Response: “The biblical argument in favor of abortion”

I’m going to respond to an article published on The Dialectic website called “The biblical argument in favor of abortion”, written by Liana Henderson-Semel (view here). The reason I am writing this responsive article is because any attempt I see to persuade a Christian audience by the twisting of scripture should be met and confronted. And abortion is one of those things that can’t be given a light treatment.

Let me just be clear that the shortness of The Dialectic‘s article and the writing (certain word choices and phraseology) suggest to me that the author wasn’t attempting to make a thorough, in-depth Biblical argument. She, the author, was simply trying to suggest that there is more than one way to interpret the text (by giving us an alternate reading). But that’s somewhat of a generous assessment on my part. Moreover, my guess is the author is probably an atheist (or maybe an agnostic) given the way she talks about the Bible and those pro-lifers who are Christian. (Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it.) So, in light of all this, I will aim to make my response proportionate, fair, and balanced.

If I ever, at any point, misrepresent Liana or falsely define her beliefs, I sincerely apologize. In my response to her, I will quote (paragraph by paragraph) her entire piece to ensure nothing is taken out of context.

Henderson-Semel begins:

“Though the pro-life position can be taken by anyone, regardless of how they identify spiritually, ethnically, or culturally, there can be no denying the connection that the pro-life movement has to the Catholic church, and to Christianity as a whole. Many of the most avid anti-abortionists cite the Bible and their religious faith as justification for their stance on the women’s health issue, but perhaps their position need not be as rigid as it is. Upon close inspection of the Bible, it becomes clear that abortion is not only a sin-free procedure, but can actually be rationalized and justified using “god’s words” as a framework.”

Already, this paragraph is mired by half-truths and some truly preposterous claims, to the point where I’m tempted not to take it seriously.

All of the anti-abortion, pro-life activists that I know of doing the truly hard work of going to the streets, meeting people on the other side, having the tough conversations, do not cite religion or scripture. But, yes, it’s true, many people in the pro-life movement are Roman Catholic. (Note: I’m a Protestant.) And, yes, it’s true that the pro-life movement is comprised of many faiths and worldviews.

(Consider this, though (just as an aside). If you are pro-choice, would you want me infer that you’re only pro-choice because you’re an atheist? Would you even want me to bring up one’s atheism (or any faith) in this discussion? If one is an atheist and pro-choice, and responds with ‘no’, can we agree to consistency in not immediately inferring/assuming that your neighborhood anti-abortion activist is a Christian (or a Muslim or a Buddhist), the way so many pro-choicers do?)

The issue of abortion is immediately framed by Liana as a “women’s health issue” which is, at best, only half-accurate. (But that’s the question, isn’t it?) The author hardly hides the implicitly suggested preconception that the pro-life message is fundamentally anti-woman, or functionally anti-woman. Maybe this is a harsh jump. If so, there is certainly at least implied that those who are Biblically pro-life use religious doctrine to, well, restrict women either in a way that is malevolent, careless, or unfair.

Her thesis is this: “Upon close inspection of the Bible, it becomes clear that abortion is not only a sin-free procedure, but can actually be rationalized and justified using “god’s words” as a framework.”

Needless to say, I’ve got problems with the way the author frames the issue, the terms and phraseology she uses, and the subtle jab of the last half of the sentence (“…using “god’s words”…”). It’s clear to me, from this and the rest of the article, that the author has not seriously read the Bible or attempted to fairly address and describe the orthodox Christian stance on abortion. Moreover, what I get from this is that she probably examines Christianity from an outside perspective through the lens of the Church’s faults and the errors of many individual believers–legalism, holier-than-thou picketing, shouting matches, and militarized proof-texting. Again, this is just my guess. It is true and certainly worth admitting that many professing Christians have wrongly manipulated the text and abused it, using the Word of God to oppress and harm for personal gain. Let’s be sure, though, that we’re not prejudicially about to judge a faith by its abuse.

She continues:

“For starters, it is important to remind ourselves that abortion is never explicitly mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. Though various forms and methods of abortion have existed and been used certainly as far back as 6 BC, abortion receives no formal mention or attempt at regulation in the original Christian texts. Therefore, we must closely read the English translations of the Bible so as to garner whether or not the prohibition of abortion exists, lurking between the lines of biblical texts.”

6 BC? Where did that date come from? Minor detail, but abortions were performed at least in the Greco-Roman world hundreds of years BC (Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church).

Otherwise, she’s right. “Abortion” is not given any explicit mention in the Bible. (Neither are a lot of other things, I might add.) She would also be correct not to make an argument from silence.

“The cause for the biggest divide between pro and anti-abortionists rests in the definition of “life.” While those who are in favor of abortion often believe that a fetus is not yet alive, and therefore cannot be killed, the anti-abortionists believe that life starts at conception, and therefore that the fetus is a living entity that needs to be protected from death.”

This is mostly fair, though there are certainly exceptions to her broad strokes, and I’m sure the author recognizes this. For many, the “definition of life” is only a red herring to distract from more fundamental attitudes and convictions concerning human value, rights, and autonomy.

In other words, pro-choicer, if the fetus were without a doubt proven to be a living human being, would that change your mind about abortion? Some might say ‘yes’. In my experience, most would say ‘no’.

Liana presents her first argument:

“In Genesis 2:7, however, there is evidence that life does not begin at conception. “The Lord God formed the man…breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being,” the Bible says. This line signifies that the man only became a living being at his first breath, or, more plainly, once he was already born and out of the womb, and able to take in a breath. Until man was able to take that first breath, he was not a living being, and therefore a fetus, who cannot take breath while inside the womb, does not qualify, according to the Bible, as a living being.”

Oh boy. Where to begin.

Let’s put Genesis 2 in context, shall we. God is creating the first man from dust. The idea is that God is putting life into something previous lifeless (an inanimate, non-organismal substance). Right there, we have a problem. It doesn’t follow that, therefore, human life is fundamentally defined by “one’s first breath”. The author is taking a specific, unique case and then trying to apply it to the rest of humanity. Her argument is essentially this:

P1. The man of Genesis 2:7 began to live.

P2. The man lived when breath was poured into him.

C. Therefore, all human beings only begin to live when they first draw breath.

This doesn’t follow and this isn’t the argument scripture is trying to make, implicitly or upfront. Unless of course she reads Genesis 2:7 not in light of the rest of the creation story, and interprets “man” as humanity in general. But Genesis 2 is talking specifically about Adam, the first man.

Genesis 2 is talking about Adam and Adam was not formed as a fetus, we may assume, and therefore the rest of what Henderson-Semel says about the fetus not having life because the fetus doesn’t breath simply breaks down.

The only way her argument can stick is if she presupposes either that life begins when drawing first breath (she hasn’t proven this) and that the text is making a general proclamation about humanity (she hasn’t proven this).

The argument is also unbelievable for other reasons. First of all, there are more than one ways to draw oxygen. The pre-born child, while not developed enough to breath, draws oxygen from the mother through the umbilical cord. And the fetus, beginning at 9 weeks, begins breathing movements so that by birth, the baby can breathe on his or her own.

Genesis 2 isn’t trying to define life’s beginning phase but rather that life began somewhere. The only hard line drawn is that there is a Creator and that Adam was his first human creation.

Henderson-Semel sees this objection coming. She knows all of this as she adds:

“Now, some may point to this passage and claim that it refers to the creation of Adam, the very first man, and because he is the very first man there was no female womb for him to come from, and a person’s first breath cannot be used as a marker for the beginning of their personhood, because Adam was therefore a rare and special case. This logic falls short, however, if we consider Job 33:4, which says, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Elihu says this to Job, and so again we have a citation of life coming from the inhalation of breath, and not from conception within the womb, in a case beyond that of Adam.”

Again, we like to use context when we interpret scripture.

The words of Elihu can’t be interpreted absolutely literally as he’s trying to comfort his buddy, Job, who’s just lost everything he has. Elihu is trying to make the point that God sustains him, that he would not be alive unless God willed him to live, and that He may be trusted. Elihu is emphasizing God’s mercy and our dependency upon him.

But even if we grant that Elihu’s words are to be interpreted with the utmost literality, it still doesn’t prove Henderson-Semel’s point. Consider, again, Elihu’s words, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Without breath, we don’t live. This is obvious. But this is not the only sign of a living organism and certainly not the sole marker of life, and Elihu’s statement in no way disagrees. Living organisms breath to survive, surely, but that doesn’t define what life is or where it begins.

The premise that life must begin with breath, again, needs to be defended, not merely assumed and forced into the text.

Side note: the breath argument is pretty old, one has to admit. Do people on oxygen support not count as living him beings or persons? They’re not breathing on their own, after all.

Liana Henderson-Semel ends her piece with this:

“While most assume that biblical teachings are entirely incompatible with the practice of abortion, this is not necessarily the case.”

This phrase is the conclusion to Liana Henderson-Semel’s argument, the reiteration of her thesis which she briefly attempted to prove. However, she falls short in at least two senses. First, she fails to land her case that the Bible doesn’t support “life from conception”. She briefly attempted to show from two short passages that the Bible instead supports life from breath but, as shown, failed to substantiate key assumptions. Secondly, even if we grant her the argument and accept it as true, she fails to make a logical connection between this claim (life from first breath or birth) and the grand conclusion that abortion is a “sin-free” procedure. She did not prove how life’s beginning at birth/breath therefore translates into abortion being permissible, since this view of life and personhood doesn’t necessitate a pro-abortion position. I don’t find myself convinced in the slightest or at all swayed from my belief that scripture is unambiguously in favor of protection of all innocent lives and that the pre-born are in fact living people.

 

My response to Liana’s article will be continued in a future post where I will hopefully give an extensive, positive Biblical argument against abortion. Expect this post to come early next week (possibly this upcoming weekend).

Sources: Gorman, Micheal J. “Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World”. 1982.

Note: The Dialectic also posted an article in response to Liana Henderson-Semel’s piece called “Re: The biblical argument in favor of abortion”. You can find it here.

5 Comments

    1. Hi Amanda,

      As you can tell, my article was mostly from a theological point of view. If you have any counterarguments, I’d love to hear.

      Otherwise, I’d also be happy to hear any substantiation/reasoning you can give to support your assertion.

      My immediate questions are:

      1. Do you construe/interpret my belief that abortion is wrong as forcing birth on women? If so, I’d object on 3 levels. (a) Using this reasoning, one could reframe any moral dictum as forcing behavior on people. (b) Birth is a natural consequence of sex, one that any parent should take responsibility for. (c) If we’re talking about extreme cases of medical complications for the mother, or rape, then we’re only talking about approximately 1% of abortion incidences. (We can discuss each of these points further.)
      2. What do you believe in terms of the humanity of the pre-born? If you believe the fetus/embryo in the pregnant mother isn’t a living human being, can you cite sources in embryology/human biology to defend?
      3. Since you bring up human rights, let me ask two more questions: Do all human beings deserve equal rights, regardless of physical distinction? If so, would you grant the fetus human rights if it were proven that the embryo/fetus were a human being?

      Again, I’m happy to entertain any opposing viewpoints and have a conversation. 🙂

      Thanks,
      Nate

      Like

      1. My counterargument for the theological justification of forced birth is that many people are not theists and do not believe in theistic/spiritual ideology, therefore religious/spiritual ideology should be kept out of law.

        No I just acknowledge that forcing girls and women to give birth against their will is forced birth, that’s not interpretation.
        Moral dictums (meaning laws I presume?) DO force behaviors on people, that’s the point of laws.
        Thing that have consequences are inherently negative/immoral; sex is not unethical or immoral.
        Early term abortion is ethical because early term fetuses are unconscious and unable to experience pain according to medical/prenatal science, therefore forcing birth outlawing abortion and are unjustified.

        The issue is not living or not living, the issue is ability to suffer. Early term fetuses are proven incapable of consciousness or suffering.

        basic body-autonomy rights (human and not) should apply to all sentient beings (meaning conscious and able to experience pain).

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  1. “My counterargument for the theological justification of forced birth is that many people are not theists and do not believe in theistic/spiritual ideology, therefore religious/spiritual ideology should be kept out of law.”

    I was wondering if you had specifically theological counterarguments to what I had written. Meaning, can you interact with the text of the Bible and present some arguments to show that the Bible is in support of abortion.

    Here, you seem to be redirecting the issue to whether or not religion/theology should be introduced to the debate at all. Of course, you’ll remember that I am primarily responding to an article someone else wrote–an article concerning specifically the faith that I hold. It’s in this context that I wrote my article.

    Really, all of this is peripheral. Law should reflect what is morally right and serve to protect all people (I’m sure you agree). Therefore, we have to determine what is morally right. Whether or not we are religious, we have to agree that there is objective moral truth, first and foremost, and that there are human rights. After that, when it comes to abortion, what’s left to determine is whether or not the zygote/embryo/fetus is a human being. But one’s worldview (theistic or atheistic) generally does influence one’s moral reasoning which is why it shouldn’t necessarily be neglected or ignored.

    “No I just acknowledge that forcing girls and women to give birth against their will is forced birth, that’s not interpretation.”

    That’s not an answer to my question. When I say that it is wrong to steal, for example, I am not forcing people to not steal. All I’ve done is declare that stealing is something that shouldn’t be done because it hurts people. It is not the annihilation of choice. It is to say that some choices are objectively wrong. When it comes to abortion, my assertion that it is wrong is not “forcing” anybody to do anything. I am saying it is objectively wrong, that it shouldn’t be done. Declaring victim status, framing the abortion issue as fundamentally anti-women, without prior substantiation for that assertion, does not advance the conversation.

    “Moral dictums (meaning laws I presume?) DO force behaviors on people, that’s the point of laws.”

    Yes, I meant laws or even just moral assertions. It depends what is meant by “force”. Laws don’t keep people from making whatever life decisions they want. People still do bad things all the time. It only ensures that some immoral, harmful decisions are punished. That bad things are met with due consequences for those actions deserving punishment. That people are ultimately protected in some way by our government (which is a good thing).

    “Thing that have consequences are inherently negative/immoral; sex is not unethical or immoral.”

    I didn’t say sex was unethical and never implied it was. You’ve misunderstood me. “Consequence”, in this context, means the outcome or effect of an action. Sex naturally precedes pregnancy and pregnancy, birth. Therefore, birth is a natural outcome, or consequence, of sex. Especially in cases where sex is consensual and/or premeditated, the consequences of this act should be accepted. This is what it means to be responsible.

    Of course, all this doesn’t mean much unless we first address whether or not the fetus is in fact a human being, deserves rights, and whether or not abortion is immoral.

    “Early term abortion is ethical because early term fetuses are unconscious and unable to experience pain according to medical/prenatal science, therefore forcing birth outlawing abortion and are unjustified.”

    So, I believe you are correct. The embryo and early-term fetus are unconscious and incapable of experiencing pain (which starts around 20 weeks). Your conclusion (forcing birth, outlawing abortion is unjustified) however doesn’t follow from this premise.

    “The issue is not living or not living, the issue is ability to suffer. Early term fetuses are proven incapable of consciousness or suffering.
    basic body-autonomy rights (human and not) should apply to all sentient beings (meaning conscious and able to experience pain).”

    So I asked whether or not you believe in human rights and that they should be distributed in equal measure, regardless of physical distinction. You haven’t given me a super clear answer, but from what I can gather, it seems that you’re saying:

    1. Body-autonomy rights should go to all sentient beings (sentient being defined as pain-experiencing, consciousness).
    2. The basis for someone receiving rights is not primarily on whether someone is living or not, but whether or not someone can experience pain.
    3. Early-term abortions are justified because early-term fetuses and embryos can’t feel pain.
    4. Therefore, being alive and even being human isn’t enough to qualify for Rights, or Human Rights. One must also have developed the ability to feel, to be conscious. (You may want to clarify for me whether or not this point accurately reflects what you believe.)

    From this, I have not heard a clear answer to the question of whether or not the fetus is a living human being. It would be nice to know what you think. Now, I may be wrong, but it seems that you might be willing to concede that the fetus is a living human being (though I understand that this is, in your view, immaterial to who deserves rights).

    Your view, which I hope I’ve summarized correctly, necessarily classifies human beings into groups: those that deserve human rights and those who do not deserve human rights. And this classification is based on certain cognitive abilities (sentience, consciousness, pain) which is a physical characteristic of the human species.

    What I’d like to present to you is that, to distribute rights among humans according to any classification of this sort, based on any physical trait which may vary, is by definition discriminatory. It contradicts any meaningful definition of Equal Rights or Equality. And the suggestion that being alive and being human isn’t sufficient to receive rights and protection has a necessary impact on human beings that have already been born, because differences in these cognitive abilities do exist between already-born human beings.

    Does Ashlyn Blocker not deserve human rights because she can’t feel pain? (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/6379795/ns/health-childrens_health/t/rare-disease-makes-girl-unable-feel-pain/#.Wu5lJIjwbIU)

    How about the fetus after 20-24 weeks (pregnancy) when the brain and nervous system has developed the ability to feel pain and physically respond? Will you concede that the human fetus deserves rights beyond this point?

    What about the permanently or indefinitely comatose person (Alfie Evans, if you need an example)? Do they not deserve the right to be protected, to have rights?

    If it’s not enough to prove that the fetus is alive, is human (and I can readily cite academic embryological sources to support), and if it’s not about maintaining an ethic consistent with equal human rights regardless of physical distinction, then my concern and fear is that “autonomy rights” are being used without justification to stifle the life from people that need protection (the pre-born) by people with power (the mother). If choice be the most fundamental and crucial of all rights, then what about the choice and autonomy of the pre-born human?

    To summarize my view:

    P1. The fetus residing in the womb of a pregnant human mother possesses human DNA.
    P2. Organisms possessing human DNA belong to the human species and are human.
    P3. The fetus is growing.
    P4. Growing things are living.
    C1. Therefore, the fetus residing in the womb of a pregnant human mother is a living human being.
    P5. Human beings deserve human rights, including life, autonomy, pursuit of happiness.
    P6. To remove rights from a human being based on any physical trait is discriminatory.
    P7. Human rights ought to be protected.
    C2. Therefore, the human fetus deserves equal human rights and ought to be protected.

    I hope I haven’t misrepresented or misunderstood you. I mean only to make honest, open and respectful conversation and not to hurt or offend.

    Like

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