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Does Exodus 21 Teach That Unborn Children have Less Value Than Born Children?

On Saturday night, I watched a highly spirited debate between Scott Klusendorf, formerly of Stand to Reason, and Peggy Loonan, President of Life and Liberty for Women, on Faith Under Fire on the subject "Is God Pro-Choice?" I have heard Mr. Klusendorf debate about abortion on many occasions, and I believe that he is one of the best pro-life advocates in the country. Thus, I was rather interested in how Peggy Loonan would respond to his arguments.

Ms. Loonan's response was to claim that one of the myriad of laws found in Exodus 21 makes the point that God considers life in the womb to be less valuable than life out of the womb. Thus, she argued, God has made a clear distinction between human beings who have been born and those that have not. I looked up the verse that she discussed, and recognized it as an old stand-by of pro-choice Christians. Here is what an article entitled "The Case For the Morality of Legal Abortion and Against Biblical Condemnation" (Be warned, a graphic picture is included in this presentation) posted on the Life and Liberty for Women website has to say about this issue in the debate:

In Exodus 21: 22-25, reading from the Revised Standard Version, God said: "When men strive together and hurt a woman with a child, so that there is a miscarriage and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her- (speaking of the woman) - shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine." Verse 23 then says, "If any harm follows, then you shall give eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and life for life."

Let me be clear here: These verses did not speak to the justification or condemnation of elective abortion - but they do speak to God's view of the relationship between the born human being, the woman, and the unborn human being, the fetus, and that is critical to understanding why God never spoke of elective abortion let alone condemning it or declaring it an objective moral wrong.

* * *

The verses in Exodus are clear. A woman is hurt when two men are fighting. This woman is pregnant. If she miscarries as a result of this violence, but she does not suffer any other harm or death, those men will be punished by a fine for causing the miscarriage or death of the fetus. However, if any harm to the woman follows, that is if the woman is injured beyond the miscarriage or is killed as a result of this violence, then that deed is to be punished by an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth or a life for a life.

The argument turns on the idea that the Hebrew phrase of Exodus 21:22 that is translated by the RSV as "miscarries" is, in fact, referencing a miscarriage where the baby is not living at the end of the miscarriage. But there is strong reason to believe that this translation is not accurate. According to the Blue Letter Bible, the phrase being translated as "miscarries" is "yeled yatsa'" which is the Blue Letter Bible translates as "the fruit departs." "Yeled" means "child or offspring" and "yatsa'" means "to go out, come out, exit, go forth."

Now, while it is certainly possible that this could include a miscarriage where the baby is stillborn, does the language necessarily mean that? There are actually two questions here: does the word "miscarries" require the child to be stillborn, and does the Hebrew wording require that the child be stillborn? The answer to both is "no." "Miscarriage", according to Merriam-Webster's On-line Dictionary, means "spontaneous expulsion of a human fetus before it is viable and especially between the 12th and 28th weeks of gestation." Note, that there is nothing in miscarriage that requires that the child die. That is a implication that we read into the word because many miscarriages do result in the death of the unborn child. But it is not a necessary component of a miscarriage.

With respect to the Hebrew wording, Greg Koukl, President of Stand to Reason, has investigated this issue in an article entitled "What Exodus 21:22 Says About Abortion" where he notes:

[I]t’s common for yasa to describe the 'coming forth' of something living, frequently a child. There is only one time yasa is clearly used for a dead child. Numbers 12:12 says, 'Oh, do not let her be like one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes from his mother’s womb!'

Note here, that we don’t infer the child’s death from the word yasa, but from explicit statements in the context. This is a still-birth, not a miscarriage. The child is dead before the birth (“whose flesh is half eaten away”), and doesn’t die as a result of the untimely delivery, as in a miscarriage.

Yasa is used 1,061 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is never translated “miscarriage” in any other case. Why should the Exodus passage be any different?

The answer is that there is no reason to understand the Hebrew phrase in the verse to require that the child come out dead. Rather, it simply says that if the woman is struck and the child comes out, then there will be consequences -- some more severe than others depending upon the outcome of the "coming out" of the child.

Let's read Exodus 21:22-25 from the NRSV, this time substituting the phrase "the child comes out" for the words "there is a miscarriage" and see if it makes a difference:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that the child comes out, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Obviously, this makes a great deal of difference. The verse now seems to be saying that if the child "only comes out" and "no further harm follows" then there will be a particular penalty (fining the perpetrator shat the husband demands and the judge determines). This can be read as "if there is no further harm to the mother or to the child who comes out alive and healthy, without any defects from the injury to his mother. . . ." But, the verse continues, "if any harm follows . . . ." Who might the other harm be to? Ms. Loonan thinks it is the woman only that the verse references because in her reading, the child is necessarily dead having been stillborn in the act of the miscarriage. But verse 23 may include not only the woman but the "child who came out" as well. Thus, these verses can certainly be read to say "if the child comes out and any further harm follows to the mother or the child, including death, then the penalty will be life for life, eye for eye, etc."

Consider further the earlier-mentioned article by Greg Koukl,

The text seems to require a fine for the premature birth, but injury to either of the parties involved incurs a more severe punishment.[8] Millard Erickson notes that "there is no specification as to who must be harmed for the lex talionis [life for life] to come into effect. Whether the mother or the child, the principle applies."[9]

Gleason Archer, Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, concludes:

"There is no ambiguity here, whatever. What is required is that if there should be an injury either to the mother or to her children, the injury shall be avenged by a like injury to the assailant. If it involves the life (nepes) of the premature baby, then the assailant shall pay for it with his life. There is no second-class status attached to the fetus under this rule; he is avenged just as if he were a normally delivered child or an older person: life for life. Or if the injury is less, but not serious enough to involve inflicting a like injury on the offender, then he may offer compensation in monetary damages..."[10]
Please refer to Mr. Koukl's article for the footnotes.

In sum, it appears that Ms. Loonan is depending upon a Bible verse that, at minimum, is ambiguous, and at maximum, is directly at odds with her understanding. Given the strength of the entire Biblical commitment to human life being made in the image of God, and the commitment that each life is valuable as shown by the fact that Jesus died for everyone, and given the fact that Ms. Loonan agrees that unborn babies (in her vernacular, "fetuses") are human beings, it seems to me that she is staking way too much on this verse.

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