As ‘Roe’ Decision Could Fall, Abortion Abolitionists Turn On ‘Pro-Life Elites’

By Bob Smietana
abortion court abolitionists
Anti-abortion protesters holding a cross demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court building in December 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The way Florida Southern Baptist pastor Tom Ascol sees it, there is little difference between a woman who chooses to end her pregnancy and a hit man.

Both pay someone to end a human life, his argument goes, and so both should face criminal charges. “It’s like saying if I don’t murder someone, but I just contracted a murderer to murder someone I’m not culpable,” he told Christian radio host Jeff Schreve on Tuesday.

The analogy is not uncommon — Pope Francis has made similar “hit man” comments — Ascol also believes that women who have abortions should be charged with homicide and face potential jail time. And Ascol criticizes “pro-life industry elites,” who, he says, get in the way of ending abortion in America.

Ascol, a leading candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is part of a small but growing movement of abortion abolitionists who reject the idea that abortion should be allowed if a mother’s life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest. 

The movement prompted a bill, now pulled by lawmakers in Louisiana, that would have treated abortion as a homicide.

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Abolitionists recently accused the National Right to Life Committee, Americans United for Life, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of betraying the anti-abortion cause after the groups drafted an open letter opposing criminal penalties for women who have the procedure. 

“We state unequivocally that we do not support any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to including such penalties in legislation,” the letter read.

tom ascol abolitionist
Tom Ascol of Founders Ministries. (Video screengrab)

Ascol, who declined a request for an interview, called for Brent Leatherwood, acting ERLC president, to be fired for signing the letter. In an article for Founders Ministries, a conservative organization headed by Ascol, the pastor laid out his conviction that abortion should be treated as a homicide, and this week he repeated his points on Twitter.  

To back his claim, Ascol pointed to a resolution passed at the SBC’s 2021 annual meeting calling for abortion to be abolished and for it to be treated as murder.

The dispute between abortion foes who see themselves as abolitionists and those who call themselves “pro-life” will likely heat up if, as expected, the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade in June, as rival anti-abortion groups compete over who will determine the shape of abortion limits in red states.

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, who signed the letter to state legislators, said she and leaders of other groups are focused on saving babies, not putting women in jail. She worries that politicians and groups that favor abortion rights will use bills like the one in Louisiana to drum up support for their side.

carol tobias NRLC
Carol Tobias of National Right to Life Committee (Photo Courtesy)

“They are going to say, look, all of you women who’ve had an abortion, you’re going to end up in jail. Do you want your daughter in jail? Do you want your sister or your neighbor in jail?” she said.

The letter had already been in the works before the Louisiana bill made national headlines, said Tobias, but she believes such proposals take the focus off the goal of preventing abortions.

“The focus will be on what kinds of penalties will be assessed, rather than talking about a baby with fingers and toes and a heartbeat,” said Tobias. “The primary reason we are doing this is to save those babies.”

Tobias adds that there’s little public support for criminal penalties for women who have abortions. A recent Pew Research survey found that 14% of Catholics and 18% percent of Protestants — including a quarter of evangelicals (24%) — say a woman who has an illegal abortion should face jail time. Overall, 14% of Americans would support jail time, while 16% would support fines or community service as a penalty.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 25 times as many abortions in the United States each year as homicides, meaning that charging women who have abortions with homicide could require a massive expansion of criminal investigations and prosecutions.

tom ascol
Tom Ascol waits near a mic during the SBC annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15, 2021. (RNS Photo by Kit Doyle)

Richard Land, former president of the ERLC and a longtime abortion foe, opposed the SBC’s abolitionist resolution. He defended the so-called incremental approach, saying it has reduced the number of abortions. That approach, he wrote in a recent essay, is far better than doing nothing while demanding a total ban.

“What if I came upon a wrecked school bus that had plunged into a river with 60 children onboard? Since I can’t save all of them, should I then do nothing?” he wrote. “I think not.”

The ERLC’s Leatherwood told Religion News Service in a statement that Southern Baptists seek “an end of the abortion regime in America,” while showing compassion­, which is in line with last year’s resolution and other previous SBC resolutions.

“So, because this is the clear will of our churches, this will be the direction we continue working in as we seek to end abortion, save lives, serve mothers and support families,” the statement said.

James Silberman, director of communications for Free the States Action Fund, an abortion abolitionist group, said the failure of the incremental approach to restricting abortion led to the rise of abolitionist groups, who were inspired by anti-slavery groups of the 1800s.

Baptists in Oklahoma, including Bill Ascol, brother of Tom Ascol, played a key role in the movement’s growth. Silberman said that the abolitionist movement got a shot in the arm after the state Baptist Convention opposed legislation in 2019 that would have abolished all forms of abortion.

That fueled a backlash, said Silberman.

Silberman said he was glad to see this month’s letter from national groups opposing penalties for women who have abortions. “The abolition movement grows when the pro-life movement and pro-life leaders oppose abortion bills,” he said.

The American Life League, a Catholic group founded in 1979, has long called for the abolition of abortion, focusing on training activists to oppose new Planned Parenthood clinics and publishing materials about church teaching about the sacredness of human life.

dwain currier
Dwain Currier of American Life League (Courtesy Photo)

Dwain Currier, the organization’s director of public policy, said that many people who oppose abortion are willing to compromise — something his group wants to change. “We need to start training people that evil is always evil,” Currier said.

But the group has largely stayed out of politics, Currier said, because almost all legislation about abortion includes some kinds of exceptions.

In his radio interview, Tom Ascol also cited politics as a problem. Pro-life elites oppose abolition, he said, because it would hurt their fundraising.

“I have to tell you, at least with some of these organizations, I’m becoming fully convinced that’s precisely what’s going on,” he said.

Tobias said she has heard such criticism in the past from groups that support abortion rights. She said the conflict between abolitionists and groups like National Right to Life is counterproductive.

“I want us focused on winning elections to save babies,” she said. 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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39 thoughts on “As ‘Roe’ Decision Could Fall, Abortion Abolitionists Turn On ‘Pro-Life Elites’”

  1. Abortion is a serious moral issue and every abortion is a tragedy, but not all abortions are the murder of a human being.
    Many fertilized eggs do not implant and many wanted pregnancies spontaneously abort in the first trimester. If you believe that God is the author of all things, I do not believe that God is a mass murderer.
    Ireland and France allow abortions up to 12 weeks, but they make it available. The “abortion pills” do not work after 10 weeks.

    PS. Good, semi-permanent, implantable birth control reduces abortions as it did in Colorado, until the private funding ran out..

  2. Anyone who hates is a murderer in the sight of God. The whole world is already a prison and we are all criminals in it. Jesus came to set us free. Do we really think the one who said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” would be pleased his church wants to implement a regime of incarceration in response to women having abortions? How has the institution commissioned to proclaim spiritual redemption and character transformation by grace now decided that it will accomplish these gols by the judgements of law? It’s a sad day when Christians and Churches are shouting “Imprison them!” We must go back to the gospel of second chances and abandon this religion of retribution.

    1. Mark, it is almost as if some Christians used The Handmaid’s Tale as a roadmap for the future instead of a warning about religious zealotry and coercion.

      Legislators around the country are calling for their state to arrest women who travel to other states to have an abortion. They actually plan on tracking every pregnancy, investigating every miscarriage even to the point of tracking women’s monthly cycles.

      Bill banning abortions 30 days after beginning of last menstrual cycle passes Senate
      by Colleen Wilson Thursday, March 10th 2022

      https://okcfox.com/news/local/abortion-menstrual-cycle-bill-oklahoma-senate

      Families who face ectopic pregnancies will have to secretly travel to Canada or Mexico to save the mother’s life, then hope the police don’t come knocking on their door asking questions.

      America has more to fear from the religious right today than it does from Antifa or BLM.

      1. False. Murdering a baby should come with consequences. Those on the right are typically in favor of stopping murders, so I would say they are less dangerous than those on the left supporting murder.

        1. I do not believe that a fertilized, but un-implanted, egg is a “baby”. Yet.
          If it is, an IUD is murder.

        2. If it doesn’t bother you that “Christian” Republicans are proposing laws to criminalize In Vitro fertilization, jail infertility doctors, track every woman’s monthly cycle, investigate every miscarriage, it should.

          In Michigan,Trump-endorsed state rep. candidate Jacky Eubanks says that if it came to a vote in the MI legislature, she would vote to make birth control illegal. “Sex ought to be between one man and one woman in the confines of marriage…and open to life. Absolutely.”

          https://t.co/HgD5n3aTHB

          1. Brian Patrick

            Greg Culross,

            “Trump-endorsed state rep. candidate Jacky Eubanks says that if it came to a vote in the MI legislature, she would vote to make birth control illegal. “Sex ought to be between one man and one woman in the confines of marriage…and open to life. Absolutely.”

            Can you honestly not agree that (while acknowledging this lady is highly unrealistic and is pursuing a dream that goes too far), a WHOLE lot of society’s problems come from the modern, secularist craze to sever sex from human reproduction?

        3. Casting prochoice people as murderers will not cause them to contemplate unborn life as precious. It will only make them to dig their heels in. For a genertion we have pointed the finger at the industry and considered the woman the second victim of abortion. Now suddenly I hear Children of mercy calling for the women to be called the criminals.
          The church is changing and not for the better.

  3. You know, if we were to have an immediate fine of $10,000 for the father in every unplanned pregnancy, and force him to take a few years leave of absence from his schooling or job, I’ll bet most of these new laws would be unnecessary. No need to punish the mother.

    1. You will have zero Pro-Life people argue against that proposal. “Pro-Life” is not anti-woman, it is anti-killing. Anyone that listens to what I have to say on the matter knows that I lay an inordinate amount of blame at the hands of men and the ‘swipe right’ culture for most unplanned pregnancies that currently end in abortion.

  4. Linda Johnson

    I am pro life. But this attempt to exact harsh punishments against women who get abortions, will backfire on the pro-life movement. But hey, it does give the politicians another chance to grandstand. So if it’s really about the lives of babies, and reconciliation . . . Oh, come on: what was I thinking?

  5. Abortion is murder and should be outlawed completely. There should be reasonable penalties for having an abortion.

    1. Sarah: Please share with us reasonable penalties-life in prison-having her tubes tied-paying a hefty fine? Should these penalties be retroactive to 1973?

  6. I think people are getting ahead of themselves……..

    Row vs Wade will push the abortion issue to the States. Yes some states may limit or outright ban abortion. However, other states will accept women from those states that ban abortions. As an example, a state such as Illinois will go from 48,000 abortions per year to around 75,000 abortions per year. As a result the same number of abortions will occur in the U.S. per year.

    In addition 50%+ of abortions occur as a result of taking Abortion pills. I am not certain how states will track those women who take an abortion pill so that they could prosecute them in court.

    Also churches should probably first lead by example and ask who in the congregation have had an abortion, then they can ex-communicate them from the church. Preferably this is done in a church tribunal so it can cause the greatest damage to everyone involved.

    The true solution is where people realize in a culture that it is totally unacceptable to have an abortion.

    1. Marin Heiskell

      Gordon –

      What would be the goal of ex-communicating those who have abortions? After all, the church does not ex-communicate fornicators, adulterers, thieves, gossips, blasphemers or liars — which are also egregious sins mentioned in scripture. Why just those who have had abortions?
      And shouldn’t the church be wrapping its arms of love, forgiveness, and restoration around these women? It’s not an easy decision, and studies show many of these women carry trauma and guilt for the rest of their lives. Shouldn’t we be pointing them TO the cross rather than shunning them from it?

      God’s timing sure is perfect, because if the apostle Paul showed up today, we’d rant about ex-communicating him, because after all, he was a murderer.

      1. Mark Gunderson

        I don’t believe Gordon was actually advocating for the excommunication. I believe he was trying to illustrate how counter productive some of these efforts are.

      2. Marin-,

        No I am not pushing excommunication for abortions…. I was just highlighting how the efforts over the past 50 years really has done little to further the cause.

        Overturning Roe vs Wade simply moves around the checkers on the checkerboard. Also with the large usage of abortion pills many arguments are no longer pertinent.

        In addition, the “threat” of ex-communication really does not bother people anymore. For instance there is so much divorce and remarriage in the evangelical church, most boards are a bit of a joke when it comes to any kind oversight. In general if people do not like what’s going on at a church for whatever reason they just leave and go to a church across town.

    2. The Texas GOP is already considering traveling out of state for an abortion illegal, and the vigilante nature of the recent anti-abortion law will almost certain mean that surveillance of pregnant women crossing the Texas border will be a thing in future. Woe betide any woman having a miscarriage — arrests for that have already started in Texas.

  7. Yes, another SBC Pastor making news. I wonder if any SBC Pastor has ever gotten a woman pregnant and encouraged or paid for her abortion? I wonder if any would have confessed this to their church? I’ve always known evangelicals were cruel, but over the last 6 years they have gone far beyond what I could have ever imagined. In all the years of the abortion debate I have seen zero consequences for the men involved. I wish everything in this life was black and white, but it is not.

  8. Eric Rasmusen

    People who say it should not be crime for a mother to pay someone to kill her baby, but that someone should go to prison are obviously sacrificing morality for political convenience. It’s like people who say a prostitute should go to prison, but not the prostitute’s customers who are buying her services. Or that it should be illegal to sell fentanyl, but not to possess it.

    This is a completely different issue from the abortion abolition issue. Abortion abolition is about the age at which a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus can be killed or caused to die. Here, the issue is whether a woman with an 8-month, viable, baby that she orders killed would bear any punishment at all.

    1. Meredith McCaskey

      You do realize that the vast majority of late term abortions are of babies who have such severe physical defects that they cannot survive outside the womb?

      1. Meredith, you are correct. The whole “abortion up to the point of birth” is really a red herring. I really don’t see a lot of women who carry a baby for eight months then decide willy nilly that they don’t want the child. By that time, they have already made preparations at home and work for the baby.

        In the rare times when it is done, it is because the baby has severe defects. A relative of mine was having such a baby. They had the money to fly out of state and have a specialist operated on the baby in the womb to save its life. But most people don’t have that kind of money.

        We can withhold care on patients who are terminally ill or in a vegetative state. If a baby at seven months gets such a diagnosis, what is the solution?

        1. Greg: How can these folks call themselves Pro-Life when the mother and baby’s life is on the line and only one can live and they would rather risk both dying?

  9. Eric;

    You said:” Here, the issue is whether a woman with an 8-month, viable, baby that she orders killed would bear any punishment at all.” Please share with us your source?

  10. Gordon Hackman

    How do these folks justify not allowing abortion when the life of the mother is in danger? I can understand not allowing it in the case of rape or incest, since the child should not be condemned for the evil choices of it’s parent, but it seems to me that when the pregnancy puts the life of the mother in danger, then it should be up to the parent(s).

    Also, while I’m sure many of them are sincere, I can’t help but feel that at least some of rhetoric emanating from the abortion abolition folks is quite possibly a form of courting controversy for political ends.

  11. I could never in good conscience advocate for an abortion under normal circumstances. At the same time, I acknowledge there are a lot of good questions that make this a very complex issue. Evangelicals assume fertilization is the marker that determines when it’s immoral to terminate further development. Traditional Catholics assume birth control is immoral human intervention in a divine process. Should they be allowed to impose their beliefs on us? The book of Psalms states that God knows us before any formation in the womb occurs, which would imply our existence is determined before human decisions of any kind are made. There are elements in the abortion industry that are clearly evil and should be brought to light. At the same time, we shouldn’t label those who think differently with such extreme accusations when they don’t share our assumptions.

  12. Of course Tom Ascol is right on this issue – and he’s brave enough to be biblically-consistent, despite the political machinations evinced in this article. Last summer in Nashville, we messengers heard both sides, in a good long-ish discussion (for an SBC national mtg. anyway), were even exposed to the tears of those who couldn’t begin to grasp the sufficiency of Scripture or the weight of what God’s Law specifically prescribes, and yet we still voted to adopt the ‘Resolution On Abolishing Abortion,’ wherein it states:

    “RESOLVED, that we affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law…”

    That phrase ‘equally under the law’ is significant, since it establishes that our denomination seeks to maintain fidelity to the Word is at applies to capital offenses. No, this is not to be applied retroactively, either. But if it is not to be applied, then we are all guilty of the sin of partiality – and “unequal weight and measures.”

    1. Tim, was there any resolution to punish the fathers of unwanted pregnancies? Putting them out of fellowship? Public shaming (like John MacArthur does)? Kicking them out of their Southern Baptist college? Revoking their football scholarships?

      Anything? Lots of women are left holding the bag when they come up pregnant. Their Baptist boyfriend continues his education, while she has to drop out, raise a baby and hopefully restart her education or career sometime down the road, hoping that he will own up to some of the financial responsibilities.

      It sounds like this resolution does not put any responsibility on the fathers of unwanted pregnancies. You have to agree that men have the ultimate authority as to where their reproductive DNA gets distributed.

      So why just punish the women?

    2. Tim: SBC Resolutions are toothless and are not binding on all members of the SBC. An all men’s led denomination adding more stringent rules to an already over burdened women members. Why not go ahead and publish the penalties for having an abortion and let me guess there will not be any penalties for men. IMO the leaders of the SBC hate women and this is just another way to punish them.

  13. Communists frame everything as a class struggle. That’s why they’re pushing CRT to make racial issues a class struggle. Black Lives Matter was founded by people who are communist. Now they want to make killing babies a class struggle. It was eugenicist Margaret Sanger who wanted to kill black babies because she was a communist. Sanger started Planned Parenthood which mostly targets black babies to be aborted.

    1. Bob: You could make it easy for all of us by proving communist frame everything as a class struggle. Seems to me there was a Senator in the 50’s who made lots of claims about communists and most of his claims were false. Communism can not always be the blame just as women can not always be the blame for abortion. But if makes for excellent rhetoric.

      1. Dr. Cynthia Norbeck

        Tom:

        This, from “People’s World”, supports Bob’s point:

        “The class struggle is the most basic, fundamental and important fact of life. The conflict between working people and corporate power permeates all aspects of society – the economy, politics, ideology and culture.” Hopefully you will find this helpful.

        Regarding abortion….

        Psalm 139: Oh Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise. You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down. You are familiar with all my ways…….For you created my in-most being…You knit me together in my mother’s womb….When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body…All the days ordained for me were written in your book long before one of them came to be.”

        Clearly, God loves us greatly and more than we deserve. I believe women who have abortions often suffer emotionally later on, when they think about the life that could have been. I will not condemn them for that painful decision. They will have to answer for their actions before God some day, just like all of us.

        On the other hand, if, as I believe, children are created in the image of God, it must make the angels cringe every time one is eliminated. And I imagine it makes God very sad indeed.

        1. Cynthia, that is not enough to convince me about communism. Also You speak of the women having to answer for their abortions and nothing about the men. Women do not get pregnant by themselves.

    2. Marin Heiskell

      Bob –

      Unfortunately, when you have a nation that was founded off of classist identity politics (only white male landowners could vote, etc) and idolizes capitalism, you cannot be surprised when classism is at the root of many issues.
      And there is plenty of proof that race and class are heavily intertwined. It’s not a coincidence that Black people are often overrepresented among the poor – not just in the US, but around the globe.
      Wanting to address such issues does not automatically make one a communist. That’s what they said about MLK, too.
      Also, I find it interesting when the same people who have a tough time claiming Black lives actually matter bring up Margaret Sanger as if they care about Black babies. I mean, why are Black children overrepresented in the foster care system if so many pro-life evangelicals care about Black babies?

  14. Brian Patrick

    This is not a gray issue for any real Christian–the truth is obvious. We are seeing the wheat and the tares separated in real time, on this very page.

    1. Brian: I did not know you or any other person could determine from people’s comments here where they will spend eternity. Only one is allowed to do this and it is not you.

  15. Katie Van Atta

    I am a women’s health professional and a pragmatist. History has shown that abortion will occur whether or not it is legal. I often wonder: If we really want to stop abortion, why not try to prevent the (real or perceived) need for it? (Prevention is the best medicine, as the saying goes.) There are lots of ways to do this: Educate people accurately on how to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Give those who choose to be sexually active ready access to the best methods of birth control. There are tons of highly effective, reasonably priced options available. Remove legal barriers to sterilization (tubal ligations, vasectomies, etc.). For those who prefer natural family planning: teach it to others. When people have unplanned pregnancies, give them support. Expand neonatal hospice programs so when babies have lethal anomalies, parents who wish to continue the pregnancy feel supported in doing so. These ideas wouldn’t prevent every abortion but they could decrease the rates without unfairly punishing women.
    Sure it’d be nice if everyone would be abstinent until marriage and then have one partner for life, have all perfectly healthy children and raise them in a loving home. (It’d also be nice if everybody weighed what they should, ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly and never had high blood pressure or diabetes–largely preventable conditions which also kill lots of people. But I digress). But we live in a world where that just isn’t reality.

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