Letters to the Editor: The Bible and Abortion Pt. 1

by Ann Marie B. Bahr

“What does the Bible say about abortion?” It’s not a bad question since abortion has a long history and almost certainly was known to the writers of the Bible. Surviving texts from ancient Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, all mention women who intentionally induce abortion. Yet there is no mention of a pregnant woman or a midwife intentionally terminating a pregnancy in the Bible. There are, however, several instances of men terminating pregnancies. Exodus 21: 22-25 describes an altercation between two men during which a pregnant woman is struck and consequently miscarries. A number of passages (see, e.g., 2 Kings 8:12, Hosea 13:16, and Amos 1:13) refer to the “ripping open” of pregnant women as a war crime. There is also a story in Numbers 5:11-31 which may involve the drinking of an abortifacient. In this case, the abortion (if it is one) is also caused by men—a priest and a jealous husband.

Was it only men who terminated pregnancies in ancient Israel? That hardly seems likely. We might attempt to explain the lack of attention to female-induced abortion by pointing to the patriarchal nature of ancient Israel: The Bible was most likely written by men and intended to be read by men. Therefore, its focus is on the good and evil deeds of males. But most ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures were patriarchal, and, as we have just seen, a number of them do mention female-induced abortions. They also prescribe penalties for it. Why would ancient Israel not do the same?

I don’t believe it was because prenatal death was of little significance. Having many children was considered a blessing for both mothers and male patriarchs. Barren women like Hannah and Elizabeth prayed fervently for a child. If a man died childlessly, his brother was to conceive a child with the dead man’s wife, and that child would become the dead brother’s heir. The survival and growth of the family were of preeminent concern, and the death of an unborn child must have been a significant loss. Yet there are no laws about what to do in such a case. The silence is deafening, and it speaks volumes. It appears that pregnant women, and the midwives and herbalists who attended to their needs, were free to deal with issues concerning pregnancy and childbirth according to their judgment.

There is wisdom in this silence of the law with respect to abortion. Pregnancy and childbirth contain severe risks for both mother and child. Life-or-death decisions often need to be made quickly and without fear of legal retribution, guided only by skill, experience, and conscience. It appears that ancient Israel trusted its child bearers, midwives, and herbalists to make the right decisions.      

If we were to follow biblical precedent strictly with respect to laws about abortion, we would have to avoid making it a legal matter. We wouldn’t make a law condoning it, and we wouldn’t make a law condemning it. We would debate abortion as a moral issue rather than a legal or political issue.

I would support viewing abortion as a moral versus a legal issue because (1) I think that sometimes it is the right choice, and (2) health care workers should have the freedom to exercise their professional discretion, subject only to their code of ethics. My conviction about this is rooted in a particular incident. My extended family is large and devoutly Catholic. I know only one decision to terminate a pregnancy among all my relatives. My first cousin’s wife was pregnant with their first child. The embryo lodged in her fallopian tube, and she would have died without immediate surgery. It was too early for the baby to survive outside the womb, so the only reasonable choice seemed to be to lose the embryo and the fallopian tube in which it was lodged and allow her to survive. There are two fallopian tubes, so she could still conceive. My cousin and his wife went on to have three sons, but those three sons would never have been born had there been laws against abortion, like those in El Salvador, where one can be imprisoned for thirty years for having an abortion. Thirty years would put even a young woman at the end of her reproductive years.

Of course, states can construct bans on abortion that allow the termination of pregnancy if necessary to save the mother’s life. But is it possible to define what that means with sufficient clarity to enable medical professionals to determine legality in a specific case? Probably not. A not intrinsically life-threatening condition may nonetheless be life-threatening when combined with pre-existing or co-occurring disorders such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, nutritional deficiencies, and advanced age. There is also a timing factor: How close does a woman need to be to death before an abortion is allowed? Several high-profile deaths outside the US (Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, Olga Reyes in Nicaragua, ‘Izabela’ in Poland) resulted in waiting long enough to be sure to meet legal parameters but still resulted in death. In El Salvador, which has a complete ban on abortions, more than 180 women have been jailed for having an abortion connected to an obstetric emergency (i.e., when her own life is threatened).

There is, of course, another side to the abortion debate. The statistics say there are currently between 600,000 and 900,000 legal abortions annually in the US. Each year more unborn children are killed in America than the number of American soldiers who died in any war, with the possible exception of the Civil War (620,000 deaths). In comparison, “only” between 700 and 900 US women die annually from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. However, both statistics and law are blunt instruments. Statistics don’t capture the reality of individual cases; they are an abstraction drawn from many cases. And as for law, it is only helpful if broad societal agreement can be codified. If public opinion is evenly divided, there will be ongoing protests against whatever law is passed, leading to ever deeper divisions in society accompanied by a tendency to vilify one’s opponents. 

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