In the wake of last week’s U.S. House vote on the Fetal Pain bill, several magazines, blogs and pro-life websites have begun to discuss a growing split in the pro-life community over bills like this that attempt to slow or regulate abortions, but not stop them.

Some such divisions can be detrimental to a cause. Others can finally crystallize the issue and energize the movement.

The debate over incremental anti-abortion laws, versus working toward the goal of stopping abortion altogether, is a necessary crisis of conscience for pro-lifers. Its resolution will determine the future of abortion in America.

The Fetal Pain vote came just short of the required votes. On one hand, it’s promising that nearly two-thirds of the U.S. House would support a bill widely backed by pro-life groups. But defenders of the right to life are fortunate this legislation did not pass, because it contains a fatal flaw that could further entrench “abortion rights” in U.S. law.

The Fetal Pain bill consisted of two parts. The first part would have required abortion doctors to advise pre-abortive mothers that by the 20th week of pregnancy there is evidence their baby will experience excruciating pain from the procedure.

One drawback, even in the first part, is that it equates human abortion to animal cruelty – a dehumanizing comparison.

Still, it points to the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 as an improvement over how humans are treated in the womb, and there is a natural word association between “humane slaughter” and “human slaughter.” A mother is forced to consider that her own child is about to be tortured to death, and that a civilized society treats even animals better.

Many pro-life groups, including National Right to Life and most of its 50 state affiliates, supported the bill for this reason, believing that mothers would decide against an abortion if they knew their baby would feel pain.

But Colorado Right to Life, the American Life League, Operation Save America and several other pro-life organizations opposed it because it didn’t stop with the positive goal of exposing the awful truth of abortion.

Part two of the bill negated whatever benefit a baby would gain from a description of excruciating pain by offering a way out. It required abortion doctors to offer pain medication for the baby before the abortion – so the baby would feel no pain.

Not only does part two legitimize the abortion – by saying it’s perfectly OK to kill the baby, provided these restrictions are met – but it also relieves the moral pressure accomplished by the first part. “Your baby would experience pain, but once I inject this anesthesia it becomes a simple, painless procedure.” Tidy. Guilt free. Not any different from putting a cat to sleep.

By offering a way out – a painless, “compassionate abortion” – it makes pain the issue, rather than the principle. For that reason, many right-to-lifers believe this particular version of fetal pain legislation would actually have increased the number of abortions.

If abortion takes the life of an innocent, unborn child – as no life activist disputes – then an abortion is just as wrong with or without pain medication. Would it have been less abhorrent for the Nazis to kill Jews if they had medicated them first? Absolutely not!

In the early 1800s, most Northerners said, “I’m personally opposed to slavery, but the Supreme Court says it’s legal so I have no right to tell another man he can’t own a slave.” So the anti-slavery movement accepted the “legality” of slavery, and instead worked within the system to regulate it and limit its spread.

They saved slaves a few at a time, but the regulating and limiting of slavery allowed a cold rationalization. By freeing slaves “where and when” they could, anti-slavery activists felt like they were making a difference, even as millions of men, women and children suffered in chains in the South. They made no real progress toward eliminating slavery as an institution.

Finally, in 1830, a man named William Lloyd Garrison demanded change. He said depriving an innocent man of freedom is evil, and slavery is a crime against God and humanity. He said slavery is always wrong. He called on Americans to abolish slavery everywhere, rejecting any compromise.

By arguing that compromise only undermined freedom, Garrison faced slanders and petty attacks from abolitionists who preferred compromise. But he won hearts and minds. Those who agreed with him grew to 10 and 25 percent until Americans finally elected an abolitionist president who finally freed the slaves. A compromise agenda might instead have perpetuated slavery for decades.

Abortion is a barbaric practice, just like slavery. Lessening its barbarity won’t make it easier to rid ourselves of this evil. It will only prolong the suffering.

Changing the direction of America’s pro-life movement from defeatist incrementalism to the righteous indignation of abolition will be difficult. It took Garrison 30 years. However, far more Americans are pro-life today than were anti-slavery back then.

It’s a mathematical truism that if each step only takes you halfway to your goal, you will never get there. By addressing specific, limited cases, incrementalism fights on ground chosen by opponents of life and lends credibility to pro-abortion arguments. Instead, pro-lifers should be playing to their strengths.

Only absolutism abolished slavery once and for all. Only absolutism will end the evil of abortion. Like anti-slavery abolitionists, pro-lifers have principle on our side. We should defend life as a civil and human right.

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Ed Hanks is a freelance writer, operates the website, and is president of Colorado Conservative Action and the Conservative Renewal Authority.

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