Walking Where Life Is Precious
By Neil Earle
“Exodus 21 is the only place where Scripture even distantly approaches the topic of abortion; and it implies the primacy of the woman’s fully developed actual human life over the fetus’s developing but only potential humanity.”
This is a common claim advanced by those in the pro-choice movement and cited in Clarke and Rackstraw’s Readings in Christian Ethics: Volume 2.
I wasn’t thinking about these complex philosophical arguments when I was marching with the Life Choices of Memphis movement on April 24. Mostly I was struck again by the Christian-based aspect of the morning’s one mile walk and fundraiser. Not surprisingly I ran into 4-5 pillar members of the Bible Study group I attend and it was rather pleasant to see some familiar faces in the early morning dampness at the Memphis Zoo.
A Biblical Challenge
The Exodus 21 argument is elaborated by a writer and historian I respect named Garry Wills, a well-known critic of his own Catholic church. He develops this conclusion from the passage referenced above:
“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.”
Wills comments: “The penalty is not for murder (which calls for the death penalty) but a mere fine to the husband for the possibility of losing an heir. This says nothing of the present status of the fetus, only of its future profit to the male” (page 596).
Apart from what current advocates call “patriarchy” – the woman having no say in the matter – there may be something for all sides to consider here. This whole subject can get philosophical and murky, for example, when such subjects as “when does a human become person” is injected. Suddenly, even dyed-in-the-wool secularists can begin sounding like theologians citing such matters as “potentiality” and St. Thomas Aquinas and at what point the human soul arises in a fetus.
This is indeed weighty evidence. Even Wills admits these are “difficult matters” but still chides evangelicals for resorting to such desperate expedients as advancing Psalm 139 which poetically describes God’s supervision over all aspects of a human life. Yet the poetry has an overall driving theme and the message here is a holistic perspective on human life. That holistic perspective is not easy to maintain today in the blizzard of information coming at the speed of Twitter.
A Gallery of Texts
For those who are neither fierce “one-shot Biblical scholars” – willing to cite texts such as Exodus 21 – or those of the opposite wing almost ready to throw bombs at abortion clinics, there might be a better path forward. It involves giving a voice to more or less straight-forward scriptural texts which “could” be seen as reflecting God’s will on the subject.
Here are a few of them. They avoid the deeper waters of full-fledged Biblical exegesis but seem to speak sensibly enough and do weigh heavily indeed on the consciences of those who ascribe authority to the text. Fair-minded Pro-Choice advocates would have to concede this point. Garry Wills might be willing to pause at this collection:
Genesis 25:21-23 “Now Isaac pleaded with the Lord for his wife…and Rebekah his wife conceived. But the children struggled together within her and she said, If all is well, why am I this way? And the Lord said to her: Two nations are in your womb, two peoples shall be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”
Ruth 1:11 “Are there still sons in my womb that they may be your husbands?”
Psalm 119:73 “Your hands have made and fashioned me…”
Psalm 139:13 “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”
Job 31:15 “Did not He who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one fashion us in the womb?”
Ecclesiastes 11:5 “As you do not know what is the way of the wind or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so you do not know the works of God who makes all things.”
Isaiah 49:1 “The Lord had called me from the womb, from the inwards parts of my mother He has made mention of my name (NKJV).”
Jeremiah 1:5 “Before you were born I sanctified you and I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah 20:15 “Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, ‘a son is born to you’…because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave.”
Hosea 12:2 “The Lord will punish Jacob according to his ways…In the womb he took his brother by the heel.”
Luke 1:15 “He will be great before the Lord, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.”
Luke 1:41-44 “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary the baby leaped in her womb…(and said) ‘For before when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.’”
Across the Whole of Life
That’s quite a catalogue of case histories. It shows baby boys wrestling in the womb, a fetus leaping for joy, accounts of God “fashioning” humans while still in the womb – a thought-provoking series. At least two prophets were called to office before being born and the God of the Bible claims to be the ultimate shaper of our very bones in the womb. The common Biblical and cultural reference to pregnant women not so long ago was “with child” – a telling phrase.
Even fair-minded skeptics might have to concede that this is weighty evidence for those who regard the Scriptures of our Bibles as “God-breathed” and a respected guide for right living (2 Timothy 3:16).
The Bible teacher John Stott referred to the fact that the first five centuries spelled out the Christian church’s commitment to life in the womb – adamantly and repeatedly. (See Michael J. Gorman’s Abortion and the Early Church). The Church in Rome was admired for rescuing unwelcome babies that had been left to die in the Forum. Stott called attention to the fact that such foundational documents as the Apostles Creed sees Jesus’ life as a complete whole, in that he was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried and rose again.”
Conceived and then born and the same Jesus throughout. All this has to make Christians think and rethink and how we conduct ourselves in the general public. As Stott concludes: “Although the lines of demarcation between God’s responsibility and ours are not always sharp…yet we human beings may not trespass into his territory or assume his prerogatives” (Issues Facing Christians Today, p. 415).
The Holy Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of Life” might endorse that conclusion.