November 1, 2020

does the bible say when life begins?

Does the Bible say that life begins at first breath? If so, that strengthens the pro-choice argument.

Tim Barnett from the Stand to Reason ministry uses his background as a teacher to grade the logic of arguments that attack his conservative Christian beliefs. His video series is called Red Pen Logic. Today’s topic is, “The Bible Doesn’t Say What He Thinks It Says.”

The problem comes from actor and political commentator John Fugelsang, who attacked the popular Christian claim that life begins at conception with this tweet:

Well don’t tell God [that life begins at conception], bc the Bible says Life begins at First Breath.

Sorry, I didn’t write it.

Fugelsang is probably referring to this verse from the Garden of Eden story: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

The importance of “breath”

Barnett responded that God breathed into Adam, and then Adam came to life. The “breath” wasn’t Adam’s first breath, like a newborn’s first breath would be. This is a unique situation and doesn’t apply elsewhere.

But the Jewish interpretation disagrees, and this is critical since Jesus was a Jew. Breath is central to the Genesis idea of life. In the verse above, “the man became a living being,” is literally translated as, “the man became a breathing creature.” Breath is roughly synonymous with life.

Not only does the Bible say that the “breath of life” is what living things have, it’s what they don’t have when they die. This is what the dying animals during the Flood lost: “Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died” (Gen. 7:22). Another example is from the Canaanite genocide: “But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive” (Deuteronomy 20:16). One commentary says, “Breath is understood to be essential to life; and that when the breathing stops, life ends.”

The Christian case

And now comes the obligatory dueling Bible quotes part of the argument. Barnett says that the Bible recognizes life before “first breath” and says, “The Bible consistently elevates the status of unborn humans to valuable individuals.”

He cites two Bible passages. First, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). That sounds pretty bland, but Barnett interprets this to mean that we exist “as ourselves” before birth.

I don’t see it. First, “knitted” (Strong’s #05526) is more literally “wove,” as would be done with a protective screen or fence woven from branches, and by implication it can mean to fence in, cover, or protect. Yes, it’s important for a fetus to be in a protective womb when it is developing, but this simply acknowledges the gestation process. During that process, you aren’t you, but (with luck) you will be by the end.

Read that entire psalm. It’s a worshipful acknowledgement of God’s omniscience and power. Some variation on “you were you even at the beginning of the gestation process” is not the message.

Barnett’s second Bible response is Luke 1:41–44 where John the Baptist (as a fetus in his mother Elizabeth) leapt for joy when he first came in contact with Jesus (as a younger fetus in Mary). He tells us, “Jesus and John were themselves long before first breath.”

What does that even mean? Yes, the process of gestation was underway. That’s it. At that stage, they might have looked to the untrained eye indistinguishable from an elephant. “[They] were themselves” distills down to their DNA being in place and functioning, I guess—pretty underwhelming.

Passages on the other side of the question

Let’s return to the Bible for verses showing God’s attitude toward life. Exodus 21:22–3 says that if a man injures a woman and causes a miscarriage, he is only fined. If instead he causes an injury to the woman, he is penalized “an eye for an eye.” In other words, a fetus is less important than an adult.

Here, though, experts differ on the best interpretation. Are we talking about a miscarriage (the fetus dies) or just a premature birth (it lives)? If the latter, just a fine might be reasonable. This passage doesn’t help us much.

Another is the “trial of the bitter water” in Numbers 5. Here, the issue is a husband who suspects his wife of adultery. The priest creates a potion for the wife to drink, with a curse if she’s guilty. To be clear, the problem isn’t “My wife is pregnant, and I want that fetus gone if it’s not mine” but rather “I need to know if my wife has been unfaithful.” (More here.)

God’s judgment on the woman, if guilty, sounds like a prolapsed uterus. And if the woman were pregnant, that curse would likely cause a miscarriage. God clearly doesn’t much care about a little collateral damage in the pursuit of justice. Maybe pro-lifers like Barrett should take the hint.

The hint gets far louder when you remember God’s rampages. He drowned almost all the life on the planet, and he commanded genocide.

He even demanded human sacrifice. First, he created the law:

Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal (Exodus 13:2).

And later, he mocked Israel for it:

So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live; I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am Jehovah (Ezekiel 20:25–6).

And the Bible contains a scattering of killings to show that God doesn’t place the lives of babies at the top of his list (see here and here).

Jewish sources on abortion

The Talmud is the source of religious law for rabbinic Judaism. It draws the rather common sense conclusion that the fetus, especially in its earliest days, has a very different moral value than a human child or adult: “The [Talmud] states that: ‘the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day.’ Afterwards, it is considered subhuman until it is born” (source).

Another source says,

Unlike in Catholicism, in Judaism the fetus isn’t a legal person until it’s born, so abortion can’t be murder. (This isn’t even as different from Catholicism as it seems. The Catholic Church itself didn’t insist that life began at conception until 1869. Before that, the Church tolerated abortions through the 40th day of pregnancy.)

About the abortion debate, one rabbi said,

Most of the [Old Testament verses] that [conservative Christians are] bringing in for this are ridiculous. They’re using my sacred text to justify taking away my rights in a way that is just so calculated and craven.

When does life begin?

This is Barnett’s final question, and here he turns to science rather than the Bible. He cited a book on embryology that said, “[an embryo] is a human being from the time of fertilization.”

This doesn’t help. It just raises the question, what is a “human being”? If it’s by definition a Homo sapiens life form from single fertilized egg cell until death, then sure. But quoting a definition is no argument.

Let me respond with three points. First, the answer to “When did life begin?” is “Life began on earth about 3.5 billion years ago.” The egg and sperm are already alive, so when they join, the fertilized egg cell doesn’t then become alive. What begins is the gestation process for a new offspring.

Note how off-target the mindless celebration of “life” can be. Slugs and mosquitoes are alive, but pests don’t have much inherent value. There’s a range of value here, and we kill living things all the time. We’re all on the same page about the value of a newborn. The problem is giving that single cell the value of a newborn right now, not nine months from now.

A newborn is really complicated

And finally, that brings us to the strangely appealing desire that sucks in many conservative Christians, the need to dismiss the changes that happen during the course of a human pregnancy. Comparing the two ends of that process, there are a few things that are the same. The single cell and the newborn are both alive, and they both have H. sapiens DNA. That’s about it.

But there are some things that are radically different. The newborn has about one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) cells, each one differentiated and fitted with other cells in a precise arrangement. The single cell is . . . 1 cell. The newborn has arms and legs, eyes and ears, a stomach and digestive system, brain and nervous system, heart and circulatory system, skin, liver, and on and on. The single cell doesn’t have a single cell of any of this.

If you want to define “human being” so that it includes both newborn and single cell, that’s fine. But then you need to come up with some term that describes that gap. We have lots of words for subtle differences among young children—newborn, baby, child, infant, toddler, and so on—so surely we can find a word for the enormous change that happens from fertilization until birth. For example, I’d say that a newborn is a person while the single cell isn’t. If you object to the word “person,” then suggest something better. We need a term like “personhood” to describe the enormous spectrum from single cell (not at all a person) to the newborn (100% person).

Biblical arguments have no place in making laws in a country governed by a secular constitution like the United States. And even when we look in the Bible to see what it says, the pro-life argument is poorly supported.

Abortion—the issue that gets followers of Christ
to vote against everything Christ talked about,
by talking about something Christ never talked about.
— @JohnFugelsang


Image from Kelly Sikkema (free-use license)

October 24, 2020

The pro-life movement has been forced into an all-or-nothing mindset. They’ve convinced themselves that abortion is murder and that it must be eliminated, and yet in no foreseeable future will there be zero abortions.

Nevertheless, this is their unreachable goal. This dogged attachment to a no-win project, at the expense of better approaches, puts the blame for most U.S. abortions on them.

Let’s consider another route, a win-win route, to substantially fewer abortions. With this approach, we will try to reduce abortions, not pretend that we can eliminate them. We won’t try to make them illegal (which has never worked) but make them unnecessary. The focus will be on the actual problem (unwanted pregnancies) rather than the symptom (abortions). If we deal with the problem, the symptom takes care of itself, and pro-lifers will discover that pro-choice advocates share the very same problem. The evidence shows that to reduce unwanted pregnancies, we need to provide comprehensive sex education and convenient, subsidized access to contraception.

Do I hear grumbling? Do I hear puritanical Christians muttering that they won’t put up with public schools teaching 12-year-olds how condoms work or pharmacies providing easy access to contraceptives? Then let’s double check: are we dealing with a Holocaust or not? Is abortion murder or not?

I’ve read many articles from Christians claiming this very thing. Assuming that they’re being honest and millions of conservative Christians really do think this way, let’s take them at their word and proceed.

(This post is about twice as long as usual, but with the U.S. election coming up in days, and abortion being the biggest single issue driving Trump voters, I wanted to have a complete argument for a logical approach to abortion in one article. And pro-life voters, if you want to reduce abortions, you need to rethink what you look for in your candidates.)

Harm reduction and consistency

Let’s consider abortion from a harm reduction standpoint. A harm reduction policy tries to minimize the harm caused by a human behavior.

The best-known such policy is probably needle exchange programs that allow intravenous drug users to exchange used needles for clean ones. While it’d be great to eliminate the drug addiction, experience has shown that that’s very hard to do. Instead, many jurisdictions focus on minimizing the social harm such as the incidence of HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases that can be transmitted by dirty needles. This policy also puts addicts in frequent contact with organizations that can help when they’re ready to quit.

Cast the net more broadly, and medical treatment for accidents can be thought of as harm reduction. No one wags their finger at an accident victim and says, “You knew that car crashes can happen, and yet you drove in a car anyway, didn’t you?” We treat the guy who shot himself by accident. We treat the smoker who gets lung cancer. We treat the person with a poor diet who gets type 2 diabetes. The medical staff does their best, and society (directly or indirectly) pays the bill.

Consider harm reduction even more broadly. We don’t want anyone getting married casually, but we provide divorce as a mechanism for getting out if necessary. The legal option of bankruptcy causes less harm than debtor’s prison. A tough love approach, like long prison terms for drug offenses, often doesn’t minimize societal harm, and a soft landing can be a smart compromise.

If the medical system treats the victim of a car accident (heck, if the medical system treats the person who has a sexually-transmitted disease), by the same logic it should treat the woman who’s pregnant by accident.

A new plan, part 1: sex education

The first part of a workable plan to reduce unwanted pregnancy is comprehensive sex education in school. Of course, the first category of people trying to squirm away from this will be conservative Christians, but remember that the motivation for this approach was to find a way to substantially reduce abortions to satisfy those conservative Christians. This is for you, so grit your teeth and let’s proceed.

Schools must teach children early, before they are likely to become sexually active. The curriculum must come from U.S. and international programs proven to work (unlike abstinence-only programs, which have been proven to fail). There’s clearly room for improvement, since the U.S. ranked worst in a National Institutes of Health survey of 21 countries: Switzerland had 8 pregnancies per thousand women aged 15 to 19, while the U.S. had seven times as many.

Effective programs can provide dramatic success. Wyoming had its birth rate among 15–19 year-old women drop by 40 percent in six years, and this was credited to improved sex education.

And ineffective programs can worsen the problem. A survey of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 found that “60 percent of young adults are misinformed about birth control’s effectiveness,” and blamed that misinformation on abstinence education, which often tries to downplay the effectiveness of contraception. In another survey 44 percent of young women agreed that “It doesn’t matter whether you use birth control or not; when it is your time to get pregnant it will happen.” Only 31 states require sex ed, and only half of those mandate that it must be accurate.

We teach teens how to do things safely: don’t read your phone while driving, don’t get into a car with a driver who’s drunk, and so on. They’re going to get a sexually mature body whether we like it or not, and 95 percent will have premarital sex. We must teach them how to use that body wisely.

Let’s end this section with a palate cleanser:

Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in Hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on Earth and you should save it for someone you love. (Butch Hancock)

Part 2: convenient contraception

The next component in workable policies to minimize unwanted pregnancy is easy access to safe contraception. Long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) like intrauterine devices or subcutaneous implants are twenty times more effective at preventing pregnancy than the birth control pill. They make no demands on the user, like remembering to take a daily pill or to bring a condom.

That difference between perfect use and typical use (the success rate in a laboratory setting vs. in the real world) is important because about 40 percent of unplanned pregnancies in the U.S. are due to careless usage.

Several programs show the value in LARCs. Delaware reduced its abortion rate 37 percent in three years. A similar program in Colorado reduced abortions by 34 percent in two years.

Those are improvements due to improved contraception technology. What about cost as an obstacle? One study found that free birth control cut abortion rates by about two-thirds.

Part 3: no nuisance regulations

Conservative states seem to compete with each other to find ever more innovative nuisance regulations that don’t reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies or improve the health of the woman. These include pharmacists deciding which prescriptions they will fill, mandatory waiting periods, false or incomplete information about abortion, mandatory counseling, required reading materials, unnecessary sonograms, required listening to the fetal heartbeat, and so on. These must go. The time from the discovery of an unwanted pregnancy to abortion (if that’s the woman’s choice) should be minimized. That’s not to suggest it should be rushed but that, if it is to happen, it should happen as quickly as possible.

And that’s it: comprehensive sex ed in schools, convenient subsidized contraception, and no nuisance obstacles to abortion. Make these sensible changes, and the abortion rate will be cut in half. One influential thought piece—where I was first introduced to this program—suggests that the rate could be cut by ninety percent. That argument adds some additional features like helping parents become more comfortable discussing sex with their children, improving access to reproductive health services in marginalized communities, seeing family planning as not only a private matter but one that belongs in the conversation with one’s doctor, and researching birth control for men.


Some may be wondering who’s going to pay for all this. Given the high cost of more citizens—it costs about a quarter of a million dollars to raise a child to age 17 in the U.S.—it’s not surprising that these programs generate more savings than they cost. One study concluded that “Teen childbearing cost taxpayers $9.1 billion in 2004.” The Colorado program (above) found that every dollar invested in the program brought a six-dollar savings in the Medicaid program. A policy simulation from the Brookings Institution predicted similar savings.

Some Christians might say that taxpayer funding of contraception and sex ed offends them. Yeah, well, that’s life. I don’t like paying for abstinence-only education programs or government programs that promote religion, and I doubt you protested then. Even if you don’t have school-age kids, you pay for public school. We need to follow the evidence and work together for the common good.

Let’s look at the social cost of the pro-life movement from a different angle. What happens when a child is brought into the world unwanted and unloved? Or when the mother doesn’t have enough for another child or the environment is dangerous?

An article from 2001 tried to quantify that. It concluded that the dramatic drop in violent crime in the early 1990s was due in large part to the legalization of abortion nationwide by the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

We offer evidence that legalized abortion has contributed significantly to recent crime reductions. Crime began to fall roughly eighteen years after abortion legalization. The five states that allowed abortion in 1970 experienced declines earlier than the rest of the nation, which legalized in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. States with high abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s experienced greater crime reductions in the 1990s. In high abortion states, only arrests of those born after abortion legalization fall relative to low abortion states. Legalized abortion appears to account for as much as 50 percent of the recent drop in crime.

In short, many of the 18-year-old men who would have caused violent crime in the early 1990s didn’t exist because they had been prevented 18 years earlier.

(This argument might sound like that from the book Freakonomics (2005). In fact, Steven Levitt was the coauthor of both the article and the book.)

The impact of abortion on the crime rate is often overlooked, but the pro-life movement must answer for the increased crime due to unwanted children.

Revisit the problems within the pro-life movement

In the last post, 6 Flaws in the Pro-Life Position (that Pro-Lifers Must Stop Ignoring), I explored six problems with the pro-life position. I promised in response a new, more effective approach (sex ed, convenient contraception, and no nuisance obstacles). Let’s revisit those six problems. I think they’ve been resolved.

  • Problem 1: Abstinence doesn’t work as birth control. Encouraging abstinence can be part of sex education, and it does work for a minority of teens. But abstinence-only education is a failure.
  • Problem 2: You focus on the symptom, not the problem. We’re now focusing on the problem: unwanted pregnancies.
  • Problem 3: You’re working against pro-choice community. By focusing on unwanted pregnancies, what both groups see as the problem, the two groups can work together.
  • Problem 4: Children will become sexually mature, whether you like it or not. Sex ed will be made appropriate for the age of the children. Children will be taught what they need to know before it becomes necessary.
  • Problem 5: Making abortion illegal doesn’t prevent abortions. The goal is reducing unwanted pregnancies. Abortion is still available, but the better we are at reducing unwanted pregnancies, the less the demand for abortions.
  • Problem 6: Obstacles erected for abortion clinics won’t work against medication abortions. We’re reducing abortions by focusing on the problem, unwanted pregnancies. Nuisance regulations aren’t helpful.

Is this a bridge too far?

I feel the need to check in again with Christians who are squeamish about this route. Perhaps they’re afraid that it might encourage teen sex. To them I say: I thought you said that the state of abortion in the U.S. is a Holocaust. I thought you said that abortion equals murder.

If not, then don’t create a pro-life litmus test for politicians. And if it is, then it may be true that teens will have sex more. You can even consider this a harm if you want (though keep in mind that pregnancy and STD rates will be much less than they are now). But who cares if this approach dramatically reduces abortions? If abortion really is murder, then I can’t imagine what could be worse. You’d really push back against a workable approach because it offended your prudery?

For Chicken Little politicians, it’s all about the power

Remember the folk tale Chicken Little (or Henny Penny)? An acorn fell on his head, and he ran around warning everyone that the sky was falling. We see something similar in the U.S. today. Christian and political leaders run around, telling Christians that the sky is falling because of abortion. (I’ll refer to both Christian leaders and political leaders as “politicians” since, in this context, their motivation is power.)

The pro-life movement is a political movement, not a moral movement. The problem was manufactured, and many Christian denominations just a few decades ago were in favor of the Roe decision that legalized abortion. A summary of a 1978 Christian analysis of abortion shows a surprisingly pro-choice attitude, supported by these churches: American Baptist Convention, American Lutheran Church, Disciples of Christ, Church of the Brethren, Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist Church, and United Presbyterian Church.

Today, abortion to conservative politicians is a problem to be nurtured, not to be solved. They’re the only ones who can solve the problem, you see. But if it were solved, it wouldn’t be a vote getter. What else explains conservative politicians pursuing a policy that is so ineffective? (For more on this critique, see my previous post, which listed the fundamental flaws in the pro-life position.) These politicians want pro-life and pro-choice advocates divided. Strife means votes!

The conservative voter is the mule pulling the cart, motivated by the carrot on a stick of Roe overturned. And who’s back there sitting easy in the cart holding out the carrot? It’s conservative politicians who know what motivates the mule. If you want to make some serious progress on abortion rates, find politicians that embrace a practical policy like the one in this post and join forces with pro-choice advocates. Working together, you’d be unbeatable.

For years, conservative Christians have been taught that “Are you pro-life?” has the same answer as “Do you love Jesus?” Whether Jesus cared much about abortions is a question for another post, but if you want to make a dent in abortions, refocus your activism on measures shown to minimize unwanted pregnancies.

We have an election coming up. If abortion is a big deal to you, forget overturning Roe. Vote instead for those candidates who are most likely to push for tested policies that discourage unwanted pregnancies. That’s how you will minimize abortions.

Pro-life advocates, we can’t do this without you.

No amount of belief makes something a fact.
— The Amazing Randi (1928–2020)
(Thank you, Randi. You will be missed.)

Image from Spenser (free-use license)

September 14, 2020


Chapter 5 in the Bible’s book of Numbers gives a potion through which God would judge a wife suspected of adultery. We analyzed it in part 1. Let’s move on to what it means.

So then does this potion cause a miscarriage?

This is the part that surprised me. Going into this research, I thought that the potion would cause a miscarriage. The Bible doesn’t much care about sex outside of marriage except when there’s a married woman involved, because that means that a man’s property was damaged (if calling a wife “property” isn’t correct, it’s not far off). Captured women as sex slaves are okay, multiple wives are okay, and prostitutes are okay (more). It’s only adultery if the woman has sex outside of marriage.

And maybe the potion would cause abortion—after all, while the focus of the ritual was discovering adultery, the woman still might be pregnant. Though we’re uncertain about the meaning of the curse, “This water . . . will go into your stomach and make your abdomen swell and your thigh fall away” in Numbers 5:21, that doesn’t sound like a supportive environment for a pregnancy.

A note in the NET Bible for this verse brings the scholars into the picture. It says, “Most commentators take the expressions to be euphemisms of miscarriage or stillbirth, meaning that there would be no fruit from an illegitimate union.”

Many verses in the Old Testament show that the Bible isn’t squeamish about the occasional miscarriage. Or even the killing of pregnant women or children. The popular Christian response that God is a doting grandfather who would never sanction an abortion is ridiculous. This is the same guy who said, “The people of Samaria . . . will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16). Even today, roughly half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. God apparently doesn’t much care.

Nevertheless, the goal of the test was to identify an adulterous woman. The trial as we have it (and it’s possible that the test was changed as it went through many copyists) was not designed as a test to resolve the problem of a man whose wife is pregnant, possibly with some other dude’s kid.


I thought that this trial was a potion that would magically abort a fetus that was not the husband’s. It is not.

I don’t like being corrected during a debate or argument, and I want to use only correct arguments. If “God himself used abortions to correct paternity debates” isn’t a correct argument, then I won’t use it anymore. And, with sufficient evidence that I’m wrong here, I’ll change my mind back.

This exercise is a helpful reminder that some Bible arguments are built on shaky foundations. “Most scholars agree” can be applied to an explanation like evolution that has overwhelming support among relevant scholars, or it can be applied to the meanings of the words translated as “swell” and “thigh” in Numbers 5, where substantial doubt clouds the issue and (perhaps) a scant majority agree. God’s holy word doesn’t look so impressive when God obviously didn’t do much to preserve the meaning through time.

While God’s potion as an abortifacient is likely the wrong interpretation, it could’ve caused abortions as a side effect, and plenty can be said about God’s disinterest in the life of a fetus. The Christian response is often to cherry-pick Bible verses about God’s cheerful side or about how he’s a tenacious defender of human rights. But no argument that claims God as a champion of human life is worth anything unless it looks at the whole Bible and addresses all of God’s killings and the Bible’s savagery. Taken as a whole, God in the Bible is a nasty piece of work.

Let’s compare the Bible with a souffle. You can make a souffle with the finest truffles, but if it has just one cockroach in it, it is a cockroach souffle. And the Bible has lots of cockroaches. (h/t commenter Greg G.)

I found a spell on the side of a cake mix box.
When I cast the spell exactly as written,
a cake appeared in my oven.
— commenter Greg G.


Image from Wikipedia, public domain

September 11, 2020


I think the conservative Christians might be right about this one. I don’t often get the chance to change my mind, and it’s probably good to embrace those chances rather than push them away.

The book of Numbers defines a ritual that is often interpreted as causing abortions, but exactly what it’s supposed to do is murky. Let’s take a look.

The Trial of the Bitter Water: a test for an unfaithful wife

Suppose a man suspects his wife of adultery. How does he discover if his suspicions are correct? The trial of the bitter water in Numbers 5 is a ritual through which God can make the truth known.

God dictated the ritual. The “jealous” man must bring his wife to the priest along with a certain quantity of barley meal (about two liters) as an offering. The priest makes a potion of holy water plus dust from the floor of the tabernacle. He continues the ritual, uncovering the woman’s head, having her hold the grain offering, and so on. He then speaks a curse, which promises that the potion will be harmless to her if she is innocent, but if she is guilty of infidelity, “this water . . . will go into your stomach and make your abdomen swell and your thigh fall away.” The woman accepts these conditions.

The priest writes the curse on a scroll and then scrapes the words into the water. Finally, the woman drinks the potion, and the priest burns a handful of the barley on the altar as a sacrifice. If the woman is guilty the curse falls on her, and if not, “she will be free of ill effects and will be able to bear children.”

Huh? What’s that punishment again?

There’s a lot here, so let’s take a closer look. First, what exactly happens to the guilty woman? What does “your abdomen swell and your thigh fall away” mean? The short answer is scholars don’t know for sure.

“Abdomen” often means “womb” (the same word is used in “there were twins in her womb” in Genesis 25:24b).

“Swell” is especially tricky because it is used exactly three times in the Bible, and all of them are in this passage. The authors of the Old Testament left us no biblical-Hebrew-to-modern-English dictionaries, so scholars have just context and etymology with which to create one. Few examples make it hard to deduce the meaning for sure. (Other cases of too few usage examples are here.)

“Thigh” is likely a euphemism for female reproductive organs. (The Bible is squeamish about genitals, as seen in this long list.) As a masculine noun we see the word in “Gideon fathered 70 sons through his many wives,” which is literally, “Gideon had 70 sons who went out from his thigh” (Judges 8:30, NET). And “direct descendants” in Gen. 46:26 is the translation of the words for “thigh” and “come out.” In the trial of the bitter water, it’s a feminine noun, but as with “swell,” that usage is only in this passage.

Finally, we have the word for “fall away.” Other Bible translations give shrivel, waste away, rot, or shrink.

What does this all mean? One source diagnosed a swollen abdomen and fallen reproductive organs as a prolapsed uterus, which would have been more common in a time before modern medicine and in a society where women delivered many babies. The curse gives the sign of an innocent woman as “[she] will be able to bear children,” which suggests that infertility is the punishment for the guilty woman and which also fits a prolapsed uterus.

More things to notice

You’d think that a recipe from God himself would provide a potion that would deliver an immediate verdict, but the ritual doesn’t say that. It seems that the woman just went home to await the results.

In a time when everyone may have believed that the curse would work as described, any woman who accepted the challenge (rather than admitting adultery to avoid it) may have done so feeling confident that her innocence would see her safely through. The flip side is that, if she were guilty, she’d know that God would deliver punishment. The observer would see her going through the ritual as a strong indication that she was innocent.

Note also how different this is than the seventh Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14), and the punishment for breaking it, “The adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). The difference is that the crime of adultery requires two or more witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6). The trial of the bitter water is plainly positioned as the fallback when there are no witnesses, just suspicion by the husband. The word adultery isn’t even used.

In the case of adultery, the community handles everything. In the case of the trial of the bitter water, God is judge, jury, and executioner. As an aside, that’s why this isn’t a trial by ordeal (more here, here, and here). In a trial by ordeal, the god’s decision is given immediately. Also, the trial and punishment are separate—the god indicates guilt or innocence, and the people impose a sentence in the case of a guilty verdict. Finally, a trial by ordeal is itself harmful or even life threatening (such as dunking in water or touching hot metal that the god would protect innocent people from). With the trial of bitter water, there is no immediate decision, both the trial and punishment are entirely in God’s hands, and drinking water, dust, and ink shouldn’t be dangerous.

Finally, note the asymmetry between husband and wife. If the husband is jealous, he can demand the ritual, and the wife is forced to go through with it. Not only is there no equivalent for a husband straying, there’s no consequences for his falsely accusing his wife.

So then does this potion cause a miscarriage? Continue to part 2.

[Both sides in the U.S. Civil War]
read the same Bible and pray to the same God,
and each invokes His aid against the other.
— Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural address


Image from Wikipedia (CC BY 4.0)

September 9, 2020

The most effective response to abortion is obvious, but pro-life advocates don’t see it.

This is the conclusion of our analysis of the question, “Does Pro-life Logic Mean Women Who Get Abortions Should Be Punished?” addressed by Greg Koukl of the Stand to Reason podcast. (Start with part 1 here.)

Pro-life advocates claim they want to reduce abortion . . . but do they?

Do pro-lifers really want to reduce abortion? I doubt it. Maybe some of those carrying the signs do, but their leaders, the ones pulling the strings, don’t. If they did, they wouldn’t be going about it in so inept a manner.

Suppose abortion really were murder. Pro-lifers would be really, really motivated to make it as infrequent as possible. Any little compromises would be insignificant concessions on the way to the big prize of a negligible number of abortions.

Here’s how to reduce abortion

They say that abortion in the United States is the equivalent of the Holocaust. But if they really believed that, they’d be focusing on steps that would actually work.

Koukl in his Pollyanna world pretends that making abortion illegal would eliminate abortion, but the statistics make clear that it would have little effect (see this recent post). What you want is to eliminate the need for abortion—only that will be effective.

An excellent article by Valerie Tarico outlines the steps that would plausibly reduce the U.S. abortion rate by 90 percent in “What a Serious Anti-Abortion Movement Would Actually Look Like.” And yes, she’s saying that the current anti-abortion movement is not serious.

Her recommendations are simple, and instead of fighting pro-choice advocates, pro-lifers would actually be allied with them. If pro-lifers could get over the novelty of cooperating instead of obstructing (and ignore their leaders whose existence sometimes depends on conflict), they might be amazed at what they could get done.

Tarico’s suggestions include getting over squeamishness about sex so that children and teens can get accurate and complete sex education in school and at home, focusing on sex education that works and discarding approaches that don’t, encouraging the best contraception, and making sure that women in poverty have access to health care and contraception.

Pro-life advocates, look at the abortion rate. Harassing abortion providers and seekers may satisfy some psychological need of yours, but that isn’t the way to reach your goal.

You want to reduce the abortion rate by 90 percent? Seriously? Then read and follow the guidelines in Tarico’s article and see how cooperating with pro-choice advocates would work. When you read it and conclude that you won’t take those steps, admit to yourself that you’re not serious about abortion.

How can you have a crime without a punishment?

I’ll wrap up this series by revisiting the inherent inconsistency underlying Koukl’s position, his avoidance of the punishment that goes along with the crime.

We don’t have to [determine the punishment] because that’s the second step after the first step has been solved, and this is something we are capable of doing and the rank and file too, and that is determining whether abortion itself is a genuine moral harm. (@22:13)

A “genuine moral harm?” Like what? Like murder? If so, then the punishment has already been defined, many times in many jurisdictions. Don’t call it murder unless you want to bring along the range of punishments that go with murder.

If abortion isn’t murder, then perhaps it’s manslaughter or some lesser kind of murder? Perhaps the woman isn’t a murderer but an accessory to murder? Punishments for these crimes have been defined as well.

If it’s not murder of any kind, is it perhaps the moral equivalent of littering or jaywalking? In that case, it’s insignificant and you’re wasting our time.

If it’s not something to be criminalized, perhaps it’s just a bad or immoral act that we don’t make laws against (lying, gambling, consuming drugs, or adultery might be in this category). If abortion is an example, don’t tell us you want it made illegal.

Koukl has painted himself into a corner. He desperately wants to say that abortion is murder (or something similarly bad), but he looks heartless if the appropriate punishment comes along. He retreats by saying that abortion is a “genuine moral harm,” but what is that supposed to mean? Moral harm like murder or moral harm like an unkind word to a stranger? Unless he tells us what abortion is (or at least what it’s like), the argument is just handwaving . . . but as soon as he does, there’s that unwanted punishment along for the ride.

We see this same problem with Christians opposed to homosexuality. They will point to biblical justification in Leviticus where God declares it as wrong. The problem is that God also gives the punishment: “[Both men] are to be put to death” (Leviticus 20:13). You can’t have a crime without the punishment.

When faced with fundamental problems in their arguments, few Christians face the problem squarely and either fix the broken argument or discard it.

Read the first post in this series here.

Some mornings it just doesn’t seem worth it
to gnaw through the leather straps.
— Emo Phillips


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/4/16.)

Image from Alan O’Rourke (license CC BY 2.0)


September 4, 2020

A pro-life Christian discusses abortion laws. How could he get the facts so wrong?

This is a continuation of a critique of the question, “Does Pro-life Logic Mean Women Who Get Abortions Should Be Punished?” addressed by Greg Koukl of the Stand to Reason podcast. (Start with part 1 here.)

A future America with abortion illegal

Koukl has a simple—some might say childish—attitude toward abortion.

Pro-lifers would like to see abortion abolished, but the only way to really abolish abortion ultimately is to make it illegal, and then the incidence of abortion would shrink to virtually nothing. (@4:05)

With abortion being such an important topic to Koukl’s ministry, you’d think that he would be more educated about it, but he’s completely wrong. Making abortions illegal simply means that abortions will be done, just illegally.

We know because America has already tried the experiment. From the Guttmacher Institute:

Before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, data on abortion in the United States were scarce. In 1955, experts had estimated, on the basis of qualitative assumptions, that 200,000–1,200,000 illegal abortions were performed each year. Despite its wide range, this estimate remained the most reliable indicator of the magnitude of induced abortion for many years. In 1967, researchers confirmed this estimate by extrapolating data from a randomized-response survey conducted in North Carolina: They concluded that a total of 800,000 induced (mostly illegal) abortions were performed nationally each year.

Compare this with the abortion rate of a little over 600,000 per year in the U.S. today, with twice the population of 1955.

A future America where abortion was illegal could simply switch to medical (drug-induced) abortion in many cases. This is already the predominant procedure in many European countries. Because of COVID-19, the UK dropped the requirement for a clinic visit to get a prescription for these drugs for pregnancies of 10 weeks or less. Video consultations have worked so well that they’re considering making this simplification permanent.

We also have examples worldwide showing that making abortion illegal does little to reduce the rate. From CBS News:

Abortion rates are highest where the procedure is illegal, according to a new study. The study also found nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, with the vast majority of unsafe abortions occurring in developing countries.

The Guttmacher Institute said in 2020, “Abortion rates are similar in countries where abortion is restricted and those where the procedure is broadly legal,” and “The abortion rate is actually higher in countries that restrict abortion access than in those that do not” (China and India excluded).

Unsurprisingly, abortion being illegal correlates with poorer safety for the woman. The New York Times reported on a World Health Organization study: “About 20 million abortions that would be considered unsafe are performed each year [and] 67,000 women die as a result of complications from those abortions, most in countries where abortion is illegal.” That’s a mortality rate of 1 for every 300. By comparison, the mortality rate in the U.S., with legal abortion, is 1 for every 170,000. (The mortality rate for women giving birth is 14 times worse.)

Abortion providers are basically vultures, right?

Koukl next attacks the ethics of the abortion providers.

Without the [abortion] doctors, who are exploiting people’s difficult circumstances for money, you probably aren’t going to have the abortions. (@19:16)

I didn’t realize that abortion providers exploit people’s hardships. Is that true for other medical specialties? I suppose the greedy oncologist rubs his hands and smiles when he sees new names in his appointment calendar. The predatory geriatrician twists his mustache and cackles when another old man hobbles in. The rapacious pediatrician sees a crying kid with a broken arm and thinks, “There’s another month’s payment on Daddy’s Bentley!”

Apparently, I have my ignorance to thank for being able to look at doctors and see hard-working professionals who view their patients as more than piles of cash.

Anyway, with abortion so convenient by taking a pill, abortion doctors are the gatekeepers for a small and shrinking fraction of abortions.

In contrast to Koukl’s contempt for abortion providers and his lack of concern for women with unwanted pregnancies, consider Dr. Willie Parker, who travels from his home in Chicago to Mississippi twice a month to be one of only two doctors providing abortions at Mississippi’s last abortion clinic. Women desperately need a medical procedure, and Dr. Parker provides it. He said, “I do abortions because I am a Christian.”

Remember Kermit Gosnell’s filthy abortion clinic? Pro-lifers were horrified, and yet those conditions are what they’re striving for. Making abortion illegal doesn’t eliminate abortion, it just drives it underground to clinics that aren’t inspected. When organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide safe abortions are squeezed out by nuisance regulations or other regulatory hurdles, illegal operations will fill the vacuum. Similarly, when noisy abortion protesters create a gauntlet at safe clinics, women will be driven to ones that cut corners. One of Gosnell’s patients said about the closest Planned Parenthood clinic, “The picketers out there, they just scared me half to death.”

Coat hangers

I attended a celebration of the forty-year anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal in the United States. Sarah Weddington was the lawyer on the winning side, and she spoke of an experience on a plane trip. She was wearing a button showing a coat hanger with a red “not” line through it (like this) as a symbol of the pre-Roe days that she was determined America would not revisit.

A female flight attendant walked past her several times until she finally said, “I’ve just got to ask you, what have you got against coat hangers?”

Weddington’s point was that this young woman had lived her entire life with abortion as a basic right. She didn’t know of a time before that right when coat hangers were the abortion method of last resort. More importantly, she didn’t realize how tenuous that right is.

Millions of conservatives would make abortion illegal in an instant if they could. Complacency is not an option.

Continue with Arguing the Pro-Life Case (Such as It Is)

“Explain to me how making abortion illegal
wouldn’t lower abortion rates.”
Explain to me how making drugs illegal
didn’t lower drug use rates.
— commenter adam


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/29/16.)

Image from Pēteris (license CC BY 2.0)


February 24, 2020

A 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic that killed three people prompted a conservative response by Matt Walsh (part 1). Walsh denied that pro-life vitriol could’ve played a role in motivating the shooter while reserving the right to trowel on large amounts of that same vitriol.

His denial of responsibility failed.

Dismissing murder

Walsh admitted that the shooter’s actions were bad, but. He couldn’t ignore a grandstanding opportunity to argue the other side of the issue, that the shooter’s target—the abortion providers—are the worst possible people.

George Tiller, the heinous late-term baby executioner who ruthlessly slaughtered thousands of viable and fully developed infants, is the only abortion worker to be killed by an abortion opponent this century. That’s it. One. And he was one of the most dangerous, vicious, and murderous human beings to have ever lived.

You make it sound like working at a Planned Parenthood clinic is no more risky than being a librarian. Not so: there have been 11 murders and 26 attempted murders on U.S. abortion clinic workers. There have been 42 bombings, 188 arsons, and an additional 100 attempts at bombing or arson. And there’s more: vandalism, acid attacks, bioterrorism threats, assault and battery, death threats, kidnapping, burglary, stalking, and more—over 10,000 incidents in all.

Go research why women went to Tiller to get abortions. Was it because they didn’t want to be so fat? Or was it a more substantial reason—birth defects, mother’s health, catastrophic changes in financial status, or something similar?

And let’s pause to listen to your rhetoric. Was Tiller seriously “one of the most dangerous, vicious, and murderous human beings to have ever lived”? Few of us would morally object to going back in time to assassinate Joseph Mengele or Heinrich Himmler or Adolph Hitler. You’ve intentionally put Tiller with this company, so why then do you object to the shooter’s actions?

This hypocrisy is the problem that Walsh can’t acknowledge. He wants to say that the shooter was a killer and Planned Parenthood kills, so they’re in the same boat. But not him—he’s cut from different cloth because he’s pro-life.

But the rage he reveals in this article gives just as strong an argument for a very different arrangement of these three parties: now it’s the killer with Walsh in the same boat because of his venomous rhetoric that could easily provoke violent action. Planned Parenthood is the odd man out because it provides legal abortions before the fetus is a person.

As the article progresses, Walsh is on a roll, and the indignant “Of course we deplore violence—we’re pro-life!” attitude is gone. With no ear for irony, he repeats the line the killer is said to have used:

Planned Parenthood sells the parts of dead babies.

Wrong again. Selling body parts is illegal, and Planned Parenthood doesn’t do that. The mother can choose to donate the fetus for research, and Planned Parenthood can be reimbursed for their costs.

Planned Parenthood is a rotten, corrupt, depraved, vile, disgusting, brutal, murderous conglomerate of butchers and mercenaries.

And yet you wonder how anyone could possibly be incited to violence?

Abortion fanatics hate pro-lifers personally. They hate Christianity. They hate children. They hate life itself. Theirs is the sort of hatred that destroys the soul and dissolves the human conscience. We hate what is evil; they hate what is good.

And now it’s just a rant. This kind of rhetoric is what drove the shooter to kill.

Improving society

Why don’t you [Planned Parenthood] just shut up and work on not killing babies?

And what are you doing, Matt Walsh? Are you focusing on reducing the cause of abortions, unwanted pregnancies?

Among countries in the West, the U.S. compares poorly. In the United States, the annual pregnancy rate was 57 per 1000 women aged 15–19. This was, by far, the highest rate in the 21 countries studied. Compare this to 8 in Switzerland. What are we doing wrong (or what is Switzerland doing right)? There is ample room for improvement.

Is it better sex education? Is it easier and subsidized access to contraception? Whatever it is, cutting the number of abortions by as much as 90 percent simply through honest and open discussion by parents and more effective education and policy by society seems possible. Why are you approaching it the hard way? Instead of swimming upstream, you could work with pro-choice people who want the same thing. It almost sounds like you’re not really serious about this, and abortion isn’t the holocaust you claim it to be.

More to the point, making it “illegal” isn’t the way to do it. The abortion rate was more than twice as high as the current rate in the U.S. before Roe v. Wade made it legal nationwide, and safe and effective abortion by medicine would make it easy to skirt a ban.

The trolley problem

Almost everyone has heard of this thought experiment, but here’s a brief summary. Imagine a trolley that’s heading toward five unsuspecting workers on the track. If it continues, it will kill them all. But there’s a switch, and you can reroute the trolley down another path with only one worker. Would you switch the trolley?

Most people say they would. But what if you’ve got the same trolley heading for the five workers, and you’re on a bridge over the tracks. The only way to stop the trolley is with a large weight in its path. You’re not heavy enough to stop it, but there’s a large man on the bridge who is. Do you push him over?

Most people say they wouldn’t, but it’s the same calculation, five deaths vs. one.

The Planned Parenthood shooter in effect pushed the large man over. He’s taken the unthinkable but logical step—logical given Walsh’s own analysis. Walsh is left fuming about decorum—it’s one thing to label abortion providers as the most wicked scum on the earth, but in polite society one doesn’t actually act on this! He wants his rage but won’t accept the consequences.

Additional pro-choice resources:

But the consequence of using language like that
can be very dangerous.

I think candidates need to step back,
take a deep breath, and understand . . .
we have a responsibility to use
thoughtful and careful language.

Wendy Davis, the former Texas state senator
who filibustered to block legislation
that would restrict abortion


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/4/15.)

Image from Kit Clutch, CC license

February 21, 2020

After a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs four years ago that killed three and injured nine more, I came across a response on TheBlaze, Glenn Beck’s entertainment and news network. The article was “Abortionists and Planned Parenthood Shooter Are Just Two Sides Of The Same Coin” by Matt Walsh. It tried to walk the line between putting pro-choice advocates and the shooter in the same bin (as the title makes clear) and handwaving that the outrageous rhetoric of pro-life fanatics didn’t encourage the gunman.

It failed.

Violent talk has consequences

I’m not Walsh’s audience. He was preaching to his choir, using terms like “pro-aborts” and “abortion fanatics” to refer to people like me, but the article gave an insight into the hostility of and rationalization by this community.

Walsh tried to walk away from any consequences of violent rhetoric from extreme quarters of the pro-life movement.

[Clues that the shooter was unlike the typical pro-life terrorist] has not prevented abortion enthusiasts on the left from gleefully spiking the football as if some point has been proven by the random violent outburst of a paranoid hermit.

Yes, there’s a point: speech can have consequences. Spin a story about how Planned Parenthood is an evil organization, and this kind of violence may be a consequence. If you don’t think it through, impressionable readers might not either. As the Bible says, you’ve sown the wind and are now reaping the whirlwind.

As if we need more examples of speech having consequences, one mother tried to kill herself and her two daughters to avoid the Tribulation predicted by Harold Camping for May 21, 2011 (more here and here). Did Camping deserve no condemnation for saying that the world would end, knowing that some of his gullible flock might take him seriously?

Another example is the person who took the Pizzagate conspiracy theory (invented to discredit Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential bid) seriously and shot up the pizza restaurant.

Here’s an example of extreme anti-abortion speech from video evangelist Joshua Feuerstein:

I say, tonight, we punish Planned Parenthood. I think it’s time that abortion doctors should have to run and hide and be afraid for their life. (7/29/15)

After the Colorado shooting, pro-lifers tried to prop up their position by tweeting about “babies” saved. Yes, pro-life rhetoric can have bad consequences.

How pro-life is the pro-life movement?

Walsh says it goes without saying that he was shocked by the shooter’s actions.

It goes without saying because, for one thing, we’re pro-life.

No, you’re pro-birth. How about being pro-health care? Or working to improve the society into which these babies are born? And isn’t it inconsistent when most of those who oppose abortions also accept the death penalty?

For another, there’s no logic in it.

Wrong. You went on and on about the deaths of “over 50 million babies.” That’s nonsense, of course—there’s a spectrum of personhood across the gestation period, and a single cell isn’t a baby, a human being, or a person—but it is quite logical to kill a few lives to save many. You can’t argue that abortion is murder but then claim that murder to reduce abortions is illogical.

The lives that were snuffed out in the front of the building weren’t any more or less human than the lives exterminated in the back. Our humanity does not exist on a spectrum.

Walsh imagines that Homo sapiens DNA is all that makes someone human, but with this he invents single-celled humans. Indeed, humanness does exist on a spectrum. A single cell isn’t very human, while the trillion-cell newborn nine months later is. (If you’d prefer a better word choice, say that the single cell isn’t a person while the newborn is.)

Why shoehorn gestation into a binary situation? Drop the ridiculous idea that a single cell is a “baby” or “person.” Say that the single cell isn’t a person, the newborn is, and it’s a spectrum in between.

[A pro-choice advocate outraged at pro-lifer vitriol is] like a Nazi standing up at Nuremberg and scolding society for hating him.

Nope. The Nazi was on trial for crimes against humanity. Planned Parenthood kills a fetus that isn’t yet a person. Walsh would predictably respond that it will be a person if given time, but this simply becomes the Argument from Potential—it isn’t inherently worth protecting now, but it will be—which is no argument at all.


Walsh rejects the shooter’s actions, but he chafes at this obligation.

We’re the ones who have to be seen condemning murder, as if there’s any reasonable question at all about where we stand on the subject?

You demand that moderate Muslims apologize for Muslim violence, don’t you? If so, you can appreciate how we’d like some assurance from the pro-life community that they reject the shooter’s actions that they might have triggered, but there’s still an asymmetry in your favor. The Friendly Atheist blog noted how Muslims were treated after terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and how much better anti-Planned Parenthood activists are treated.

Unlike the seemingly endless stream of demands and condemnations [aimed at Muslims] that followed the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, no one has suggested that churches in which Planned Parenthood are routinely depicted as the devil’s spawn be closed; no one has demanded that Evangelicals who believe performers of abortions are committing crimes against humanity should be issued with special identity cards; and no one has called for arresting or deporting the inciters who exploit such incidents to whip up hate (and garner more votes).

No, conservative churches and ministries that inspire Christian terrorists are safe. They’re still able to get outraged at women seeking treatment for unwanted pregnancies while denying any responsibility for the consequences.

Concluded in part 2, where the Christian author works himself into a righteous lather.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
— Oscar Wilde


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/4/15.)

Image from sandy Poore, CC license

October 3, 2018

Kavanaugh SCOTUS supreme court Roe Wade abortion

Conservatives are eager to see Brett Kavanaugh placed on the Supreme Court in the hope that they can overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that made abortion legal (with restrictions) across the U.S. But Roe is a mirage, and conservatives should avoid being taken in by the deception.

Overturning Roe allows the states to regulate abortion. Red states would likely impose further restrictions on abortion or make it illegal, and blue states would keep abortion available, but that’s not the issue. There are two reasons why pro-life conservatives shouldn’t focus on Roe.

Unlike most of what I’ve written about abortion, in this post I will not be telling conservatives why they’re wrong about abortion or arguing over definitions. I want to make a simple argument that relies on non-controversial facts that should be easy to accept. Pro-life America, if abortion is your enemy, pro-choicers should be your allies, and Roe shouldn’t be your target.

1. Illegal abortion just means that abortions will be done illegally

A popular conservative Christian radio host said in 2016,

Pro-lifers would like to see abortion abolished, but the only way to really abolish abortion ultimately is to make it illegal, and then the incidence of abortion would shrink to virtually nothing.

This is completely wrong. Abortion made illegal would mean that abortions would be still be done, just illegally. The rate of abortions in pre-Roe America was roughly twice the per capita rate of today, and most of those were illegal. The international data confirms the U.S. experience: “Abortion rates are highest [in countries] where the procedure is illegal” (more here).

We also have more alternatives now than in pre-Roe America, making illegal abortion much safer and more convenient. Medicine is available for inducing therapeutic miscarriage at home, safe and effective for first- and second-trimester abortions. An unintended pregnancy can be detected with a test kit and then treated at home if done promptly.

Forcing abortion underground by making it illegal backfires on conservatives. With no need for the woman to even leave the house, crisis pregnancy clinics would be out of business. That’s an opportunity lost to argue against abortion. No abortion clinics means no pointless regulations imposed by conservative legislatures, which would have the happy consequence of allowing abortions in red states to be done sooner than they are now.

There will still be the need for the rare late-term abortion (about 0.1 percent of abortions in the U.S. are performed after 21 weeks), so there will still be demand for surgical procedures. To Christians horrified by the thought of Kermit Gosnell’s filthy illegal abortion clinic, they must keep in mind that this is what may replace Planned Parenthood’s clean, safe, and regulated clinics if abortion is driven underground.

2. Abortion isn’t the problem; unintended pregnancy is the problem

There is no path to zero abortions. People will keep having sex, accidents will happen, and no amount of Christianity, moral badgering, or puritanical laws will eliminate all abortions. But I know a way to cut it by as much as 90 percent, which is a lot more than it’ll get cut by making it illegal. Abortions are just the symptom; the actual problem is unintended pregnancy.

Valerie Tarico has outlined a plan for reducing the number of abortions dramatically over twenty years, primarily by reducing unintended pregnancy. Conservatives, do you want to do something more concrete than just voting for the anti-abortion candidate? Do you want to reduce abortions, actually do something practical to cut the number by as much as 90 percent? In brief, here is the approach you should lobby for.

  • Create programs to encourage and teach parents to overcome their discomfort with having frank and thorough discussions of sex, sexual health, sexual ethics, and contraception. The message should make clear that sexual desire is natural, not shameful.
  • Schools must also cover this material, and children must be taught before they become sexually active. The curriculum must learn from the best U.S. and international programs. For example, abstinence-only training has had its chance, and it fails. Teen pregnancy rates are roughly proportional to the local religiosity, meaning more pregnancy where Christianity is strongest. We have a lot of room for improvement: “Among the 21 countries with complete statistics, the pregnancy rate among 15- to 19-year olds was the highest in the United States (57 pregnancies per 1,000 females) and the lowest rate was in Switzerland (8).”
  • The Pill and condoms have the advantage of being familiar, but there are far more effective contraceptives today. Long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs and subdermal implants, once in place, require no user action. They’re also cheaper in the long run. Contraceptives should be cheap (subsidized if necessary) and easily available.
  • Unplanned children (or worse, unwanted children) put a disproportionate strain on poor women, so reproductive health care should be subsidized to make it available to everyone.
  • Financial concerns are a major factor in some women’s desire for abortion. Policies that create income equality and encourage family-friendly workplaces (with benefits like maternity leave and affordable child care) will reduce abortions due to financial need.
  • Fetal health issues are another factor driving some abortions. Reduce these by providing and promoting prenatal care.
  • Fund research for birth control for men.

(For more, read the original article here.)

Notice the emphasis with this plan: most of these points are aimed at avoiding unintended pregnancy or eliminating reasons for abortion. Conservative voters anxious about abortion should be able to get behind this plan.

I’ll add one more point: conservatives should remove virginity from its pedestal. Just because virginity was a big deal in the Old Testament doesn’t make it relevant today (the Old Testament also justified slavery and genocide, but we don’t celebrate those today). The Old Testament’s concept of virginity also wasn’t fair since it only imposed on women.

Sex isn’t like a fine wine that gets better the longer you wait for it. Sex on the wedding night is a lot more satisfying if the couple has had a chance to practice. Abstinence is fine for some, but for others, consensual premarital sex will be a part of growing up.

Conservative voters have been led around by politicians for decades, but note that these politicians aren’t motivated to get rid of abortions. If they did, how would they convince their electorate that the sky is falling and that only by voting for them can we avoid moral collapse? They need problems, and if they can’t find a real one, they’ll exaggerate a trivial one.

The pro-lifers who agree that this is the best way to reduce abortions should note an important benefit: they’re now working with pro-choice advocates. By bypassing abortion and focusing on the cause, both groups are working toward a shared goal. Once they get over the novelty and ignore calls from politicians who may prefer the impasse of the status-quo, it will be refreshing to work with an enormous new collection of allies.

Some pro-lifers won’t accept this approach because it may make premarital sex more likely, but this tips their hand. They’re not anti-abortion, they’re just advocating a prudish policy toward sex. But they can’t have it both ways. They need to pick whether they want the current approach—a high abortion rate to satisfy their instinct to be tough on sex—or a lenient policy toward premarital sex by making sex safer and far less likely to lead to unintended pregnancy.

Suppose we lived in a society where every teenager gets a car on their sixteenth birthday. You wouldn’t let kids get their own car without insisting on comprehensive driver’s education. Now return to our world, where it’s not a car that they get but a sexually mature body. We shouldn’t let kids get that adult body without comprehensive education on how it works and how to use it properly.

Pro-life America, if abortion is your enemy, pro-choicers should be your allies, and Roe shouldn’t be your target. Focus on the real problem.

More posts on abortion:


Have no illusions, if abortion really were murder,
it would come as an instinctive reaction from women.
It would come with such force that men would be confused
by the average woman’s revulsion towards abortion.
— commenter Chuck Wolber


Image via Torsten Mangner, CC license

April 23, 2018

Dr. Willie Parker is an abortion provider and a Christian.

He’s received a lot of press, including a long piece in Esquire magazine in 2014, for being one of only two doctors who provides care at the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. That’s a clinic that the governor wants shut down to achieve his goal of Mississippi as “an abortion-free zone.”

Four other states are also down to one clinic.

Praise for Christians

I have plenty to disagree with Christians about, but I seek out opportunities to celebrate Christians with whom I agree. Rev. Barry Lynn was head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Senator Rob Portman is a Republican who reversed himself on the same-sex marriage issue after his son came out as gay. And Dr. Parker is a Christian who feels that he is doing the Lord’s work by helping women get essential healthcare.

Parker’s path to his profession

Dr. Parker makes the trip to Mississippi from his home in Chicago twice a month. He’s Harvard educated and gave up a career as a college professor and obstetrician to become an abortion provider. The realization that this would be his civil rights struggle is what he calls his “come to Jesus” moment, and he became an abortion provider on the day that Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his church.

Mississippi used to have 13 abortion clinics, they’ve gotten rid of all but one, and anti-abortionists want to shut down that one, too. Since they can’t make abortion illegal, they want to make it impractical by imposing nuisance requirements. These include demands that clinic doctors must have hospital admitting privileges in case of complications (unnecessary since any such situation would go in through the emergency room), scary information that must be provided by the doctor (which is one sided and often scientifically incorrect), unnecessary regulations that only drive up costs, unnecessary second ultrasounds (some with the technician required to identify the fetal parts to the woman), and so on.

Mississippi social metrics aren’t so good

Hey, kids! Here are some fun stats about Mississippi. Besides having a fun name, it has the second-highest teen birth rate in the United States—nearly four times the rate of the lowest state, Massachusetts. It has the highest rate of unintended pregnancy, at 63%. While it only has one abortion clinic, it has 38 crisis pregnancy centers (these are pretend abortion clinics with anti-choice agendas). And it has the highest rates of poverty, gonorrhea, obesity, and infant mortality in the country.

But all is forgiven since it’s also the most religious state. Jesus must be pleased.

The other side of the issue

Anti-abortion activists argue that Mississippi residents seeking abortions can always go out of state, and about two-thirds are already forced to. Not only is going out of state not an option for poor women, but this was the argument segregationists made about black students who wanted to attend the state’s whites-only colleges.

Another odd argument is that the status quo is a plot against black babies since many of the women seeking abortions are black. In fact, we’re seeing black women trying to take control of and responsibility for the size of their families. Most women seeking an abortion already have children to consider. And it is inconsistent to hear concern for the disadvantage coming out of the mouths of the same people who want to cut funding for social programs and education.

The National Right to Life News was unimpressed with the favorable Esquire piece. Consider some of their complaints.

  • Dr. Parker performs too many abortions per day during his visits to Mississippi. That’s easily solved—open more clinics and pay for more doctors.
  • Dr. Parker is reported to have done late-term abortions. Then remove pointless red tape to make abortions happen earlier.
  • Dr. Parker is quoted as underestimating the fraction of abortions after the first trimester. So earlier is better? Great—sounds like you accept the spectrum argument, that the inherent worth of the fetus increases during gestation. Again, the solution is encouraging early pregnancy tests and quickly providing complete information so that any abortion happens as soon as possible.
  • The teeny chopped-up fetus looks gross. The result of any medical operation can be yucky. Imagine holding down your lunch while watching a surgeon poking around inside a chest or abdomen. And if the issue is fetal pain, “the neurological wiring [to feel pain] is not in place until . . . after the time when nearly all abortions occur” (source).

Harm reduction

Anti-abortion activists, do you really want to reduce abortions? ’Cause if you are, you sure aren’t going about it the right way.

Zero abortions won’t happen whether abortion is legal or not. Making abortion illegal doesn’t eliminate it; it simply drives it underground (more here). What you need to do is attack the problem at the source: the half of all pregnancies in the U.S. that are unwanted. Reduce the demand for abortions and you reduce abortions. (More here.)

Not only will this turn pro-choice enemies into allies, but now you’re open to explore why other developed countries have so much lower teen pregnancy rates.

(I have more recommendations for the pro-life movement here.)

See also: 20 Arguments Against Abortion, Rebutted

There are people in the world so hungry
that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
— Mahatma Gandhi


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/13/14.)

Photo credit: Lady Parts Justice League

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