Friday, February 17, 2012

Fetus Fatigue

I wrote this article, "Recovering from Fetus Fatigue," before the last presidential election, but it is doubly pertinent after four ugly years of pro-choice Obama.


The Atheist Missionary said...

Prof. Groothuis, if I handed you the reins of public policy today for the world (I crown thee Philosopher King), how would you propose to deal with the issues of both abortion and overpopulation?

I am no fan of abortion but I don't see any viable alternative. What do you propose? Outlawing the procedure or allowing it as long as people pay for it themselves? If the former, do you favor the government taking custody of pregnant women to force them to have unwanted babies? Would you punish women (including rape victims) who break your law and go ahead and have "back-alley" abortions? Would you force women whose lives are endangered by continuing their pregnancies to nonetheless continue their pregnancies? Do you favor setting up huge government foster homes in third world countries where adoption would not be a viable option for the millions of unwanted (by their parents) babies who are currently being aborted but would be forcibly born under your preferred worldview?

I just wonder if you have thought through the logical implications of a strict legal prohibition on abortion and what you think it would look like.

Same question for contraception. Would you outlaw or simply seek to dissuade the use of contraception? Regardless of your answer, what would your preferred world without contraception look like? Don't you recognize overpopulation as one of the biggest threats to the future of humanity? Or do you not worry about such things because you have faith that your god would intervene to prevent the extinction of humanity before rampant overpopulation takes its toll on our finite resources?

Constantine said...

Greetings, Dr. Groothuis,

This topic has become a rather avid interest of mine over the past few years, so it is with great curiosity that I read the article to which you have linked. And while I certainly acknowledge your heart-felt convictions, I think your analysis misses key points in the areas you describe.

To wit, you claim, “The biblical argument against abortion is direct and powerful”. But is it really? Genesis 1:27 treats of “mankind” and not an individual, it seems. And while Psalm 139 does indeed treat of the individual in the womb it says nothing of the issue of ensoulment (which has a long and rich history in the Christian tradition, which you surely know). Contrast that with the writer of Ecclesiastes (11:5) who says clearly that we just don't know how the spirit enters the body. Is a body without a soul truly human? Therefore, to draw a “pro-life” conclusion based on Gen. 1 and Psalm 139 seems, at least, premature.

Perhaps the more damning biblical evidence is Numbers 5:11-17. Therein, abortion is specifically mandated. Not only does that undo the alleged “direct and powerful” argument against, it rather places the “direct” on the side of the God who specifically ordered abortion.

Therefore, I don't think it is unfair to conclude that there is no biblical argument against abortion. The only way to arrive at that conclusion is to exclude key passages which clearly undermine the certainty of your position and those that clearly contradict it.

The historical evidence is also surely stacked against you. The church, for centuries refused to baptize prematurely born infants because it didn't believe they were truly human. St. Jerome held that a fetus was “at no time” human; Augustine and Aquinas held to what is described as a “hylomorphic” belief in fetal development (i.e. a fetus does not have a soul until (probably) the third trimester). Later, Pope Innocent III and St. Antoninus were supporters of early term abortions. In fact, the rigid pro-life position has been well documented to be a novel, 20th century development.

All-in-all, it is a fascinating subject. And your point of “weariness” is well taken. However, the truth of the matter deserves a hearing, too.


Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

My collegue, Dr. Richard Hess, Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, has responded to your interpretation of the passage in Numbers. Here it is:

I assume you want me to address only the Numbers passage. The only place I can see where the death of a fetus might be suggested is in Nu 5:21, 22, and 27. I see nothing in Nu 5:11-17; so I assume this is an error of reference and that the expression recurring in vv. 21, 22, and 27 is the issue. The two Hebrew words translate literally, “her/your thigh falls.” The word, “thigh,” is used of men (Ps 45:4; Song 3:8) as well as women. While it is clearly the area of the reproductive organs (Gen 46:26, “those who proceeded from his thigh” = descendants), the basic sense is the physical thighs (sometimes appearing in the dual because most all of us have 2 of them). The word for “fall” is extremely common and has pretty much the same semantic range as the English “fall.”

The term, “her thigh falls,” is one of those expressions for which there is not a consensus as to its meaning. One can indeed find interpreters who translate it as a miscarriage. However, this is not certain and it is not clear how a miscarriage mandates an abortion. God can judge family members for the acts of their parents; but I have never heard this used to justify, much less mandate, such judgment by humans. Although Bathsheba’s firstborn child died because of David’s adultery (2 Sam 12:13-24), no one argues that the text thereby mandates the murder of children.

Further, the interpretation of “her thigh falls” as a miscarriage is by no means certain. NJPS translates, “causing…the thigh to sag.” Josephus suggested dropsy. NASB has “your thigh waste away.” NAB has “your uterus fall.” Some suggest a stillbirth, while others suggest barrenness.

My view is that it is reasonable to assume that the punishment fits the crime. Therefore, it has to do with the bearing of children. However, there is no clear suggestion in the text that a child has been conceived; only that sexual relations may have occurred. If that is the case, then either the punishment would create the impossibility of future sexual relations or it would thwart a purpose of such relations within a family context; i.e., the bearing of children.

This is one text I have never seen applied to abortion, probably for the reasons given above. Normally, people cite Exod 21:22-23, which is the reason I always read it with students in Hebrew exegesis. It too needs to be examined carefully; but does not support abortion.

Best wishes,
Rick Hess

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

1. Gen. 1:27 applies to all humans, from conception onward. The Bible uses the same basic Hebrew and Greek words for the born and unborn.

2. Ecclesiastes gives the view of one author, not the entire Bible. Further, he says he doesn't understand "how the body is formed." He does not say he doesn't know when humanity occurs or that he isn't sure whether it is a human body or not!

3. Concerning church history, that's mixed. My ultimate standard is the Bible. A very early document, the Didache, condemns abortion.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


The issue is whether the fetus is a human person with human rights. If so (and I can argue this with or without the Bible), the right to life trumps other concerns. Few women ever had "back alley abortions." Even so, that does not justify the legal murder of their children.

There is no need for government-run homes for unplanned babies. There are millions of Americans who want to adopt American babies. As is, given the over one million (1,000,000!) abortions a year, they are hard to find. So, these kind folks often adopt babies from China, Ethiopia, etc.

My "preferred worldview" is protected under the freedom of religion and freedom of speech clauses of the First Amendment, as is yours. Let the most active and smartest people win the day in public policy.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

More for Atheist:

1. I do not oppose contraception, but abortion: that is a rudimentary distinction. I am not a Catholic.

2. The world is not overpopulated, but poorly administrated. People are not the problem; cultures are. See RJ: Rushdoony, The Myth of Overpopulation. Some of the most populated parts of the world are the most prosperous, such as Holland.