be able to say you saved lots of babies, but it never bears fruit.

Cunningham’s response was that no, he wouldn’t support the bill, and added that we don’t have the votes to pass legislation banning abortion. Cunningham agreed that this deal would be abhorrent because it would kill a child.

I think this is what many people don’t realize. Many pro-life advocates (I have no idea of the numbers so I’m hesitant to say most) would argue vehemently against consequentialism, the notion that the consequences of an action are the most important aspect of a moral decision (I am simplifying for brevity). Thus, there is no “ends justify the means” mentality, so the thought of killing one child to save others was found to be morally repugnant to both speakers.


T. Russell Hunter’s position against other pro-life views cannot be reasonably sustained. It collapses in on itself when it is challenged to present us with reasons as to why we should not try to save what lives we can now on the way to the total ending of abortion. The examples he used were shown to be false or misguided. I think that we need to realize that to end abortion, we should work together. The amount of energy the “Abolish Human Abortion” group has put into attacking others’ methods is better suited to work towards a goal we share: the ending of abortion.

I would like to end noting that I do appreciate the work the AHA/Abolish Human Abortion group does go out and pray, picket, and work at abortion clinics to try to save the babies they can there. But I wish they would join other pro-life persons like Cunningham in helping the other babies that are within our power to save now.


Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

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.


6 thoughts on “Debate Analysis: Gregg Cunningham vs. T. Russell Hunter on “Pro-Life Incrementalism vs. Abolitionist Immediatism”

  1. Reblogged this on

    Posted by rennydiokno2015 | June 1, 2015, 6:40 AM
  2. This has to be the best analysis I’ve ever read on this. Thanks for this!

    Posted by revkatherinemarple | June 1, 2015, 7:42 AM
  3. Reblogged this on KEEPLIFELEGAL.

    Posted by revkatherinemarple | June 1, 2015, 7:47 AM


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