The term “therapeutic abortion” is used to describe the deliberate ending of a pregnancy which would otherwise have resulted in the birth of a live baby. Many people from numerous Christian churches strongly believe that the Bible opposes therapeutic abortions. This belief is based on two concepts. One is that children are a blessing given by god. Psalm 127, verse 3 says:–
“Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.”
Those in satisfactory marriages may believe this to be true, but many unmarried women and women made pregnant by men other than their husbands may disagree with the statement that they are being blessed and rewarded by god. The passage, however, does show that pregnancy in the Bible was thought of as a sign of god’s approval, at least for those married according to its requirement of one man legally bound to one or more women.
There is one reference in the Bible to causing an abortion. It is found at Exodus chapter 21, verses 22–25, where it says in the Douay-Rheims translation:–
“If men quarrel, and one strike a woman with child and she miscarry indeed, but live herself: he shall be answerable for so much damage as the woman's husband shall require, and as arbiters shall award. But if her death ensue thereupon, he shall render life for life…”
The Contemporary English version puts it:–
“Suppose a pregnant woman suffers a miscarriage as the result of an injury caused by someone who is fighting. If she isn’t badly hurt, the one who injured her must pay whatever fine her husband demands and the judges approve. But if she is seriously injured, the payment will be life for life …”
These translations make it clear that the main focus is on the woman’s death, not the death of the fetus. If the woman survives but the fetus dies the man must pay a fine to the husband, since the fetus is considered to be the man’s property. If the woman dies, however, it is “life for life”, which was the penalty for unlawful killing. Execution if the wife dies, a fine if the fetus dies! Obviously, in those days a fetus was not considered to be alive in the same way as the mother, nor to have the same value.
There are no other passages in the Bible which directly address the subject, so religious leaders have evaluated other statements, often those of a general nature, and interpreted them to apply to the subject of abortion. While not commenting on the validity of conclusions reached from interpretations, it is surely obvious that they more than likely reflect attitudes already held by the interpreters and must be suspect.
Perhaps most commonly, the rationale given by those who oppose abortion is that the Ten Commandments, viewed as the underpinnings of the Mosaic Law and hence, Christian Law, contains a prohibition usually translated as “Thou shalt not kill”, (Exodus chapter 20, verse 13), and it is emphasised by those who want to outlaw abortions that a therapeutic abortion kills an unborn child and is therefore forbidden by this Commandment.
If that were so, what, then, are we to make of the frequent use of capital punishment for many crimes in the Mosaic Law, including illicit sexual behaviour by both men and women, the punishment for which was to be put to death, usually by stoning, then to be burned?
The ancient Hebrew word translated as “kill” is “ratzakh”. Strong says this word is:–
“A primitive root; properly, to dash in pieces, that is, kill (a human being), especially to murder: - put to death, kill, (man-) slay (-er), murder (-er). “
Comparing how different translations express it may help understand the meaning of the Commandment. If a translation is not listed it probably expresses it the same way as in the King James Version. The translations listed just happen to be the ones easily available to me.
|Translations using “Kill”|
|American Standard||Thou shalt not kill|
|Bond Slave||You will not kill|
|Brenton||Thou shalt not kill|
|Darby||Thou shalt not kill|
|Douay-Rheims||Thou shalt not kill|
|Hebrew Linear||Thou shalt not kill|
|King James||Thou shalt not kill|
|Modern King James||You shall not kill|
|Webster||Thou shalt not kill|
|Translations using “Murder”|
|2001 Translation||You must not commit murder|
|Apostolic Polyglot||You shall not murder|
|Contemporary||Do not murder|
|Easy-to-read||You must not murder anyone|
|English Standard||You shall not murder|
|Good News||Do not commit murder|
|God’s Word||Never murder|
|International||You are not to murder|
|Literal||You shall not murder|
|Jewish Publication||Thou shalt not murder|
|Net Bible||You shall not murder|
|New heart||You shall not murder|
|New World||You must not murder|
|Revised Version||Thou shalt do no murder|
|Rotherham||Thou shalt not commit murder|
|Young||Thou dost not murder|
|Basic English||Do not put anyone to death without cause.|
From the list, it is quite clear that the commonest alternative to translating ratzakh as “kill” is to translate it as “murder”. However, there is a difference in meaning between those two words. The word “kill” simply means to end a life. On the other hand, “murder” means to end a human life illegally. For that reason, killing a criminal under the Mosaic Law would not be murder and would not violate the commandment, since it was the legal punishment for numerous crimes, including many of a religious or moral nature. Similarly, killing people during a war would not have been murder since doing so would have been authorised by the state, and thereby be legal. In other words, the prohibition in the Commandment is not against killing itself, but against unlawful killing.
That last point is important as ancient Israel killed many of the original inhabitants in the wars to take over the Holy Land. This is described in detail in the book of Joshua. Concerning the capture of Jericho, chapter 6, verse 21 says:–
“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword. “
Everything was destroyed and everybody killed except the prostitute, Rachel, who had helped them. That massacre would have included all the pregnant women and their unborn children. Now, these may not have been abortions but to the fetuses there would be no difference. Innocent, unborn children would be dead, legitimately killed under Bible Law. There are similar references regarding the cities of Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, and Debir recorded in Joshua chapter 10, verses 40 and 41, which says this:–
“So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD god of Israel commanded. And Joshua smote them from Kadeshbarnea even unto Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, even unto Gibeon.”
Let me emphasise that again. Joshua “utterly destroyed all that breathed” including all of the pregnant women and all of their innocent, unborn children.
It may be argued that this account is not factual but a semi-mythical account of how Israel came to occupy ancient Palestine and it should be read with caution instead of being accepted at face value. That may be so, but even if that is the case it still shows that the religious leaders who lived at the time the book of Joshua was written had no hesitation endorsing the killing of pregnant women and causing the death of the fetus at the same time. Just as importantly, they firmly believed that god had commanded them to kill those unborn babies.
Even before that account, the ancients in the Bible had no hesitation in killing unborn children. It is recorded in Genesis chapter 38 that some time after the Patriarch Judah had hired what he thought was a prostitute for casual sexual intercourse, he was told that his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar, was pregnant from prostitution. His comments in verse 24 show the prevalent attitude of the time:–
“And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.”
“Let her be burnt.” That was to be her punishment, until she proved to him that he was the man who had hired her, believing her to be a prostitute and that she had done it only because he had failed to ensure she had a son to carry on her husband’s line.
“Let her be burnt,” was his initial response, despite knowing that she was three months pregnant. This meant that Tamar was to be killed first by stoning and then her body was to be burned, ensuring that both she and her unborn child were completely destroyed. The life of the unborn child was not a factor demanding mercy or an exception, but the baby would have died along with the mother. From the perspective of the fetus, just how does that differ from a first trimester, therapeutic abortion?
Frankly, if this is the punishment in ancient times for pregnancy outside marriage or for pregnant prostitutes or unfaithful wives, then one has to wonder how the Psalmist could possibly believe that “Children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward,” when all it does is guarantee the mother’s death by stoning and burning along with her fetus. Obviously, under these circumstances, children could only be a reward for women in a relationship which was approved. Most likely, the reason behind the killing of illegitimately pregnant women and women who had illicit sexual relations had to do with inheritance and preserving of blood lines, since there is clearly no concern at all for the unborn child.
Keep in mind that Judah was the patriarch of one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the nation the Bible says were god’s chosen people, yet he had no compunction killing an unborn child. The practice of stoning those engaged in illicit sexual relations became part of the Mosaic law and is recorded in Deuteronomy chapter 22. It applied to both men and women, but it should be noted that there is no mention of an exception if the woman should be pregnant. She is simply to be killed when found out. Some of these woman, sometimes, must have been pregnant when they were killed according to this punishment and if not strictly an abortion, it was certainly the killing of her baby along with the mother. The ancients obviously did not consider unborn life to be sacred, nor the killing of an unborn child to be murder, as is so often claimed.
The practice was still being carried out in Jesus’ day, if we are to believe the account in the Gospel of John (chapter 8, verse 3 on). It is recorded there that an adulterous woman was to be stoned and Jesus was asked what he thought. His answer was to be merciful because everyone made mistakes, but the account does show that this practice was still common at the time. It was also still the practice to burn the dead bodies of those considered defiled by throwing their bodies into the rubbish fires just outside Jerusalem, now used to symbolise hellfire with its name of Gehenna.
It is an untenable position to hold that the Bible forbids killing unborn children, since it was a common practice both before the Mosaic Law was instituted and during the many centuries it held sway. There is no record of mercy for those unfortunate women who were pregnant when they were killed along with their unborn babies as a punishment for some sexual misconduct, or simply because they were residents of a defeated city. Since this is so, and since murder is unlawful killing, and since abortion is not an unlawful practice, it also is not murder.
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