They’re called “abortion abolitionists,” and their movement is so extreme that it has been rejected by mainstream pro-life groups and the ethics agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. But some pastors at the most far-right edge of the SBC are deeply involved in this movement that seeks to declare abortion homicide and criminally charge women who seek abortions.
That includes Tom Ascol, who ran for the SBC presidency this year and is a revered leader among Southern Baptist Calvinists.
“You cannot look beyond abortion. It is the high crime in our nation against a holy God.”
Ascol appears in a new documentary produced by the advocacy group End Abortion Now. The documentary takes specific aim at the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which the right-most wing of the SBC wants to shut down because its work on abortion is not strident enough.
Ascol, a Florida pastor and leader of a group called Founders Ministries, appears early in the 17-minute documentary. He says: “You cannot look beyond abortion. It is the high crime in our nation against a holy God.”
The documentary appears to have been filmed inside the Anaheim Convention Center where the SBC annual meeting was held in June. The film has two recurring themes: Describing an attempt earlier this year in Louisiana to pass one of the most far-reaching anti-abortion bills in American history, one that would have classified abortion as a homicide, and denouncing the ERLC for not joining that cause.
A key leader in that Louisiana movement was Brian Gunter, pastor of First Baptist Church of Livingston, La., who is heavily featured in the documentary. Gunter also engaged in one of the most notable floor debates at the June SBC meeting, when he questioned why the ERLC wouldn’t side with his efforts to charge women who seek abortions as murderers.
On the floor of the convention, Gunter challenged the then-acting president of the ERLC, Brent Leatherwood. Leatherwood, former leader of the Tennessee Republican Party, since has been named president of that agency and is hailed as a staunch pro-life advocate.
Gunter questioned why Leatherwood, on behalf of the ERLC, signed a letter in May from dozens of pro-life organizations to state legislators opposing bills that would make it a crime for a woman to abort her child.
“Is it really your position that the mother who willfully kills her own child by abortion is never guilty before God, and she should never face any consequences under the law?” Gunter asked Leatherwood.
“You’re not going to get me to say that I want to throw mothers behind bars. That’s not the view of this entity.”
Leatherwood replied: “We agree on the bottom line. We want abortion ended. We want it ended today. We want it ended tomorrow. We want it ended as soon as humanly possible. Here’s the reality: You’re not going to get me to say that I want to throw mothers behind bars. That’s not the view of this entity. That’s not the view of this convention. It’s not the view of the pro-life movement.”
That exchange encapsulates the rift currently sweeping the pro-life movement in America in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. The question is: How far should newly emboldened conservatives go in criminalizing those who perform, receive or facilitate abortion?
Not a new question for SBC
This is not a new question to the SBC. In June 2021, a full year before the Supreme Court decision reversing Roe, Tom Ascol’s brother, Bill Ascol, led the charge for the SBC to pass the most strident language ever used in an SBC resolution against abortion — language so strong that the SBC’s own Committee on Resolutions had declined to bring it forward.
Yet that summer, after messengers (voting members) to the SBC gathering in Nashville already had adopted a strongly worded resolution opposing abortion and calling for continuation of the Hyde Amendment that has prohibited federal funding for abortions, they followed Bill Ascol’s plea and adopted a second — and stronger — resolution the next day calling for the “immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise.”
Despite the strong language of the 2021 resolution, the abolitionists within the SBC were not satisfied with what happened after. In their view, the resolution paved the way for what should have come next but didn’t. That, in turn, led to the confrontation on the floor of the 2022 convention.
Gunter said he and his church felt betrayed by the SBC when Leatherwood joined other pro-life leaders in signing the letter against making women who seek abortions criminals.
He explains in the documentary: “When I saw that the same organization from the Southern Baptist Convention, that my church funds, had signed on to a letter to kill the very bill that I had been working so hard to pass in my state legislature and end abortion in Louisiana, I felt betrayed. My church members faithfully give their dollars. And then the Southern Baptist Convention’s ERLC worked to kill the bill that their pastor had worked so hard to pass so that we could finally end abortion in our state.”
Not pro-life enough
Gunter is a product of the SBC’s educational system. He earned an undergraduate degree from Louisiana College, a conservative Baptist school, a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the six SBC seminaries, and is currently working toward a doctor of divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, another of the SBC seminaries.
He also has deep roots in the pro-life movement, which he now finds to be lacking in sufficient courage to make criminals of women who seek abortions.
Speaking earlier this year to a pro-life group in Houston, Gunter said: “I’ve decided to call myself an abolitionist to make it clear that I believe that abortion must be ended immediately in Jesus’ name, without exception without compromise, and without any apology, because babies are being murdered and it must end.”
He’s joined forces with End Abortion Now, which is affiliated with a larger movement called Apologia. That movement includes a media component, which produced the documentary critical of the SBC, and a church in Tempe, Ariz., also called Apologia.
One of the pastors of that church, Jeff Durbin, is the leader of the larger Apologia network. Durbin is a former hospital chaplain who is a world champion martial artist with five Black Belts. He played Michelangelo and Donatello for the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise as well as Johnny Cage in “Mortal Combat” the world-tour. He also appeared as a fighter in MTV’s “The Final Fu.”
“If we follow the false doctrine of the pro-life establishment and the ERLC, we lose the gospel for women and we will never, ever end abortion.”
In the documentary, Durbin says even the evangelical church has fallen into grave sin by not telling women they are culpable as murderers if they seek abortions: “And the problem is, if we follow the false doctrine of the pro-life establishment and the ERLC, we lose the gospel for women and we will never, ever end abortion.”
The End Abortion Now website calls such less-than-condemning teaching on abortion “heresy.”
“As heresy has crept into the fellowship of believers in church history, the appropriate response has been for the church to confront and refute false teaching. However, heretical teaching is not limited to ecclesiastical matters. Limiting false teaching to something that happens only within the church prevents us from seeing how aberrant doctrines can impact other areas of life, including the political sphere,” the website states.
“Our new documentary surrounding the events that took place at the Louisiana Legislature and the annual Southern Baptist Convention illustrate this point. We put this footage together so that you can see the unbiblical nature of the pro-life industry in their opposition to the end of abortion. The Louisiana Legislature, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and 70 other pro-life organizations publicly stood against the bill of equal protection that would have ended abortion in the state. Their primary reason? The heretical belief that women who willfully kill their preborn children should face no consequences under the law. Such a belief is heretical because it frames the woman as a victim, cutting her off from the power of the gospel. Furthermore, it prevents the same standard of justice from being given to the baby in the womb that protects everyone else’s lives.”
It continues: “Friends, we have said it before, and will continue to sound the alarm. The pro-life industry is not Christian. They refuse to make this fight about Christ, his gospel, and justice for the innocent. They do not really believe that the baby in the womb should be protected from the moment of fertilization. They are not fighting to actually end abortion, even now in a post-Roe society. … Being pro-life means believing that no one should have the right to murder an innocent child in the womb and acting consistently with that premise.”
Ascol chimes in again: “It’s so incongruous to hear those who think they are being compassionate toward women who say, ‘Oh, no, we don’t want them to feel guilty. They’re victims. They’re not culpable for the death of their children.’ They think that they’re showing them mercy when in reality, what they are doing is they are putting a roadblock to the only pathway of mercy and grace that is afforded to them.”
The SBC rebuffed its most extreme factions but remains extremely conservative | Analysis by Mark Wingfield