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McDermott’s Ignorant Slander
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What I see is ironic: The new trend among those who argue for a right to abortion at any stage of pregnancy, and for any reason, have taken to quoting isolated Bible passages as “proof-texts,” and attributing the beginning of life to what amounts to a superstitious and magical belief that birth is the mystical dividing line that turns a lump of inert material into a living soul. They imagine themselves to be the scientific ones; yet they ignore science, speak of “ensoulment,” and misuse the Bible to prove their case. Ironically, in my experience it has often been the very same people, objecting indignantly to the charge of ignoring science in favor of magic “ensoulment,” who also have engaged religious believers with the worst kind of fundamentalism, employing their favorite gotcha proof-texts.
Naturally, Anglicans tend not to be lulled into fundamentalism, preferring in-depth study to simplistic proof-texting, taking into account a perspective gained by consideration of the Canon of Scripture as a whole rather than as a collection of isolated chapters and verses. Proof-texting is nothing like “rightly dividing the word of truth (II Tim. 2:15).” Nonetheless, it is necessary to set straight their three favorite attempts to proof-text their way into offering apologetics for abortion from biblical sources. These three involve the creation narrative, specifically of Man, and then two passages from the laws in the Torah (or Pentateuch). Let us look at each of them in order.
1. The Creation of Adam
“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7)."
In simplistic fundamentalist style, their argument is that this verse proves that “ensoulment” takes place after birth when a newborn takes its first breath into its own lungs. Never mind that the modern science of prenatal medicine treats the unborn baby as a patient, monitors its heartbeat, keeps track of its growth and development, and in every way affirms that this human being is completely alive within the mother’s womb. The idea that it suddenly becomes alive by breathing without her aid, once it has emerged from her womb, is not science, but, as I said above, superstition. It is nonsense that has no place in the modern world. Furthermore, their fundamentalism is mixed with this strange belief in magic as they distort the biblical text into something it was never intended to be.
The purpose of the creation narrative, in this case the second creation narrative, is two-fold: We see that everything in creation is God’s work, and that it is good, and together it is very good. But this passage is about creation as a first cause, something that cannot be repeated. Indeed, as modern people we have no reason to be overly concerned about the obvious fact that the first two chapters of Genesis are not even read as history by most modern people, just as they were not taken as literal history by the earliest readers. Chapter one is a poem, with such poetic license that God makes the light of day before He is said to have created the sun. Along with the second chapter detailing Eden as the source for four rivers that actually never connect, we can see that the ancient people who gave us these accounts were not trying to pass them off as literal historical fact. In fact, they would be surprised, if they came into our time, that anyone ever did so regard them.
So, what do we learn from Genesis 2:7? First that God is the creator of the species called Man, or Adam, or homo-sapiens. Adam, in the story, is not even born, but rather formed as a complete and even adult male. It is here that we first learn of the consistent biblical teaching that we each have a body and a spirit, and that these taken together make each of us into a living soul. In both Greek and Hebrew the words for soul and spirit are not only different, but set alongside each other as separate parts of a human being. In the New Testament this takes on great importance in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, especially chapters two and fifteen, where the difference between soul and spirit is essential to making sense of the text. The body comes from the earth, and in this sense Adam, in the narrative, is born from the earth figuratively. But he is not born literally, and is not an infant.
The passage is telling us simply that life, along with consciousness, comes from God. Also, in both Greek and Hebrew the words translated as “spirit” also mean wind or breath. This is about the creation of the human species, and even taken on its own terms, within the narrative, the story is that this first man was not formed in the womb at all, and not alive until God imparted his own Spirit into him. The breath of God into Adam is the Holy Spirit imparting life into a body that has not been conceived, has never been growing and developing in a mother’s womb, and that had no prior vitality, no heartbeat, nothing. In no way is this creation story anything like pregnancy and childbirth, and in no way is the initial gift of life to the human species repeated by gestation and birth.
In short, to treat Gen.2:7 as a proof-text to justify abortion, by reading into it that breath going into the lungs unassisted by the mother turns morally insignificant tissue into a person, is to defy science in fundamentalist style, complete with a Bible verse. But, after reflection, it is obvious that the text is not about a baby growing and developing in the womb, and is not about birth. Frankly, if we really want to be very biblical about ensoulment, we need to look another passage.
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls (Leviticus 17:11).”
The Hebrew word translated “life” is nefesh; so it is correct to translate it as “The soul of the flesh is in the blood.” Inasmuch as our prospective interlocutors are waxing very fundamentalist, let us look at what actual appeal to biblical authority reveals. Certainly no one can argue that the unborn baby has no blood, so playing the match by their own rules, in this first game we say “checkmate.” But the rules of the game are disingenuous on their part; they have to know that modern prenatal medicine is the science that makes their attempt to return to the Dark Ages most repugnant.
2. A Matter of Premeditation
Our interlocutors will have quoted an unfortunate mistranslation from the Hebrew, rendering the phrase translated quite literally in the King James Bible (above), “so that her fruit depart from her,” as “causing her to have a miscarriage,” or words to that effect. Their argument is that the child is not treated automatically as a murder victim, ergo, the fetus is of less moral significance than a person who has been born and taken that magical first unassisted breath.
The first mistake is to assume that the baby has necessarily died. It is not absolutely clear, inasmuch as premature births at late stages of pregnancy have been a regular feature of human experience all throughout history. Granted, today the prematurely born child is even safer, and its life can be sustained at earlier and earlier stages of development (itself a relevant moral fact to the whole subject of abortion). If indeed the baby were to survive, then the child, as well as the injured mother, is to be avenged “if any mischief follow.” The words “Life for life” are, as in Leviticus above, “Soul (nefesh) for soul (nefesh).” The obvious implications do not support our interlocutors’ position.
More to the point however, whether the child has died or not, the passage cannot be used to make their argument. Let us assume that the child has died, as is most likely, and that the “mischief” is strictly the injuries sustained by the mother. That does seem to be the more reasonable way to interpret the meaning of the ancient text. But it does not follow that this would mean that the child in the womb is of less moral significance; for in the Torah the penalty for murder was not to be carried out on someone who caused an accidental death. “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan; Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares (Numbers 35:10,11).” In the verses that follow it was commanded that no one could be punished for murder unless the actual killing was, in our legal language, premeditated. The men who strove together deserve a punishment; but the entire episode would be an accident. It is likely then that the litany of penalties was not literally meant in this case, “soul for soul,” but was included because this was probably a recognized and oft repeated refrain; for it appears elsewhere.
However the text was intended, by the rules of the match, we again say “checkmate.”
3. A Matter of Clumsy Eisegesis.
“Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD: And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter. Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar: And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed. This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled; Or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity
(Numbers 5 :12-31).”
I have saved the most ridiculous argument for last. What can I say? Eisegesis is always wrong, whether you are reading an alien meaning into the Bible, or Shakespeare, or lyrics of The Beatles. The eisegesis they commit when they invoke this rather strange passage is that they read into this text pregnancy, whereas in fact there is no mention of an existing pregnancy at all. The passage ends with the promise that she may conceive, which potential pregnancy would follow later. Worse, they imagine that the potion mixed by the priest will cause a miscarriage, and that it is, therefore, abortion performed by the priest. But there is no miscarriage caused by the potion. There is no pregnancy, no miscarriage, in short, no abortion, anywhere in this very unusual ancient passage.
Indeed, if the potion really were to make a woman’s belly swell, and her thigh to rot, it would stand to reason that her belly is normal size when she drinks it. Frankly, discussing this at all seriously is difficult to do. Not only is the passage terribly weird, but if this ritual had ever been practiced it could have had only one result: A woman in danger of being abused or divorced would be vindicated and cleared, because there is no magic potion then, and none today either, that could cause her belly to swell and her thigh to rot; and certainly not one that would have this terrible effect only if she had cheated on her husband. By the rules of the match, our interlocutors’ ironic appeal to proof-texts, we again say “checkmate,” only this time straining to keep a straight face.
Science and Superstition
So, in closing, we should wonder how any modern person can so easily set aside the advances of science in the field of prenatal medicine, as to argue “first breath ensoulment,” and how anyone wanting to distance himself from belief in the supernatural would treat that first breath as the beginning of life when that life has already reached an undeniably complex stage of development. They like to think we are the backwards and superstitious lot. But with all their talk about ensoulment and their fundamentalist abuse of scripture, the very opposite is exposed.
Indeed, it is we who are believers in science. And a very real warning must be added. Ensoulment, as they use the word, is about defining personhood. After all of the bloody history, especially of the last five hundred years, with everything from genocidal colonialism, and race-based chattel slavery, to the Holocaust, everyone should back away from defining personhood. For the real purpose in defining personhood is always about exclusion and the attempt to justify atrocities. It is to designate others as non-persons. It is about dehumanizing them. Prenatal medicine is not about defining personhood, and must not be perverted into providing such a definition. Properly understood, ensoulment is a mystery, and for those who actually take religious belief seriously, the work of God and his Spirit.
Regarding the situation in the United States: Before leaping for joy at the overturning of Roe vs. Wade (and Casey vs. Planned Parenthood), let us be sober enough to admit that we, who stand for the sanctity of life, have actually lost ground in recent years. The younger generations had, once upon a time not long ago, become less adamant in fighting for unrestricted access to abortion for any cause beginning in the last decade of the twentieth century. Fewer and fewer new doctors have been willing to do abortions simply because they learned the latest advances in medical knowledge, and have been unwilling to kill their patients (for every obstetrician treats at least two patients in every pregnancy). The number of abortions decreased dramatically. This was not legislative progress, nor was it political progress. But it was a trend based on appreciation for more medical knowledge about the development of life within the womb. We were making progress
Observably, much of that ground has been lost in the last few years, even though the greater scientific knowledge remains and even advances yet more. The problem is politicians. The reactionary nature of American politics has caused a sharp division of causes-lumped-together for which the average person feels compelled to go along with one complete party line or the other. Instead of any discussion in which the developing infant has moral significance as a being, the only topic discussed is personal freedom “to choose.” We are allowed only to mention the woman’s body, as if a pregnant woman has two heads, two hearts, two sets of fingerprints, and two separate DNA patterns until that magic moment of separation; of course this is a completely unscientific fairytale. Instead of debate about when the fetus should be protected by law, a discussion that led to the federal ban of partial birth abortion in 2003, the new demand is for absolute freedom of choice by the mother through all nine months of pregnancy; a position so extreme that even a majority of the self-proclaimed pro-choice advocates were opposed to it before 2016.
Unfortunately, most Americans have become increasingly unable to distinguish between issues. And most politicians have also become less and less resistant to pressure from the respective National Committees of the two major American parties to take any position other than the complete Party Line. This is why lumping together various causes is such an abomination to free thinking minds. The self-contradiction of advocating in favor of healthcare for all, yet advocating the murder of any unborn child who is simply an inconvenience, contrasted against the equally absurd and self-contradictory picture of those who oppose healthcare for all, but claim to be “pro-life,” or pro-gun and “pro-life,” is what makes party politics obscene, fueled by the legal bribery unique to the United States, that gives powerful corporations the ability to purchase your representation in Congress, taking it away from you. Those who are willing to let the poor die by neglect and injustice are not really “pro-life” just because they are right about the abortion issue. Those who advocate for the poor and for refugees do not have the moral high ground either when they argue against the life of the most helpless who cannot speak for themselves, hidden from sight in the womb. The self-contradictions and inconsistencies lumped together as party platforms makes absolute loyalty to either party, and the party line, a betrayal of Christ.
Now, for those who really want to stand for innocent life, because they know that how we treat “the least of these” is taken personally by Jesus Christ, and that in the judgment we will account for how we treated him in how we treated them in their hour of need (Matt. 25:31-46), fierce loyalty to either of these two parties is simply impossible. Both of them persecute “the least of these,” whether it is the helpless unborn child, or the poor, the sick and imprisoned, or the stranger, and in fact persecute these innocents to the death whether before or after birth (yes, “to the death.” I am considering writing an entire book about cases known to me personally in which modern Americans have died from poverty – yes, many modern Americans are dying quite preventively and needlessly from poverty).
Whatever happens in the legal realm, our most important focus must be on preaching the Gospel, and “teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you (Matthew 28:20).” Laws made by legislatures come and go. Power structures do not endure. Congresses and Presidencies flip back and forth between party majorities. Probably, even the Supreme Court will flip between parties more and more in the future. It is unlikely that advances made in those venues will have anything even remotely resembling permanence. Roe vs. Wade has been overturned; but this does not place barriers between state lines. The battle we must win is the battle for persuasion, to change hearts and minds. This requires the truth, and it requires credibility.
Of course, as a priest I am mostly concerned about saving souls. It is quite disturbing that more and more people who claim to be Christians have become more and more willing to engage in sexual relations before marriage, as if “changing times” has rendered any of God’s commandments obsolete. The real danger in the current setback, that young people are once again becoming more ready to advocate for convenience abortion as a “woman’s right” in order to establish worldly equality (i.e. equal opportunities to serve Mammon), is that people who are in the Church and call themselves Christians will be willing in greater number to accept this consequence of sexual “freedom,” and endanger their own souls by adding to it the shedding of innocent blood. Indeed, whatever happens in the culture dominated by unbelievers along with merely nominal believers, we have to resist pressure from without for the sake of our own people. They, especially while young, need sound teaching as their only protection. This brings me back to where I began this essay.
In recent years I have seen these three major attempts to posit arguments supposedly drawn from the Bible, designed to argue that abortion is not even a sin, and that it is perfectly legitimate. These same three arguments continue to appear, and have been made by a large circle of advocates ranging from ordained ministers and rabbis to professed atheists. As we have seen, these three arguments contradict science, rely on superstition even when made by atheists who delude themselves that they are believers in science, and are also strangely fundamentalist in method though those who have repeated these gotcha arguments from “proof-texts” would never admit to it.