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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A Review of R. H. Allen's "Guidance on Abortion"

I recently came across what purported to be a Bible-based look at the abortion issue, written by a youth pastor. Since probably most abortions are of a child of a youth group member, this would be an important issue. The link to the pdf can be found here.

The full title of Allen's article is, "A Christian Looks to the Bible for Guidance on Abortion," but when Allen looks to the Bible, he doesn't look very far. In fact, he doesn't get much past Exodus 21:22-25, which he quotes from the King James Version:

"If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

Convenient that he did this, because just about any other English translation will totally defeat his purpose, which is to show that abortion is biblical, based on the conclusion that
"The scripture directs that if the fetus is aborted as a result of the injury, the offending man must pay retribution as determined by the woman’s husband. However, if the woman herself dies, then the man must die (i.e., “give life for life”)."

Take, for example, the ONIV:

"If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[a] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life"
 [a] Or she has a miscarriage

The NNIV, of course, changes 'men' to 'people,' which brings in the off-the-wall possibility that the mother herself is at least partially responsible for the abrupt delivery of her child. But there's still nothing about the woman being killed in the process.

Here are the possible interpretations of the English text:

1) Child dies: man fined. Woman dies: capital punishment. (Allen's view)
2) Child is born prematurely but lives: man fined. Child born prematurely but dies: capital punishment. (possible view based on NIV text)

The view derived from the NIV marginal reading is a bit hard to pin down. If causing a miscarriage isn't 'serious injury' (and it is so considered in all 50 states), then what is, short of the woman herself dying? The passage really just doesn't make sense as translated from Hebrew to English.

What happens, though, if we look at the Greek translation of this passage?

22 ἐὰν δὲ μάχωνται δύο ἄνδρες καὶ πατάξωσιν γυναῖκα ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσαν καὶ ἐξέλθῃ τὸ παιδίον αὐτῆς μὴ ἐξεικονισμένον ἐπιζήμιον ζημιωθήσεται καθότι ἂν ἐπιβάλῃ ὁ ἀνὴρ τῆς γυναικός δώσει μετὰ ἀξιώματος 23 ἐὰν δὲ ἐξεικονισμένον ἦν δώσει ψυχὴν ἀντὶ ψυχῆς   --Septuagint

Daniel L. Christiansen has provided the following translation:

"If two men are fighting, and they strike a pregnant woman, and her not-fully-formed child comes out, the man should be punished by a fine: in keeping with the court's decision, he is to pay as much as the woman's husband might demand. 23 But if [the child] was fully-formed, the man is to give [his] life in exchange for [the child's] life."

A more literal translation would be:

"If two men are fighting, and they strike a pregnant woman, and her not-fully-formed child comes out, the man should be punished by a fine: in keeping with the court's decision, he is to pay as much as the woman's husband might demand. 23 But if it was fully-formed, he is to give life for life."

Both of these offer a third possible interpretation:

3) Child is born so prematurely that it can't survive: man fined. Child is born prematurely, though viable, but dies anyway: capital punishment. (Daniel L. Christiansen's view)

One thing that all these interpretations have in common is that they accept the fact that striking a pregnant woman may cause her pregnancy to terminate early. There are actually not just three, but four possible results from this:

1) A pregnancy that could have proceeded to term is ended before the fetus is viable, causing avoidable death;

2)  A pregnancy that could have proceeded to term is ended after the fetus is viable, but before it is strong enough to survive outside the womb, still causing avoidable death;

3) A pregnancy that could not have proceeded to term anyway--because of a defective fetus--is ended before the fetus has a chance to spontaneously abort, causing death that would have happened later anyway;

4) A pregnancy that could have proceeded to term is ended after the fetus is viable, and strong enough to survive the experience, resulting in emotional harm to the mother, but not physical harm to her child.

This third possibility comes out in Breton's translation of the Greek:

"And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty: as the woman's husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. 23 But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life"

Neither the second nor fourth possibility is in view in either translation of the Greek. It is assumed in verse 23 that the expelled child dies; the only possibilities are the death of an imperfectly formed fetus that couldn't have survived outside the womb, or the death of a fully formed fetus that could have.

Now, we know more about human physiology than did the Greek scholars who first translated the Pentateuch. Unless we get our education from watching television and movies, we know that a fetus is well-protected inside its mother's womb, and a blow to the outside of her body is not going to hurt it directly. While the trauma may send her into labor early, the only danger to the child is that it may not yet be ready for the experience.

So the idea of a perfectly formed fetus dying from this sort of trauma only makes sense if it were extremely premature--basically, first or second trimester (although, with modern medical intervention, viability is pushed back a ways into the second trimester). Thus, according to the Greek translation of this passage, causing a woman to abort her child IS grounds for the death penalty, the only defense being that a postmortem revealed the fetus to have been doomed regardless of when it was born.

So, here's the scenario: A woman gets involved in a fight between two men, gets punched in the gut, and stumbles off to recover. Before she is fully recovered, however, she experiences a miscarriage. The question is, was this just a coincidence, or is the miscarriage a direct result of the blow she received?

The only way to determine this is to examine the fetus. If it proves defective, like other fetuses from miscarriages not know to have been associated with an abdominal blow, the man is not subject to charges of murder (of the child), but only assault and battery (of the mother). The possible death of the mother is not at all in view here, contra Allen.

Now, that's what the Greek translation says. But what about the Hebrew?

22 וְכִֽי־יִנָּצ֣וּ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְנָ֨גְפ֜וּ אִשָּׁ֤ה הָרָה֙ וְיָצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן עָנ֣וֹשׁ יֵעָנֵ֗שׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָשִׁ֤ית עָלָיו֙ בַּ֣עַל הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֖ן בִּפְלִלִֽים׃  וְאִם־אָס֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֑ה וְנָתַתָּ֥ה נֶ֖פֶשׁ תַּ֥חַת נָֽפֶשׁ׃ 23

"If men strive, and strike a pregnant woman, and her children come forth, and no mishap comes about*-- fining he shall be fined, according as the woman's husband will impose upon him; and he shall pay in pleadings. 23  And if mishap comes about*, then you shall give soul in place of soul."

It's important that the Hebrew word here is not that of an embryo, but of a baby. It's probably in the plural to avoid the misconception that only a male child is in view here. The text is ambiguous, but only to a limited extent: the LXX interpretation is certainly possible, but only as Breton translates it; it's not an unformed embryo, but a baby.

So, in conclusion, R.A. Allen is way off base linguistically. He takes an obscure translation of an obscure passage, twists it like a pretzel, and viola--gets the interpretation he started with. Ironically, most of his article is a warning against doing this very thing.

Now, perhaps you're in agreement with me, that there is nothing in this verse laying a different valuation on the life of an inviable fetus, versus a viable one.  But, it turns out, that's not the way the ancients understood it.

Thanks are due to Thomas F. McDaniel for the following quotes.

Philo (Congressu Quaerendae Eruditionis Gratia, xxiv 137):
"And with respect to these matters the following law has been enacted with great beauty and propriety: “If while two men are fighting one should strike a woman who is great with child, and her child should come from her before it is completely formed, he shall be mulcted in a fine, according to what the husband of the woman shall impose on him, and he shall pay the fine deservedly. But if the child be fully formed, he shall pay life for life. For it was not the same thing, to destroy a perfect and an imperfect work”

He goes on, (De Specialibus Legibun, iii 108–109):
"But if any one has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strike her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he committed and also because he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence. But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; for such a creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor's workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world."

*According to McDaniel, this phrase should be translated, "[not] perfect it has become."


So, we see the possibility of my interpretation after all. In either case, a postmortem ensues, no doubt before the same judges who are to decide whether to apply a fine or the death penalty. The expelled fetus is examined, and if it can be see to be perfectly formed, it is assumed that it could have survived if left to term; if it is still too early in gestation to determine whether some fatal genetic abnormality is present, then the accused retains the assumption of innocence as regards to murder, and is only fined for assault.

What then, is the implication for R. A. Allen? Simply that according to this verse, anyone who causes the death of a fully formed yet unborn human, is guilty of murder.

That's not a pro-choice position.

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