Little-Known Bible Verses XIII: Fetuses Don't Count

Little-Known Bible Verses XIII: Fetuses Don't Count May 6, 2009

It’s consistently been part of the anti-choice strategy to treat unborn fetuses as separate, autonomous people, even well before the point of viability. For instance, the anti-abortion website says:

It is illegal to execute a pregnant woman on death row because the fetus living inside her is a distinct human being who cannot be executed for the crimes of the mother. (source)

In fact, such niceties did not occur to the authors of the Bible. They did not value the unborn nearly so highly, as we can see from a little-known Bible verse.

In Genesis chapter 38, the Israelite patriarch Judah marries off his firstborn son, Er, to a woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him” (38:7). Judah, who was nothing if not practical, instructs his secondborn son Onan to marry his dead brother’s wife and impregnate her, to perpetuate his brother’s family line. Onan, who isn’t feeling the brotherly love, consents to have sex with Tamar, but pulls out at the last moment and spills his “seed” on the ground. “And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also” (38:10). (In case you were keeping track, this primitive, ridiculous little bloodbath of a myth is recorded in a book which is believed by billions of people to be the word of God.)

Judah was running low on sons by this point, but bravely soldiers on, instructing Tamar to “remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown” (38:11). However, Tamar – who seems understandably fed up by this point – disobeys, puts off her widow’s garb and goes out and sits in the open, wearing a veil. Judah comes across her, doesn’t realize she’s his daughter-in-law, and, well, you can probably guess what happens next: Judah “thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face” (38:15) and agrees to pay her one goat from his flock in exchange for sex. No, I’m not making this up.

Tamar conceives a child. When Judah sees her again, he still doesn’t realize she’s the woman he slept with – but he does see that she’s pregnant, and hasn’t married his son yet, and is therefore enraged.

“And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.” (38:24)

Judah was fully aware that Tamar was pregnant from her act of infidelity – and yet he still orders her to be put to death straightaway! The life of that “distinct human being” inside her seemed not to concern him at all. Certainly there’s no mention made in the text of him intending to wait until she had given birth before having her burned alive. In the end Tamar escapes her fate, so the issue never comes to a head, but there is no indication that it was a consideration before her reprieve.

There are plenty of other verses in the Old Testament which strongly suggest that its authors did not view unborn fetuses as equivalent to born children. Exodus 21:22 says that if men fight and injure a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, the guilty party is merely fined, but if the woman dies, the responsible person is also put to death. (Some apologists claim that this text merely means the man is fined if the woman’s injury causes her to give birth prematurely without doing any other harm. Readers are invited to imagine a physically plausible scenario under which this could occur.)

The Book of Numbers, starting in verse 3:15, tells of a census God ordered Moses to carry out among the Israelites. Pregnant women are not counted as two people. In fact, this verse specifically says that even children less than a month old weren’t counted! This shouldn’t be surprising; a tribal society with a high rate of infant mortality could scarcely afford to invest large amounts of resources into newborns, until they had passed a point where they were more likely to survive. But this brutal necessity hardly fits with the “pro-family” mindset that the modern religious right claims to derive from the Bible.

Numbers 5 also contains the infamous “law of jealousy”, where a man who suspects his wife of being unfaithful can take her to the priests and force her to drink “bitter water”. This potion appears to be some form of abortifacient, because if the woman has been unfaithful, the text says that it will cause her to have a “miscarrying womb” (according to the NIV translation). Many modern anti-choice advocates argue that even a pregnancy conceived from rape should not be grounds for an abortion, but the biblical authors had no compunction in describing it as the appropriate response to spousal infidelity.

Following the theme from Genesis 38, Hosea 13:16 thunders that “Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.” Again, the innocent lives incubating inside these sinful women do not stay the hand of the divine executioner.

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