Monday, October 20, 2008


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       The Bible says nothing specific about abortion, the “sanctity” of human life, or when life begins. The Ten Commandments does say “you shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17), which Bible scholars interpret as “you shall not kill unjustifiably.” Exceptions to this command are: to punish a murderer, participation in holy war or general war, and self-defense. Thus killing is permitted if the community finds it “justifiable.” With respect to the “sanctity” of human life, the situation depicted in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is surprising. God authorizes the killing of Job’s entire family to satisfy a back room bargain with Satan (Job 1:12). God himself kills the two brothers Er and Onan for different reasons (Genesis 38:7-10). God was responsible for the deaths of Moses’ opposition, Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their entire households (Numbers 16:1-35). The prophet Samuel told Saul that God had authorized the slaughter of the entire nation of the Amalekites—including even infants and nursing babies (1 Sam 15:2-3). The prophet Elijah slaughtered 400 prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel (1 Kings 18:40-41). So much for the Bible’s position on the sanctity of life!

       Anti-Abortionists cite certain texts from the Bible to argue against abortion, but none are specifically on the topic of abortion. For example, they make inferences from texts tangentially related to the issue and argue that the Bible’s use of the term child, son, or daughter for an unborn fetus means that the fetus has the same standing as a child living independently of the mother’s womb. A text that says the opposite, however, regards harm to a living person as greater than harm to a fetus. In Exodus 21:22-25 a pregnant woman is caused to miscarry. The man causing the miscarriage must pay a fine, but if the woman subsequently dies the killer must pay “life for life” (Exodus 21:23). A fine is paid for the death of the miscarried fetus to compensate the father for the potential economic worth of the child, but the mother’s death requires the killer’s death! Another argument asserts that when God is described as “knowing an individual before birth” it means that the Bible regards the fetus as a person. Such language, however, is a poetic way of affirming the omniscience of God. For example, Jeremiah 1:4-5 asserts that God knew Jeremiah’s future before he was in the womb. The writer could equally well have said God knew me “when I was but a gleam in my father’s eye,” as is suggested by the Psalmist’s statement “The Lord knows the thoughts of man” (94:11; see also 1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 44:21). Prohibitions against committing murder exist in the New Testament (Matt 19:18; 1 Pet 4:15; Rev 21:8, 22:15), and one text even asserts that murderers are denied eternal life (1 John 3:15), but nothing on abortion or describing abortionists as murderers.

       On the other hand, the Didache, an early non-biblical Christian writing dating anywhere from 50 to 150 C. E., reads “you shall not kill a child by abortion/miscarriage; you shall not kill an infant” (2:2). The same writer also argues for a clearly immoral idea: “slaves be subject to your master, as to God’s representative, in reverence and fear” (4:11). The trick in using an ancient text to support modern ethical arguments is to quote briefly and hope no one will discover how generally inappropriate the text is for a modern situation.

       In our world moral decisions are often complex—not clearly black and white, but a murky shade of gray. Actions often seeming immoral may still be the “better” choice. For example, a German Lutheran minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Although he believed murder was immoral, the horrible situation in Germany under the Nazi regime overrode his commitment to pacifism and non violence, and brought him finally to the murder plot. He reasoned that the guilt accruing to him for murder would be less than his guilt for doing nothing. As he saw it, he had to choose between the “better” of two evils. It wasn’t the right choice, but it wasn’t the wrong choice either. Decisions about unplanned pregnancies are not infrequently like Bonhoeffer’s choice, a very dirty shade of gray—however much anti-abortionists try to convince us that the choice is always black and white. For people of conscience, however, legal actions are not always moral, nor are illegal actions always immoral. It depends on the situation.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 3:06pm

The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973 has been proven to be the major deterrent to juvenile crime in the 1990s!

This headline may be startling to some, but if you had read the NY Times bestseller, Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt, Ph.D., and Stephen J. Dubner, you discovered that Prof. Levitt has made a fully defensible claim. This professor of economics at the University of Chicago has carefully examined every possible explanation for the significant and measureable drop in juvenile crime in the 1990s, e.g., increased police force, better economy, advanced police technology, aging criminal population, and has demonstrated, in his book and several academic journals cited therein, that all of these explanations fail to satisfactorily account for this significant drop in juvenile crime in the 1990s. What was the most plausible explanation? According to Prof. Levitt, Roe v. Wade (1973) fully accounts for all of the available data! Please stay with me.

Prof. Levitt asks: what is the typical profile of clients who most benefit from federally-funded abortion? The profile generated from the available statistics was a poor, single, teenage, minority woman. And if federally-funded abortion was not available to this typical client and it became necessary for her to birth the child, how might this child be treated? With few exceptions (e.g., adoption, family help), the child would most likely be poor, unsupported, neglected, ignored, unwanted, unloved, despised, and possibly abused. Even if the child was loved, a combination of neglect (busy, single mother), poverty, too much idle time alone, lack of adult supervision, etc., would probably fill in the equation. Yes, there can be exceptions, but they are few. As a result, it is this typical client (profiled above) who makes the most significant contribution to the high statistical number of juvenile delinquents. Children from this type run the highest risk of becoming juvenile delinquents when they reach their teens!

Space does not allow me to present the detailed, step-by-step analysis, with careful statistical support, that Prof. Levitt has spent the last ten years investigating on this issue. I do want to raise the point, raised in Prof. Hedrick's article (20 Oct 08): "what is a 'morally questionable action" has been proven to be a real benefit to the community? What do we do about that? We all want to reduce crime in our community, and yet some of his feel that Roe v. Wade is morally objectionable, Can we really have both? Can we really have low crime in an "abortion-free" land?

My story: I was a pastor in Springfield for six years. On one occasion, a young, single woman who was pregnant sought my advice about what to do. I approached the topic humbly and prayerfully. I listened carefully to her unfortunate story. I empathized with her and asked about her family, friends, and others who might be of help to her. She wasn't sure who could help her. I prayed with her and gave her the name of a professional counselor that I knew who specialized in women's issues, the address and phone of both a Christian support center for single expectant mothers (which I visited) and the planned parenthood clinic in town. I carefully and prayerfully encouraged the young woman to keep the baby (perhaps with the help of the support center), but I was so relieved (thankful) to have the planned parenthood clinic not far away! Was this a feeling of gratitude for something that is "morally wrong"? Some may think so. I, however, happen to be one of those "people of conscience" who have learned much from prayer, Bible Study, Christian fellowship, reading about such great Christian giants as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as I seek to make some sense of the complex issues like abortion, war, greed, racism, not only for myself, but for others as I live for God and his kingdom!

“All who call on God in true faith, earnestly from the heart, will certainly be heard, and will receive what they have asked and desired, although not in the hour or in the measure, or the very thing which they ask. Yet they will obtain something greater and more glorious than they had dared to ask.” Martin Luther.

Charles Puskas, Ph.D.
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Posted by Charles Puskas on 12/16/2008 at 9:29pm

Charlie: Thanks for initiating a stimulating discussion.

I suggest that the passages you mention in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament should be seen in the context of a theology that places life at the center. In Genesis, starting with the creation account, God is shown creating the heavens and the earth for the purpose of bringing life into existence, culminating in human life. And that account concludes by underlining the specialness of animate life when it states that vegetation (not the flesh of animals) is given for food, for both humans and animals (1.1-30). Later, that is modified, and humans are given permission to eat other animals. But even then, they are forbidden to eat the blood, because that is what carries life (Genesis 9.3-4). At the same time they are told not to kill other humans (on pain of death—Genesis 9.5-6), except to punish a killer. And in Exodus, the Hebrews are told that the ancient practice of sacrificing every first-born should no longer be followed in the case of their children—they must be redeemed, presumably by the substitution of a sheep (Exodus 13.11-16; 34.19-20; see also Genesis 22.1-19). Does this add up to “the sanctity of life”? I’m not sure about the language. But it does say that life is very important to God, in the view of the writers/editors of the Genesis and Exodus, and that God’s concern about life extends to newborn children.

But what about before birth? There, the account you mention from Exodus, about the woman who miscarries because of an inadvertent injury by another person, helps (21.22). The death of the fetus is not treated like a crime against God. The fetus is treated as something that is potential life, but not full life. It could have become a child, but was not allowed to. And the penalty, therefore, is not a divinely prescribed one for the death of a person, but monetary—presumably because fetal death deprives the family of a future child (whether the economic value of the child was the issue, as Victor Matthews argues, is not clear from the text). This suggests that it is only when a fetus emerges fully formed from the womb that it would be considered a human being and therefore a person, whose killing could be thought of as murder or manslaughter (since it was done accidentally, as in the Exodus case —see Exodus 21.13).

But the Exodus example doesn’t say anything about intentional abortion, any more than the rest of the Bible does. The central importance of life would seem to stand in the way of casual or unconsidered abortion. But beyond that is the large gray area you mention where there are competing life issues to be wrestled with, as when a woman’s life is in danger from a continued pregnancy.

Doug Parrott, Professor Emeriitus,
Department of Religious Studies
University of California, Riverside
Posted by Douglas Parrott on 11/12/2008 at 4:34pm

Jim Burns asked a question about the discretionary role of the judge to impose a fine or the death penalty. In ancient Israelite village culture (the basis for the law in Exodus 21:22-25), there was always a labor shortage. Everyone who was capable of working in the fields or at other tasks had to do so from dawn to dusk. As a result, the potential to the labor force is diminished when a woman is caused to miscarry and thus the economic value of the fetus is recouped through a fine. If the woman subsequently dies, there is a double loss – her own labor plus the potential labor of all other children she might have borne. Thus, in the interests of the community a decision would have to be made by the elders (= judges) on whether the man responsible was a potential danger or whether this incident had been an accident resulting in a death. In any case, the principle of “life for a life” relates to economic potential and has a real world impact on the village and its potential for viability. The man’s labor may therefore outweigh the loss of the woman and therefore he would have to make restitution, not with his own life but with a fine (presumably much larger than for the loss of the fetus). There is in fact a long history of this liability law in ancient Near Eastern law codes, all of which recognize that it is usually better to allow the man responsible for the death to live and which impose a heavy fine to compensate for the death of the woman.
Dr. Victor H. Matthews
Missouri State University
Posted by Victor Matthews on 11/7/2008 at 10:20am

I enjoyed your well written article regarding abortion. One question i have however. Exodus 21-22 states he shall pay as the judge determines. The judge could determine death, how did you interpret that passage to mean payment of a fine.
Posted by Jim Burns on 11/6/008 at 8:47am
Hi Jim, We communicated offline and here I am responding on line for other readers. I suppose the “judges” could have decided on a heavier penalty (fine), but I doubt it since the purpose of the judges seems to be to put a limitation on measureless vengeance, which could be the case if the judges were not consulted. What is operating through this section is the lex talionis (the law of an eye for an eye, etc., or in other words “tit for tat,” Lev 24:20). What surprises me is that in this case the text says that the injurer will pay whatever the husband demands and then adds “judges” to insure the requirements of the lex talionis, which seems to be operating throughout Exod 21:22-25. Perhaps some Hebrew Bible specialist among readers can enlighten us about the “judges,” since this is the only time in the chapter that they appear.

Posted by Charlie Hedrick on 11/7/2008 at 9:59am

Hi Dr. H, I'm not even tempted anymore to use the Bible to prove what is right and wrong. I agree that the texts do not address the topic of abortion. If they did, I would take them into consideration, but the final divining rod is inside me. I notice that my face changes expression when I am asked to think about abortion. I get a sad, sorry face. It doesn't seem like it matters that we nail down exactly when life begins in order to decide if we are killing a child or not. When you know that the fetus is in the process of becoming a person, you end that hope (or, in some cases, that curse) with an abortion. Something dies, for better or worse.

Here's a sideways pass, though, from my husband's musings: What if you and I and the rest of the inhabitants of this planet are characters in an amazing computer game? We are actually other worldly beings who can buy a ticket to experience an actual earthly life. Our memories of our other worldly selves are temporarily scrubbed, sort of like Men In Black, and we get a turn to live a human life on the Third Rock. Talk about entertainment! This life is a crap shoot, as we are well aware, with the rain falling on the just and unjust; but when you die, whether sooner or later, you can get in line to to reenter the game as a new character. We'd take death much less seriously. A woman opting out of an unwanted, risky pregnancy would simply eliminate herself as an option for a new player's trajectory into the game of Life. The waiting player would take a turn elsewhere with a different life and, instead of getting the difficult life of a child with self-injurious autism, he might get a more fulfilling life as a happy 4-H winner. The woman who has the abortion is wise, possibly a hero. And, wouldn't it be nice if, in the game of Life, we could just bail out at the point at which it wasn't fun anymore, to return to a fresh screen with a new life and a chance for greater success another day?

It was good to visit with you at the Westar Conference. Thanks for mentioning your website. Now that I've found it, I'll be visiting often! Love, Holly (Jackson) Thompson
Posted by Holly Thompson on 10/24/2008 at 2:07am

I'm sorry Charlie, but I am going to have to strongly agree with Grace Menhel. Even though we don't always understand why something happens even in the Bible, God does. I guess that's where faith comes in.. I am not even slightly persuaded on this subject.

God Bless,
Lee Cosentino
Posted by Lee Cosentino on 10/22/2008 at 7:03pm

Charlie, Charlie! I wrestle with murder (as you mentioned throughout the Bible) so I have to fall back on "His ways and His thoughts higher than our ways and thoughts" and try to accept the "scholarly" explanation but it really does not satisfy me. Never wrestled with this one, though--"as for me," not judging others who have been there and done that-- as (I really get huffy with some men who seem to know so much on this topic--how could they, compared to a woman who has carried a child under her heart? After the "overshadowing" I think they need to keep quiet, if they are "agin" it!, though I'm agin it too.)

I guess opinions will go on and covered all my arguments, and I am not even "almost persuaded." Sometimes "sanctity of life" just means don't fritter it away, as well as not destroying a living child, doesn't it? But I would have a hard time killing anything, except the occasional fly or mosquito!

Love you,
I thought you might have mentioned Ben you think God could take care of that one for us? If your other commentors beat me up too bad, I will no longer participate...under my real name! I'm thinking of a good code word! Maybe "Hardheaded Hannah"?

Posted by Grace Menhel on 10/20/2008 at 10:09pm