An article donated by Dr. Sanford Aranoff
A detailed analysis of diverse views about the
beginning of a person, with biblical references
Anthony Kenny wrote 1 an article discussing when a
human being becomes human. This long and serious article omitted several relevant and critical points.
He mentioned quotes from the Bible, but failed
to mention quotes from Hebraic Law.
- He fails to discuss self-defense.
- He ignores the analysis of Mary Anne Warren,
2 who has given definitive
arguments of what characteristics entitle an entity to be considered a person,
and shows that killing a fetus is not the same as killing a person.
The puzzling and troubling fact that after Warren
wrote her definitive article, people like Kenny still write confusing ideas that
Warren already discussed. This shows the need for more clarification and
emphasis of Warren's ideas.
We will discuss each point in order. In addition,
we will introduce a novel point, that we define an entity by its organization,
and show that this distinguishes a fetus from a baby. Ancient people said we
distinguish a baby from a fetus by the baby's independent breathing. We cannot,
of course, equate ancient concepts with modern ideas. In this paper, we develop
this idea to the concept of organization.
We discuss different logical ideas that people express
regarding abortion, and show how we can apply conclusions to various areas of
the abortion issue. The conclusions will be between the extreme "abortion is
first-degree murder" attitude and "women can do as they wish with their bodies"
II. The Bible and Hebraic law
Kenny mentions how abortion is hinted at in the
Bible. The story of Onan in Genesis is "an offense against life." 3
He mentions verses in Psalms and Job supporting the idea that conception is the
beginning of life. What is surprising is that Kenny and others fail to mention
those parts of the Bible that are explicit in defining when a human being
becomes a person. Instead of looking at verses that give hints, there are very
explicit verses. We here are discussing the Bible -- in spite of the fact that the
concepts of ancients cannot be equated without qualification with modern ideas --
because Kenny mentions the Bible.
The first five books of the Bible are the
foundations of Hebraic Law. In the modern State of Israel, Hebraic Law has
become one of the lesser ongoing sources for contemporary Israeli civil law,
which developed along the model of British common law. Hebraic Law was the legal
system of ancient Israel.
Consider the book of Exodus. Here we find the laws
concerning murder. First-degree murder is a capital crime. Laws in the Hebrew
Bible are given in the form of specific examples from which the general
principle is determined. This is in contrast to American law, where the
principles are given, with the specific examples left to the courts. Look at the
specific examples given about killing a fetus, and then determine the principle
of when a person becomes a person.
The Bible tells us in Exodus 4
if two men fight, and one hits another and kills him, the killer must be
executed. If they hit a pregnant woman (this is the literal translation of the
Hebrew) and kill her, it is also a capital crime. If the woman is not hurt, but
the fetuses (plural in the original Hebrew) are lost (literally "and her
children went out"), then the killer must pay a monetary fine. It is not a
capital crime. This establishes the principle that a person does not become a
person until birth for killing a fetus is not a capital crime. This is true even
if the fetuses were twins (fetuses in plural). When we think first-degree murder
as a capital crime, we must not think that abortion is the same type of thing.
It is very wrong to say, as some do, the widespread practice of abortion is like
I have given simple literal translations of the
text. There are many interpretations and references to older literature that one
can delve into. The Hebraic Law is considered as an ocean, in that there is no
limit to the depth one can delve into. Nevertheless, we must not ignore the
simple meanings of the text.
As an example of the complexity that I do not wish
to delve into, consider Exodus 22:28: "The first of your sons you shall give
me." Some theologians say this refers to human sacrifice. Most interpret this
verse as the redemption of the son.
Exodus 20:13, 'You shall not murder.'
This verse is often mistranslated 'Thou shall not kill.' First-degree
murder is actually being referred to -- the killing of a human person.
First-degree murder is a capital crime. Abortion is not.
The conflict between Exodus and the sections of
Psalms Kenny mentions are not significant, as Exodus is part of Hebraic Law,
whereas Psalms is not.
There is no justification for omitting this
section from the Biblical book of Exodus when discussing the attitude of the
Bible towards abortion. Ignoring this part of the Bible is intellectual
dishonesty. I am very surprised how widespread this is.
writes more comments about the attitude of the Bible towards abortion. There is
much more that one can say about the Bible. There are very many verses in many
locations that can shed light on this subject. In this paper, we just want to
highlight the source that most strongly clarifies abortion. It is possible to
write a long paper giving the many sources; however, no other source can
contradict the verse in Exodus.
There is another reason not to give an extensive
discussion of the many Biblical verses that can be shown to relate to abortion.
Giving too much dilutes the message. Verses from Exodus are enough; these
verses are law, while other verses are poetry and do not strengthen the argument
one is trying to make, for one can always find verses to the contrary.
The fact that we mentioned Hebraic law requires us
to say a few words on the topic. Baldwin 6
discusses Hebraic law and its influence on American law. He states:
most astonishing characteristic is its universality -- the fact that it contains so
many elements of permanent value for the ordering of human relations. If any one
doubts that the Hebrew law was to a marvelous degree adaptable to conditions
wholly different from those it was originally designed to meet, he will find a
backward glance at our colonial history sufficiently convincing.
explanation of such reverence for the Hebrew law as was shown by the New England
colonies, it is not sufficient to say that the colonists were Puritans, and
therefore pledged to regard the Bible as the final authority in faith and
morals. The colonial leaders were sensible men. Their conduct of inter-colonial
affairs shows clearly that, instead of being unpractical fanatics or even
doctrinaires, they were astute politicians, in the best sense of that term, and
clear-sighted statesmen, skilled in the management of public matters. As such,
they chose to adapt the Hebrew law to contemporary conditions, not because it
was sanctioned by scriptural authority (though, naturally, this consideration
influenced their choice), but because they recognized in the torah certain
elements of permanence.
a recognition even a cursory examination of Hebrew law will amply justify. It
was admirably fitted to become the corpus juris of the new land, not only
because of its emphasis upon the close connection between the religious and
moral life, but because it embodied the essential principles of popular liberty.
no other ancient code was human life so carefully safeguarded, simply because by
no other ancient people was the sacredness of human life so fully recognized.
The presence in the Deuteronomic code of the law regarding house-building, "Thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof that thou bring not blood upon thy house,
if any man fall from thence" (Deut. 22:8), and the law, equally unparalleled in
other ancient legislation, regarding homicide by an unknown person (Deut. 21:
1-9), is to be accounted for by the Hebrew sense of the sacredness of human
Hebrew law, owing to its emphasis upon the sacredness of human life, upon the
property rights of the individual, and consequently upon the equality of its
citizens, contained the germs of modern democratic freedom, it was found suited
to become, with some modifications, the corpus juris of the colonists of the new
world. That in three instances it furnished a practical working code of laws
affords convincing proof that Hebrew law contained elements of permanence. Such
universality and timelessness are due to its having been an expression of
fundamental laws of human life."
We must distinguish Hebraic Law, the law of
ancient Israel based upon the Pentateuch, with Halacha, the code by which
Orthodox Jews live. This paper does not discuss Halacha, as it is far beyond the
scope. Halacha is Jewish law based upon the Pentateuch plus rabbinical
The above quote from Baldwin also says, "... he
adapted many features of the Hebrew law." The moment some features are adapted,
rather than all features, it ceases to be Halacha. Another way of saying this is
that the Jew who observes Halacha does so because God ordered it, whereas when
they adopted Hebrew law, they did so only for its intrinsic merit. This paper on
abortion discusses the issues for their intrinsic merit. The only reason we
mentioned the Bible is because Kenny mentioned it. Hebraic law is not part of
Let us go to the next point, self-defense. This
concept is central to legal and religious systems. If an abortion is necessary
to save a woman's life, clearly the abortion is acceptable, regardless of our
opinion of whether the fetus is a person or not. The position of the Catholic Church, that it is better for the woman to die, is a minority opinion, and not
in accordance with American and European law. 7 Self-defense is not optional, for
refusing to defend one's life is equivalent to suicide, and is illegal. That is,
self-defense is mandatory.
The position of some members of the pro-life group
is dishonest, as they ignore the life of the mother. These people say they are
pro-life when they do not care about the life of the mother. We may want to ask
them directly what their attitude is, and if it is extreme, we should know about
The question is if the mother's health is in
danger. This point came up when Congress passed a law against abortion ignoring
the mother's health. If we consider the fetus a person, then we are asking the
mother to sacrifice her health for the other person. It may be noble to
sacrifice for another, but it is not noble to compel one to sacrifice her
health. If the mother refuses to do what is necessary to save her life, she is
not doing anything noble; she is committing suicide. If we consider killing the
fetus as a crime, but not a capital crime, as is the case for Hebraic Law, then
the health of the mother is primary. We must consider the possible reduction in
the life span of the woman due to the danger to her health caused by carrying the
fetus to term. Moreover, when we speak about poor health shortening life span, we
must include mental stress. In summary, once we state that abortion is not
first-degree murder, we cannot compel a woman to carry a fetus to term. This
means that the right to an abortion may based upon the right to self-defense,
even if the mother is defending only her health, even if she does not explicitly
The actual Jewish position in a specific case if
we can permit a woman to have an abortion is complex. This paper does not go
into the complexity. As we mentioned above, where we said Hebraic law is like an
ocean, legal rulings are very complicated. All that we are doing here is
discussing general principles. Having the right to an abortion does not
necessarily mean it is the right thing to do.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Anthony Kenny, "The beginning of an individual human", Dædalus, Winter
- Mary Anne Warren, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion", Biomedical Ethics, 4th ed., T.A. Mappes and D. DeGrazia, Eds.
New York, McGraw-Hill, Inc., pp. 434-440 (1996). Available at http://instruct.westvalley.edu/
- Genesis 38:9,
"When [Onan] came to his brother's wife he would destroy to the
ground in order not to give seed to his brother." [Free translation]
- Exodus 21:22
- Joyce Arthur, First published in Humanist in Canada, 22 (3), Autumn (1989). Revised and expanded August (2001), at
- Baldwin, Edward Chauncey, "The Permanent Elements in the Hebrew Law." International Journal of Ethics 25 (April 1915): 360-71.
- Obviously, if the woman dies due to complications arising from her pregnancy, if the embryo or fetus is not viable, then the latter will die quickly due to a lack of support systems. This would result in the death of both woman and embryo/fetus. An abortion would allow the woman to live.
Originally posted: 2009-MAR-01
Latest update: 2012-FEB-21
Author: Dr. Sanford Aranoff, Adjunct Associate Professor of Mathematics and
Science, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648