Monday, September 20

Is Christianity Anti-abortion?

Is Christianity anti-abortion? It's a question whose answer, one might think, goes without saying. As for me, I am not so certain.
One would risk anachronism to speak of “abortion” with respect to the Bible, since, in the first century, none of the institutions or political and juridical debates associated with the word today had yet appeared. Therefore, to address the question, let's consider what the Bible has to say about the fetus, keeping in mind that, in the passages I discuss below, in some translations, instead of the word “fetus,” one reads words like “miscarriage” and — in the King James Version — “her fruit.” A conservative friend, who is attentive to the anachronistic danger of speaking complacently of “abortion” when discussing the Bible, recently put to me the following argument, based on a passage from Exodus:

Although the Bible doesn't come right out and say something about abortion as we know it, some verses can apply to abortion. For instance Exodus 21:22-23 speaks of, if somebody strikes a pregnant woman causing miscarriage they should be punished. That would mean to me that God does value all life, including the unborn.
If one reads the verse together with the chapter in which it appears, one sees, however, not only that the idea and the act of abortion are not present under another name or by implication, but that the value God grants the life of the unborn is extremely low. Why do I say these things?

The passage has as its purpose establishing an ancient law code, given by God so that Moses would know how to lead his people. It occurs in a chapter that sets out “other laws one must obey” (Exodos, 21:1) in addition to those set out in the commandments offered in Exodus 20. The code works upon the principle of proportionate retribution; the law of the talion, or what in English is referred to with the expression “eye for an eye” (cf. Leviticus, XXIV, 18-21, Deuteronomy, XIX, 21). Here is the line from Exodus that my friend alluded to:

If two men are fighting, and in the process hurt a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage, but she lives, then the man who injured her shall be fined whatever amount the woman's husband shall demand, and as the judges approve. (Exodus 22, The Living Bible)
While the fetus certainly has value, the destruction of the fetus, as recounted in this incident, is not at all an abortion, since abortion implies the consent of the one who has the abortion (i.e., the mother in and by whom the fetus is sustained). Similarly, if I destroyed a fetus by casting a stone at a pregnant woman, you might call this killing or even murder, if that were your personal view, but no one would call my action an “abortion.” So, this is in no way a passage that concerns abortion as commonly understood. I concur with my friend that the passage “can apply to abortion,” but the way in which it can so apply remains to be determined. This is not a merely etymological or historical point having to do with the modern institution or name of “abortion,” since the destruction of a fetus, as recounted in Exodus, does not concern any offense that could be equated to the killing/murder of a human being (the distinction between murdering and killing, pertinent elsewhere, is immaterial in this context). In short, in the scene recounted in Exodus 21:22, not only is abortion in practice or name not present or relevant, but the destruction of a fetus is not deemed the killing or murder of a human being in any legal or moral sense.

The first type of evidence for the latter claim is that the man who sets the fine is referred to as the woman's “husband” and not as a “father.” If he had been referred to as a “father,” then it might look as if the fetus were deemed a child who has a legal or moral relatonship to parents. Rather, the man is considered only in his marital relationship to the woman who bore the destroyed fetus.

More decisively, the paltry nature of the prescribed sanction for the destruction of the woman's fetus stands in stark contrast to the execution sentences prescribed for killing that we see throughout Exodus; the willed destruction of the fetus is given a retributive sentence that amounts to nothing more than a fine. This is significant because the purpose of the passage is to lay down the law of retributive justice with respect to various types of grave offenses. So, if it were assumed in this passage that the fetus were a living being (in the same way that children or adults who use their lungs to breathe constitute living beings), then it would follow that, to maintain retributive justice, one would have either to execute the man who had destroyed the fetus or, if possible, destroy his wife's fetus or execute any child the man might have. That is not what happens, though; rather, a mere fine is deemed proportionate to the misdeed; the value of the fetus is measured in terms of a monetary recompense which is presumably issued to the husband, or, less likely, to the parents jointly or, even less likely, to the once-pregnant mother. This emphasizes, moreover, that the loss of the fetus is seen as an injury to the mother or material loss to the family rather than as an offense to society as a whole (as are cases of murder). In other words, although it would be anachronistic to use the following distinction, one could say that, according to Exodus, the destruction of a fetus calls for nothing other than compensatory damages; damages for a criminal offense involving life loss are not even at issue.

The scant value granted the fetus is all the more significant when one considers that, earlier in the same chapter, very severe penalties are laid down for what one might think are relatively minor offenses. For example:

Who hits his father or his mother shall be put to death. [….] Who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. (Exodus, 21: 15, 17)
So, it follows that cursing one's parents is deemed, in Exodus, a far worse offense than destroying the fetus within a woman against her own will. The former offense should result in execution; the latter, in a fine whose amount can be established later, through consultation with judges and the once-pregnant woman's husband. This clearly implies that the fetus has a much lower status, ontologically and morally, than either of the parents. Destroying the fetus results in deliberations and a fine, whereas hitting or even cursing a parent calls for execution (before which, it seems, no judge intervenes and one can only hope that there are deliberations). The implied difference in nature between, on the one hand, the fetus, and, on the other, the mother and father, is extreme.

Consequently, when my correspondent argues, on the strength of Exodus 21:22, as follows: “if somebody strikes a pregnant woman causing miscarriage they should be punished. That would mean to me that God does value all life, including the unborn,” I would agree that the passage supports his claims and underscore just how insignificant the destruction of a fetus is with respect to other, more common misdeeds addressed in Exodus.

Given the above reading, one would have to consider the massive political mobilization that occurs around the issue of abortion in America today when compared to the very meager efforts made at stemming the cursing and striking of parents by their children, among many other offenses that are explicitly identified in Exodus and elsewhere in the Bible. More generally, a careful reading of the scene of fetal destruction in Exodus indicates that, if one assumed (wrongfully, but in good faith) that the scene, and the penalty attached to it, warrant an anti-abortion call to arms, one would have to make a choice: either accept all that is dictated to Moses in Exodus as if it applied fully to contemporary life (in which case, Taliban-like rule of the nation might follow), or opt for a less literal and reductive understanding of these passages — one that sees in Christianity spiritual guidance rather than “a voter's guide to politics in America.” I would think that Christians would have an interest in a more spiritual approach, since it corresponds to the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is significant in this light that Christ contradicts the principle of retributive justice on a number of occasions, most famously in the Mount of Olives episode where he asks the one who has not sinned to cast the first stone at an adulterer and refuses to cast a stone himself (although Jesus was without sin). In a word, Jesus preaches the importance of eternal justice over retributive justice. The latter is articulated in Exodus alongside certain precise directives that would appear irrelevant, if not highly controversial, as moral or legal law in contemporary society:

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he will serve six years and depart freely upon the seventh. [….] When a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. (Exodus, 21: 2, 7)
Should we embrace these dictates as expressions of what God values, just as my friend drew a lesson from another passage in Exodus 21 concerning God's valuing the “life”of the unborn? Should we argue passionately against our daughters-sold-as-maidservants going out “as the menservants do”? Should the Catholic Church forbid its members from voting for any politician who does not condemn keeping a Hebrew slave for a seventh year but faithfully calls for keeping the Hebrew slave for six? If we are not willing to go that far, then we should be equally hesitant to draw sweeping conclusions about the practice of abortion, or about pro-fetus candidates for political office, from the use of the word “fetus” or “miscarriage” or “fruit” in a passage of Exodus whose purpose is to illustrate the principle of retributive justice for the people of Israel under the guidance of Moses. This is especially true because of what an attentive reading reveals about the nature of the value God grants the fetus or, if one prefers, the “unborn.”

An important question remains, namely, why in the first place does this passage in Exodus speak of the “fetus”? I would offer the following speculation. It is not likely that the destruction of a fetus during a quarrel was a common occurrence that, as such, called for urgent or precise moral or legal directives. The severed fetus is thus brought up as an example of something that would appear to disrupt the symmetry of the law of an “eye for an eye” since, precisely, a man, the wrongdoer in this case, does not carry a fetus. In other words, if a man harms a fetus, how can retributive justice be served? The answer Exodus gives shows clearly that the fetus does not have the hyperbolic importance that some contemporary American Christians attribute to it. The fetus appears to have the exemplary value of something that disrupts the symmetry that is required by the very idea of retributive justice. One can assume that in other cases of dissymetry, whether they concern injured body parts or damaged or displaced material possessions, monetary equivalence would be called upon to satisfy the demands of retribution. A blind man who blinds another would surely have to pay a fine or offer material compensation. The most we could presume about the fetus in particular is that, in addition to exemplifying dissymetry among women and men, its being damaged would be equivalant to any wound or injury; and its being destroyed, to the loss of any body part:

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, lash for lash. (Exodus 21:24)
Exodus teaches us that, where there is dissymetry, as when a man destroys a woman's fetus, retributive punishment can be fixed through substitutive damages, as when the wrongdoer is obliged to pay a fine. In the particular example given, justice for the destruction of a fetus must be sought otherwise than by the corresponding destruction of another fetus. The one who injures a woman by destroying the fetus within her, far from being likened to a murderer, simply has to pay a fine that is set by the woman's husband and some judges. It would falsify the spirit of the passage, therefore, to claim, or insinuate, that it depicts the destruction of a fetus as “murdering” the “unborn” or killing “a child.” Moreover, since this would be misleading, so, too, would arguing that the commandment “thou shalt not murder,” which appears in the previous chapter (Exodus, 20:13), applies to the destruction of a fetus.

It is inevitable that in underscoring the above evidence, I will be confronted with the following argument, which is commonly evoked by those who believe that God values the fetus highly (and some go further by asserting that the fetus has an even greater value in the eyes of God than any child who uses its lungs to breathe):

In Exodus 20:13, God commands that “thou shalt not kill/murder;” the destruction of a fetus is killing/murder; therefore, it is forbidden by God to kill/murder a fetus.
While valid in its own terms, and thus apparently unassailable, the argument relies upon a second premise that is contradicted by the law dictated to Moses in Exodus 20:22. This law makes it clear that destroying a fetus is not an act of killing/murder, but solely an injury to the woman who bore the fetus. Allow me to add emphasis to the passage which makes this clear:

If two men are fighting, and in the process hurt a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage, but she lives, then the man who injured her shall be fined whatever amount the woman's husband shall demand, and as the judges approve. (Exodus 22)
The following verse shows, moreover, that, in contrast to destroying the fetus, ending the mother's life would constitute killing/murder:

But if any harm comes to the woman and she dies, he [the man who struck the woman] shall be executed. (Exodus 21:23)
This line is alternately translated as “soul for soul,” and both translations make it clear that only the mother is co-subtantial with, or deemed to possess, a soul; that is, only she, and not the fetus within her, constitutes “life” in a non-reductive sense of the word. The value of the fetus is that it is living matter that belongs to a woman, but not a living being in the sense of a human being. As such, in accordance with the law of retribution, its destruction invites monetary compensation for the pains and labor that it costs the woman, and not the taking of another's life. Other verses in Exodus illustrate further this principle of monetary compensation for bodily injuries received:

If two men are fighting, and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and injures him so that he must be confined to his bed, but doesn't die, if later he is able to walk again, even with a limp, the man who hit him will be innocent except that he must pay for the loss of his time until he is thoroughly healed, and pay any medical expenses. (Exodus, 21:18-19)
The contrast between destroying a living being and causing a living being injury (which in this case incurs medical expenses and the loss of time) are further confirmed in Exodus 21:12, where there is no doubt as to the punishment for striking and killing a human being:

Anyone who hits a man so hard that he dies shall surely be put to death.
Therefore, the fetus cannot possibly be said to have the same status as that of a man nor, if it becomes a question of gender, of a woman, since, unlike the case of the destroyed fetus, if the mother is killed, so should be the one who took her life.

So, is Christianity anti-abortion? Exodus, along with the rest of the Bible, is perfectly silent about abortion as we understand it (as a woman's choice to destroy the fetus within her), but it does suggest strongly that the willful destruction of the fetus (by whomever), of which abortion is by far the most common example today, is not reviled with the single-minded passion of the many Christians living in America today who take it on hearsay that their religion deems it a high offense in the eyes of God. If these Christians wish to oppose abortion on grounds that God equates it with murder, killing, or war, they might find humility for their claims if they only examined the writings on which they presumably base their convictions.
 * * *

To my friend who reminded me of this passage, I am grateful. I know, too, that he is not one of the Christians who base their entire world view, or at least their voting practices, on an obsession with the destiny of fetuses. I just hope that his support for Bush is grounded on something other than abortion politics, which, I remain firmly convinced, has little to do with the spirit of Christianity or the teachings of Christ.

* * *
The Catholic Church, who membership in the U.S. comprises up to 10% of the voting public, has weighed in on American politics this year by declaring it sinful to vote for candidates who support abortion rights, and then, a while later, by retracting its declarations. In its retraction, the Vatican offered that “proportionate reasons” may permit one to prefer an abortion rights candidate to an anti-abortion rights candidate (see my post below, “Voting with the Vatican”). More recently, however, one member of the Church has tried to correct the correction, or retract the retraction. In an article entitled, “Ratzinger letter misinterpreted by Kerry supporters as OK’ing votes for pro-abortion candidates,” we read the following:

Father Torraco explains that in order for a vote for a pro-abortion candidate to be based on “proportionate reasons,” it must be done so in order to prevent an intrinsic moral evil of the scale of abortion. Therefore issues such as war or the death penalty do not qualify as “proportionate reasons” because they are not intriniscally [sic] immoral according to Catholic teaching.
It is amazing, the lengths some Catholics will go to, to justify extremist right-wing politicians in the United States who are bent on undertaking unnecessary and reckless warfare and perpetuating the death penalty. And one has to wonder, with respect to Father Torraco's “explanation,” is there anything to this idea of “intrinsic moral evil”? Is the expression “intrinsically immoral” supposed to inspire the fear of eternal damnation among Catholic voters? If so, where are the arguments that justify calling abortion “intrinsically immoral” while denying that the killing of civilians and destruction of natural and human environments for the corporate profits of a few are also “intrinsically immoral”? And where is the Biblical support for the idea of “intrinsic evil”? And where is the Biblical support for the idea that abortion is the one “intrinsic evil” (which seems an inevitable implication, since no other “intrinsic” evil is ever identified in such pseudo-arguments)? [A post that appears below exposes the unpersuasiveness of this appeal to the “intrinsic” or “unmitigated” and thus wholly exceptional status that Catholics grant abortion as against all other forms of violence. See “Voting for life. The Mitigated & the Unmitigated,” April 5, 2004.] And where is the Biblical support for the “intrinsic”? What does it mean for something to be an intrinsic moral evil? Intrinsic with respect to what? Who decides which evil is intrinsic, and which is not? Finally, if war is a non-intrinsic evil, does the declaration of war, whether official or merely rhetorical, make all killing that it leads to merely extrinsic moral evil (whatever that may mean)?

Would Christianity — I mean, the real one, as opposed to the corporate apologist version so common in the U.S. — ever allow for such a cynical distinction as that between the “intrinsically evil” destruction of fetuses and the expedient liquidation of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians (to refer to just one outrage orchestrated at Bush's command)? The passage from Exodus certainly does nothing to bolster hyperbolic claims about the “intrinsic” nature of violence done to a fetus.

Imagine such a teaching as this:

“You feel that it's inevitable, for your own safety, that children must be killed in Iraq? O.K., that might seem absurd and even immoral, but it's certainly not intrinsically evil, as abortion is in all cases; and as war, in all cases, is not.”
Is that what Catholics are being asked to believe? What if pro-choice advocates declared “war” on the “unborn” (as the pro-fetus groups often claim they have done)? Would not that fact alone, according to Father Torraco's claims, make the destruction of the “unborn” a non-intrinsic moral evil? (The question is pertinent for supporters of Bush, who, more than anyone, likes to call his political and military actions at home and abroad “wars,” although he has never bothered to have any of his wars declared officially.)

Perhaps my vigilance has been overmatched on this one, but I can't find the passage in which Jesus Christ makes a distinction between intrinsic and other, more permissible, types of “evil.” Is this “Christian”? Is it intrinsically Christian? Or has it been stealthily — extrinsically — concocted under the cloth of certain apologists of corporate warfare?

As a sort of post-post, I note that the recent intervention by the Catholic priest Torraco made me imagine a sort of Monty Python-like show tune in which Catholics waltz around, singing in chorus, lines such as these:

The Father said the Holy Word.
Intrinsic! Intrinsic!
The sweetest word we ever heard.
Intrinsic! Intrinsic!

We all have made a holy vow.
Intrinsic! Intrinsic!
No other evil matters now.
Intrinsic! Intrinsic! (to a steadily building crescendo)
Abortion is in- trin- sick!

(finished off with a chorus of baritones who wail out the next line in a robust dominant-seventh finale bolstered by a shout section from the brass that retards with each successive syllable)

It's evil un-mit-i-ga-ted!