Sunday, January 24, 2016

ET12: God values life in the womb, and we should preserve it.

This is the twelfth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
God values life in the womb, and we should preserve it.

1. The Bible does not specifically mention abortion, so we are once again forced to infer God's perspective. The word ratsach in the sixth commandment is only used explicitly in the Old Testament in relation to the murder or unintentional killing of another adult. Would an Israelite have assumed that the principle extended to a child? When did the Israelites understand a person to become a "living soul"?

We should first remind ourselves that the understanding of the Israelites themselves is not the end of the ethical story. The Old Testament is not yet as precise in its understanding of God and many things as the New Testament (e.g., the role of Christ, the resurrection, the source of evil and temptation). Indeed, even in the Old Testament we find some movement from less precise to more precise understandings (particularly when it comes to resurrection and the sources of evil). Add upon this dynamic the fact that God gave some rules to hedge in Israel from its neighbors and other laws that had much to do with the norms of the Ancient Near East.

So we cannot assume that the Law of Israel will apply directly or precisely to today without due consideration of the New Testament and the Old Testament context.

2. So let us address the search for evidence on when the Bible might consider a human being to come within the scope of moral obligation. Many Jews today would say it is when a child takes in breath, for God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (Gen. 2:7). Genesis marks the beginning of Adam's life to his first breath.

Then again, modern science has made it possible for us to save a child in the womb that is only six months into the pregnancy. Babies have survived at even earlier points in time. Modern science has both made it possible to save life and end life in ways that were unheard of in any other time in history. We have "day after pills" on the one hand, while children have been saved at less than 22 weeks on the other.

Modern science has made it possible for us to know the process of conception and birth in far more detail than any other time in history. In earlier generations, the male was thought to contribute all the meaningful material (the seed) and the woman was thought to be the incubator that "cooked" it. We now know that both the man and the woman contribute essential genetic material. The woman does not determine the gender by how well her body incubates, as earlier thought. The man's sperm determines the gender.

Under earlier understandings, birth control was sometimes seen as immoral, because it killed, as it were, the fully human seed. [1] Now we know that the genetic material is not fully combined until the sperm and the egg are combined. Apparently it is not until the fertilized egg has made two mitotic divisions that it has the unique genetic material of an individual human being. [2] This takes place several hours after sperm and egg initially join.

So when does a developing child come within the scope of moral responsibility? Perhaps another Jewish individual might argue that it is when the developing child has developed blood, since Leviticus 17:11 says that, "the life of the flesh is in the blood." From a modern perspective, which focuses on pain, someone might argue that it is when a developing child is first able to feel pain. Some have argued that a child can feel pain at 20 weeks. Others suggest it may not be until 29 or 30 weeks.

3. Ultimately, when a person or community believes that a developing individual comes within the scope of moral responsibility is a matter of theological belief. Should we take references to the soul in the New Testament literally or as a picture from the Greek background of the New Testament? If it is literal, when does a developing human being receive a soul?

Some Christians throughout the ages have been "traducian" since Tertullian first suggested this position around the year AD200. Traducianism holds that soul is passed along in the act of procreation. For Augustine, this idea helped explain the transmission of sin and was an argument in favor of the virgin birth. [3] We have questioned this notion of sin's transmission in earlier posts, both biblically and scientifically.

However, many other Christian thinkers are "creationist" on this topic. They believe that God uniquely creates each human soul for each person. In that sense, each individual soul in each individual human being comes directly from God.

The Bible is not clear on these issues of detail and so it is left to individuals and communities of faith to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. In general, it is best not to specify matters that are not clear, especially when we are not entirely certain that our own "scientific" view of the world will turn out to be timeless.

My own church has wisely not specified the details of the soul or its origins. It has only clarified the sense of moral obligation. My church believes that a child comes within the sphere of moral obligation at conception, wisely without specifying the scientific or theological details.

4. The Bible does not explicitly mention abortion, as we said. However, we can easily conclude that under normal circumstances, the idea of stopping a pregnancy would have been viewed as perverse and was probably quite rare. So many children died in childbirth anyway that the impetus was to have as many children as possible. An agricultural world needs as many workers as it can get.

Women who were barren suffered great shame, as we see in the cases of Sarah (Gen. 16:1-2) and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11). A wife who had many children was considered particularly blessed (e.g., Gen. 29:31-30:13). It is unthinkable that a woman would have tried to end a pregnancy under any normal circumstances. Even when Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus "out of wedlock," so to speak," there is no thought of trying to end the pregnancy on Joseph's part.

Both abortion and infanticide, the killing of infants, are explicitly prohibited in the Didache, a Christian writing from around the year AD100. "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born" (Didache 2.2). It is reasonable to assume that this teaching was in continuity with the earliest church. In fact this book claims to preserve the teaching of the disciples.

One passage of some interest is Exodus 21:22-25. There is considerable debate over what these verses meant, especially in relation to the expression, "she gives birth prematurely" (NIV) or "her children come out" (ESV). Given the state of medicine at the time, the traditional interpretation until recent times was that this statement referred to a miscarriage (e.g., RSV). [4]

Again, since we are dealing with an Old Testament civil law, we should not think that this issue stands or falls on these verses from a moment in Israel's history. Those who believe the passage refers to a miscarriage see the passage in relation to harm to the mother. "If no harm follows" thus refers to the wife, and the offender only pays a fine if she is okay. If further harm does follow to the woman, the offender must give eye for eye and tooth for tooth, even life for life if the woman dies.

However, the abortion debate of recent decades has led many to see in this verse a reference to the child. If harm follows to the child, then eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. If this is the proper interpretation, it would hold a very high standard indeed for life in the womb! Nevertheless, the Christian question of abortion does not rise or fall on the interpretation of this passage.

5. Other passages of interest have to do with God's calling on the lives of individuals even when they are in the womb. In Jeremiah 1:5, God tells Jeremiah that he had plans for him when he was still in his mother's womb. God similarly had plans for John the Baptist even before he was conceived (Luke 1:13), and he was filled with the Holy Spirit even while he was in the womb (Luke 1:15).

One psalmist speaks of how he was carefully made in his mother's womb (Ps. 139:13). God saw the psalmist's unformed body when he was still "in the depths of the earth" (139:15). "In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed" (139:16).

These passages certainly do not draw a line between individuals at the very earliest points of their existence and their later adult lives. They fit with the idea that God is concerned about us in the womb. God values life in the womb, and everything we know about the values of the biblical world suggest that it was and is important to preserve it as best we can. Modern medicine has made it possible to preserve it beyond the wildest dreams of anyone before very recent history, perhaps even before the sixth month.

Of course, God knows us before we are conceived too, and God has plans for some people well before they come into existence. These verses do not address the question of abortion directly. God allows some to die in the womb too. He does not plan for every unborn child to become a prophet or an apostle.

We must therefore acknowledge that to some extent we are connecting the theological dots and writing in between the biblical lines when we say that God wants us to preserve every life from the very moment of conception. This is my position, and this is the position of my church. In my opinion, the more that we are able to see how well formed children are at such an early point in pregnancy, the more difficult it becomes even for non-believers to stomach abortion even in the early stages of pregnancy.

6. There is the question of exceptions. What if the life of a mother is at stake? What if the pregnancy was the result of rape? God not only values the child in the womb. God also values the woman who bears the child.

These are very important questions and ones with which churches and individuals have to wrestle. Perhaps with regard to the life of a mother, we can re-frame the question. If it is probable that a mother will die if she continues her pregnancy, is it morally acceptable to induce labor or to remove the child? This sounds like a different question than the question of obliterating the child in the womb.

Put in this way, the question becomes similar to the question of choosing between two lives. It becomes a question of whether the baby can survive outside the womb, not a question of killing the child. It becomes a question of saving one life, and nature ending another because the other cannot survive on its own.

Even here, however, churches and individuals will have to wrestle with these questions. If the Bible does not directly address abortion itself, how much less does it directly address such difficult questions as these!

The question of rape is perhaps more difficult. Within several hours, a single fertilized egg begins to divide. In less than 24 hours, it will have a unique genetic composition. Within 3 to 4 days, it will become implanted in the uteran wall. What is the moment of moral responsibility and obligation?

Clearly the Bible does not directly address this question. Once again, we find ourselves having to deal with an issue over which we must work out our salvation together with prayer, fear, and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12). The Holy Spirit will show us the way.

7. What I believe is clear is that God values life in the womb, and that it is God's will for us to preserve it. The Christian bias is toward life and its salvation, its preservation. Many have testified to how glad they were later to have chosen life over death. For those who regret a past decision, our God is a God of forgiveness. And if God is for us, who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)?

Next week ET13: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

[1] I first learned this perspective from my colleague, Dr. David Ward.

[2] I first came across this information from a former colleague of mine, Dr. Burton Webb, who had a student make this argument.

[3] In that view, since the woman only "cooks" the child, only the man's seed would convey a sinful nature.

[4] This dynamic is especially seen in the New American Standard Bible. Up until 1995, Exodus 21:22 read "miscarriage." Since 1999, however, it has read "gives birth prematurely."


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for dealing with this important, and complex, issue.

You didn't mention infanticide. There are Old Testament passages that indicate that little children were not always to be specially protected, at least not in war (this is the public domain World English Bible):

Numbers 31:15 Moses said to them, . . . [about the Midianites] 17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.

Deuteronomy 2:32 Then Sihon came out against us . . . 34 We took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed every inhabited city, with the women and the little ones. We left no one remaining.

Psalm 137:8 Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
he will be happy who rewards you,
as you have served us.
9 Happy shall he be,
who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.

Isaiah 13:13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place in Yahweh of Armies’ wrath, and in the day of his fierce anger. . . . 16 Their infants also will be dashed in pieces before their eyes. Their houses will be ransacked, and their wives raped. 17 Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, who will not value silver, and as for gold, they will not delight in it. 18 Their bows will dash the young men in pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb. Their eyes will not spare children.

Jeremiah 20:14 Cursed is the day in which I was born.
Don’t let the day in which my mother bore me be blessed.
15 Cursed is the man who brought news to my father, saying,
“A boy is born to you,” making him very glad.
16 Let that man be as the cities which Yahweh overthrew,
and didn’t repent.
Let him hear a cry in the morning,
and shouting at noontime;
17a because he didn’t kill me from the womb;
and so my mother would have been my grave

Hosea 9:14 Give them—Yahweh what will you give?
Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.
15 “All their wickedness is in Gilgal;
for there I hated them.
Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house!
I will love them no more.
All their princes are rebels.
16 Ephraim is struck.
Their root has dried up.
They will bear no fruit.
Even though they give birth, yet I will kill the beloved ones of their womb.”

I'd be interested in your comments on these passages.


Martin LaBar said...

But the above passages aren't the whole story, by any means:

Amos 1:13 Yahweh says:
“For three transgressions of the children of Ammon, yes, for four,
I will not turn away its punishment;
because they have ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead,
that they may enlarge their border. ...”

Ken Schenck said...

Troublemaker! These are difficult passages for me and I think for any Christian who takes seriously the message of Jesus. I know only to put them into one of two categories. What is the category of the unclear. It goes without question that the message of Jesus trumps any murderous interpretayion of the Old Testament. To call them unclear is to say that I understand what Jesus was saying. I'm unclear what God was saying in these passages. The other option is to say that this is a point of development of understanding. The New Testament gives us a more precise understanding of God in such matters than the Old Testament did. There are other options, such as that of Adam Hamilton.

Martin LaBar said...


That's probably as, er, clear, as we can get on this matter.