By The Rev. Dr. Rollin Russell
Why are religious conservatives so adamantly opposed to abortion and reproductive freedom? Few commentators have probed the pertinent religious assumptions behind this opposition. Most base their ethical claims on a particular way of reading the Bible. In regard to abortion, they cite the Mosaic commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” But nowhere in the scriptures does that commandment pertain to fetuses, much less embryos. In fact, the words “abort” or “abortion” do not occur in scripture.
Exodus 21:22 is one of only two references to a miscarriage, and it requires that if two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is injured so that she miscarries, the man responsible pays the woman’s husband what he demands or what a judge determines. That reflects a time when wives and progeny were a man’s property, and injury or destruction of them required compensation. That is a far cry from murder or manslaughter. Plus, it reflects a devaluing of women’s lives that our society has, thankfully, moved beyond with, of course, much resistance from these religious groups.
The other and much more obscure text deals with abortion (maybe) and is the subject of heated debate among some scholars. Numbers 5:11-31 describes how a priest must adjudicate a dispute when a man suspects his wife of adultery. If she protests her innocence, he is to administer the “waters of bitterness that brings the curse (5:19).” If she is innocent, the potion will have no effect. If she is guilty, however, the waters of bitterness will “enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop (5:22).”
The text seems clear that this was an induced abortion with the purpose of determining both guilt and paternity. Little wonder that this passage is not cited by anti-abortion advocates.
The big question is: When does human life begin? Abortion opponents quote Psalm 139: “When I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth / Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.” They also cite Jeremiah: “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you (Jer. 1:5).”
Another critical passage on this issue is never cited: Genesis 2:7 reads, “[T]hen the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and he became a living being.” According to this text, read literally, human life begins at birth with the first breath.
“Right-to-life” folks assert their claim that abortion is murder, and that some forms of contraception cause the abortion of an embryo. They base their objection on a selective use of scriptures and then ignore any passages that do not support their view. Clearly, the Bible is not a very reliable guide in this matter.
The other basis for their objection is the Roman Catholic doctrine on this matter, which also forbids birth control. This doctrine is based on “natural law,” first promulgated by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in which any interruption of or interference with “the natural order of things,” which is believed to be ordained by God, is sinful.
So these religious groups oppose abortion and contraception, both of which are legal in America. Should 13th-century theology and highly selective biblical interpretation control social policy in a free society?
In a word, no.
The Rev. Dr. Rollin Russell is a retired pastor and teacher who lives in Asheville, N.C. He holds graduate degrees from Vanderbilt University and has pastored churches in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas.