Bishops have criticized Roman Catholic politicians - notably presidential candidate John Kerry - who favor liberal abortion laws, and now author Garry Wills is criticizing the bishops.
"The Bishops vs. the Bible," the title of Wills' June 27 op-ed piece in The New York Times, underscored his theme that abortion is "nowhere mentioned in either Jewish or Christian Scripture." Because of that, he said, bishops cannot supplant personal conscience "with some divine imperative."
His summation, "Scripture is silent," was surprisingly simplistic for a Pulitzer Prize-winner. It would have been more convincing if Wills had acknowledged that Catholic and Protestant abortion foes cite the Bible, then explained why he disagrees.
No fewer than 39 Bible texts are listed in anti-abortion materials from America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Although most praise the value of life in general, 11 address life in the womb.
Wills was correct in the sense that the Bible contains no explicit commandment of the sort found in the "Didache," the earliest Christian catechism, produced just after the New Testament. A section that repeated the Ten Commandments taught:
"You will not murder offspring by means of abortion. You will not kill them having been born" (2:2).
Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life") said church opposition is based upon "the written Word of God," but freely acknowledged that the Bible lacks any direct commandment. Explaining this, he said that even the possibility of intentional attacks upon unborn life was "completely foreign" to ancient Israel.
For instance, he said, Scripture repeatedly calls sterility a curse and offspring a blessing, as in Psalm 127:3: "Sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward."
Like many, John Paul also drew upon a New Testament passage, Luke 1:39-45. Here Elizabeth's unborn son John the Baptist leaps in her womb as the visiting Mary says she is pregnant with Jesus.
Other writers say this defines the value and personal identity not only of a maturing fetus, as with John, but also a life in the earliest stages following conception. Jesus would have been in the early embryo stage, the argument runs, because Mary went "with haste" to Elizabeth as soon as the angel announced her pregnancy.
The Baptists note that the Greek word for "baby" is applied equally to the unborn John and the newborn Jesus lying in a manger (Luke 2:16).
Many biblical texts used in the debate are Old Testament prophets' and poets' depictions of God planning each individual life and shaping it in the womb.
The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" quotes Jeremiah 1:5 where God tells the prophet, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you."
In the New Testament, Paul writes similarly that God "set me apart before I was born" (Galatians 1:15).
Catholic and Protestant writings treat other Scriptures about God guiding unborn lives: Psalm 139:13-16; Ecclesiastes 11:5; Job 10:8-13 and 31:15; and Isaiah 44:24 and 49:1,5.
In Judaism, those texts get less attention than the sole legal text in the Bible's first five books ("Torah") that relates to abortion: Exodus 21:22-25. However, it's a complicated matter.
The passage stated that if men's fighting accidentally caused miscarriage for a pregnant woman bystander, the guilty party paid a fine. This defined punishment only for loss of life through unintentional miscarriage, not the more serious matter of directly induced abortion.
Jewish authorities taught that this passage means induced abortion is wrong, but not the same as murder, and that the mother has higher status than the fetus so abortion is justifiable to save her life.
Jews said injury to the mother was covered by the further statement that "if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life." However, in the ancient Greek Bible (translated from slightly different Hebrew texts) this verse prescribed a fine if the child was "born imperfectly formed," but required "life for life" if the child was "perfectly formed."
On the Net:
"Evangelium Vitae" text: http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ENG0141/-INDEX.HTM