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Controversy 2: Abortion
Thursday, 2008 November 27 - 11:47 am
This is my second post about a politically controversial topic: this time it's about abortion. The first post, concerning gay marriage, can be found here.

The point of both of these posts is that although some religious conservatives have taken very hard lines on these political issues, these positions are not backed by Biblical texts as they might claim. So, perhaps it would behoove us all to separate the religious arguments from the political ones, and perhaps then these issues wouldn't be so divisive.

As a reminder, when I'm talking about these Biblical passages, my assertion is that you can take them literally, contextually, or figuratively; but you can only choose one of these methods, and you must be consistent in your interpretations. If not, then you're essentially making up your own religious doctrine, interpreting passages in your own unique way according to your own morals and beliefs. And I while I fully support your right to define your own belief structure, you cannot then use that as the basis of a Bible-backed political argument.

When talking about abortion, there's a whole raft of Biblical passages that seem to be relevant. However, I would argue that none of these passages make an unambiguous statement about abortion. As many pro-choice advocates point out: if this were such an important issue, then why wouldn't the Bible be clearer about it?

Let's look at a few of these passages.

Exodus 21:22-25

NRSV: When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

KJV: If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thout shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

NIV: If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

This passage seems to get the most attention in the abortion debate. From a pro-life point of view, this says that if an unborn baby is harmed, the perpetrator must be killed just as if the baby were any other person.

One controversial point of this passage is the Hebrew phrase "w˚yase û ye ladêhâ", literally meaning "the child comes forth". This has been translated as "has a miscarriage" in some versions of the Bible, and "gives birth prematurely" in others. It's an important point, because if it means "has a miscarriage", then the passage clearly indicates that the death of the unborn baby has fewer consequences than the death of another person.

Another point of controversy is the statement "But if there is serious injury", as the text does not state whether this means serious injury to the baby or serious injury to the mother.

Having done a little bit of research on this, I'm inclined to give the pro-life argument the benefit of the doubt here. So the interpretation of the passage would be: "When men fight and hit a pregnant woman and cause a premature birth, but no one is otherwise harmed, the offender should be fined. But if anyone is seriously injured, then you must take eye for eye, etc."

But even in this literal interpretation: why is this law only applicable in the context of two men fighting? It says nothing of a woman's willing act to perform an abortion. I think it would be fair to say that this passage represents a paternalistic view of the matter.

Let's look at some surrounding passages: "Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death." (Ex. 21:17) "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property." (Ex. 21:20). "If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins." (Ex 22:16)

So if we take a literal view of Ex. 21:22-25, we should also: (a) institute capital punishment for anyone who curses their mother or father; (b) note that the institution of slavery is supported by the bible; and (c) require any people who have sex to be married immediately. (Does that apply to gay people too?)

I think I've made my point about Exodus (and Leviticus)... it's full of laws that must be taken in the context of the times they were written. Men were dominant over women. The science of conception and childbirth were not known. Laws were written in an attempt to institute a system of human justice, not divine justice.

But before we leave Exodus altogether, let's quickly talk about one more passage: "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 'When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.' The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live." (Ex. 1:15-17)

I've seen an argument that this is an enjoinder against partial birth abortion. It is nothing of the sort. This is talking the Pharoah ordering the death of all Hebrew boys. And if you believe that God does not believe in killing children, then consider this: "At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well." (Ex. 12:29)

Psalm 51:5

NRSV: Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

KJV: Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

NIV: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

I suppose the argument here is that since an unborn baby is capable of being a sinner, the unborn baby must be a person.

This passage is controversial in a different sense: the controversy here is whether David is saying we are all born sinners, or whether babies are innocent. I won't go through that argument, but in order for this passage to support a pro-life argument, it must be interpreted as not only saying that we are born sinners, but we are sinners from the moment of conception. I'd be surprised if many Christians would be willing to make that argument.

On a web page that discusses the original sin argument, there's an interpretation of this passage that I like. If you replace "sin" with "potatoes" in the sentence, you get this: "In a potato patch I was born, and in a field of spuds my mother conceived me, but I was not born full of potatoes." So, no, I don't think this line is definitively saying that sin is inherent from the time of conception, and that being the case, this passage has nothing to do with abortion.

Remember the context of this passage too: David is agonizing over his adultery with Bathsheba. He's not talking about abortion. He's not even thinking about it. This psalm is about sin and redemption, not about the origin of life.

Psalm 139:13

NRSV: For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

KJV: For thou hast possessed my reins; thou hast covered me in my mother's womb.

NIV: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

So just in case it's not clear, the argument is that since God created us (via conception) in the womb, we are living people with souls from that point onward.

But at best, that's an extrapolation of what this passage is saying. It says nothing about when "life" begins, or when we receive a soul; it merely says that we were assembled in the womb. I don't think anyone would dispute that. But God also created the sperm and the ovum; why aren't those events seen to be relevant to the process of creating life? "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. 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 before one of them came to be." (Ps. 139:15-16) Should we interpret this passage to mean that life begins from, uh, underground?

Jeremiah 1:5

NRSV: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

KJV:Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

NIV:Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart, I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

This one bugs me the most, when it comes to out-of-context passages used to support a pro-life argument. Simply put: it doesn't support the argument at all. Read the passage again: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." Before. Not "when". Not "at the point of conception."

And we're talking about the prophet Jeremiah here, not all children of the earth. What God is saying is that he foresaw Jeremiah's arrival from long ago... which shouldn't be a surprise, since an omniscient God knows all things.

If you simply want to look at the statement "I formed you in the womb" as proof that conception is a separate event... well, I've already discussed that argument with Psalm 139:13 above.

What's important again is that this is not a passage about abortion, or the origin of life. This is a passage about the Jeremiah and his divine role in the world.

Finally, let's look at a different sort of passage:

Ecclesiastes 6:3-6

NIV: A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man--even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?

I'll leave this one as a question to you: if we are to take Biblical passages literally (not in the context of the times, and not as metaphorical lessons), then how should we interpret what Solomon is saying in Ecclesiastes?

I'll have some conclusions and further thoughts in an upcoming article.
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Posted by Ken in: commentarypolitics

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