The Specious Roots of the Anti-Abortion Controversy

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

ImageI originally had a guest blog planned for today on a completely different topic, but I ran across an article in Friday’s Huffington Post, that changed my direction. Since I was a youth I have been aghast at the fact that I grew up in a country where such things as homosexuality and abortion were prohibited by law.  It seemed like this was too personal an interference by the State into the personal affairs of people and that this interference often ruined people’s lives. Then too, I grew up in New York State, where for so many years divorce was unobtainable leading to such ridiculousness as Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s wife having to establish Nevada residence in order to obtain a divorce from him. It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that religious dogma had no business invading our legal system.

Although there were many prior years of a movement building up in support of abolishing Abortion Laws, the decision of Roe vs. Wade in 1973  was a breathtaking and welcome surprise. Immediately after, however, there started the blow-back against that decision that almost forty years later continues with fervor and intensity. The opposition cites “The Bible” as the source of their angry opposition and claims that their religion, as encoded in “The Bible” describes abortion as murder, with the life of the child beginning at fertilization. When they quote “The Bible” of course they mean the “New Testament” and what they call “The Old Testament”.  Jews actually don’t recognize the term “Old Testament”, to us it is called the “Torah”, since Jews believe that their “Torah” was never replaced by a “New Testament”. The anti-Abortionists need to cite the “Torah” for their beliefs, since the Gospels don’t discuss the abortion issue. Like much that exists in Christian Dogma today, there is a need to cite the “Torah” for their beliefs since there is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus ever spoke on some matters. Christian “Torah” citation though is haphazard in that they choose what portions to recognize and what portions to ignore. The sentiments of those Christians against abortion are based in the “Torah”. What if their citation of this venerable book stemmed from an incorrect translation of it many, many centuries ago? If they cited it incorrectly in the first instance, doesn’t that destroy their whole argument that abortion is murder in God’s eyes, especially if the writers of the “Torah” never understood abortion to be murder? This is what I’d like to discuss.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach “whom the Washington Post calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ is the international best-selling author of 29 books” wrote an article in Friday’s Huff Post titled: “Is Abortion in Christianity Based on a Mistranslation of the Bible?”  I have actually met Rabbi Shmuley on two occasions, the second being in Brooklyn, NY outside of the Brooklyn Museum, where he was doing “mitzvot” (translated as good deeds) celebrating the fall Jewish Holiday of “Sukkot”. He was with his son who was studying to be a Rabbi at a Hassidic Rabbinical School. We had a long and warm chat for about 30 minutes that began with my reminding him that we had first met at a lecture of his in Florida, two years past. Having just celebrated the first anniversary of my heart transplant our discussion was of blessings that people receive. He even invited my wife and I to Sabbath dinner at his home, but as it turned out our schedule didn’t permit it. I must mention that Rabbi Shmuley is politically conservative and ran for Congress in this last election as a Republican. Despite the fact that I differ with the Rabbi both religiously and politically, I deeply respect him as a good and wise man. So noting that this article was by him I read it and found myself being informed about biblical belief more concretely than I had understood it in the past.

“For four decades abortion has dominated the social values-debate in America and deeply divided our nation into factions of pro-life and pro-choice. This year Republicans paid a huge price at the ballot box for extreme positions, like not allowing abortion even in the case of incest or rape, with two Republican Senate candidates going so far as to speak of ‘legitimate rape’ and divinely-sanctioned pregnancies that result from rape.

What is lost in this discussion are the Biblical underpinnings of abortion and how this is not primarily a legal issue but a religious one. Opponents of abortion do not look to the Constitution to cement their opposition but the Bible, and, as such, it is worth reviewing the Biblical text pertaining to abortion, which yields surprising results.”

This interests me because Rabbi Shmuley is a Republican and for decades much of the grass roots support of the Republican Party has come from the so-called “Right to Life” Movement. Since I know the Rabbi to be a sincere and deeply religious man I can guarantee that his thoughts are not merely “political positioning” in light of his own loss in his Congressional race. What he writes here is the knowledge derived from his years of rigorous training to become a Rabbi.

“The Hebrew Bible [Torah] makes only one reference to abortion, and this is by implication. Exodus 21:22-23 states: “And if two men strive together and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, accordingly as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, thou shalt give life for life.”

There is a significant parting of the ways in the interpretation of this passage between Judaism and Catholicism which will, in turn, mark the much more lenient rulings on abortion of the former and the much more severe views of the latter. According to the ancient Rabbis, the text is to be read simply as written. The Bible talks of a woman who is hurt by a man in a fight and loses her child. Monetary restitution is paid for her miscarriage. But if the woman dies, then one must take a life for a life. The passage does not say that a fetus is alive but that the mother is.

The words if “no harm follows” the ”hurt” to the woman refers to the survival of the woman following her miscarriage. In that case, there is no capital guilt involved since the woman did not die and the fetus is not considered to be fully alive. The attacker is therefore merely liable to pay compensation for the loss of her “fruit,” her fetus. “But,” the Bible continues,” if any harm follow,” i.e., if the woman, rather than her fetus, is fatally injured, then the man responsible for her death has to “give life for life “The interpretation is straightforward and matches the Hebrew original precisely. According to the Jewish interpretation the Bible only says that the woman, rather than her fetus, is living.”

So we see in Hebrew biblical exegesis and in an accurate translation from the original Hebrew texts there is no conception that destruction of the fetus is murder. What does this do to the arguments of those who supposedly support “right to life”? Can they say that the Christian translation is superior to the Hebrew translation, or might they have cause to wonder if they’ve had it wrong all along? Indeed, “Christian Fundamentalism” asserts that it derives all of its insight from “The Bible” and that since “The Bible” represents “The Word of God” than we cannot dispute it. The question comes down to then which Bible and which translation represents the “Word of God”?

“This interpretation that a fetus is not fully alive and the destruction of a fetus does not carry a death penalty is also borne out by the rabbinical interpretation of the verse defining the law of murder: ”He that smiteth a man, so that he dieth, shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:12), which the rabbis construed to mean “a man, but not a fetus.” These passages clearly indicate that the killing of an unborn child is not considered as murder.

But the Christian tradition disputing this view goes back to a mistranslation in the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Bible that sometimes contains significant errors (see my book Kosher Jesus for a comprehensive list). There, the Hebrew for ”no harm follow” was replaced by the Greek for “[her child be born] imperfectly formed.”

This interpretation, distinguishing between an unformed and a formed fetus and branding the killing of the latter as murder, was accepted by Tertullian and by later church fathers and was subsequently embodied as canon law and in Justinian law. In the Christian interpretation, therefore, both parts of the verse are referring not to the mother’s life, but to the fetus’. And the verse concludes you must ‘give life for life,’ meaning, a fetus is fully alive and destroying a fetus constitutes murder punishable by death. This is the source for the Catholic position of viewing a fetus’ life as being the equal of a mother’s life and, therefore, even if the mother’s life is at risk one cannot perform an abortion as it constitutes murder.”

So what we are dealing with then is a mis-translation, whether by intention or error. This mis-translation has calcified for years into the Dogma that it has become. Through years of inculcating children with this erroneous belief it is little wonder that so many of those in the anti-abortion movement view the fetus as being alive. The question arises in my mind about how this should affect this current high tension political discussion today. My view is whether you are Christian or not, if you want to use your “Old Testament” (Jewish Torah) as a basis for legal strictures that intimately impact upon people, then you should at least get right what has been put into scripture. You can’t claim authority from god, if your claim is not based on what you believe to be “God’s Word”.

“Judaism, however, strongly disputes this interpretation which is not faithful to the Hebrew original. Therefore, the Talmud declares (Ohalos 7:6): If a woman is in hard travail [and her life cannot otherwise be saved], one cuts up the child in her womb and extracts it member by member, because her life comes before that of the [the child]. But if the greater part [or the head] was delivered, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for the sake of another.” A fetus is only alive when it is born, not before.” 

Rabbi Shmuley has more to say on this and gives his own views on abortion, which are not positive and reflect his religious beliefs and also the varied opinions that Rabbi’s have on it. He does, however, believe that the issue should be removed from the political arena. Please follow the link above to read the rest of the article since I’m sure you will find it informative.

He we are though, still in this “Pro-Life”/”Pro-Choice” battleground. Please don’t think I’m naïve enough to believe that those opposed to abortion will change their viewpoints in light of this. We know that when many people have to choose between their faith and facts, facts invariably lose. I’m putting forth this information for those of us who deeply believe that the State has no business legislating religious beliefs into the Law. Most of us, me included, “melt” emotionally at the sight of a baby. This “melting” reaction is built into our genetic makeup, as indeed it has to be to prolong humanity’s existence. From a propagandists perspective merging the image of a cute baby with a fetus and then asserting that they are one in the same makes a powerful statement, that even “Pro-Choice” people find difficult to deny. Those of us who strongly support a woman’s right to make choices for herself as to her own body must understand that those we oppose don’t even have a religious leg to stand on for their opposition. Our task is difficult because the other side’s use of the baby=fetus meme is powerful propagandistically. Perhaps then in our argumentation for the right of women to choose and in our attempts to educate the public, we need to add this biblical exegesis to our armory of factual rebuttal.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

31 thoughts on “The Specious Roots of the Anti-Abortion Controversy”

  1. @Malisha ” If you have read a book that you think makes you qualified to tell me how to live my life, I think you need a little lesson in reading comprehension. And if you think you’ve seen a light that makes you qualified to opine on my vision or lack thereof, think again”

    Hear, hear. We hear words like “faith” and “spiritual” and “my cherished beliefs” and through an unrecognizable authority, we also hear the message, “to contradict is to sin.” Even raising the question is not allowed. Once you declare yourself “spiritual” or “enlightened” you are also declaring a criticism-free zone around yourself, regardless of content, no matter the magic-thinking involved, even when demonstrably dangerous ideas of “faith” are forced into our public square. For most, however, this is not an issue. We face a rabid minority whose world is most certainly and necessarily ending. Makes ’em grumpy.

    To reinforce the CiC’s belief that he is at all times on a crusade, as happened with W (and may be happening to Obama), well that’s when we really need to intercede, and not let unspoken authorities stop us from demanding their removal from power, and seating grand juries to discuss matters of criminal behavior. Torture remains utterly unresolved, and it was done “in the lord’s name” for whom many lie for just for kicks.

    An actual spiritual person is known for their works, not for flapping of lips alone. Spiritualism is not an excuse to complain bitterly and then call for the smiting. Ooooh, the smiting…

    Thank you for your continued vigorous clarifications.

  2. I’m just really sick and tired of people who identify themselves as either “religious” or [the modern version] “spiritual” dictating how others should behave about things that the society and/or the law do not separately and unequivocally rule on. I feel put upon by “religious” individuals thinking their beliefs should guide my conduct and even my sexual expressions as much as I feel put upon by “spiritual” individuals thinking theirs should make me “forgive” people who do me wrong. Damn! This is all just second- and third- [and ten-thousandth’]hand bullying. If you have read a book that you think makes you qualified to tell me how to live my life, I think you need a little lesson in reading comprehension. And if you think you’ve seen a light that makes you qualified to opine on my vision or lack thereof, think again.

    That said, what the Hell is wrong with these damn dumb translators? Sheesh!

  3. Jeff,

    It is easy to preach “erring on the side of caution” with a penis between your legs. The problem with anti-abortion laws is like prohibition they’ve never worked, presumed women’s bodies could be appropriated by the State and really are a means of placing women in an inferior position in society.
    The proof is in the overriding concer for the safety of the fetus and the complete disregard of the infant by the anti-abortion advocates.

  4. Mike,

    Thank you for your civil and thorough response. I apologize for any insult I may have written. My feelings of the reasons abortion are not good for individuals or communities of people come from the entirety of my Spiritual experiences, reading, reflection and reason. If fundamentalists are who are being singled out, then it helps to know that those people are the target of the conversation.

    Unfortunately, on this blog and others, all people of Faith get grouped in one pen. You and I are examples of theists who even disagree on different issues. I appreciate that your responses to our disagreements are intelligent, thoughtful and polite. Thank you.

  5. dr. peter kreeft posed the question in his book, The Unaborted Socrates. if you were in the woods hunting and heard a rustle in the bushes, would you shoot first, or wait and see what it was?

    no one knows when a fetus becomes a human being. we must act on the side of caution and treat it as if it is a human until we know beyond a doubt that it is not. either that, or we all need to agree that murder is acceptable under certain conditions- like we do with war.

    1. Joseph,

      Reasonable people can disagree reasonably and your comment that I responded to was a civil one in general, calling for a civil response. I agree with you that we often see people with spiritual beliefs being lumped together and that is unfortunate. I think our atheist friends feel put upon, which is something that does happen and so they reply with scattergun hyperbole.

      While by no means an erudite authority on religion, mythology and human psychology, I ‘ve spent much of my life educating myself on these matters. I believe within them lies the solution to human evolution from the still pitiful state we remain in. Politics, philosophy and all the “isms” people follow seeking nepenthe merely uncover symptoms of the underlying human flaw of egotism and the aggression used in its service.

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