Lynn Beisner says there is scant evidence in the bible that supports fetal personhood. She breaks down what it does and does not say.
I learned a dirty little secret in Bible college: It is easier to prove the existence of unicorns by using the Bible than it is to establish the personhood of a fetus. In fact, it is so hard to make a case against abortion using Christian scripture that for decades most Evangelicals did not even try. Instead, their leaders were silent on the issue or told their followers that abortion was part of the larger feminist agenda to destroy families.
Everything that the Bible has to say about fetuses is contained in the hyperlinks in this paragraph. There are five religious leaders who are said to have been chosen by God for a specific role or developed a relationship with the divine before they were born including John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, Jeremiah, Sampson, and King David. And there are four passages of poetry in which God is described as entering a woman’s uterus to make or form a fetus by knitting it together or by curdling it like cheese. Finally, there is single law regarding the accidental injury or death of a fetus.
The law mentioned above makes it particularly hard to say that the Bible supports fetal personhood. It is contained in the amazingly comprehensive legal code for the ancient nation of Israel found in the first five books of the Bible. These laws cover just about every aspect of living in a society from regulations for human waste management to the penalty for knocking out a slave’s tooth. Yet this legal code, which is excruciatingly clear about all matters related to sex and reproduction, gives only one highly specific situation in which the law should become involved in the injury or death of a fetus: If a woman miscarries because she is accidentally hit by a brawling man other than her husband.
The single law regarding fetal injury or death requires that the man who accidentally struck the woman must pay whatever damages the court sets as long there is no lasting injury. But if “mischief follows,” the law required that whatever the injured party suffered the injuring party must be dealt by society.
If you read that passage in older translations of the Bible, it is abundantly clear that the fetus had no personhood. If the woman died, the man who accidentally harmed her paid with his life. This was the same punishment for killing any person, including a slave. But the penalty for the miscarriage itself, the death of a fetus, was payment of whatever damages the court assessed.
Since the rise of the anti-abortion movement, newer translations and interpretations have tried to muddle or even reverse this meaning. But even then, this passage would only establish an extreme penalty for a single and highly specific kind of fetal injury or death. If a person intentionally caused a miscarriage or accidentally caused one in any situation other than a brawl, the law had no interest. For a fetus to have personhood, killing it under any circumstances must be murder. So clearly, the law of the Old Testament does not grant personhood to fetuses.
The sum total of Biblical evidence about fetal personhood is a few poetic passages describing how humans are made, a few men claiming prenatal relationships with God, and a law prescribing the penalty for accidentally injuring a pregnant woman during an altercation. Given such scant evidence, you must be wondering how on earth the Christian Right became so attached to this cause and why most Christians do not realize that the Bible contains no commandments against abortion or any indication that society should protect every fertilized egg.
We know from those who were present at the birth of the Christian Right that it was actually a series of horse-trades by powerful men in conservative religious groups. Each group came with its own non-negotiable agenda and problems with the agendas of others. Catholics demanded that any alliance they joined must back the Pope’s edict against abortion, but Evangelicals were resistant since there was not enough in the Bible about fetuses to support a ban on abortion. Evangelicals, on the other hand, needed an unfettered capitalist market to perpetuate their dominance, and that ran afoul of the Catholic Church’s teachings about economic and social justice. Catholics agreed to down-play the issue of social justice (which is why Nuns on the Bus is such a problem), and Evangelicals agreed to take an anti-abortion stance despite the lack of Biblical support for it.
Most Christians do not know how that there is scant biblical support for fetal personhood because churches no longer teach biblical literacy. Instead, they teach ideological literacy and the isolated scriptural passages which support those beliefs. When I taught classes about the Bible to college students I was shocked to discover that students who had been in church all their lives had never heard the story of the talking donkey or what happened after Noah’s ark landed. This shift in biblical literacy has created an entire nation of Evangelicals who do not know enough about the Bible to question what they are being taught. The only reason that many young Evangelicals have begun to question their religion’s anti-gay stance is that they have been exposed to tons of religious and Biblical arguments made in favor of gay rights.
The success of the gay rights movement is why I believe we must begin using Biblical arguments to refute anti-choice religious claims. We are are losing reproductive rights even as the gay community is turning the tide of public opinion in their favor. I believe that a key reason why they are succeeding while we are failing is that we have been unwilling or unable to challenge religious teachings.
I believe that many Christians are looking for an escape clause from the rigid teachings of the personhood movement. They are uncomfortable with the government invading the uteruses of women, but they are even less comfortable going against what they believe are the commandments of the Almighty. If we give them the life raft of an alternative scriptural argument, I believe many will jump ship.
The one problem that I can foresee is that the Biblical teaching about personhood does not come in one easily quotable package. But if gay rights leaders could find a way of countering the passages in the Bible which are explicitly anti-homosexual, we can counter the incredibly weak and nebulous Biblical arguments against reproductive rights. It is up to the witty writers of our movement to craft succinct and even humorous arguments that will go viral across social media.