|FUNDAMENTALISTS AND ABORTION by Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell|
December 12, 2014
Why are fundamentalist, Protestant Christians so adamantly opposed to abortion and to freedom of choice for women? There are several answers to that question, but few commentators have probed the pertinent theological and religious assumptions behind this opposition. Fundamentalist Christians 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 much resistance from fundamentalists.
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 Hebrew text seems clear that this was an induced abortion with the purpose of determining both guilt and paternity. Some object that the passage does not specifically say that the woman is pregnant, so it is simply a punishment for adultery. Little wonder that this passage is not cited by right-to-life advocates.
The big question is: when does human life begin? Fundamentalists cite Psalm 139, “When I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, / Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.” And, they cite Jeremiah’s sense of calling from God: “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you (Jeremiah 1:5).” Another critical passage on this issue however, and one that is never cited, is Genesis 2:7: “then 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, the sacred gift, begins at birth with the first breath.
So, fundamentalist Christians 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 very selective use of scriptures and then ignore any passages that do not support their conviction. This brief look at the pertinent scriptural passages only indicates that the Bible is not a very reliable guide in this matter.
The other theological basis for their objection is one that makes them uncomfortable allies with Roman Catholic leaders and doctrine on this matter as well as on birth control.
Catholic 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,” presumed to be ordained by God, is sinful and should be stopped.
So, these unlikely partners, who have for centuries shown great disdain for each other, find themselves in the same camp, opposing both abortion and contraception, both of which are legal in America. These two theological perspectives also provide the basis for their continuing opposition to the equality of women. The medieval view of God's "Natural Law" made women subservient to men. Strange bed fellows, nestled in 13th Century theology and highly selective biblical interpretation. Should this questionable religious ideology control social policy in a free society? Hardly.
Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell
202 Saponi Drive, Hillsborough, NC