Worthwhile Reads: Abortion, Laws, and Biblical Translation

I recently saw two more articles on new proposed anti-abortion laws:

Tennessee bill would expose identity of abortion providers and possibly patients

Arizona legislator would like to make women watch abortions before they having them

I have written before that even though opposition to abortion was originally born out of a desire to control women, there was an intentional shift in this rhetoric in the 1980s leading to a new focus on “saving babies,” and that many if not most of those who are anti-abortion today are anti-abortion for this latter reason. I restate this because within this paradigm, anything – anything - that shames or scares a woman out of having an abortion, or scares doctors out of performing abortions, is worth it because the result is saving the lives of “babies.” Hence laws like this.

I want to offer two more articles on this topic. First, in the Mischief Follows in Partisan Bible Translations, the Slacktivist discusses a Bible passage that has been literally rewritten in recent years to make it anti-abortion where it was not before. Second, Is the Fetus a Human Being? addresses Jewish interpretations of this passage. Let me quote from the Slacktivist: 

That brings us to the text I want to highlight here as another example of politicized distortion via translation: Exodus 21:22-25.

Here is how Exodus 21:22-25 read in the New American Standard Bible’s 1977 revision of its 1971 original translation:

And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

You can see how this fits in the context of the chapter. Here is another category of victim for which another set of punishments for violence is given. If a pregnant woman gets struck “so that she has a miscarriage,” but is not herself injured, then the man who struck her must pay a fine. But if the woman herself is injured, then the same rules and punishments for striking any other (non-slave) person apply — “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc.”

But here’s the same passage in 1995 in the updated current version of the NASB:

If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

“So that she has a miscarriage” has been replaced with “so that she gives birth prematurely.”

That’s new. That’s not at all how this passage was translated for centuries.

As I’m going to write in my series on becoming pro-choice, there are a variety of arguments that can be made against the anti-abortion movement, and one of them is to point out that the Bible is not anti-abortion. Never once do God or Jesus or any of the writers condemn abortion. If it was such an important issue, you would think that one of the hundreds and hundreds of Levitical laws would address it. Instead, the above passage is the only time these laws touch on the subject at all. And as you can see, it’s enough of a problem for anti-abortion theologians that they have simply changed the passage to fit their views.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

    Manipulating the translation to political ends is superb evidence of how fearful and desperate churches are to hold onto power. They’re willing to directly lie by replacing one phrase with another with different denotation and connotation. Then, they deceive again by omission, when they fail to inform anyone of the fact that the material was changed (let alone why).

    Isn’t there a commandment about this?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I think that one thing that happens is that they are so absolutely convinced that the Bible is against abortion that when they find a verse that doesn’t fit that interpretation they have to find a way to make it fit, even if that means saying that hundreds and even thousands of years of Biblical interpretation was wrong. This supports something I’ve long said: Christians bring preconceived ideas and interpretations to the Bible, and interpret it through that lens, picking out what fits their ideas and pushing aside or explaining away what doesn’t.

      • Ibis3

        Now just imagine that happening for a couple thousand years (both before and after the texts started to be written down). It’s a wonder anyone holds any stock in such flimsy source material.

  • Kevin Alexander

    Isn’t there a commandment about this?

    You mean the one about bearing false witness?

    Libby Anne, you are getting smarter every day. EVERY translation of the Bible is made to to rewrite it to serve the politics of the translators.

  • smrnda

    I also believe that abortion using abortifacients that occurred naturally was used in ancient Greek, Roman and I believe even Egyptian civilizations, and that methods of contraception (though perhaps not too reliable) were practiced as well. You’d think that if would have actually mentioned this explicitly if it was a huge deal.

    Is the anti-abortion thing a Western Christian deal? I know that in Asian countries with reasonably large Christian populations like Korea and China abortion has much less stigma there and I was wondering if that meme had spread that way.

    • minuteye

      Heck, the plant the Romans used for reproductive control was so popular they drove it extinct! I think you’ve struck something important here. It seems like modern Christians often give themselves a lot of leeway in determining the morality of modern issues that the bible doesn’t say anything about (like new medical techniques, for instance). But, as you say, people have been intentionally ending pregnancies for a very long time, so talking about abortion as a modern issue is dishonest, or at least ignorant.

  • smrnda

    It kind of reminds me of something I read once – some conservative Christians were up in arms because some new study version of the Bible said that “nothing in the Bible corresponds to our contemporary concept of homosexuality” which is quite true and doesn’t in itself even say homosexuality is okay, but just the suggesting that we see issues through a modern lens that might not match up with how people saw them in “Bible Times” was too much just because it opens up the possibility that the Bible might not address issues that people want a clear stance on today.

    I see the same kind of intellectual dishonesty when you have people argue that the Bible promotes economic libertarianism or other political ideas that are in no way addressed by the Bible. Or when they talk about how much the Bible has to say about marriage – it really doesn’t say that much given the size of the text.

  • Sean

    I prefer Numbers 5:11-31 where the priests have a tea ceremony for a woman suspected of carrying another man’s baby; she drinks and if it’s not her husbands, God causes her to miscarry. It really is a God-ordained abortion. Verse 27 sums up the passage.

    • Tsu Dho Nimh

      I notice that the man she has been cavorting with is not cursed.

      Why not make his dangly bits swell up and fall off?

    • Amin

      I vaguely remembered that passage so I looked it up. Both of my non-english Bible translations as well as the english translations I looked up online (NASB, KJV, GNT, ASV, ESVUK) do not mention “miscarry” in verse 27 except for ERV, CEB and of course NIV. I’m no native english speaker and therefore do not really know which english translations are considered accurate. But it does seem that this passage also is subject to agenda-driven changes in translation.
      However, on the NASB it is even noted that a literal translation would read “and her thigh will fall” which is the same as in my most accurate non-english version.

      I think that this passage is not about “God-ordained abortion” but rather punishment for infidelity: if the woman drinking the “water which brings a curse” was unfaithful to her husband, she will become infertile and “a curse among her people.” Unfaithfulness alone does not necessarily include (or preclude) pregnancy.

      I will look further into it and post my results.

      • Ibis3

        The whole “thigh” thing was a well-known euphemism for genitals/reproductive organs (cf. “loins”). That’s why in most modern translations, it’s translated in a literal way–so we get the sense of the original.

        The idea here is that the husband (in a priest-approved ceremony) gives his wife an abortifacient if he suspects her of being pregnant by another man. If he’s right, God will make sure she miscarries. If she doesn’t, she’s either not pregnant or the child is his after all.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    The old Sears Roebuck catalogs used to carry “tonics” whose purpose was to “regulate the menses” … and as the most common cause of irregular periods is pregnancy, they were meant to end early term pregnancies. They were conveniently sold in a case of 12.

    Some of the catalogs mention the ingredients: it was a reasonably safe distillation of a combination of herbs known to end pregnancy. Consumed as directed, before the period was “late” it would have worked quite efficiently.

  • Anat

    The Arizona proposal is ridiculous. Most medical procedures are gruesome to the uninitiated. How many people would want to undergo an appendectomy after watching one?

  • http://sheilacrosby.com Sheila

    This is slimy, but hardly new. Heck, the gorgeous prose of the King James Bible was written to support royalty and to tempt people away from the Geneva bible and its anti-royalist marginal notes.


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