Perhaps you are unaware, but people are really divided over many issues, such as abortion. I know —shocker alert. I’m not talking just about issues that force us to draw lines, such as between pro-life and pro-choice; even within each “side,” strong arguments are being hurled around about a plethora of sub-issues. Each side contains its own divisions, factions, and groups vying to control the conversation. The life-affirming crowd, for example, contains advocates who have long stood for small, incremental political changes that would slowly tighten the screws to end abortion. Still, within the life-affirming crowd, these same people are critiqued for succumbing to “incrementalism.” That’s not a word we throw around every day, but for many, “them’s fightin’ words.”
Bearing the “ism” suffix, incrementalism sounds like a doctrine — or maybe even a disease. In its essence, someone who espouses incrementalism is characterized by a devotion to small, incremental changes — only. Applying that label to someone in the life-affirming alliance would be accusing them of advocating for change only by means of small steps. Several of us probably didn’t even blink the first time we heard incrementalism explained. What’s wrong with slow change? Does it not take time to change the heart of a nation? Don’t we need patience in the life arena? Absolutely, we do. It is the practice of only slow change that some detest. How should we think and feel about that? Should we use only small changes? And on the other end of the spectrum, is it appropriate for us to be heavy-handed in critiquing incrementalism?
A couple of thoughts are in order. Christians should avoid dichotomies which place people in one of only two categories. Life is just more complex than that. Think of our last election. Both Democrats and Republicans were reassessing their former political alliances and affiliations by testing the water to see if they could be something else. Can I be a conservative Democrat? Can I be a liberal Republican? Can I simply jettison both parties and be independent and avoid being labeled? Dichotomies oversimplify. While they may facilitate labeling and communicating, they often lead to communication of the wrong idea.
Secondly, we should be careful about slapping a label of “incrementalist” on anyone in the life arena. In considering political action in relation to abortion, for example — just because someone advocates in favor of a policy that takes a small step toward ending abortion doesn’t mean that person is committed to only small steps. In Texas, for example, 21 abortion clinics were closed in just over a year when a law was enacted that called for doctors at all healthcare facilities, including abortion clinics, to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. A small step resulted in a giant leap in reducing the number of abortions.
But when are we right to be critical? If I may use a sporting analogy, hitting singles in a baseball game can win the game. But, if someone on your team can hit a home run, why not let them? What if the home run was within grasp and we ridiculed that approach because we wanted to win only by singles. Similarly, we should be careful about thinking that the “all or nothing” approach is the only tool in our toolbox. Sure, we want abortion to end. But we don’t want to abandon the slow advance against ending abortion. The two approaches can work together. When you can throw a touchdown pass, do it! Why stick to the running game when victory is within grasp? At the same time, if you repeatedly go for touchdown passes and never succeed in advancing the ball, well, then you make no progress. We should use both approaches: the running game and the touchdown pass, the single-base hit and the home run.
William Wilberforce was the great abolitionist who is credited with ending the system of slavery in Britain and its colonies. Wilberforce dedicated his life to ending slavery, and though he died before attaining his goals, we look at his life as an example of what we can do to end the practice of abortion. Wilberforce didn’t succumb to the “either–or” approach. He wasn’t involved only with ending slavery overnight. However, one night, slavery did end. Consistently Wilberforce had appealed to Parliament to end slavery. Consistently he had been laughed at and ridiculed. But this hadn’t been his only approach. He had also been instrumental in the advance of “slave-free sugar,” in the establishment of abolitionist societies, and as the film Amazing Grace depicts, in strategically appealing to influential people in order to open their eyes to the immorality of slavery.
Wilberforce’s strategy provides us with an excellent example of how we can combat abortion today. If we are able, it is good to vote for politicians who will chip away at abortion through a variety of legislative means. It is good to be involved in supporting your local pregnancy center, serving on a Life Team, encouraging adoption. And it is good, when victory is within view, to seize the opportunity to end abortion. That opportunity may arise through a variety of ways — some creative, some simple.
Wilberforce and some of his allies in Parliament focused their efforts not on ending slavery per se, but on ending the slave trade. They received hundreds of parliamentary petitions against the slave trade in 1788 and the years following. In fact, this became the world’s first grassroots campaign that united people from many countries, across many social classes, to try to eliminate an injustice suffered by others. After all, if slaves cannot be bought and sold, slavery will be significantly curtailed. The efforts of Wilberforce and his colleagues caused Parliament to pass the Slave Trade Act, ending slave trade throughout the British Empire, in 1807. Wilberforce then set his sights higher: on abolishing slavery. In 1833, just days after Wilberforce died, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which did away with slavery in most of the British Empire.
Did Wilberforce try for home runs? Absolutely, he did. Time and time again he stepped up to the plate and swung with all his might. Was that all he did though? Absolutely not. He used a multifaceted approach, attacking slavery from multiple sides. We can take a cue from his example and attack abortion in a similar way. Is the political realm the only realm many of us see as the means of ending abortion? Yes, it is. Is politics the only realm for pressing against abortion? No, it is not. We need single-hitters and we need home-run hitters in this fight to end abortion. It’s a “both–and” scenario, not an “either–or” scenario. We should never let our approach be so narrow that it can be characterized by an “ism.”
The end of abortion requires both small steps and big steps, and we should be thankful for people involved all along the spectrum of the cause.
 Garth Lean, God's Politician: William Wilberforce's Struggle to Abolish Slave Trade and Reform the Morals of a Nation (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2007), 169.