Cleaning the Lens Through Which We See Abolition


Yesterday morning, Denny Burk released a response to Tom Ascol’s article regarding the abolition of abortion titled “Eyes Wide Open about Abolition”. In it, he made several arguments that stood out to me as misrepresentative of Ascol’s post specifically, and the abolitionist position broadly. Let me be clear, I respect Denny Burk greatly, and have appreciated his faithful and bold stances on many issues throughout the years. But it appears that Burk’s “Eyes Wide Open” are looking through a smudged lens on this issue. I hope this attempt at clarification will be taken with charity and grace.

Before I address Burk’s article, I believe it would be helpful to the reader to know a little about who I am, and where I stand regarding this issue. I am an unpaid elder at a small SBC church in Houston, where our diverse congregation is very tight-knit and open to discussion of these hard topics. I attend a seminary that is not part of the SBC ecosystem, which gives me a bit of objectivity when it comes to critiquing certain parts of the SBC that may otherwise avoid critique.

Perhaps most importantly, until the signing of the letter opposing legislation to abolish abortion by ERLC head Brent Leatherwood, I very much considered myself an incrementalist. I supported what I saw as an attempt to slowly and methodically dismantle the systems that have allowed the abortion industry to flourish in the wake of Roe. After all, for 40 years, as Burk so aptly noted, this strategy has worked. This may not be indicative of all abolitionists, but–at least for me–incremental strategies were never frowned upon, only seen as stepping stones to the ultimate goal of abolition (a sentiment that SBC messengers seemed to share overwhelmingly through their passage of last year’s resolution on abolition).

During the 2021 SBC Convention, I found myself convinced by arguments made by Burk himself, among others, about the language of said resolution. While I ultimately would have voted for it if I had been there, I understood the concern that was raised with regard to SBC entities feeling like they would no longer be able to take the necessary steps on the road to total abolition.

Now, in light of recent events, it appears that the underlying presuppositions about what exactly that means for abolitionists and incrementalists are in significant conflict. Keep that in mind as you continue to read.

First and foremost, in Burk’s response, he takes aim at the way Ascol divides the SBC into “elites” and “rank-and-file”. Unfortunately, instead of sticking to the implications of such a view, Burk ascribes motive to Ascol, saying that he “suspect(s) that the purpose of such language is to charge people with self-interest or perhaps a love of money or status. It means to disqualify their moral standing and ability to make principled arguments.” This is problematic for a couple of reasons. 

First, it doesn’t appear that anyone is attempting to conflate “elite” with “incrementalist.” Of course there are plenty of “non-elites” (if the language must be used) who have the same sort of views. Second, and more importantly, Ascol never once ascribes any sort of self-interested motive to the “elites” he is talking about, but rather portrays them simply as “woefully out of step with the rank-and-file believers who are working hard to see the scourge of abortion brought to an immediate end in our nation.” It is unfair and unwise to assume that Ascol meant to deride the motives of those whom he considers “elites” simply by his use of the term.

To be fair to Burk, he does shift his argumentation toward the actual point being made. He claims that he himself has often felt that those on the platform have seemed out of touch on certain issues, but argues that abortion legislation is not one of those issues. However, I have to simply disagree on this point. I have had innumerable conversations in several diverse and ecumenical communities around this subject, and though I am but one man, it appears to me that the large majority of folks who are not busying themselves writing thought-pieces on this subject are in opposition to recent ERLC actions. They see the inconsistency in the arguments made by the ERLC and others, and have lodged legitimate complaints that have not only gone unanswered, but have been publicly disavowed by those with influence.

For example, Burk states “…pro-lifers are working to rescue as many children as we can from the cold clutches of the abortionists. We are not going to stand on the sidelines waiting for the perfect legislation while thousands of children are being killed every day. We are not going to make the perfect the enemy of the good. We are going to do whatever we can to save as many as we can.”

And yet, is that not exactly what the ERLC has done? They have stood on the sidelines, criticizing an abolitionist bill that many abolitionists would consider “the perfect legislation” (or at least close to it). Meanwhile, the bill that would have saved the lives of innumerable pre-born children is castigated, all so we don’t hold mothers accountable for the crime of murder. I won’t elaborate on why this is such an inconsistent position, as Ascol’s article already does a phenomenal job of explaining the moral and biblical justification for this accountability under the law.

The reason that the platform is seen as “out-of-touch” is because they keep articulating this idea that “the pro-life position has never included charges against the mother.” And yet, I’ve been pro-life my entire life, and I’ve never once heard that position articulated. It is logically inconsistent and biblically unjustifiable, and so I simply assumed that any pro-life legislation, even if incremental in nature, was aimed at the eventual criminalization of this heinous act for all involved. And I would imagine that my experience is not isolated. To suddenly be lectured by (some) pro-life leaders on how this is “not a pro-life position” is a slap in the face to those of us who have been arguing for the pro-life cause for our entire adult lives. Hence the perceived disconnection between the “elites” and the “rank-and-file”, as it were.

None of us are arguing that women are NOT in some way “victimized” by the wholesale acceptance and promotion of the abortion industry in our nation. There is, of course, much to consider when discussing how litigation proceeds in each individual case. Abolitionists are simply asking for equal protection under the law so that the law can do its job of deterrence and proper prosecution. 

Ascol explains it best: 

“Within American jurisprudence there are various classifications related to homicide laws (and some variance from state to state): murder, manslaughter, vehicular homicide, negligent homicide, conspiracy to commit murder, etc. The distinctions are due to the different degrees of culpability of the perpetrators. The court system has the responsibility of sorting that out, and there is very well-developed case law in the American system that helps to differentiate between varying levels of culpability. This analysis is commonplace—necessary any time the judicial system responds to the unjustified taking of a human life. The challenge that Burk identifies, varying levels of culpability, can be complex but it is not unique to the case of abortion. Legal systems are accustomed to dealing with this sort of complexity.”

Ascol goes on in great detail about what this looks like in his essay. Unfortunately, Burk seemingly ignores all of this complex and insightful argumentation in his response to Ascol, instead focusing simply on the rhetoric used in the article and promoting fallacious argumentation against it.

For example, Burk claims that “one man says, ‘Half a loaf is better than no loaf.’ The other says, ‘The whole loaf or nothing!’” This is extremely reductionistic and misrepresentative of what has been happening in the debate over the last year or more, and frankly, I expected better from one of my favorite ethicists. 

To his credit, Burk does bring up legitimate criticism of the resolution on abolition in some of its unclear language regarding exceptions and some incremental policies. But it is beyond the pale to assume that abolitionists haven’t considered these things. Of course abolitionists believe in using prudence regarding things like ectopic pregnancies. Of course abolitionists are grateful for incremental wins like the Hyde amendment and the bills passed in Mississippi, Texas, etc. To believe otherwise is to engage in intellectual dishonesty. But it is not wrong to say that that legislation did not go far enough and to continue to push for stronger measures on the road to total abolition. 

The accusation is levied that “abolitionists aren’t offering a strategy that is likely to be successful,” but once again, an abolitionist bill was on the verge of being passed (a success by any standard), and “pro-life leaders” shouted it down from the sideline. This kind of mental reasoning is completely dishonest and unwittingly offers suppressive fire for the abortion industry and those who partake of its fruits.

Burk concludes his article by stating that he “just want[s] Southern Baptists to understand what Abolitionism is before they run headlong into what I believe to be an unhelpful and misguided teaching.” The problem is, Burk himself has offered nothing to argue against the actual opinions of abolitionism, and continues to prop up an strategy that allows mothers to run headlong into the atrocity of abortion.

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