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Pre-Born Babies: Persons or Property?

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Ed Buckner, the Southern director of the Council for Secular Humanism, writing in the Marietta Daily Journal, attempts to use the Bible to prove that a pre-born baby is not a human being.[1] This is a rather curious way for an atheist to argue his case. If he makes his point, he has to claim that the Bible is authoritative for his case to be valid. If the Bible is valid on the issue of personhood, then is it valid when it states without equivocation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1)? He can’t have it both ways. Why does he care what the Bible says about any issue since he doesn’t believe a word of it?

Bucker begins his line of argument by referencing Genesis 2:7 where he claims that this verse shows “life becomes human when we first breathe, not at conception.” If God had formed all of us from “the dust from the ground,” then Mr. Buckner would have a point. To say the least, the creation of Adam and Eve was unique. A baby growing in his mother’s womb is not made up of inanimate matter but living tissue no different from that of a ten-year-old who is still growing. And while preborn babies are not receiving oxygen through their lungs, they are nevertheless receiving a steady supply through the umbilical cord. If someone stops breathing after an electrical shock, do we assume the person is dead or alive? Should we take extraordinary means to resuscitate or assume that the body is now inanimate matter devoid of life?

The Bible also attributes self-consciousness to preborn babies, something that modern medicine has studied and acknowledged. Jacob and Esau are said to have “struggled together within” their mother (Gen. 25:22). The New Testament offers a similar glimpse into prenatal consciousness: “And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). The fact that babies that are born prematurely have the same signs of life as babies that went through nine full months of development in the womb is a sure indication that self-consciousness is a medical reality.

Mr. Buckner then moves to Exodus 21:22 where he states “that killing an unborn fetus is a property crime rather than murder.” This is absurd. His operating premise is that a preborn baby is not a person. The Bible teaches otherwise. The original Hebrew reads: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a pregnant woman so that her children [yeled] come out. . . .” Notice that the text uses the word “children,” not “products of conception.” The Hebrew word for “children” in this verse is used in other contexts to designate a child already born. For example, in Exodus 2:6 we read: “When Pharaoh’s daughter opened the basket], she saw the child [yeled], and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children [yeled].’” Since these are “children that come out,” in the case law of Exodus 21:22, they are considered to be persons not property. If there is no injury to these individuals—the mother and her prematurely delivered child or children—then there is no penalty. If there is injury, then the judges must decide on an appropriate penalty based on the extent of injury either to the mother and/or her children because both are persons in terms of biblical law.[2]

Some translations have “so that she has a miscarriage” when the text plainly should read “so that here children come out.” There are two Hebrew words that fit the circumstances of miscarriage or premature birth: “There shall be no one miscarrying [shakal] or barren in your land” (Ex. 23:26; also Hosea 9:14), and “Or like a miscarriage [nefel] which is discarded, I would not be” (Job 3:16).

Using Exodus 21:22 to establish non-personhood in a preborn is a weak reed indeed. The actions on the part of the woman and the two men are not premeditated. The woman had no intention of aborting her child. The two men were not in the abortion business. One could make the case that the untimely birth and subsequent “injury” or “harm” was accidental, even though the men should not have been fighting. 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]

Mr. Buckner’s winding road of illogic leads him to the wrong destination. In biblical terms, pre-born babies are always considered to be fully human and deserving of civil protection.

Endnotes:

[1] Ed Buckner, “Government neutrality on religion vital,” Marietta Daily Journal (June 12, 2005), 7B.
[2] For an extended discussion of the logic of Exodus 21:22, see Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1967), 275. Quoted in Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 144.
[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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