Abortion: Efficacy of Criminalization, Biblical Position on the Fetus

There are a few good studies that may help us figure out what to do about abortion. In a recent study, researchers at the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization found that making abortion legal neither increases nor decreases abortion rates.

In another study, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine found that making birth control widely available did reduce the abortion rate by 62–78%.

The aforementioned Guttmacher/WHO study echoed those findings.

In a 2006 study, WHO researchers estimated the number of maternal deaths worldwide from women obtaining illegal abortions to be 68,000. Millions more women, they say, have complications, many for the rest of their lives.

To me, these studies are sufficient to direct us in forming reproduction-related policy. However, I recognize that a lot of people are uncomfortable with abortion based on religious beliefs. The contention of people basing their opinion of abortion on the Bible seems generally to be that a fertilized egg has the same status as a person. If a zygote is a person, then the commandment to not kill must surely apply.

The closest thing in the Bible that I can find related to abortion is a passage from Exodus 21, verses 22-25. Here is the direct quote from Jehovah from the New Jerusalem Bible used on Catholic.org:

If people, when brawling, hurt a pregnant woman and she suffers a miscarriage but no further harm is done, the person responsible will pay compensation as fixed by the woman’s master, paying as much as the judges decide. If further harm is done, however, you will award life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stroke for stroke.

No indication here is given of the stage of development. The fetus could have been 8 weeks along or 8 months along. To reiterate: if the fetus is killed, Jehovah demands a fine; if the mother is killed, Jehovah demands “life for life” or “wound for wound.” Jehovah clearly does not view a fetus at any stage of development as equal to a person.

The Exodus passage will probably seem familiar if you’ve ever looked at the Code of Hammurabi (the oldest known code of laws after the Code of Ur-Nammu): “If a man strike a free-born woman so that she lose her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss. If the woman die, his daughter shall be put to death.”

4 thoughts on “Abortion: Efficacy of Criminalization, Biblical Position on the Fetus”

  1. The NIV translation is interesting:

    “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely* but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.”

    *Or she has a miscarriage

    It seems that if this refers to a live, unharmed, prematurely-delivered fetus, the passage might have the opposite interpretation.

    1. Yeah, there’s a fascinating study of this here.

      The scholar found a majority of texts translating the Hebrew word “yatsa” as “miscarriage.” I did a study of my own and found that a majority of translations do not take a position.

      Du Preez ends up making a strong case that the baby is born alive, but there’s one thing he fails to consider: premature birth survival rates of the time period. What are the chances today, if a woman gives birth prematurely after enduring some trauma, that her baby will survive? I don’t think we have a lot of good data on this. What I find it very easy to imagine, though, is that, in roughly 1500-1400 BCE, a fetus exiting the womb prematurely would almost certainly not have survived. And that’s granting that the fetus was about 30 weeks along. The fewer the weeks of gestation, the less chance of survival.

      Given the high likelihood that the fetus could not survive outside of the womb roughly 3,400 to 3,500 years ago over most of the gestation period, I find it very difficult to argue in favor of du Preez’s conclusion.

  2. If you need to go from Bible to Bible to find what you’re looking for, chances are, you just need to use your own brain and interpret the passage the way you want, because it has already been interpreted many different ways already, over hundreds of years, by people with alternate agendas and alt-facts.

    1. Yeah, I mostly agree. It still may be worthwhile to consult Bible scholars as a lot of the time they’re fluent in relevant languages and relevant history of the time periods.

      I could see that interpreting however one wants might be disastrous, though. Consider Hosea 13:16: “The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” If a faithful person reads this and decides that this applies to modern Samaria, they might travel to the West Bank and start violently murdering people there.

      I’m surprised, though, by the number of translations of the Exodus passage that don’t support an anti-abortion position. In fact, I only found one translation that explicitly says that the fetus is born alive. Which clearly isn’t explicit in the Hebrew. “Yatsa,” (or “yts” — as you may know, Biblical Hebrew wasn’t written with vowels) almost always means “comes out” or something similarly neutral.

      One might argue that a passage such as “be fruitful and multiply” functions as a proscription against abortion. I’m inclined to think that, contextually, it doesn’t have this function. “Be fruitful and multiply” is also said directly by Jehovah, but it’s being said specifically to Adam and Eve on an earth devoid of any other human life. It’s not at all clear that this is meant to apply to all future humans. And, if one does take it to apply to all other subsequent humans, it’s not clear that this should automatically mean, “and never stop multiplying, even after natural resources are critically strained.”

      One might say the same of the Exodus passage, but that passage at least was meant to apply to all Israelites.

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