Gloucester Daily Times Debate on Abortion (78), November 20, 1986

“The Only Text and Abortion”

(“More than One Interpretation” as titled by the Times)

(invitational My View Column)

(During the past 12 years Gordon P. Hugenberger has been pastor of the Lanesville Congregational Church and adjunct professor of the Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton. He lives in Lanesville with his wife Jane, and three sons.)

In her letter to the Editor on Monday, November 10, “Choice remains the big issue,” Candice K. Garrett did a superb job of pointing out the centrality of Exodus 21:22-24 for Jews and Christians who seek biblical support as they consider the morality of non-therapeutic abortion. Favoring a “pro-choice” stance, Garrett correctly observes that Exodus 21:22-24 is the only biblical text which explicitly considers the legal or moral implications of an assault against the life of the unborn (although such passages as Job 10:8-12, Psalm 51:5-6, and Psalm 139:13-16, may regard the fetus as a human person.

Hoping to offer some spiritual comfort to any who may “have made the excruciating decision to abort,” Garrett quotes Exodus 21:22-24 as it is translated in the Revised Standard Version (RSV), “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

In terms of this translation, Exodus 21:22-24 seems to imply that while the pregnant mother is offered the normal legal protection which is due a person, exacting “life for life” for the culpable negligence¬† that resulted in her homicide (they should not have been fighting so as to endanger this innocent bystander), her fetus is considered less than a person, enjoying only the legal protection which is normally accorded property, namely, suitable financial compensation.

As one who formerly held this interpretation, I am grateful to Candace Garrett for the clarity of her letter and am reminded of the need for those who espouse a “pro-life” stance to respect those Christians and Jews who sincerely attempt to base their “pro-choice” views on this portion of the Word of God.

However, Garrett claims that “scholars agree this is an accurate translation from the original Hebrew text.” Certainly some scholars must agree, or the RSV would not have been translated as it is. But Garrett misleads us here by failing to note that many scholars do not agree with the RSV at this point, including the present writer.

Perhaps the chief translational difficulty requiring comment is the way the RSV offers “there is a miscarriage” as a translation for a fairly simple underlying Hebrew expression which literally reads “and her children come forth.” In defense of the RSV, two things make this expression a bit unusual. First, Hebrew normally describes children as being “born” rather than as “coming forth.” Secondly, the use of the plural here, ‘Her children,” seems odd, unless we are to imagine that the woman in question was expecting twins! Actually, the modern translation renders the plural in this manner here to express a variety of different ideas besides strict plurality. For example, the plural can be used to indicate that an item is in an unnatural state. So blood coursing through one’s veins will be singular )blood), but when blood is spilled on the ground, as when Cain murdered his brother Abel, it is found in the plural (as if it were “bloods”).

To take account of these two observations the RSV concluded that an unnatural “going forth” points to a “miscarriage.” While possible, this is far from obvious and appears to read too much into this expression. If it really had been the author’s intention to refer to a miscarriage, it is difficult to explain why he did not simply use the normal Hebrew terms for “miscarriage” (Hebrew: nephel and shakol). This would have left no room for doubt. Perhaps even more troubling for the RSV interpretation is the way it requires the statement “and no harm follows” to be applied suddenly and very narrowly only to the mother. Not only does this this restriction appear unwarranted given the very general language used, it appears to be a peculiarly insensitive way to speak. What do you mean “no harm follows?” Tell that to this bereaved woman who has just suffered a violently induced miscarriage!

It is surely more likely that what was intended is simply a premature delivery (whether viable or not). Accordingly, the New International Version (NIV), for example, renders this passage: “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

The implication of this translation is exactly the opposite of the RSV. If the pregnant woman’s assailant induced a premature but viable birth (“there is no serious injury” to mother or child), the assailant pays a financial penalty — possibly as compensation for any long range disability which the ancients recognized as a potential consequence of premature birth. On the other hand, if there is an injury (whether to the mother or her fetus), then “you are to take life for life, eye for eye …” That is, the fetus enjoys the full protection of biblical law due any person who suffers injury or death.

In this regard, it is interesting to note the modern day legal schizophrenia, where on the one hand the courts reserve the right to charge an abusive boyfriend with first degree murder if he induces a miscarriage by bludgeoning the womb of his girlfriend, and yet on the other hand have legalized abortion, as if the fetus were, after all, merely a woman’s own property to do with as she pleases.

Finally, Garrett appears to be surprised at the lack of any biblical text which explicitly prohibits abortion. Of course, one has to be leery of any argument from silence. Perhaps, were it not for Exodus 21:22-24, it would be possible that the Bible allows a pro-choice morality. But, in fact, even apart from Exodus 21, it appears more likely that the Bible does not explicitly prohibit abortion simple because abortion was as unthinkable in Israel (where life was so esteemed) as it was abhorred among Israel’s pagan neighbors. Consider, for example, the grisly Middle Assyrian Law A53, which comes from the same time as Moses: “If a woman had had an abortion by her own act, when they have prosecuted here and convicted her, they shall impale her on a tree without burying here. If she died while having the abortion, they shall impale her on a tree without burying her …”

Does all this mean that the Bible has no comfort to offer to the one who had made the painful choice to abort? By no means! It is true that the Bible does not offer the tenuous comfort of minimizing a past wrong, but it does offer the infinitely better comfort of a God who specializes in forgiveness precisely because another died the death every one of us deserves, on Calvary infamous “tree.”