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.


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