Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 11, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

ABORTION AND THE BIBLE....This is a little off the beaten track, but it's something I've been curious about for a while and it popped into my brain again while browsing through James Dobson's, um, nonpartisan message to the troops prior to election day. Here's what the message says about abortion:

The Bible views the unborn child as a human person who should be protected, since David said to God, "You knitted me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13; see also Psalm 51:5; 139:13; Luke 1:44), and strong penalties were imposed for endangering or harming the life of an unborn child (Exod. 21:22-23).

As it happens, the passages in Psalms and Luke have nothing to do with abortion, suggesting only that babies are formed in the womb (an uncontroversial statement) and that they are born in sin. But the Exodus passage does, and it's the one on which abortion opponents have long hung their hats. But years ago, when I went off to read it, here's what I found:

When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, etc.

Before anyone says it: yes, I know that arguing scripture with these folks is a mug's game. But still, this passage is pretty unambiguous, isn't it? If you kill an adult woman, that's murder and is punishable by death. But if you kill an unborn child, it's a far less serious crime and calls only for a fine. (And even the fine is optional if the family doesn't want to press the issue.)

So how do fundamentalists get away with quoting this as evidence that abortion is murder? It's literally the only passage in the Bible directly related to the death of an unborn child, and it very clearly states that it's not murder and shouldn't be treated like murder. In fact, if the family has no objection (and they wouldn't in the case of a voluntary abortion), then it calls for no punishment at all.

What theological mysteries am I missing here?

UPDATE: Via comments and email, it appears that the primary issue here is one of translation. I was quoting from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, since that's what I had at hand, but I gather that fundamentalists argue that the Hebrew word "yatsa" means premature birth, not miscarriage. Thus, if the baby is born prematurely but otherwise in good health, you get fined. If the baby is hurt, it's a life for a life.

For a variety of reasons this strikes me as an extremely strained interpretation, but apparently the original writers of Exodus were sloppy enough in defining their antecedents to open up a bit of daylight for abortion foes. And they ran with it.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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