Category Archives: Ethics

Abortion & Scripture

I’m not particularly surprised, but I’ve recently discovered a number of religious organisations and individuals who offer arguments in favour of abortion explicitly on religious grounds. Take, for example, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. They point out that the Bible says nothing about abortion, and surely if it considered the issue of prime importance it would have done so. Roy Bowen Ward writes, “One thing the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort.’” He advises pro-life Christians and Jews to therefore be silent where the Bible itself is silent. Or take the words of the Reverend Mark Bigelow: “Even as a minister I am careful what I presume Jesus would do if he were alive today, but one thing I know from the Bible is that Jesus was not against women having a choice in continuing a pregnancy. He never said a word about abortion (nor did anyone else in the Bible) even though abortion was available and in use in his time.”

Now, let’s grant the claim that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention abortion. Let’s ignore also – for the sake of argument – the many passages which appear to regard the unborn as fully human. What follows from this? Does the alleged silence of scripture mean women have a God-sanctioned right to abort? I hardly see how that is the case. Why should we suppose that just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn some practice or other that it must therefore approve of it? That strikes me as a terrible piece of reasoning. The Bible is silent about a great many things. It doesn’t tell us that it’s wrong to discriminate against people of other races. It doesn’t condemn the lynching of homosexuals. It never tells us that torturing animals for kicks and giggles is not a-OK. Are we to suppose such actions are therefore morally justified? Not so long ago it was a popular line of racist argumentation to claim that because the Bible was silent on the humanity of blacks that blacks were not fully human.

Firstly, the Christian can regard many things as prohibited by scripture by inference from the sorts of principles it lays down as to how he or she should live in the world. Thus, scripture does indeed – by inference – condemn many things that it doesn’t explicitly mention. While it’s therefore true that the Bible never speaks of individual races it does tell us that all human beings are created in the image of God and are of utmost value as a result. Secondly, why should we suppose that the only moral injunctions the Christian should pay attention to are those explicitly cited in holy writ? Human have (I believe) a moral sense and an ability to engage in moral reasoning. Whilst the Bible provides the primary authority for Christians there is no reason to suppose that it should be the Christian’s sole authority. There are many things that might be right or wrong despite the (alleged) silence of scripture.

Furthermore, there might well be an explanation for the silence of the Bible on abortion. As mentioned above, the Bible is not a complete moral code. It’s a record of the life of, firstly, the Israelites, and, secondly, the early church. It concerns their life and religion, and their experiences with God and with each other. As such it primarily addresses issues of relevance to those communities. Seemingly neither the Hebrews nor the early Christians were inclined to practice abortion, and thus it shouldn’t surprise us that their writings are silent about the matter. It just wasn’t an issue. This itself is telling, particularly in light of the fact that abortion was widely practiced by the surrounding cultures. The Hebrew worldview was very different. Humans were regarded as possessing intrinsic value as a result of being made in the image of God. Children were regarded as a great blessing, a gift from God; they were not an unwanted nuisance getting in the way of life. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward,” writes the Psalmist. In fact, early on in the national psyche of the early Hebrews immortality itself was expressed through one’s descendants. In this light, barrenness was regarded as a curse. In this culture, therefore, abortion was largely unthinkable; hence the Bible’s silence. The same goes for a practice like female infanticide. Despite being widespread in the surrounding cultures it is never mentioned in the Bible, but the reason is because it wasn’t an issue for the early Hebrews, not that female infanticide is therefore morally permitted.

When we come to the New Testament and the early church a similar point can be made. The early church – and almost all the NT authors – were Jewish Christians. As such they inherited a Jewish morality. Whatever the Jews believed about abortion was almost certainly what the early Jewish Christians also believed. When we look at the Judaism of the period we find that it was staunchly opposed to abortion. The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides states: “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures.” Or take Josephus: “The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus.” It is therefore reasonable to assume – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – that this opinion was shared by the early church of the NT period. Much of the NT was written to particular churches to address particular issues. Abortion simply wasn’t an issue. The silence of the NT is thus far more likely because of how common place moral prohibitions against abortion were, and because it simply wasn’t an issue that needed to be further addressed. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest the writers of the NT deviated from the established morality here.

If we wish to apply biblical principles to the abortion debate then it seems we must return to the most fundamental question of all: is the unborn a human being? If such is the case – and the science of embryology appears to tells us that it is – then the onus is on pro-choice Christians to show why the general biblical prohibitions against the unjust taking of a human life do not also apply to the unborn.

Stephen J Graham

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Abortion & Men

Below is a section from a longer article on debating abortion. It concerns the popular sentiment from a growing number within the pro-choice movement that men have no right to an opinion or that abortion is none of our business.

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This response is incredibly tiresome but I have yet to debate abortion without my opponent bringing it up. I was even told by another man that because we were men we had no right to an opinion on the matter. Ironically, this was stated right after he had given his own – “pro-choice” – opinion!

I have yet to be informed as to precisely how my having a penis is any hindrance whatsoever to my ability to rationally analyse the scientific evidence concerning the beginning of life, the philosophical question of personhood, the biological facts about life development, or issues of viability, disability, or mortality. In fact in plain experiential understanding of the realities of pregnancy and child birth I have discovered that I often far outstrip even many of my female opponents. I know what it’s like when it dawns on you that you’re going to be a parent. I know what it’s like to see my child for the first time at 12 weeks on a hospital scan. Due to certain complications I got to see many more scans over the months that followed and watched my son grow in the womb of my wife. I know what it’s like to be there every step of the way through a difficult pregnancy and a child birth hit by the complications of an ovarian cyst. My wife was very ill after giving birth, and was required to remain in hospital for a week afterwards. I may not have carried a life inside my body, but to think that this means I didn’t understand what was going on is pure unadulterated nonsense. I’ve lived it.

Furthermore, the idea that abortion has no effect on men is at best factually incorrect, and at worse a horrendous instance of the kind of sexism that would be censured if it was stated the other way around. Being a father is a big deal. Being a father has completely turned my life on its head. Utterly. When a woman contemplates an abortion it’s not just her own well-being and future at stake in the decision. The future of the man is at stake also. When his child is aborted do you really think this has no effect on a man? In fact, in the majority of cases when a woman has an abortion without her partner’s consent the relationship subsequently breaks down. We’re not robots. We’re not devoid of emotion. So please let’s have no more of this patronising nonsense that men should have no right to an opinion because we don’t know what it’s like or that abortion doesn’t affect us.

Of course, the argument leads to all manner of silliness: should only terminally ill people have a right to an opinion on euthanasia? Are disabled people the only ones qualified to dictate public policy concerning provision for disabled people? Are female doctors and surgeons incompetent when speaking on issues of testicular or prostate health? Perhaps all of us in the Western world should remain neutral on questions of third world aid since we don’t know what it’s like to be poor?

But, of course, the claim is merely a red-herring; little more than a lazy attempt to close off all debate, particularly when it’s going badly and a man is asking difficult questions of those who think it’s fine and dandy to take the life of an unborn child.

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Stephen J Graham

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Does the Old Testament Force Rape Victims to Marry Rapists?

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This article was written after a debate I had several years ago with one of my former philosophy lecturers and a friend of his.
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Here are some post-debate reflections on the debate. Our debate kicked off when WC posted a link to the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, “What the Bible says about rape,” and seemed to approve of its presentation.

The link cited a meagre four verses – one from Numbers and three from Deuteronomy – a fact which shows that this is only a very small fraction of what “the Bible” says about rape. Whoever put together this small list of verses has been selective in excelsis. The verses are as follows:

(1) If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you. [Deuteronomy: 22:23-24]

(2) But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. 26 Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, 27 for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her. [Deuteronomy 22:25-27]

(3) If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels[c] of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. [Deuteronomy 22:28-29]

(4) “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. [Numbers 31:15-18]

In the course of the debate it became clear that not only did my debate opponents fail to interpret these verses in context, but in several cases they simply failed to read what these verses actually say. I will therefore examine each of these verses in turn, as I did during our debate.

(1) In this case we are not dealing with a case of rape at all. What we have here is an instance of consensual sex – and, in fact, adultery. One of my opponents rejected this, claiming I should try an “alternative reading” of the text, perhaps one which takes it as meaning that the woman didn’t cry out loud enough.

Now, we can spin out all manner of “alternative readings,” but there needs to be some reason why we should favour one over another. In this case my friend’s alternative reading actually twisted the text, forcing it to say what it is not in fact saying. Furthermore, we have good additional reason for supposing that this was not a case of rape. Most importantly the word for rape is not used, yet occurs in the very next example listed in the passage. Moreover, the rhythm of the entire passage supports this. In verse 22 we are given an instance of consensual adultery between a man and another man’s wife. Then we get to this instance – a case of consentual sex between a man and another man’s fiancé. After this we are given a case of a man having non-consensual sex with someone else’s fiancé, and then a case of a man raping a virgin who is not pledged to be married. The entire movement of the passage indicates that what we have in verse 23-24 is in fact a case of consensual sex between a man and a woman pledged to be married to someone else.

We might, of course, still find the rule bizarre, but to include it as part of “what the Bible says about rape,” which implies that the Bible sometimes commands the stoning of a rape victim, is downright misleading.

(2) This second instance is indeed a case of rape. Here the result is that the man must be stoned to death. This verse therefore seems to clearly show that rape was not to be tolerated and was in fact seen as a gross wrong. Moreover, in cases which involved a married woman, or a woman pledged to be married, it was also a breach of the commandment against committing adultery. This rule doesn’t tell us much more than that, but in saying what it does it forms part of what is – contrary to the insinuations of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible – a very strong biblical condemnation of rape. As such we should very carefully interpret other verses where we might be tempted to conclude that rape was tolerated or even commanded. Lastly, that this verse so strongly condemns rape should make it unthinkable to suggest that the previous rule commands the stoning of a rape victim.

(3) The third instance is the most interesting, but often the most abused and misread. My debate opponents construed this rule to mean the forcing of a rape victim to marry her rapist. One of them went so far as to suggest that since the woman in question was likely to be a young teenager, the rule here forces a child to marry her rapist and suffer a life of continual rape.

Such interpretations suffer from a failure to read the rule in the context of ancient Hebrew culture. Firstly, the rule simply does not force a rape victim to marry her rapist. The rule is quite deliberately worded differently. The rule states that the man must marry the victim. In other words, as a result of his crime the man now has an obligation that he must fulfil. It is at this point that an understanding of the Hebrew mindset is crucial. In Hebrew culture a woman who had already had sex could not be given in marriage. Unfortunately a rape victim would be rejected; her hopes of marriage, family and all the rights conferred on a married woman would now be denied to her. She was effectively doomed to live a desolate life. However, what this rule does is to ensure that the man who had committed the rape is held to account. The woman cannot be discarded but rather is allowed to receive the full rights of a married woman. It might sound counter-intuitive to our modern ethics, mind-set and culture, but a woman in such a position in the ancient Near East would rather be married than live in desolation. In fact, we see this very thing in the book of 2 Samuel which tells the story of Amnon and Tamar. After raping Tamar, Amnon goes to leave and Tamar cries out that if he leaves her now it would be an even greater wrong than what he has already done. Tamar, in typical Hebrew fashion, would rather be married to Amnon than be left. As we know, Amnon has no intention of fulfilling his obligations and leaves Tamar, who then lives the rest of her life as “a desolate woman.”

So, once we gain insight into the Hebrew mindset and understand something of Hebrew culture and society we can see that the rule in question does not force rape victims to marry their rapists. The rule was designed to protect women – to give them status, to provide them with the rights married women enjoyed, and to save them from being socially outcast and ultimately desolate.

(4) This final verse concerns prisoners of war, and a similar sentiment is found in Deuteronomy 21:10-14. I do not intend to deal with the issues of killing raised in this verse, but rather only with the issue of the Israelites “saving for themselves” all the women who have never slept with a man. Again, it is not obvious that we are dealing with cases of rape here. I mentioned above some considerations of ancient Near East mindset and culture, and some of that applies here too. Life has rarely been good for prisoners of war, and the ancient Near East was no exception. These women will have lost everything – their homes, their land, their families, their status, and their hope of a decent future. Life for a POW in the ancient Near East was a grim prospect. Whilst being far from ideal, this rule at least provides a measure of protection for many of these women, and raised their future prospects above what they would otherwise be. Compared to other ancient Near Eastern legal codes the Hebrews were much more progressive and ethically advanced.

This brings me to a point which we must bear in mind when we consider such texts, or Old Testament ethics generally. One of my opponents asked “why would God give the Israelites rules that were less than ideal?” Christians gives different answers to this question. I want to end by sketching what strikes me as the most persuasive.

All laws are situational. They apply to certain people at a certain place in a certain time. Moreover, laws tend to be a compromise between what is enforceable and what is acceptable to those people in that place at that time. With regards to the Mosaic legal code we are dealing with a society in the ancient Near East; a society which has for centuries breathed in the culture and value system of the wider ancient Near Eastern world of which it was a part. This culture is in many respects utterly alien to ours. It was to varying degrees xenophobic, sexist, patriarchal, violent, and much else besides. Much of what we regard as modern values would be utterly alien to ancient Hebrew ears. We are therefore dealing with a people who simply would not grasp many of our our ethical concepts and categories.

For God to meet with these people at anything resembling a meaningful level he had to meet them where they were. Laying down a lofty ethic for which this ancient society simply was not culturally, intellectually and ethically prepared for would have been somewhat pointless. It would almost certainly have been rejected, even if we grant that it would have been understood in the first place. What we see then is something of a divine compromise: God gives a less than ideal code but nevertheless one that would put the Israelites on the right path and point them in the right direction, and which in many respects was far more advanced than anything the ancient Near East had seen thus far.

It is this doctrine of divine accommodation that helps solve much of the mystery surrounding many of the rather odd rules we come across in the Old Testament legal codes. These considerations should also make us guard against any crass attempts – by critics or overzealous Christians – to view the Old Testament legal codes as the epitome of divine moral wisdom, applicable to all people everywhere in its entirety. Christians, for whom the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation is the person of Christ, are not bound to defend every Old Testament rule or regulation. Instead it can be viewed it as a sign-post, pointing beyond itself; or perhaps as a seed that was to grow into something much more impressive; or maybe as a stepping stone to a better way: God’s self-revelation in the person, work and teachings of Christ.

This is merely an outline of an answer. Whether or not we find it persuasive we should at least do the necessary spadework and understand not only what the rules say and why, but also the cultural background against which they appear. This, I contend, is precisely what my debate opponents neglected to do.

Stephen J Graham

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The Euphemisms of “Pro-Choice”

The issue of abortion is rarely far from the public consciousness. My own opposition to abortion is well known amongst those who know me, in particular those who have debated the issue with me recently. However, I must confess to a deep disappointment in those I have debated from the “pro-choice” lobby in recent weeks. The arguments in favour of abortion have been virtually non-existent, replaced instead mostly with ad hominem attacks. In 3 cases after I presented a pro-life case or questioned the “pro-choice” position I was immediately attacked for being a man and therefore, somehow, having no right to an opinion on the matter. Seemingly in the minds of these people having a penis somehow impedes my ability to analyse the scientific evidence concerning the beginning and nature of human life. In a further case when I asked for an argument from a “pro-choice” advocate I was told that “there’s no point in arguing with people who are religious so I won’t bother.” This was strange since up to this point nothing in our debate had been religious or spiritual in nature or content.

In almost every case my opponents wrote about abortion in terms which are grossly inaccurate. John Powell once was remarked that, “Language is something like the sugar coating on the ideas which we swallow and digest.” When an idea is repugnant it’s easier to get people to swallow it if we dress it up in language that suggests something else. Way back in America in the 1970’s the abortion debate was raging in the aftermath of the Roe v Wade and Bolton v Doe decisions (which legalised abortion on demand in all 50 States for the full 9 months of pregnancy). When the proponents of abortion were making their case they knew that public opinion would be against them if they spoke of the ending of a human life in the womb; so they needed a vocabulary to speak of abortion that avoided mention of the tiny human killed in each act. One of the terms coined way back then remains in popular usage: “terminating a pregnancy.” Proponents of abortion knew it was easier to gain public acceptance for killing babies in the womb if they called it “terminating a pregnancy,” and avoided mention of the human life altogether.

Occasionally I do meet “pro-choice” advocates who deny that abortion really is the ending of a human life. Such a viewpoint is pure wanton ignorance for which there is no scientific support. Doctor Bernard Nathanson (one of the leading pro-abortion voices in American until converting to the pro-life cause) wrote:

“Why did I change my mind? Well, to begin with, it was not from religious conviction, because as I have stated on many occasions…I am an atheist…In any case, the change of mind began with the realisation, the inescapable reality that the fetus, that embryo, is a person, is a protectable human life.”

Doctor Jerome LeJeune put the matter like so:

“Life has a very, very long history but each individual has a very neat beginning, the moment of its conception. . . To accept that fact that after fertilisation has taken place, a new human has come into being, is no longer a matter of taste or of opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.”

Or Doctor Matthews-Roth, “…it is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when the egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and that this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of its life.”

To flog the goat a little more, Doctor DeMere says, “From the medical standpoint there are mountains of documents to show that the human embryo is a separate person biologically distinct from the mother.” This human life which exists from conception becomes viable the moment it implants in the mother’s womb. Once it has done so a woman is pregnant, a new human being will grow and develop.

Therefore, owing to the sheer weight of scientific evidence proving beyond any reasonable doubt that human life begins at the moment of conception, most “pro-choice” advocates have no option but to quietly accept that this is so but do all in their power to avoid mention of it publically. Hence “terminating a pregnancy” rather than “terminating a human life.” “Terminating a pregnancy” is a euphemism, the sugar-coating on a horrendous idea that its advocates want us to swallow.

I have discovered that this is often the real reason “pro-choice” advocates complain so aggressively against the kinds of images made public by pro-life advocates. It is true that these pictures are grizzly, greatly disturbing, and deeply saddening. These images have haunted me. They’ve made me sick. They’ve made me shed tears. But they illustrate the horrible truth that in every abortion a human life is ended, either by having his or her body crushed or cut to pieces, or by having his or her skin and internal organs burnt and dissolved by chemical solutions. They expose the “pro-choice” euphemism of “terminating a pregnancy” and show us exactly what that means: the destruction of a human life.

Regrettably the “pro-choice” case is full of this kind of language, this sort of sugar coating to make repugnant ideas more palatable. Another popular form of language is that of the “private choice” of women to do what they want with “their own body.” Again, all mention of the human life being taken is conveniently glossed over in this attempt to close off all discussion and critique under the auspices that abortion is none of our business and should be left to the individual woman to decide what she does with “her own body.” Of course the plain truth is that abortion is not a private moral decision at all. We’re not talking about the right of women to have cancerous growths cut out from their bodies. We’re talking about the destruction of a human life, a life that is biologically distinct from the woman’s own life. The human life in question has his or her own genetic code, blood-type, fingerprints, beating heart, nervous system, and of course can be a completely different sex from the mother altogether. Furthermore, this human life feels pain independently of the mother, can be healthy even when the mother is unwell, can be awake even when his or her mother is sleeping.

For this reason abortion must be seen as more than just a “private decision.” There are two lives – two bodies – involved: not just one.

Amongst the more ridiculous examples of a pro-choice advocate trying to lessen the weight behind the fact that abortion ends a human life came at me a week or two ago during a debate. My opponent’s contention was that abortion kills a foetus but not a baby because a foetus does not become a baby until 24 weeks. When I challenged her on this she made no attempt at a justification, either scientific or ethical. Instead I was told I was a man and therefore had no right to an opinion. This response surprised me as I had merely asked a simple question: what is different between a foetus at 23 weeks and one at 24 that suddenly confers “baby status” on it? Moreover, given that a 4 year old child could in many cases be more advanced than a 5 year could it not also be the case that in many instances a 23 or 22 weeks old “foetus” be more advanced than a 24 week old foetus? What scientific grounds are there for such an arbitrary line between “foetus” and “baby?” “You’re a man, what would you know.” There’s nothing like a good piece of ad hominem when your opponent unmasks your ridiculous position for what it is, eh?

What my opponent conveniently overlooked is that the word “foetus” simply refers to a particular stage of human development, (in fact the word literally means “unborn child”). Throughout our lives we are called by many names: zygote, embryo, foetus, baby, infant, toddler, child, teenager, adult. We are fully human the entire time regardless of what particular stage we’re at. We tend to use the word “foetus” to describe a human being in the womb, and the word “baby” to describe a human being once it has left. From foetus to baby there is absolutely no fundamental biological change.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching my own son grow in the womb of my wife. I’ve seen the scans – more than most people get to see because of certain complications we had to face during the 9 months which required more frequent hospital visits. I still remember him at 12 weeks the very first time I saw him: spinning, moving – frantically moving – twisting, turning and so full of life. Of course everyone – me, my wife, relatives, doctors, midwives, nurses, GPs – referred to him as “baby.” But when a baby is earmarked for destruction the “pro-choice” advocates suddenly adopt a very different language – a language of dehumanisation. Other terms are used: “clump of cells,” “potential life” (a ridiculous term you’ll never hear a biologist use), “product of conception.” But these are words no-one ever uses in any other context. No woman ever says “wow, my clump of cells just moved there,” or “the potential life just kicked,” or “I saw the product of conception sucking its thumb.” We know the truth: there’s a human being in there. “Pro-choice” advocates wish to obscure this truth and once again the tactic of choice is euphemism: get the general public to swallow horrendous ideas by covering them in sugar-coated language that masks reality.

Abortion is an issue that isn’t going to leave the debate scene anytime soon. But whether we are for it or against it we should at least be accurate about what it is: the destruction of a human life.

Stephen J Graham

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