With the evangelicals raging about family planning money in the federal budget, and the—God willing—imminent appointment of new, pro-choice justices to the Supreme Court, it seems even Hope and Change can’t save us from the Christian Right’s deep and abiding and vocal need to protect unborn Americans.
But let’s get one thing straight, my Jesus-loving brothers and sisters: I’m sick of you waving the Bible in my face to justify that deep and abiding and increasingly shrill ideology. Because it’s bullshit. The Bible does not condemn abortion. It doesn’t. Period. It condemns a lot of stuff, like eating pork, and painting pictures, and having sex with animals, but it does not say anywhere that abortion is murder or that unborn babies are people or that life begins at conception. In fact, it says the opposite.
The Old Testament is explicit that personhood was not granted at conception. In fact, while a child was considered a living being when it drew its first breath—mirroring Adam, who with his fully formed body was not alive until God gave him breath—a baby wasn’t considered a full member of the community until some time after its birth; in Numbers 3:15, when Israelites were commanded to take a census, they were instructed not to count any babies under one month of age, much less babies still in the womb. In an era when many women and their babies died in childbirth, and when 50% of babies did not live until their first birthday, it would have seemed ridiculous to give an unborn child the same legal status as an adult.
The anti-abortion movement—spearheaded, of course, by the same Christians who would have you believe every word of the Bible is law—go to great lengths to ignore the one specific law concerning the death of fetuses. In the section of Exodus that sets out legal codes regarding injury, death and slavery, we find the following:
“And if men struggle and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall 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.”
This is a telling passage. The law commands that if a woman is accidentally injured and miscarries, the responsible party will pay a fine to her husband. But killing a woman’s fetus is not a serious enough crime to require capital punishment. Only if the woman herself dies does the “eye for eye” law apply. The aborted fetus is treated as a property concern, not a murder. It is not considered a person, therefore its death does not need to be avenged.
While the morality quandaries of abortion have been debated since Biblical times, it’s notable that in the vast body of Jewish ethics and legal teachings, abortion is never regarded as murder. This is because Jewish sages and scholars–who were analyzing these passages for thousands of years before Jesus–have always stuck to a close legal reading of the laws regarding murder and injury, and those laws do not give the fetus—a non-person—the protection of the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s supremely ironic that the Christian right, for whom the Bible is the literal word of God, choose to ignore the Old Testament’s very specific instructions regarding the penalties for killing unborn children. Instead they’d rather focus on the passages that support their agenda, like the oft-quoted Leviticus 18:22, which describes homosexuality as an abomination. But if we godly citizens are to take Bible literally on the matter of homosexuality, shouldn’t we then, logically, take just as seriously its legal precedents on abortion? After all, those two issues are practically the only ones the right wing seems to be able to get it up for these days.
Bear in mind, though, that the fact that abortion was not explicitly condemned had nothing to do with women’s rights. Most of the legal code set out in Exodus and Leviticus upholds property rights, including the laws involving women and sex; the Biblical bans on adultery, incest and rape forbid taking what is legally another man’s, not violating a woman’s rights or dignity. These legal codes are so out of step with modern culture that these days even devoutly religious Jews and Christians disregard the vast majority of them—from the blatantly misogynist laws to the oddball instructions about shunning shellfish or people with skin disease. So why has the Christian right become so stuck on certain Old Testament dictates while ignoring others? Is it simply hypocrisy, or is it that we define as “God’s word” only that which suits our cultural norms or ideological needs and sweep the rest under the carpet? As Shakespeare observed: “[Even] the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”