IN THE PREVIOUS PARTS OF THIS SERIES, I described the path by which I, as a young, Bible-believing Christian, became more and more convinced that insofar as the Bible spoke to the issue of abortion it was on the pro-choice side.
The central question which I researched was what the Bible had to say about when an egg became a person. Various theological themes—spirit/breath, naming—and even pragmatic questions, like who got counted in a census, all pointed to the moment of birth or later.
But I wanted something more definite: something closer to the actual issue.
Then, as I explained last time, I happened on Exodus 21:22-25:
22 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.
23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Two men, fighting, cause a woman to miscarry. The penalty God assigns for this is a fine, paid to the husband—the normal penalty in this part of the Bible for the death of livestock, not of a person. The very same passage says that if the woman—a person— gets hurt as well, the penalty is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.
The miscarriage is treated as a property loss, for which the husband can expect to be compensated financially. But if someone actually dies, then its a matter of murder, or at least manslaughter.
In other words, this passage does not consider a miscarriage to be the death of a person.
But, as I pointed out in part five, there is an ingenious anti-abortion interpretation of this passage.
According to the anti-abortion camp:
"Her fruit departing from her" really just means that she gives birth to a normal, healthy baby.
That's why it says "no mischief follows". That means that the baby is normal and healthy and there's no negative fallout from the accident at all.
So the following section is talking not about the woman but about the baby. It's saying that if something does happen to the baby then the penalty is "an eye for and eye, a life for a life, etc." And when it says "a life for a life" that's proof positive that it considers the unborn baby to be a full-fledged person, and its death to be murder.
I promised, at the end of part 5, to explain what was wrong with this re-interpretation of the passage.
Whether you're a believer or not—but especially if you are—it's important, when interpreting a text, to pay attention to context. Elsewhere, I've made this same point about Jesus' famous remark concerning rich people and the eye of a needle.
All of the interpretations of that verse which let the wealthy off Jesus' hook simply ignore the context. They ignore the fact that his disciples clearly understand him to be talking about an impossibility, and that Jesus responds to them on that basis.
Likewise, in this passage, any alternative interpretation has to be tested against the context as a whole.
But that presents a problem for the anti-abortion reframe.
The penalty prescribed is a fine, which is the same penalty required for the death of a piece of livestock—to compensate the owner for his loss.
If the baby was born perfectly healthy, if there was, indeed, no harm done, even to the fetus, and the father, instead of losing his "investment" has only gained a new child, then what was the fine for?
The entire interpretation outlined above completely ignores the fact that the situation the law is aimed at—the situation in which the woman loses "her fruit" and "no mischief follows"—is considered a loss for the husband on the level of having one of his bulls killed.
Why in the world would the husband require compensation for the birth of a healthy, normal child, who ("no mischief follows") remains normal and healthy?
The obvious meaning, the one I began with, not only explains why there is a penalty (which is, after all, the point of the passage), but also makes perfect sense of the nature of the penalty. If the ancient Hebrews didn't think of the child as a person until after it was born (which, remember, fits with all the other themes I had already examined) then a penalty on the level of cow or a bull would make perfect sense.
But the convoluted anti-abortion re-interpretation above not only fails to make sense of the kind of penalty, but fails to explain why there should be one at all .
On one hand, you can interpret those verses as saying that if a man is presented with a healthy child who continues to thrive, he has suffered a harm on the level of losing an animal.
If you take that approach, you also have to believe that the passage has no concern at all over whether his wife has been hurt or even killed in the process.
On the other hand, you can interpret those verses as saying that if a man's wife miscarries he has suffered a harm, and deserves recompense.
In that case, the rest of the passage says that if anything happens to his wife the law of an eye for an eye applies, as we would expect.
The first interpretation makes absolutely no sense. Why would the birth of a healthy, thriving child be the occasion of a penalty and recompense?
The second interpretation not only fits with all the other themes in the Bible on this point, but also with modern practice even among most anti-abortionists.
Remember, most of them treat a miscarriage as a loss, but not on the same level as the death of a person. They do not hold a funeral. They do not give the miscarriage a name. And there is no evidence of that kind of behavior in the Bible, either. But they do consider it a loss.
The anti-abortion spin on this passage obviously makes no sense to anyone who isn't simply desperate to twist the plain meaning of the text.
So that's how I came to be pro-choice, while still an almost fanatically conservative Christian.
The Bible is no longer a magic book for me, and I have other reasons for being pro-choice now.
But I still find it interesting just why, and how, I came to the position based on the same beliefs that many anti-abortionists hold today.
That's also the reason that I believe most conservative Christian anti-abortionists still take that position primarily for political reasons, not reasons of faith. They have only consulted their Bibles after making up their minds, and the only thought they give to a passage like the one above is how to explain it away.
It's another example of what I've called "political rhetoric" elsewhere : language and reasoning designed to lead to a certain place, rather than to discover the truth.
And it's another example of why the political right repeatedly turns to the religious right for support.
At least, that's what I think today.