The Bible Says More About Unicorns Than Fetuses -- Maybe Anti-Choice Christians Should Take a Closer Read
Photo Credit: Africa Studio/ Shutterstock.com
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Want more on contemporary culture and gender roles? Visit Role/Reboot.
I learned a dirty little secret in Bible college: It is easier to prove the existence of unicorns by using the Bible than it is to establish the personhood of a fetus. In fact, it is so hard to make a case against abortion using Christian scripture that for decades most Evangelicals did not even try. Instead, their leaders were silent on the issue or told their followers that abortion was part of the larger feminist agenda to destroy families.
Everything that the Bible has to say about fetuses is contained in the hyperlinks in this paragraph. There are five religious leaders who are said to have been chosen by God for a specific role or developed a relationship with the divine before they were born including John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, Jeremiah, Sampson, and King David. And there are four passages of poetry in which God is described as entering a woman’s uterus to make or form a fetus by knitting it together or by curdling it like cheese. Finally, there is single law regarding the accidental injury or death of a fetus.
The law mentioned above makes it particularly hard to say that the Bible supports fetal personhood. It is contained in the amazingly comprehensive legal code for the ancient nation of Israel found in the first five books of the Bible. These laws cover just about every aspect of living in a society from regulations for human waste management to the penalty for knocking out a slave’s tooth. Yet this legal code, which is excruciatingly clear about all matters related to sex and reproduction, gives only one highly specific situation in which the law should become involved in the injury or death of a fetus: If a woman miscarries because she is accidentally hit by a brawling man other than her husband.
The single law regarding fetal injury or death requires that the man who accidentally struck the woman must pay whatever damages the court sets as long there is no lasting injury. But if “mischief follows,” the law required that whatever the injured party suffered the injuring party must be dealt by society.
If you read that passage in older translations of the Bible, it is abundantly clear that the fetus had no personhood. If the woman died, the man who accidentally harmed her paid with his life. This was the same punishment for killing any person, including a slave. But the penalty for the miscarriage itself, the death of a fetus, was payment of whatever damages the court assessed.
Since the rise of the anti-abortion movement, newer translations and interpretations have tried to muddle or even reverse this meaning. But even then, this passage would only establish an extreme penalty for a single and highly specific kind of fetal injury or death. If a person intentionally caused a miscarriage or accidentally caused one in any situation other than a brawl, the law had no interest. For a fetus to have personhood, killing it under any circumstances must be murder. So clearly, the law of the Old Testament does not grant personhood to fetuses.
The sum total of Biblical evidence about fetal personhood is a few poetic passages describing how humans are made, a few men claiming prenatal relationships with God, and a law prescribing the penalty for accidentally injuring a pregnant woman during an altercation. Given such scant evidence, you must be wondering how on earth the Christian Right became so attached to this cause and why most Christians do not realize that the Bible contains no commandments against abortion or any indication that society should protect every fertilized egg.