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Monday, October 14, 2013

A Critique of Paul D. Simmons' Biblical Case for Abortion, Part II

In part one of this series, I responded to some philosophical arguments that Dr. Simmons had against fetal personhood. This article will respond to his claims regarding what the Bible says about the fetus. You can find Dr. Simmons' original article here.

The Bible and the Fetus

Doctor Simmons begins by asserting that Exodus 21:22-25 is important to the abortion debate, but it's really incidental and not an important point (he even admits that this is pertaining to the accidental, not intentional, termination of the fetus' life, and many philosophers agree that intent has much bearing on the moral equation). Even in our own law, murder is punished much more severely than accidental death (manslaughter).

Now I've responded to this argument elsewhere, but let's assume for a moment that this passage indicates that the unborn is not a person, whereas the woman is a full person. Scott Klusendorf, in his book The Case for Life (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2009, pp. 142-143), responds to his charge. Klusendorf argues that first, the preceding verses indicate that a master who unintentionally kills his slave escapes without penalty, but it doesn't follow from this that the Bible doesn't consider slaves persons. And second, this passage doesn't even remotely suggest that a woman may intentionally kill her child through abortion (which Simmons even seems to recognize with his admission that this is an accidental, not intentional, death).

I would also add to this that in another passage, Numbers 3:14ff, the Lord commanded Moses to take a census of the sons of Levi, counting only children one month and older. But it also doesn't follow from this that God only considers children one month and over to be full human persons (there are other reasons for this, of which are beyond the scope of this article to address).

But aside from this, there's no reason to think that Simmons' interpretation of this passage is the correct one. Klusendorf continues in his book that if you look at the original Hebrew, the passage seems to convey that both mother and child are covered by lex talionis (the law of retribution). He quotes Hebrew scholar Gleason Archer (which was cited in John Ankerberg and John Weldon, When Does Life Begin?, Brentwood, TN, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989, pp. 195-196), "There is no second-class status attached to the fetus under this rule. The fetus is just as valuable as the mother."

Finally, there is no reason to think that the death of the child is in view in this passage, as it would be with elective abortion. Klusendorf mentions that according to Millard Erickson (Christian Theology, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 1999, p. 572), citing the work of Jack Cottrell ("Abortion and the Mosaic Law," Christianity Today, March 16, 1973), the passage can reasonably be translated "the child comes forth," and if he/she is not injured, the penalty is a fine. But if the child is hurt, then the penalty is life for life, etc. Also according to the passage, the child in question is clearly a child.

Simmons is aware of Cottrell's interpretation of these passages and gives us four reasons why Cottrell's interpretation is "problematic." However, absolutely none of his arguments succeed in refuting Cottrell's interpretation, and only the fourth reason actually attempts to give an argument.

First, he argues that Cottrell stands virtually alone among scholarly translators and interpreters of this text. Now, I'm not knowledgeable regarding scholarly translations and interpreters, so I can't speak to the truth or falsehood of this, but it's really irrelevant. This is nothing but the argumentum ad populum fallacy. Just because he's in the minority does not prove that he's incorrect. Simmons still must give an argument. Simmons argues that Cottrell's interpretation is out of necessity, but one could just as easily make that claim of Simmons (and of the other scholars). Considering that Simmons gave an argument for why an alternate interprtation could be used, Simmons' assertions are less than persuasive.

Second, Simmons argues that the Talmud sees the event as a miscarriage, equivalent to a property loss to the father. Though he admits that tradition does not establish truth, he says that ancient interpretations should be helpful in dealing with awkward textual materials. But as Simmons realizes, this is just an appeal to tradition fallacy. Considering that Christians are different from Jews, and have a whole new Testament (Covenant) to work from, it is not surprising that Jews and Christians would interpret the Old Testament differently. Also considering that many different types of people have been considered property in the past (women, blacks, Jews, etc.), it does not follow that if someone views them as property that they really are property, or that even as property they have no value, or they are not just as valuable, as the ones keeping them as property.

Third, Simmons argues that Cottrell reasons from this passage the implication that God considers the unborn full human persons, but that he is incorrect as this verse says nothing about fetal personhood. Simmons is correct about this, but one of the rules of proper Biblical hermeneutics is that you interpret Scripture with Scripture. The evidence is overwhelming through the entirety of Scripture that the unborn are just as valuable as born human beings, and that murder of any human beings is wrong. So while we can't get that from this passage alone, we can get that from many other passages (see my other linked article for some). So this reason doesn't justify his interpretation, he just argues against Cottrell's interpretation (and is only partially correct).

Fourth, Simmons finally attempts an argument. He argues that other fundamentalist scholars (I'm guessing "fundamentalist" here means "conservative") who disagree with Cottrell, such as Bruce K. Waltke ("The Old Testament and Birth Control," Christianity Today, November 8, 1978). Waltke notes that Leviticus 24:17 requires the death penalty for anyone who "kills any human life," and that the death penalty was "plainly" not prescribed in the Exodus passage. Now, I cringe whenever a Christian tries to argue that their interpretation is the "plain" one. But the problem here is that Waltke's interpretation is not plain at all. In fact, I checked many modern English translations of the Bible (King James, New King James, New International, Revised Standard, and New American Standard), and only one of the translations (New Revised Standard) translated this as a "miscarriage," and the NRSV is well-known for the liberal stance of its translators. All of the others seemed quite clear that a miscarriage is not in view, but a premature birth with no injury to the child is in view (and if there is injury to mother or child, life for life is to be taken). So Waltke concluds that the unborn were not considered a "soul" in the Old Testament, but this seems clearly false. After all, David knew that he existed in his mother's womb as God was "knitting him together" (Psalm 139:13). so this shows a continuity of existence from the womb, which indicates a soul. A psalmist also expressed this by indicating that God was his God from his mother's womb (Psalm 22:10). The prophet Job expressed a similar understanding (Job 10:10-12).

Fundamentalist W.A. Criswell (The Criswell Study Bible, Dallas: Criswell Center for Biblical Studies, 1979, p. 102) agreed with Waltke, focusing on the "birth and breath" criteria of Genesis 2:7. But this also denotes a lack of understanding of the passage in question. Adam was formed of the dust of the earth, in an atmosphere in which he needed oxygen to breathe. In order for Adam to exist (since he wasn't conceived in a womb), God had to give him the "breath of life" in order to breathe. So there are at least two problems with Criswell's interpretation. First, the unborn do, in fact, take in oxygen to breathe. As Klusendorf mentions in his book, only the method, not the fact, of breathing changes at birth. He says it's like switching from AC to DC power. So all this proves is that anyone God creates out of the dust of the air requires the "breath of life" to begin life. And second, one could equally well argue that true personhood doesn't begin until you are an adult, since Adam began life as an adult.

So far, Simmons' case has not held up. The Bible is an overwhelmingly pro-life book, and a pro-choice Christian cannot take the odd verse or passage out of context to try and support their views.


  1. This is my favorite argument in favor of abortion in any given circumstance (Note: I believe that the Latin Canon 1323-1324 give valid support for the idea of abortion as a last cause and for raped women or those living in poverty so abortion should remain available in case of that):
    "Imagine if all of a sudden something got stuck inside you! My body, my right!"
    Response - "Yes, you're body, you're right, but imagine if somehow we both got stuck together by glue and I decided you were not 'person' enough so I stated my legal right to kill you. My body, my right."
    Abortion Advocate - "You anti-women celibate! You're probably a 90 year old man with menopause or an attractive 46 year old women who is a politician! F*** YOU!"
    My Response - "Technically, I'm a 21 year old guy."
    Abortion Advocate - "F*** out of this conversation! This is a women's issue!"
    Women who does not support abortion jumps in who is married and pregnant - "I don't support abortion."
    Abortion Advocate - "You're a celibate male! F*** off!"
    Women - "Actually, I'm a pregnant mother of two."
    Abortion Advocate - "F*** off! My body, my right!"
    Me - "@_@"
    Do you ever notice that the bottom line of their arguments is that no matter what, you are anti-women? And the other side - "You're a child-killer". The bad thing for the abortion adherents in my opinion is that they have really set themselves up for dismal failure in the first place. They fail to draw the line on what a human is. Using their logic, a sleeping human being is actually not a person since a person is a concsious human being. I'm trying to figure them out. Their position has too many holes for me.
    That said, I think there are some extremists on the Catholic side who overlook the Canon Laws I pointed out here as well. I think a moderate position is needed and I think the Latin Canon Law has aided that issue quite a lot.

    1. And yes, the Catholic Church does not try to exercise dominion on people's privacy FYI.

    2. I'm not Catholic, but I do have a copy of the Catholic Catechism. I also double-checked this with my Catholic friends. I don't know about these canon laws you're talking about, but they are apparently false. This is from the Catholic Catechism:

      2270: Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person -- among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

      2271: Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.

      So whatever these canon laws were attempting to establish runs contrary to the Catholic church's teachings on abortion.

    3. Long time.

      The Catholic Church maintains a very different definition of abortion. If we talk about medical abortion, then in most cases, medical abortion is abortion.

      For a fuller explanation...