Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Abortion & the Bible

The debate around abortion is highly polarized and has degenerated into unhelpful mottos. One side chants "pro-choice" while the other chants "pro-life", and the discussion doesn't move far from there. Who isn't for choice and life? Emotions run high, as the perceived stakes are huge: either we are removing the free agency of women by not allowing something that is essentially equivalent to using a condom, or we are removing the free agency of a fetus in the strongest possible way by killing a full fledged human. In this polarized view we are either supporting slavery or holocaust. What a choice.

The same act viewed from completely opposite interpretations. But what are these interpretations based on? They are based on wants and beliefs. If a woman finds she is pregnant and is not ready for a child she definitely wants out of the situation. If this situation happens to someone else you definitely want them to do "the right thing". What choices are available? What is the right thing? The question of what is right comes down to how we define human. The idea of human rights now seems common sense to us and we intuitively "know" that one should not coerce and infringe on person-hood. Of course we must set limits on rights - clearly someone does not have the right to rape or kill others and we remove these options from the menu of choices. But we also should not remove something from the menu without reasonable justification. Most of us think slavery was a clearly immoral idea, especially if justified on the amount of a chemical present in the skin. In hindsight the preposition that slavery is okay, or even moral, is ridiculous and we wonder how anyone, let alone a whole collection of societies, could buy into this. Removing the choice available to others from the menu for a subgroup is clearly wrong, removing a choice from the menu for everyone can be equally wrong. So the question is this - should abortion be on the menu?

It comes down to who we include in the camp of human, a shorthand for worthwhile life from societies perspective. Pro-choice? A fetus is a blob of tissue. Pro-life? A fetus is human. This fundamental difference makes discussion difficult, especially when each side tends to discount the other and even begins to see them as evil. What can one do when our basic definitions and assumptions are in such conflict and collide in a realm where the actions take on weighty emotional and moral dimensions? One thing we can do is try to honestly look at the evidence in existence and consider it and be willing to change what we want and believe to better reflect what is.

As abortion is, for many, a religous driven view, let us look towards the Bible.

The Bible actually does not say anything (directly) about abortion, but there are a few passages that are banded about and interpreted as being against abortion. Perhaps the most familiar is from Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew (or, chose) you, before you were born I set you apart...." (Jeremiah 1:5, New International Version). The implication is pretty clear - person-hood precedes birth. The next step in interpretation is: therefore abortion is murder. But wait. Can we make this next step? Lets pull out the Bible and pull out another quote, one that I haven't heard used in the abortion debate, yet is more directly relevant: "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely (or, she has a miscarriage) but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows." (Exodus 21:22, New International Version). The implication of this is that a fetus has clear value but that this value is not on the same level as an adult life. Here the value seems to be as measured by the family, as moderated by society.

Of course even this is not very clear and one can read this passage in a number of ways and arrive at totally different interruptions - someone could claim that "no serious injury" does not speak to the womans physical health, but instead to the fetuses/babies. This however seems a dishonest reading - would something so irrelevant be placed in the bible? Considering justice at the time is this interpretation consistent at all with Judaic thought? Careful and thoughtful reflection on what we know about the society of the time - even from solely a biblical reading, let alone other pieces of knowledge - strongly indicates that this passage is speaking about the death of a fetus and the fitting punishment for this.

The translation is vague as interpreting the Hebrew is vague, which could mean either a fetus is not that important in the scheme of things, or that it is so important that it is not worth qualifying and making the subject explicit - we don't go around stating the obvious. What can we then say? The Bible seems pretty opaque on this issue and perhaps the only thing we can do is say we have no direct guidance. If one believes God is timeless and the Bible is his word, then this lack of guidance for us should say something deep and subtle to you. In any case, pulling quotes out of context isn't very useful, but further reflection on the Bible doesn't seem to get one much further.

Well, the Bible doesn't seem to get us very far. We can interpret it to mean what we want, and since we all want to think certain things this is dangerous. But considering Judaic courts and justice in the time of Exodus strongly suggests that actions that lead to the killing of an fetus was bad, but not as bad as modern Christians tend to state.

For the true Christian, one who actually challenges their faith and understanding and growths with it, this is food for thought - how much does ones community and their beliefs affect your understanding of God? To you I ask you to reflect on Romans 11:33-36, to carefully reflect on the Bible, and to study the culture at the time to help interpret what is meant.


  1. The Bible encourages believers to stone nonbelievers, like me. I have a hard time thinking it could be the source of any moral truth. When discussing abortion, I find it best to just appeal to intuition: does it seem that preventing a baby from being born by using contraception is murder? That is the Roman Catholic view. Now beyond that, does it seem that killing a growing fetus within your body is equivalent to killing a human being? I have to say it sounds pretty crazy to say yes to either of those.

    I even go further than most people with this. I'd say killing an infant is not equivalent to killing a child that has interests in self preservation and continuity beyond the current moment. Infanticide, though, just seems unnecessarily cruel in a world where many people would love to adopt babies, but I do have a problem lumping it in with "murder."

  2. I agree on all your points - the only point I differ with is for intuition, late stage abortion seems intuitively close to infanticide. I always use the example of 1 day before birth versus 1 day after - does anyone really think there is a difference then? I think people simply do not want to consider the implications. What is the fundamental difference, other than one is legal in some places and one is not?

    As for infanticide, I agree with you there also - until recently this is how societies had to deal with "abortion", and this hard/harsh choice was due to necessity. I doubt people did this for fun and chuckles.

    "The Bible encourages believers to stone nonbelievers, like me."

    Which is strong support that abortion is not so bad, based on what the bible says - since stoning and other harsh punishments were considered just for many "crimes", the tiny punishment for "induced by punch" miscarriage speaks a lot - even when the *parents* wanted the child this wasn't considered a big deal.

    This post is mostly to see what Christians can retort with, and I think that it is good "ammo" for discussion with religous people who are anti-abortion. Their god doesn't seem to be, so how Christian are they?

    "have a hard time thinking it could be the source of any moral truth."

    Contradiction between what people believe and what their book says (and internal contradiction within such book) can jar people into seeing moral truth. If more Christians actually read the bible we would have a lot fewer Christians.