What the Bible Says about Abortion - Part 4

Submitted by Ken Watts on Thu, 05/14/2009 - 14:09

IN THE PREVIOUS POST IN THIS SERIES I TOLD how I, as a young Bible-believing Evangelical, found most of the verses cited by the anti-abortion contingent to be very weak evidence.

The example I gave was Jeremiah 1: 1-5, "I knew you before I formed you in your mother's womb."

It seemed quite obvious to me that this verse was talking about the omniscience of God, not about when an egg receives a soul. But more to the point, it placed the moment of personhood before conception: "before I formed you".

Taken literally, which is what they wanted me to do, the verse would have argued that personhood pre-dated conception, that it was not only wrong to abort, but also wrong to pass up any chance at intercourse!

I might, after all, be denying life to a human being.

Of course I didn't take that possibility seriously, being who I was, but it did reduce the entire approach to absurdity for me.

What I felt I needed to look for was evidence that focused on the actual question of personhood in the Bible. When did these ancient texts actually consider an egg to become a person?

The evidence I found came in several forms:

  1. First, the idea of breath seemed in many passages to be tied directly to life. The phrase "all who breathe" is used as a synonym for "all living". I didn't build a complete case on this, but it did point in the general direction of post-birth.
  2. Another pattern I found had to do with naming. The creation passages are filled with the idea that nothing, living or dead, is completely itself, completely created, until it is named. But, in fact, naming in the tradition of the Bible doesn't take place until after birth. In some cases, not until a month after birth.
  3. I also noticed that there were passages where censuses were to be taken, and all the people counted. And, in those passages, the cutoff age—the age below which one was not considered a "person" for the purposes of the census—was one month or older. In one passage, this cut-off age is given to Moses by God himself.

I was quite aware that none of this added up to an air-tight case. But a growing pattern was emerging:

  1. The Bible provided absolutely no clear evidence on the anti-abortion side of the issue.

    The few verses people on that side appealed to quite obviously had to be wrenched out of context and interpreted in ways that had nothing to do with their original meaning in order to even apply to the issue.
  2. On the other hand, when I looked into passages that might actually indicate what the texts really assumed about the central question, the evidence all pointed to a date at birth, or even after.

    You must remember that I really did believe the Bible to be authoritative at the time, and that I had no desire to find an excuse for a pro-choice stance. I felt duty-bound to search out what the Bible said, and form my position accordingly. Needless to say, I was troubled about the month-old date, but I had to admit that it seemed to be the direction that at least some of the texts pointed.

    In any case, considerations of spirit, of naming, and even of census-taking all seemed to agree in supporting a date at birth or after.
  3. Finally, I was increasingly aware that a pro-choice stance did not require absolute evidence: only reasonable doubt.

    This was important. I saw through the rhetoric of the anti-abortionists on this point even then. There was a difference between actually promoting abortions and simply holding that I—and, more importantly, the government—didn't have the knowledge or authority to make that decision on behalf of the women involved.

    An anti-abortion stance, on the other hand, really did require something quite solid, since that was the stance which required making a moral decision for someone else, and forcing it on them.

    How could I support that, unless I was certain?

The considerations above also caused me to begin questioning the sincerity of the anti-abortion movement.

Here were people who claimed to know that abortion was murder, to know that even a fertilized egg was a fully entitled person.

Yet they didn't name their fetuses. If they had a miscarriage, they didn't hold a funeral. They didn't count miscarriages among their children. If you asked "how many children did you have?" they didn't include miscarriages, even though they would include children who had died after birth.

I began to notice that they only seemed to believe that a fertilized egg was a child in political contexts. I began to think that the whole movement might actually be more political than religious.

At the same time, I really did want to base my own position on what I found in the Bible, whichever side I ended up on.

I intensified my search of the scriptures, hoping to find a clear reason to end up on one side or the other.

In the end, I found a passage that made up my mind.

Next time, that passage, and the anti-abortion interpretation...

Ken Watts

Mon, 10/05/2015 - 13:44

1) The Bible does not represent a single, unified, worldview. It was written over centuries in a variety of cultures, and is a mix of often quite different worldviews. It is, in fact, the case that the date of "personhood"--the date at which a human "counted" as a person within the culture varied from birth, to the naming ceremony to, in some cases, a year old. At certain times and places the naming was ceremonial. At other times and places it could happen at birth. Cultures evolve and change. 

2) "Breathing," in Biblical passages, means breathing air, in and out, as adults normally do. The cultures, languages, and definitions involved are pre-scientific, and it is a mistake to try to force them into a scientific worldview which is alien to them. Much of fundamentalist confusion comes from forcing a scientific worldview into the interpretation of ancient Biblical texts, rather than interpreting them on their own terms.

3) The insistence on calling everything from a fertilized egg to and embryo to a fetus by the name "baby", and then back-reading everything the Bible has to say about babies into those categories is a kind of conflation. It's useful if you want to read a preconceived view into a prooftext, but it is not useful if you really want to find out what the texts say on their own terms.

Thanks for your comment.