Saturday, November 28, 2009

Part One: Is The Bible Pro-Life?

I really hesitated to write this blog because the pro-life/pro-choice issue is so controversial and I did not want to offend anyone or invite the inevitable backlash that would result. I knew I would be shunned by many Christians including most Catholics and fundamentalists. I would be called a “baby killer” for failing to uphold the dogma. Years ago I felt called to write a book about the issue but kept putting it off due to lack of time as well as, simply not wanting to deal with it. And yet, over the years their faces have kept haunting me: The 11-year-old rape victim in Ireland who was forced to carry the pregnancy to term in a mental institution; the women in Bosnian prison camps, bearing forced pregnancies from ongoing rapes they endured while starving in filthy conditions; the little girls in Africa who suffered crippling injuries resulting in ostracism or death from giving birth too young. I knew I would eventually have to speak up for them, but I did not want to face the criticism. More recently, I read about the 9-year-old Brazilian girl who since age 6 was raped by her step-father and finally became pregnant with twins, and her mother and doctors were excommunicated from the Catholic Church for providing the abortion which saved her life, while the step-father was not excommunicated because according to the Church, “rape is a less serious sin than abortion.”

At this point I feel I can stay silent no longer. As a Christian and a woman I must speak up. Doing so will make me unpopular and will probably result in my being attacked by people who would otherwise claim to be my brothers and sisters in Christ, but I have to speak up because it is the right thing to do and I can’t avoid it any longer.

Initially, I had no strong position on the abortion issue either way. Long ago in my wild youth, prior to being called as a Sister, I was actually a pacifist and a strict vegetarian and was generally not in favor of killing animals, fetuses, soldiers in foreign countries or anybody else. Because I was very fortunate to have access to good medical care including contraception, thank God, I never found myself in the position of being unwillingly pregnant. I naively assumed that abortion was probably rare due to the wonderful invention of the Pill - not realizing that many women could not even afford the medication. Later, after I was called to become a Sister, I figured as a celibate person it was none of my business, and I was in no position to be telling people whether or not they should be having babies.

But the issue came up one day in the early 1990s when I was hanging out with some of my women friends from a relatively fundie church – well, “fundie” by California standards, that is. They allowed the men to wear long hair and earrings, they tolerated Christian metal music, etc., but pretty much toed the fundamentalist line on many issues. The women were very excited about a church charity project where prisoners who had become pregnant while in the horrible rape camps in Bosnia would be brought to the U.S. and given housing and medical care “as long as they agree to have their babies.” I asked, “But what about the women who don’t want to carry the pregnancies to term? I mean, after all, look what they’ve been through!” My friends replied: “It’s not the babies’ fault that the women were raped.” I was like, “Whoa, I knew you guys were against abortion, but I assumed you would allow it in extreme cases like this.” “No,” they replied. I asked, “What if it was a child, like that little 11-year-old girl in Ireland who was gang raped, and her parents requested for her to get an abortion and when the government said no, she tried to commit suicide and she ended up being locked in a mental institution until she gave birth?” They replied, “Makes no difference. Her baby had a right to live.” I said, “Now wait a minute, seriously: What if it was your 11-year-old daughter in that situation? What would you do?!” The leader of the women’s group, a devout, sincere Christian lady, replied calmly: “I would tell her that even though what that man did to her was very wrong, that God is giving her the privilege of bringing a baby into the world.” I was frankly shocked and horrified, not only that this nice Christian woman would do such a thing to her own daughter, but also, that she would say it was “God’s will”! One of the other women added, “After all, God is pro-life. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The Bible is clearly against abortion. God values every human life from the moment of conception.”

Many Christians continue to tell me the same thing. They sincerely believe that the Bible says this, but does it?? As someone who attended religious private schools in my youth where I was forced to memorize lengthy portions of scripture, and now as an adult and a minister willingly studying the Bible in some depth on my own, I could not recall anything about abortion. I have subsequently looked into this issue in great detail, read and studied and prayed, and I have to be honest with you: As far as I can determine, the Bible does not condemn abortion. In fact, most of the very few biblical references regarding the killing of the unborn, are those in which it is permitted if not encouraged. There was a “trial” for a woman accused or suspected of adultery; she was given a potion and if she was “guilty” and pregnant, the trial resulted in an abortion. Numbers 5:17-31 “…and the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water… and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water… And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.” In a case of proven adultery, the death penalty is decreed. Deuteronomy 22:22 “If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die…” But what if conception occurred during that adultery? The embryo would be killed along with the woman. And God specifically punished David for his adultery with Bathsheba by killing the innocent baby that was conceived. II Samuel 12:14 “Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.”

There are many verses in the Bible where God’s judgment against Israel’s enemies including Samaria, the Midianites, Amorites, Amalekites and others specifically instructs the killing of everyone, including children and pregnant women: Hosea 13:15-16 “…their little ones will be dashed to the ground; their pregnant women ripped open.” Numbers 31:17-18 “Now, kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man...” Deuteronomy 2:34 “And we captured all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed every city, men, women, and children; we left none remaining…” 1 Sam. 15:3 “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling...” Ezekiel 9:6 “Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women…”

These verses demonstrate, if nothing else, that the Bible is certainly not “pro-life,” since God in the Old Testament permits or even encourages the killing of people, including innocent children, under some circumstances. I know this is shocking and disturbing, but I am not making it up; read it for yourself. Of course, we have in the Ten Commandments “Thou shalt not kill.” But again, clearly this is not an absolute prohibition since as pointed out above, there are many instances in the Bible in which God orders the killing of human beings. War is the most obvious example. In addition, the death penalty is prescribed for a variety of sins including being a rebellious child, or committing adultery, or even having relations with one’s own wife during her menstrual period – or for being a false prophet, i.e. falsely claiming to speak on God’s behalf. “God hates abortion.”?

The Bible goes into great detail discussing various circumstances of killing and of whom, when it is permitted and when it is not, and the various penalties, e.g. murder, manslaughter, self-defense, etc., but never once mentions abortion. The one and only instance in the Bible where the killing of a fetus is specifically addressed is in Exodus 21:22-24: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life…” If men are fighting and one of them accidentally causes a pregnant woman to miscarry, the offender has to pay a fine for destroying the fetus because it is the property of the husband. The offender does not pay “life for life” for the fetus, but only for the mother if she ends up dying as a result. What is so strange about this is that there is nothing in the Bible about anyone intentionally aborting a fetus. If abortion were a crime it would certainly have been discussed along with other forms of killing that are described in great detail. And yes, it was known about in those days, according to the early Church fathers, yet it is never mentioned in the Bible.

But, doesn’t the Bible say that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception? No. In fact, under Old Testament Law, only male children over the age of 1 month were counted as persons when God instructed the Israelites to “number the peoples.” (Leviticus 27: 3-7 and Numbers 3:15.) Under Hebrew law, a fetus was considered part of its mother until it drew its first breath, because the breath is life (as God breathed into Adam and he became a living soul). Thus, abortion was and still is permitted in Israel. Under Hebrew law it was not considered murder because murder only applies to already born persons and only under certain circumstances (i.e. not in war or in self defense). So to accuse a woman who has had an abortion of “murder” it is not biblical.

Not having any definite concrete verses to support their case, pro-lifers often point to verses like Psalms 139:13-16 which discuss that God knew us before we were formed in the womb. However, traditionally the Church interpreted such verses as simply demonstrating God’s omniscience and the fact that we were known to Him before we ever existed, as stated in Ephesians 1:4. “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world...” The Bible does describe in Luke 1:41-44 that John the Baptist’s mom Elizabeth felt her baby “leap in the womb” when Mary Jesus’ mother visited and told her the big news that she was going to give birth to the Savior. So clearly there is some biblical reference to fetal life. However, in stark contrast to the pro-life position that being born is always the best and the only acceptable outcome of a pregnancy, both Solomon and Job state that it would be better to be miscarried than to be born and live a miserable life. (Ecclesiastes 6:3-5, Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, Job 3:2-4,11-19, Job 10:18-19). Solomon also states of the miscarried fetus, "It never knows anything," implying that the fetus is not conscious.

There is a related issue which is very puzzling, namely, medical science tells us that around 60% of fertilized ova are lost before implantation; and of those that survive to implant in the uterus and develop into embryos, about another 1/3 will subsequently be miscarried (the technical medical term is “spontaneous abortion”). This means that, contrary to popular belief, even if there were no abortions, in the natural course of biological events around 2/3 to 3/4 of conceptions would never result in a live birth! So if all fetuses are “persons” and the majority of all the persons conceived are being lost – many more than the number who are born – then why are these individuals never mentioned in the Bible? Why doesn’t the Bible even once discuss a fetus that was miscarried, e.g. something along the lines of, “And Hannah’s baby was destined to be a great prophet, but she miscarried and so he was lost to this world," or, "Ishmael would have had a younger brother but he perished while still in the womb”? Medically we know that many miscarriages are due to either severe deformities or else being conceived at the wrong timing or stage in the cycle. Whatever is the fate of those miscarried fetuses, if indeed they are “persons,” would it not also be shared by fetuses that are aborted due to bad timing, poverty, domestic violence, or other extenuating circumstances which led the mother to make such a decision? If so, I would expect that a merciful God would have a special place for them, and perhaps He does, but again, the Bible surprisingly says nothing about any of these miscarried souls, even though they must by far outnumber those of us who have been born on the earth.

Another popular Bible verse among pro-lifers is Deuteronomy 30:19: “…I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” However, what this verse actually says in the context of the whole chapter, is that if the Israelites obey God’s commandments He will bless them with life, prosperity and fruitfulness in their crops and their offspring; however, if they disobey God and worship other gods, they will invoke His curse and He will destroy them as well as their offspring. When He says “choose life” what He is saying here is “obey me or I will kill you.” The verse is not about choosing to carry a pregnancy to term.

These are heavy matters and I do not wish to make anyone upset but I think we need to face the issue squarely. The fact is, the Bible does not claim to be “pro-life” in general and specifically makes no such claims in regard to fetuses. Now, one may choose to believe that fetuses are persons with a right to life, a right which supersedes even the right to life of the mother, and one may believe in a God who absolutely values all human life including fetuses. Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion. My point is simply that the Bible does not support it.

There are many other arguments for and against pro-life/pro-choice but I am limiting this particular blog entry to just the biblical perspective. I pray that none of my readers will find themselves in a situation where they need to make that extremely difficult choice, and I pray that all children would be loved and wanted. Links which explain the above biblical references in more detail:

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