by Pastor Doug Kings
In an obscure section of legal codes in Exodus 21, we read:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.
In verses before and after this one, the rules are uncompromisingly harsh. For example:
Whoever strikes a person mortally … whoever strikes father or mother … whoever kidnaps a person … whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.
A broad category of injury to living persons is worthy of capital punishment, this ancient text declares. Yet injury leading to the death of a fetus is punishable by a fine.
This text is highlighted in a sermon by Rabbi Neil Amswych of Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe, NM (and shared by a Lutheran pastor there). Like most rabbis, he is a serious scholar of scripture and the millennia of Jewish commentary on it. Amswych goes on to share the long history of discussion of this verse among the rabbis. The clear consensus is that a fetus is a part of a woman’s body and not a separate entity, thus not a person in its own right. The loss of a fetus by violence, then, is punished as a physical injury to the woman.
One of the responses to the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court (in Dobbs v. Jackson) has been legal challenges asserting that state prohibitions violate the rights of those who believe their religion accepts abortion as a legitimate choice under particular circumstances. One rabbi has filed such a suit here in Florida. Whatever its outcome, it’s obvious that our political and religious world will once again be roiled with this divisive issue for years to come.
Rabbi Amswych goes on to say that Jewish tradition by no means treats abortion lightly. Its perspective, however, is the high value the tradition places on the human body.
While Judaism teaches that the fetus is part of a woman’s body, it also clearly teaches that we do not have autonomy over our bodies. Traditional prohibitions against suicide or against forms of self-harm such as cutting or tattooing the body show that our bodies are considered sacred gifts on loan from God, and we may not damage them in any way.
Such a teaching does not, of course, prohibit medical procedures which may “damage” the body yet are performed to preserve a person’s health. Thus, abortion to preserve the health of a woman, including her mental health, this tradition says, would be permissible.
In her recent pastoral message responding to Dobbs, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton draws attention to the ELCA social statement on abortion, adopted more than thirty years ago. As with Jewish tradition, our church agrees that, while recognizing the ethical and social complexities of the issue, a woman should have a legal right to abortion. The questions around making such a decision are often difficult and complicated but the question of whether a woman has the freedom to make such a decision is not. Eaton writes:
As presiding bishop, I want to remind this church that, despite this new legal landscape, we continue to depend on our social teaching for guidance. Our social statement provides the moral framework for our church’s communal discernment and ministry, holding in tension both the strong Christian presumption to preserve and protect all life as well as the complex moral situations in which pregnancy sometimes occurs. Our social teaching is complex and does not hew to clear categories or labels such as “pro-abortion” or “anti-abortion.”
That complexity is reflected in several points. The statement recognizes that pregnant persons have moral agency; they are the ones to make decisions about a pregnancy (see pp. 5-6). This church and its ministers trust them to decide but expect them to make such decisions in relationship—with God, self, partner, family, ministers and others.
As anyone who learned his catechisms knows, Martin Luther had clear moral and ethical views. Nonetheless, in specific instances his approach was always pastoral, grounded in the supremacy of grace in all things. The complex difficulties that may surround pregnancy make the wisdom and compassion of such an approach obvious. Luther understood that life often presents us with ambiguous situations where the “right” choice is not clear, and the information needed to make such a choice is unavailable. Recognition of our limitations and frailties is what led to Luther’s famous teaching to “love God and sin boldly.”
That the Dobbs decision is motivated by political rather than ethical or social concerns is obvious. Once again people’s lives will be victims of the political football game that increasingly constitutes governance in this country. Women, children, families, and communities will all be hurt by this action. And once again it will be the poor who bear the greatest burden. The response of caring people then, as always, will be to treat with compassion those in need. Again, from Eaton’s message:
As we live into this new legal framework, we can respond to and minister in the current situation, for instance, by ministering to individuals who seek abortions; advocating for laws that provide free or affordable health care, child care and education; providing and promoting sex education; continuing to be a community of discernment where thoughtful and diverse perspectives can be shared and heard; and advocating for state laws that provide legal, safe and affordable abortions, and against legislation that would outlaw abortion in all circumstances (p. 9).
In conclusion, Eaton reminds us that violence and hatred have no place in this dispute. Today it is easy to fall into dualistic and divisive black-and-white, good guys vs. bad guys thinking and discourse. In this instance, our political process has failed and all parties bear responsibility. Until this is resolved, our calling is, as Luther says, to be Christ for our neighbor, bearing God’s love to all people, in all circumstances. As Eaton writes:
Let us be instruments for peace where there is none. Let us listen to one another. Let us serve the needs of neighbors in all the complexities life presents. God calls us to be for others, just as God in Christ is for us.
Blessings in your life and ministry.