NOTE: See Also "Defending Abortion: Part Three" in the December Posts and Defending Abortion: Part Four" in March, 2010)
Defending Abortion: Part Two, Pro-Choice Christianity
Anti-abortion fanatics often cloak their zeal in religious trappings, convinced that God is on their side, and that they are martyrs for the ultimate Good. However, intense passion and intractable belief do not insure veracity, nor immunize one from misapprehension. History is full of single-minded zealotry, accompanied by hysteria and histrionics, which, in retrospect, was horribly unfounded and tragic in the misery it inflicted.
For instance, in 16th and 17th century England, Protestants and Catholics butchered each other on a massive and constant scale.
Every ardent follower of a cause will tell you they are willing to die for their principles and that they serve the ultimate Good. But thick-skulled single-mindedness is more likely to induce error than enlightenment. When applied to large groups, it correlates with lots of spilled blood.
The dangers of fanaticism and false prophets were well understood by ancient peoples, whose subsistence could be thrown into upheaval by charismatic yet de-stabilizing mystics. Warnings to avoid the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” occur frequently in the Bible, as do exhortations to avoid false prophets, such as the following from Deuteronomy:
If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams ... Thou shalt not hearken. (13.1)
Conviction for cherished ideals is wonderful, but must be balanced with judicious thought. Otherwise, a grave danger emerges of being duped, deluded, and drawn into someone else’s scheme for power. History is full of unwitting pawns.
When you see anti-abortion extremists raising their arms to heaven, screaming out to God, and extolling with intense and colorful theatrics, go ahead and get emotional. It is indeed an amazing sight, and probably will invoke a reaction in you, one way or the other. But don’t be swayed to a cause just because the adherents are emotionally tortured.
Although passion is what makes life special, it is not the be-all-end all of Goodness. Wisdom can not live by passion alone, and passion has led many people to the slaughter.
The Pro-Choice Christian
Religion goes well with pro-choice arguments, far better than it does with anti-choice.
Take the Bible, for example. There is no discourse on abortion in this hallowed text, let alone any thunderous decree that forbids it. A lot of things are divinely outlawed in the Bible, including adultery, stealing, and coveting thy neighbor’s ox--but not abortion.
If abortion is a horrible sin, more so than adultery or ox coveting, where is its due comment?
The knee-jerk response is to say that abortion is murder, and murder is strictly forbidden by God. Unfortunately for those putting forth this argument, it assumes what it is trying to prove. This sort of poor reasoning is so common and egregious that it has a special name in philosophy: begging the question, or to put it formally in latin petitio principii. More simply, this tactic is often just called circular reasoning.
Here is the fallacious argument of circular reasoning (begging the question) spelled out. Two premises and a conclusion:
(1) The Bible says murder is wrong
(2) Abortion is murder
(3) Therefore abortion is wrong
If this argument convinces you, I have some oilfields for you to buy, cheap, in Maine. You’ll also be forced, logically, to accept this argument:
(1) The Bible says murder is wrong
(2) Swatting a fly is murder
(3) Swatting a fly is wrong
The problem with both these arguments is that the second premise (2) needs to be argued. You have to give convincing reasons in justification. Otherwise you are simply assuming what you’re trying to prove.
Even worse for the “abortion is murder” screamers, the Bible provides damning evidence, pardon the pun, that in the eyes of the Lord, it is not.
Key passages necessitate this conclusion. As does the overall picture of ancient nomadic tribespeople that emerges from a serious perusal. In legal terms, the Bible sees the preborn as a kind of property, not a full-fledged being that can be murdered.
Given time considerations, I’m going to discuss just a few excerpts. They are already well-known in the general debate, so I’ll include commentary on the responses by anti-abortionists.
The following two excerpts are so telling the Jehovah’s Witnesses rewrote them in their New World Bible, obliterating the original text and its evidence that the preborn did not have full legal standing for the ancient Israelites.
(For more on the New World Bible, which doesn’t deserve to be called a Bible at all, go here: http://www.gotquestions.org/New-World-Translation.html)
For those who don’t bowdlerize or rewrite history, and dare to look at honest translations by expert scholars, as in the NRSV, or even just the good ol’ King James Version , the evidence is clear and determinative. Let’s check it out.
Leviticus 27: 2-7
This is powerful passage that associates monetary values with males and females of various ages. Humans below the age of one month have no value at all. Quoting from NSRV:
“When a person makes an explicit vow to the Lord concerning the equivalent for a human being, the equivalent for a male shall be: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary shekel. If the person is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five to twenty years of age, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and for a female the equivalent is three shekels of silver.”
This passage is legally explaining how much money is needed to substitute for a vow. Pay this amount to avoid the consequences of the vow. As you can see, men are more highly valued than women. Adults more than children. It’s not as if all human life is considered equal.
Furthermore, to emphasize, youngsters below the age of one month have no value assigned. Not a single shekel. Yikes! The Oxford Companion to the Bible sums all this up nicely:
“Biblical legislation, as in Leviticus 27: 3-7, indicates that the lives of children as well as women were not valued as highly as those of adult men, while no value whatsoever was given to a child under the age of one month. There is no indication that a fetus had any status. (p.4)
In other words, the Bible differentiates between the legal value assigned to adults and infants, attributing the big zero to newborns, and in effect the fetus as well.
Anti-Abortion Response to Leviticus 27: 3-7
When I typed “Leviticus 27 and abortion” into Google, or variants of that search phrase, I was surprised to find no ready and easily obtainable statement by the anti-abortionists (in contrast to the next excerpt I discuss, for which they have plenty to say).
I think their best argument is to point out that the above passage isn’t dealing with abortion but rather the avoidance of restrictions placed by vows. If we’re talking about vows, how can this be relevant to an entirely different issue, abortion?
But this argument isn’t going to satisfy anyone who doesn’t want to be satisfied by it. The excerpt sets up a hierarchy of values associated with human life, and legally assigns newborns and preborns a monetary value of zero.
This provides a useful window into the thinking of the nomadic Israelites. These were hard times, lacking modern medicine. The miscarriage rate is estimated to be about 50%, not to mention the likely deaths to disease of infants. Forming tight emotional bonds to preborns and young children could result in huge and frequent amounts of pain.
It is likely, given the physical and cultural circumstances, that the Israelites did not emotionally attach to the preborn as the anti-abortionists seem to love every fetus and embryo, wailing and lamenting and hurling out comparisons to the Holocaust.
The overall cultural perspective in the Bible, exemplified in Leviticus 27, makes this a quite reasonable conclusion.
Exodus 21: 22-25
This section is another killer, pardon the pun, for the Christian anti-choice crusade.
The passage reads as follows:
“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.”
Note the penalty for inflicting a miscarriage is a monetary payment, whereas the penalty for harming the women is much more serious. Monetary payments were customary for property damage; but if you accidentally break the woman’s hand, your hand gets broken in retributive justice.
If the miscarriage were itself a case of murder, the eye-for-an-eye code would call for the death of the person who caused the miscarriage, wouldn’t it? The little being in the woman’s stomach is not considered to have full legal protections. It’s right there in the Bible.
Anti-Abortion Response to Exodus 21: 22-25
Unlike the Leviticus passage, there is a great deal of anti-abortion response to Exodus. At least ten strong commentaries come up on a Google search. Many of them have a frantic yet excited air, for they are eager to explain away this dangerous excerpt. The crucial strategy is to attack the word “miscarriage.” The woman’s child isn’t dead, they claim, just born prematurely.
Some even serve as primers, telling the reader how to respond when confronted by pro-choice folks, as in the following:
“When someone raises this issue with you, ask these three questions.
First, why presume the child is dead? Though the English word “miscarriage” entails this notion, nothing in the Hebrew wording suggests it. Yasa doesn’t mean miscarriage; it means “to come forth.” The word itself never suggests death. In fact, the word generally implies the opposite: live birth. If it’s never translated elsewhere as miscarriage, why translate it that way here?
Second, what in the context itself implies the death of the child? There’s nothing that does, nothing at all. The fine does not necessarily mean the child is dead, and even if it did this wouldn’t indicate that the child wasn’t fully human (as in the case of the slave in v. 32).
Third, ancient Hebrew had a specific word for miscarriage. It was used in other passages. Why not here? Because Moses didn’t mean miscarriage. When his words are simply taken at face value, there is no confusion at all. The verse is clear and straight-forward. Everything falls into place.”
( http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5700 )
The crucial task for the anti-abortionist is to prove that “miscarriage” is a faulty translation. Or is it? Suppose the woman doesn’t have a miscarriage, but only gives birth prematurely. But remember, premature birth is often going to result in death of the child, given the lack of medical technology available to the ancient goat-herders, and their generally hardscrabble and difficult life. Even today, with all our fancy machinery, only about 60% of premature births can be saved.
You’re deluding yourself if you think ancient Israelites weren’t aware of the high chance of death in premature birth, especially if the woman was induced to labor through extreme violence.
Death of the preborn had to be on the minds of the ancient Israelites when crafting the law in Exodus 21:22-25. It’s just common sense. Most pregnant women who “give forth” their child from violence will be giving forth embryos and non-viable fetuses. A majority of violence-induced premature births would be death sentences for the preborn.
And of course we must ask: Is “miscarriage” the wrong word to use for the translation. Now you get into a hornet’s nest of linguistic analysis of ancient Hebrew and translation methodology, a great place to find a loophole to support your own perspective, especially if you're desperate and have no other resort.
The anti-abortionists claim that the ancient Hebrew term, “yatsa” is generally used to mean “to bring forth” and that therefore miscarriage is not implied.
But this ignores common sense. Why make a law that covers only a fraction of pregnancies, and avoids the obvious threat of death?
Maybe the ancient Israelites were speaking in euphemism. Maybe the ancient Hebrew language in the cultural context of the nomads calls for a gentle explanation. Or maybe “bringing forth” is perfect to cover both the case of miscarriage and premature birth which leads to death of the child.
Or maybe translating ancient Hebrew to English is a difficult task that requires looking at variations in culture, predispositions of translators, technical questions in semiotics, nuances in exegesis, etc. Maybe we can't with any certainty hang a lot of meaning on "yatsa" except by stepping back and looking at the issues faced by a hardbitten tribe of herders.
So, I’m not entering the linguistic debate. This isn’t my field of expertise. But there is strong pragmatic evidence that miscarriage, including loss of embryo or nonviable fetus, would have been on the minds of the Israelites when a shepherd’s crook rammed into the belly of a woman.
A Thousand Years Plus
The view that the preborn does not have full status was common and widespread throughout Christianity and Judaism for well over a thousand years. In the 16th century, a young scientist using a primitive microscope claimed to see a small fully developed human in a sperm cell. Based on that sketchy evidence, the Catholic Church changed its view to the current dogma: the soul is present from conception.
Before this ridiculous maneuver, the view of St. Augustine reigned supreme: that abortion was acceptable well into pregnancy, because the soul was not present until the preborn could “feel.” Interestingly, this accords with the scientific observation that the brain’s ‘neural circuitry’ develops later in the pregnancy. At six months the basic system is in place:
“The cerebral hemispheres now cover the whole top and sides of the brain including the cerebellum. Cerebellar development begins from this moment, but will not be complete until two years after birth. Six distinct layers are now differentiated within the cerebral cortex, and almost all of the neurons within the central nervous system are present by the end of this sixth month of life and neural 'circuitry' continues to develop.”
The New Testament
Although the books referenced above, Leviticus and Exodus, are Old Testament, the New Testament provides no extra insight on abortion. Jesus condemns many things, including looking at your neighbor’s wife with lust; but he doesn’t feel it necessary to bring up the fate of the preborn. Apparently it wasn’t as pressing to him as members of Operation Rescue.
However, one passage gets frequent use by the anti-choice crew, Luke 1: 41-44:
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.”
The child may have indeed kicked in Elizabeth’s stomach, quite possibly in response to the her excitement. This happens all the time in the third trimester of pregnancy. Many people, including me, think abortion in the third trimester should only occur in special circumstances; for example, to save the mother’s life. The Justices in Roe vs. Wade did not extend the mother’s right to choose to the third trimester, except in special circumstances.
If Elizabeth’s child leapt for joy in the third trimester, it is a moot occurrence.
On the other hand, if the child’s leap was miraculous, prompted by the appearance of the Mother of God, we are left to wonder about ordinary circumstances, when the Divine Mary is not immediately present.
Miracles change things. In a miraculous context, anything can happen. Trees can raise up their limbs to exalt. Rocks and stones can sing hallelujah. Still, no one is rushing to claim that trees and rocks deserve a right to life.
There is no basis in the Bible for the totalitarian mentality of the anti-choice extremists. While they claim they are serving God’s Will, they are doing just the opposite, at least in terms of Yahweh.
I haven’t covered all the relevant excerpts and arguments by any means. For truly in-depth coverage, try these urls:
Let me supply a quote from the last url, which sums up the general situation nicely:
“The Bible does not comment directly on abortion, even though abortion was practiced even then. All Biblical arguments on abortion are indirect and open to interpretation, and debate continues even among the world's most respected theologians. Even so, the Bible seems to suggest in several places that the unborn are not endowed with the qualities or rights of personhood. In fact, the Jews, who are famous for their preservation of tradition, have never considered abortion to be a sin.”