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Pagan and a Minister Agree on Abortion

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Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal minister and writer living in Durham, North Carolina, claims that the religious debate on the subject of abortion “is one best captured in shades of gray rather than . . . in black and white.”[1] Ehrich asks where God stands on the issue and then only quotes Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5. The Bible has a lot more to say on the subject. Gus diZerega, writing in his “Pagan’s Blog” (“Abortion is NOT Condemned by the Bible. Not even close”) on the BeliefNet Website, agrees that the Bible can’t be used to defend an anti-abortion position. Let’s take a closer look at whether preborn babies are treated different from babies already born since this is the crucial element in any debate about what the Bible says about abortion. Are they globs of tissue with only the potentiality of human life or are they described with terms that establish their personhood?

The Bible attributes self-consciousness to preborn babies. Jacob and Esau are said to have “struggled together within” their mother’s womb (Gen. 25:22). The New Testament offers a similar glimpse into prenatal self-consciousness: “And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). Again, this is more than a hiccup. The preborn John was responding to the news of Jesus’ birth.

While Mr. Ehrich did not use Exodus 21:22–25 to determine where God stands on the abortion issue, Mr. diZerega does. Let’s take a closer look at the passage by translating it literally:

If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that her children come out yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Mr. diZerega found a translation that reads this way: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage. . . .” This is a very poor translation. The verb yatza (“come or go out”) refers to a live birth, not a miscarriage (Gen. 25:25, 26; 38:28–30; Jer. 1:5; 20:18). “Harm” has reference to both the mother and the child since the Hebrew word yeled is used for children already born. The mother and the baby are given equal status before the law. The text does not say, “yet there is no further injury to the mother” (Ex. 21:22). “Further injury” refers to the mother and child. If it is first established that yeled means “child,” which it does, then the case laws referring to persons, whether children or adults, must be applied. If the harm does not lead to the death of either the mother or the child, then a fine is paid to compensate the injured, either mother or the children who “come out” prematurely (21:18–19). If either the mother or the child is harmed in any way, the lex talionis applies.[2] Meredith G. Kline offers a helpful summary of the passage:

This law found in Exodus 21:22–25 turns out to be perhaps the most decisive positive evidence in scripture that the fetus is to be regarded as a living person…. No matter whether one interprets the first or second penalty to have reference to a miscarriage, there is no difference in the treatments according to the fetus and the woman. Either way the fetus is regarded as a living person, so that to be criminally responsible for the destruction of the fetus is to forfeit one’s life…. The fetus, at any stage of development, is, in the eyes of this law, a living being, for life (nephesh) is attributed to it…. Consistently in the relevant data of Scripture a continuum of identity is evident between the fetus and the person subsequently born and Exodus 21:22–25 makes it clear that this prenatal human being is to be regarded as a separate and distinct human life.[3]

In biblical terms, abortion is not a debate “in shades of gray” since a preborn child is regarded as a human being that deserves the full protection of the law as summarized in the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.” There is no need for a commandment that states “You shall not abort,” since killing a preborn would be covered under “you shall not murder.” In fact, the text of Exodus 22 covers all cases since the word “children” and not the single “child” is used. This means that the law would cover someone like Kate of “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” who gave birth to sextuplets. A further point needs to be made. The abortion procedure is the willful destruction of a preborn baby. There is no premeditation in the Exodus 22 passage, and yet there are sanctions ranging from a fine to the death penalty.

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[1]Tom Ehrich, “Where is God stand on abortion?,” USA Today (August 14, 2006), 11A.
[2] Is this law nullified by Jesus in Matthew 5:38? A careful comparison of Matthew 5:38 and Exodus 21:22–25 will show that there is a distinction between personal retaliation and judicial decisions. Jesus was dealing with personal relationships. The Exodus passage tells us that the lex talionis only applies “as the judges decide” (Ex. 21:22). “If we assume that the woman is a mere bystander, and is only accidentally struck, then the penalty is strict indeed. Two men preparing to fight in the street would have to keep in mind that if they accidentally hurt a bystander, they will have to pay, even with the death penalty. This constitutes a very strong incentive to resort to arbitration rather than to violence.” (James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21–23 [Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985], 114).
[3] Meredith G. Kline, “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” The Simon Greenleaf Law Review, 5 (1985–1986), 75, 83, 88–89. This article originally appeared in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (September 1977).

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