Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Abortion and the Bible (Perplexing Questions)

The religious right’s positions on a good many issues perplex me. I would genuinely like to hear the data and reasoning behind them, rather than the usual bumper-sticker cant that indicates no research and little thought—and no great attention even to the scriptures they so devoutly brandish, unaware of just how two-edged their swords are (Hebrews 4:12).

On abortion, for instance, the heavenly minded take a stance that life begins at conception. Quite recently, a sincere believer I know upheld this stance with the story of Onan, the guy in Genesis who “spilled his seed on the ground” to avoid his duty of impregnating his dead brother’s childless wife (Genesis 38:9-10). Now I had always thought that the sin of Onan (onanism) was masturbation, but this person was quite certain that the real sin was a sin against life, human life. Then, I asked, was she suggesting that Onan’s sperm was a human being? No, she answered, but Onan’s refusal to give his widowed sister-in-law a child was more than an infraction of Jehovah’s pre-Mosaic law; it was, more importantly, a denial of the special holiness of human life.

Now I’ve read the Old Testament through several times—not recently, though—and I don’t recall its version of God ever having much to say about the special holiness of human life—a concept that rings in my ears as more early 19th-century romantic than Judaic or Christian.

In fact, the jealous and angry God of Moses did not hesitate to ask Abraham and Jephthah to sacrifice (kill) their son and daughter respectively, the former to test Abraham’s piety and the latter to settle what amounts to a careless wager (Genesis 22:1-14; Judges 11:30-37). God spared Isaac and, so a good many evangelical readers believe (or hope), Jephthah’s daughter, as well—an optimism based on her mourning the fact that she would never marry, not her impending death—though for a girl in the ancient world, not marrying equaled death and, in Greek mythology, Iphigenia, King Agamemnon’s daughter, similarly mourns her perpetual maiden state before facing her father’s blade (though some Greeks, suckers for happy endings like the rest of us, imagined that, after death, she married Achilles).

At any rate, God most definitely did not spare Job’s children—and again for no better reason than to put Job’s devotion to the test (Job 1:6-21). But then, according to some traditions, Job was Sumerian, not Hebrew—and the Old Testament God never recognized the special holiness of goyim and backsliding Jews, as again and again he called for the slaughter of every man, woman, and child (even the livestock) among “them” (Exodus 12:29; Leviticus 26:29; Numbers 16:27-33, 31:17-18; Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6; I Samuel 15:3—and here I scratch only the genocidal surface of the Bible).

Beyond a callous disregard for the lives of the born, Mosaic law offers no sense that unborn lives are even as special. The first five books of the Bible offer excruciatingly detailed instructions about the eating of shrimp, copulating during a woman’s menstrual cycle, and the cleansing of lepers, but hardly a word about the disposition of the unborn. Exodus 21:22-25 describes the prescribed punishment for a man who, in the middle of a fight, wounds a pregnant woman. If she miscarries, the guilty party has to pay the woman’s husband a fine (the crime, after all, is against him, not her—and it is damage to property, not manslaughter). But if any “further damage” occurs (presumably the death of the woman), the guilty man must be punished a “life for a life.” (By the way, more recent translations often shy away from wording here that suggests miscarriage—whether due to faithfulness to the original wording or awareness of its modern legal implications, I cannot say.)

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 calls for the public stoning of “stubborn and rebellious” children—and we’re talking living, breathing, possibly even adult children here. So what becomes of the rather petty question “What would have happened had the mothers of Washington, Lincoln, and Edison had an abortion?” Think about it: What would have happened had the mothers of Mozart, Einstein, and George W. Bush followed Deuteronomy to the letter?

In the history of the Christian church, to my knowledge, there exists no general tradition of holding funerals for miscarriages—though I am aware that individuals have deeply mourned these losses, usually in private, sometimes with some attempt at an unofficial religious ritual. But (and you may correct me on this) funeral rites for fetuses (or sperm) have not played a significant role in the Christian liturgy.

For that matter, church registers traditionally recorded births as auspicious events, not pregnancies, though high infant-mortality rates 100 or more years ago might have dampened whatever enthusiasm the old-time religionists would have felt in presumptuously celebrating conception. The sacraments didn’t start until after birth. Naming was usually reserved for breathing infants—even premature births were rarely named. The unborn were not counted in censuses and population tallies.

On what, then, do modern Christians, mainly Catholics and evangelicals, base their claims that abortion violates their religious beliefs—much less the Constitution of the United States of America?

For myself, a gay middle-aged male with no interest in procreation (or adoption), I admit to being squeamish over the topic of abortion. Kodachrome photos of bloody fetuses in trash pails appall me. I physically recoil from them—but, then, I do much the same with pictures of tonsillectomies, liposuction, and spinal surgery, without thus reaching the conclusion that all gross-looking and distasteful medical procedures should be banned.

Even more, on moral principle I have reservations about abortion as mere birth control—I am, thus, more romanticist than pragmatist or dogmatist. I like, even revere life—though on occasion I eat dead animals, stomp on hornets that inadvertently (through no fault of their own) enter my home, and do not particularly fear the inevitability of death. (I also, routinely, commit the sin of Onan.) More to the point, I am not altogether opposed to war—which may be, though rarely is, logically and ethically justified—or to killing, when unavoidable, any human who poses an immediate deadly or maiming or despotic threat to other humans.

Still, the taking of a human or even just potentially human life—through war, vengeance, or euthanasia—strikes me as being solemn business—a painful choice that fortunately I have not had to make. Such decisions should be made through constitutional means if we are talking about war or capital punishment. And, in keeping with the spirit of the Bill of Rights, when we are talking about a woman’s ownership of and responsibility for her body—and its contents—these decisions should be made by the woman alone, on the best advice and counsel and by the most safe and humane means that can be made available to her.

So, apart from deliberate (or careless) misreading of their own scriptures and predispositions to self-righteous orneriness and busybody-ism, what exactly are the right-to-lifers’ religious or social interests in the issue of abortion? If they are in the Bible or church history, I have not seen them there.

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