Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Exodus 21, Abortion, and the Beginning of Human Life

Photo of fetus in utero at 20 weeks
Does the Bible assert that abortion is OK? Absolutely not.

The confusion starts with a certain prescription in the Old Testament. Exodus 21 explains the Mosaic Law's prohibition of homicide in light of accidental blows that lead to death. Verses 22-25 consider accidental miscarriages. Here is the literal translation of the Hebrew:
"When men are fighting and one of them strikes a pregnant woman so that her offspring comes out, and there is no mishap, he shall be fined in accordance with what her husband shall impose upon him, and it will be given over to adjudication. But if there is a mishap, then you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise." ~Exodus 21:22-25
In this translation, "the mishap" might be the child's death. If the child lives, the guilty man is fined; if the child dies, the guilty party is executed. Jewish scholar James Kugel notes, however, that "no ancient interpreter read this passage that way... Normally, in the case of an accident, if no harm resulted, then no fine would be due." [1]

What, then, is "the mishap?" Here is the Septuagint's translation:
"If two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is struck in her belly, and her child comes out not fully formed, he shall pay a fine. As the woman's husband shall impose, he shall pay it with a valuation. But if it is fully formed, he shall give a soul for a soul..."
The Septuagint suggests that the death of the child is certain. If the child is killed before it is fully formed, then the man cannot be charged with murdering a human being. If, however, the child is fully formed, the child would be in every sense a human being.

However, as Dr. Donald DeMarco notes, the Septuagint translation is incorrect and "gives a totally different meaning to this Mosaic Law:"
"The word 'zurah' or 'surah,' which means 'form,' is erroneously used for the word 'ason,' which means 'harm.' Thus, the Septuagint version conveys the meaning of the fetus 'not being further formed' rather than the woman 'not being further harmed.'" [2]
There are various reasons why the Greeks may have wanted the passage to read this way. DeMarco suggests that it is closer to their own philosophy and may have reflected a bias in their reading of the text.

Saint Jerome's Vulgate, which the Council of Trent deemed "authentic" and trustworthy as the Church's official Biblical text, reads thus:
"If men fall out, and one of them strikes a woman who is pregnant, so that the child is still-born, but she herself lives, he must pay whatever sum the woman’s husband demands, and the judges agree to; if her death follows, then life must pay for life." (DR)
Saint Jerome is very clear--the child has died. In fact, the original Hebrew truly demands this reading.

Note that only if the mother dies is the guilty party executed. As Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez summarizes, "the death of the unborn itself apparently was not regarded as unintentional homicide, for the penalty for that was laid down as 'life for life.' By implication, the unborn was not considered an individual having a life regarded as human." [3]

Is the Bible, then, saying that the child is not too a human being? Doesn't this contradict the scientific fact that a fetus is a human being from the moment it is conceived?

Indeed, the Mosaic law for this situation does demand that only the mother be protected by the "life for life" regulation. At the same time, the child's death is still condemned; the evil that's occurred is still emphasized and, indeed, demands repayment. This is important.

Morally, the Mosaic Law recognizes that the killing of either the child or the mother would be evil. Judicially, however, the Old Law imperfectly grants more weight to the killing of the mother. Keep in mind that the Mosaic Law granted varying amounts of judicial respect to different members of society. For example, women were not granted the rights appropriate to their dignity from the beginning. Hence Christ: "It was to suit your hard hearts that Moses allowed you to put your wives away; it was not so at the beginning of things" (Mt 19:8). Slaves, too: "when a man beats his servant or his handmaid to death, if death follows at once, he must pay the full penalty; but if they survive for a day or more, he shall go unpunished; the loss is his" (Ex 21:20-21). In the same way, unborn children were not granted the fullest respect under the judicial precepts of the Mosaic Law.

Scripture is not making a moral assertion that unborn children are dispensable--indeed, their death demands repayment. The Mosaic Law makes an imperfect judicial assertion that the mother, in this particular situation, has more rights than the unborn child. Further still, the law does not assert that unborn children are not human beings--why, then, would there be any penalty at all? The law simply asserts that unborn human beings do not carry the same rights as adult human beings.

Regardless, this is a judicial law that's be fulfilled and purified from all its imperfection and obscurity. We reject this judicial law today just as we reject many Mosaic judicial laws. No matter what judicial assertions governed Israelite life in the Old Testament, they no longer matter in light of the New Law. The fullness of the Church's revelation has shown us the clear truth: life begins at conception and demands equal rights for both mother and unborn child.


[1] James Kugel; How to Read the Bible; page 266
[2] Donald DeMarco; "The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective"
[3] Germain Grisez; Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments; page 123

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