Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Biblical justification for abortion?

The always interesting Slate magazine has recently had a series of articles called "Blogging the Bible" in which David Plotz, by his own admission a not-very-observant Jew, reads through the Torah and writes his musings as he goes. He states frankly that he has never done this before, and his stated purpose also includes avoiding the use of commentaries to aid understanding. It's been fascinating to read the occasional post, and today I was revisiting some older posts in the series. I must have missed this one the first time. He says:
Reader Dan Gorin points out that my last entry missed the fascinating law that comes right before "eye for an eye" in Chapter 22. If a man pushes a pregnant woman and she miscarries, but is not otherwise hurt, then the offender pays only a fine to the victim's husband. This has interesting implications for how we think about abortion—in particular about the claim that killing a 17-week-old fetus is the same as killing a 17-year-old. According to Exodus, it's not. As Gorin writes: "The text seems to clearly state that the destruction of a fetus is not a capital offense. It is a property crime for which monetary compensation is paid."

This was an eye-opener for me. I have actually read through Exodus, but I didn't see this in this light when I went over it. As Mr.Plotzz mentions, if fundamentalist Christians are going to take the injunctions about homosexuality so literally, why not this verse too? Not being bound to the "no commentary" code of Mr. Plotz though, I looked at several versions, and found a confusing array of translations for that word "miscarry". First, the verse, in the American Standard translation, says:
Exodus 21:22
And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow; he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

It seems the Hebrew literally says "her children come out of her, but there be no harm done." It seems to me that this means a premature birth occasioned by the trauma previously described, which results in no harm to either mother or child. This is the opinion of the commentaries I can find, but it seems some very smart people have thought the harm mentioned applies to only the mother. The earliest reference to this I can find is in the Vulgate, so maybe Jerome is at fault. He's caused confusion enough other places, I guess.

I wonder though, given the apparently contentious nature of the passage, that a bigger deal isn't made out of it, especially with the pro-abortion side of the debate trying harder to be more religious lately.

Next intruiging point here, is that the very next verse says:

"But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

So this is important enough that God decides here to give the famous "eye for an eye" pronouncement. If the harm referred to is intended to be harm to the child or to the woman, then obviously it is taken very seriously. I'm getting the feeling that the preponderance of translators, and certainly those not influenced by Jerome, have concluded that the "harm" means harm to the woman or the child, and that the context implies merely a premature birth. This probably makes sense, when considered as a whole, but looking back a few verses to Ex 21:20 we read that if a servant is struck by his master with a rod and died, the master will be punished. Not executed, punished. So apparently, in the Hebraic law, there is a gradation of worth in lives.

What is to made of these considered together? Should we conclude that abortion is not murder? Is it merely a finable offense? Am I making a mistake in expostion here?

This is not an easy thing for me to write, because I don't have an answer that completely satisfies me and I wonder about the conclusion. Joel, if you read this, I'd be especially interested to hear your rather more educated opinion on the subject.


Ryann said...

I don't know that it's necessarily a Biblical justification for abortion, but it is problematic to consider different lives have different values (not just with the woman's unborn child, but with the slave-master situation you cited as well).
NIV does translate it as 'gives birth prematurely,' but then in the footnotes uses 'miscarriage.' I'd like to know what the original Hebrew said.
The commentary I checked (which was not very good) focused on a big-picuture look at the Law versus common practices in the Ancient Near East. In essence, they said that this Law placed far more emphasis on the sanctity of human life than surrounding ANE laws. The majority of the ANE just practiced compensation for any physical harm (accidental death, murder, etc.) And the fact that the Jewish Law even suggested an 'eye-for-an-eye' was a huge improvement.
Like I said, I still find it problematic and was not satisfied with the commentators' I read. I'm eager to see what the rest of your readers think.

Thainamu said...

Interesting post. I haven't thought very long about it, but my first thought was about intent. The harm described in Exodus 22 is incidental, not intentional, both to the baby and even to the woman. The situation describes two men having a fight and the woman more or less gets in the way.

Another point to remember is that in this culture, women and children were possessions--very important and valuable--but still possessions.

Nathan said...

Though I don't have any new thoughts based on your comments as yet, I wanted to respond to something Thainamu said. Women were not possessions, in the sense that cattle or tents were. I'll freely grant that it was a patriarchal society, but if you look at Numbers 27, you'll find that not only are women not property themselves, they have the right to inherit land. And the promised land is a huge deal. This right is later restricted to add the caveat that they only keep the land if they marry within the tribe, but that actually makes sense, in a big picture way. Otherwise the tribes would be courting women from other tribes solely in a ploy to take over their land.

Also, for all the "if you kill a servant, you pay a fine" type statements, there is no "if you kill a woman, you pay a fine." The value gradations seem to be made on the basis of class.

All of that to say I think the blanket statement "women were property" is not well supported biblically.

zhoen said...

I think basing our moral judgements on the customs of a nomadic, tribal culture, that treated women and children as chattle, no matter how clearly written down, is perhaps less than wise.

Nathan said...

zhoen - as I attempted to say in reponse to Thainamu's comment, I think the assertion that women and children were considered chattel is poorly supported from the sources available.

The rest of your comment gets to the heart of the matter though. The disagreement over the Bible and Judeo-Christian morality in general hinges on this point (which is, as my most recent post demonstrates, rather outside the scope I initially set for this blog): If the accounts in Exodus are merely accounts of a tribal nomadic people thousands of years ago, what bearing do they have on us today?

There is of course a wide variety of answers to the question, pivoting on the degree to which the answerer subcribes to the position that the accounts are in fact, true accounts of God's revealing himself to mankind.

I would agree that arbitrarily basing our moral judgements on those of people as people thousands of years ago would be less than wise. Basing our moral judgments on universal truth as revealed to us by God would, on the other hand, be the only path to wisdom.

So the issue is, is this exemplary of univeral truth, and if so, how so?