The Silent Witness Speaks
Abortion & Richard Hays’s Moral Ambiguity
by W. Ross Blackburn
"In a case where the New Testament offers us no clear instruction, it is perhaps inevitable that Christians will in good conscience reach different conclusions.” The writer is Richard Hays, George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School and internationally recognized New Testament scholar, writing in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, perhaps the most influential book on New Testament ethics today ( Christianity Today declared it one of the best and most enduring books of the twentieth century).
The subject is abortion. The “case” referred to above is framed through the experience of Bill and Jennifer, a couple wrestling with whether or not to abort their child with Down syndrome. Hays uses it to ask the question: “Could the New Testament provide any guidance on this agonizing decision?”
Although troubled by abortion, Hays contends that Scripture is ultimately silent on the matter, an argument that is often a foundation for religious people seeking to justify abortion (the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, for example). I want to look at how he arrives at his conclusions—for he makes interpretive moves common to the religious “pro-choice” movement—and in so doing, explore how Scripture does speak to abortion, both in condemning abortion and in giving guidance on how to reach out to pregnant women in troubled circumstances.
How Hays arrives at his conclusion that Scripture is silent is relatively simple: He imposes a category upon Scripture that precludes him from hearing how Scripture speaks to abortion. This is somewhat surprising, because one of the most helpful insights he offers addresses the categories by which we ought to speak of the unborn.
Reflecting on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), he argues that the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” is a self-justifying question designed to circumscribe his compassion. In other words, the lawyer was asking Jesus who qualified as a neighbor that he, the lawyer, was required to love. In telling the parable in response, Jesus rejects the category of neighbor and non-neighbor.
Hays sees exactly the same self-justifying move when people seek to define the fetus as a “non-person.” “It is inappropriate to approach the issue of abortion by asking ‘When does human life begin?’ or ‘Is the fetus a ‘person’?’ . . . There is no basis in Scripture for answering—or even asking—such questions.”
Hays is surely right. But ironically, it is here his argument falters. Formally, he is aware of the danger of imposing foreign categories upon Scripture, warning that “we must not get trapped by the way the world defines the issue,” but “must frame [our] moral reflection within the categories offered to us by Scripture.” Yet, he himself imposes a crucial category upon Scripture that precludes him from hearing its voice: the category of the unborn child, or “fetus.”
In Scripture, people are distinguished (or categorized) in a number of ways: as Jew or Gentile, master or slave, male or female, and even in terms of their stage in life, as children, young men, men, widows, elders, young women/virgins, and so forth. However, nowhere in Scripture is the unborn child distinguished from other children. Nowhere is he set apart as a separate category.
In other words, there is no word for “fetus” in the Bible. The observation is crucial, for this imposition of the category “fetus” upon the Scriptures is the foundation of Hays’s position.
In making his argument, Hays surveys several texts commonly considered relevant to abortion. The most important, for him, is Exodus 21:22–25, a text often used to argue for the legitimacy of abortion. He argues that it “seems to posit a qualitative distinction between the fetus and the mother; only the latter is legally a person with reference to whom the lex talionis applies,” because the death of the fetus warrants a fine, while the death of the mother warrants death.
The actual text, however, may point in the opposite direction. The NRSV translation, which Hays uses, reads:
The original Hebrew wording for “so that there is a miscarriage” reads literally “and her children have come out.” The point is important. To insist on biblical categories means to speak here of children, not “fetuses,” or even “miscarriages.” This simple recognition calls into question Hays’s inference that the passage may distinguish between the personhood of the born and the unborn.
Reading the text as referring to children rather than a miscarriage opens the possibility, consistent with both language and context, that it includes premature birth. If so, the text may impose a fine if the child is unharmed, and commensurate justice (an eye for an eye) if the child is harmed or dies.
While such an interpretation is more faithful to the language of the passage, my point is not that the text should therefore be used to argue against abortion. The text is too ambiguous to carry so much weight. My point is that to use this passage to suggest a difference in status between the unborn and the born is not only speculative but goes against its plain language by imposing a category foreign to Scripture.
A Curious Contention
Hays addresses two other Old Testament texts, but dismisses both as having no significant relevance. Although Psalm 139:13–16 portrays God as the Creator of life, he contends that it “must be interpreted within the poetic genre to which it belongs, not as a scientific or propositional statement.” Similarly, though in Jeremiah 1:5 God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” he contends that it “cannot be pressed as a way of making claims about the status of the fetus as a ‘person.’”
Hays’s contention is curious. As noted above, he declares that it is inappropriate to approach abortion by asking if the fetus is a “person.” Yet he dismisses the relevance of Jeremiah 1 because, he alleges, it does not “make claims about the status of the fetus as a ‘person.’” In a similar way, he dismisses Psalm 139 because it does not speak in a “scientific or propositional” manner.
Does the Scripture need to speak in a scientific or propositional manner to convey truth? To suggest that Scripture must speak as such is to insist that it conform to modern categories if we are to give it a voice. And yet, formally Hays insists that “we must not get trapped by the way the world defines the issue.”
The same confusion is apparent in his treatment of Luke 1:44, where Elizabeth proclaims, “The child in my womb leapt for joy.” He declares those who cite the text in opposition to abortion to be guilty of “ridiculous and tendentious exegesis; indeed, it should not be dignified with the label ‘exegesis.’”
This is perplexing indeed. Exegesis means to read out of the text, rather than to read into the text (eisegesis). Hays takes his category of “fetus” and his concern with “personhood,” both foreign to Scripture, reads them into the text, then ridicules those who read the text plainly as referring to a child. He acknowledges that “the phrase ‘the child in my womb’ implies an attitude toward the unborn that is very different from speaking clinically of ‘the fetus,’” but does not give his observation much weight because the text does not speak clinically.
But this is precisely the point. Must the Scripture speak clinically (as we presumably do) in order for it to recognize the unborn as children? The text refers (and it is amazing that this needs to be said) to a child. Hays is right that the verse does not intend “to prove any particular claim about personhood,” for nowhere in Scripture are the unborn thought of as anything but children. It is everywhere assumed.
Given that Hays himself rejects an appeal to personhood, it is curious that he requires Scripture to speak in precisely those terms if he is to allow it a clear voice in the matter. If anyone is guilty of “ridiculous exegesis,” it is certainly not those who make the simple recognition that the text refers to a child.
A Gift from God
When the unbiblical category of the “fetus” is abandoned in favor of the biblical category of “children,” the Scripture can be seen to speak as directly about abortion as it does about taking other human life. With no scriptural distinction between the born and the unborn, should not the command “Thou shalt not murder” extend to the unborn child as fully as to other children? If the distinction between born and unborn is rejected, then all the commands concerning the protection of the weak, the fatherless, and the innocent would apply directly to the unborn.
Hays’s central contention that Scripture is essentially silent on the subject of abortion depends upon his insistence that the Scriptures be read according to the modern categories of fetus and child. The terms of the discussion are everything.
While Hays does not see Scripture speaking directly to abortion, he does see it speaking indirectly, particularly in his recognition that God is the Creator and that life is a gift from God. He cuts the legs from underneath his argument, however, in two ways.
First, he argues that life has no inherent value, calling the sacredness of life “a sacred cow that has no basis in the New Testament.” He elaborates by quoting Stanley Hauerwas:
This contention is curious, particularly when juxtaposed with the following verses from Genesis: “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:5–6).
According to Genesis, God has special concern for human life because man is made in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:26), the image of the One whose name is Sacred (Is. 57:15). Human life does have intrinsic value, precisely because it is the image of the One who is ultimately valuable. By asserting that “the Christian prohibition of abortion derives not from any assumption of the inherent value of life,” Hays misses the central reason that human life is important, and therefore misses Scripture’s most important rationale for protecting it.
As importantly, Hays fails to follow his recognition that God is the Creator to its logical conclusions, particularly in the more difficult cases. Consider the following:
Exceptions to Life
Hays’s contention that abortion destroys a work of God is important. Yet he makes a caveat, saying that some extreme circumstances justify abortion. Which circumstances justify extinguishing the God-given life of an unborn child? Given that all life comes from God, what is the difference between the unborn and the born that justifies the more resolved protection of one over the other?
The exceptions to which Hays refers are when pregnancy may threaten the mother’s life and when the child was conceived in rape or incest. In his words,
Without belittling the effects of rape, it is difficult to see how even the most tragic of circumstances alters the fact that life, both the mother’s and the child’s, is given by God. Here Hays appeals to experience to justify abortion in such a case. Yet to whose experience does he appeal? Women who gave birth to their babies or those who aborted them? Christian women, non-Christian women, or both? Would the women be united in wishing they had undergone abortion or in wishing they had given birth to their babies? Are the fathers included? Hays does not say.
Furthermore, our fallen moral judgment makes the appeal to experience even more problematic. Formally, Hays acknowledges that “the various claims and counterclaims [of experience] prove so inconclusive,” yet he gives great weight to experience, particularly in these difficult circumstances. His insistence that Scripture is ultimately silent on abortion is keenly felt here, for the particularly difficult cases are those where the guidance of Scripture is most needed, just as light is most urgently needed where the road ahead is darkest.
The assumption that a mother would be better off killing her child is not supported by Scripture. Why compound the already terrible problem of rape by killing the child? Scripture reminds us that God brings good out of evil (Gen. 50:20), and that “God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
While some will see such reasoning as an easy platitude, St. Paul declares that for those who seek to walk faithfully, God works all things together for good. Does it seem ridiculous to suggest that it might be best for the woman’s sake to bring the baby to birth rather than to abort him? What is best for the baby is obvious, and it is never abortion. What is best for the mother may not seem so apparent, perhaps only seen by faith (Heb. 11:1).
This does not mean that bearing a baby conceived in rape will not be hard and painful. Nor does it assume what the mother should do once the baby is born. It is simply a way to help a woman not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). If such reasoning seems unrealistic, it shows how little we know of faith.
A Life Taken
In the closing pages of his chapter, Hays explains that Bill and Jennifer ultimately decided to take the life of their handicapped child. It is, of course, not surprising that the couple went ahead with the abortion, particularly when a distinguished New Testament scholar tells them that the New Testament provides no direct guidance. That itself is worth noting.
But we can press further. Hays writes that “the strong general presumption of Scripture and tradition against abortion must be weighed against the heavy personal costs of bringing such a child to birth.” Two comments.
First, the personal costs of bringing a child with Down syndrome to birth are no different from those of bringing any other child to birth. The costs come after the baby is born. To suggest that Down syndrome is a pre-birth dilemma is to evade the issue: Babies with this condition are most often aborted because of the effect they will have after they are born.
The reason that it is treated as a pre-birth issue is that we have convinced ourselves that it is acceptable to kill unborn children, or “fetuses,” but not born children. In other words, it is precisely the quality-of-life argument that Hays rejects in theory earlier in his book:
Given Hays’s categorical rejection of any quality-of-life argument, why then does he suggest that Bill and Jennifer might be justified in aborting their baby? Bill and Jennifer had decided to have their baby before they discovered the baby had Down syndrome. The issue, then, that caused them to abort the baby was precisely a quality-of-life issue, but the quality of life not of the child but of the parents.
Second, is not the gospel about laying down one’s life for the brethren, particularly the weak? Are not “the heavy personal costs” precisely what God calls his people to bear, individually and communally? Hays’s argument seems to deny both the call to live sacrificially and God’s blessing when we do.
His emphasis on the Cross and the call to imitate Christ, particularly on behalf of the weak, renders his conclusion, to say the least, perplexing:
It is one thing to acknowledge the difficulty of Bill and Jennifer’s situation. It is quite another to imply that choosing to kill their child is a legitimate Christian option. To respect “the moral gravity of their action,” whatever that means, does not justify that action. To query, as Hays does, whether abortion might be a “necessary choice” in this circumstance is a betrayal of the gospel, even as Hays himself expresses it.
The Biblical Effect
If the Bible does speak clearly on the matter of abortion, what is the practical effect? I want to suggest several.
First, if the unborn are recognized as children, it follows that God is as serious about abortion as he is about any other shedding of innocent blood. The fact that more than a million babies are killed annually in the United States alone means that the issue is not far off, but very near. Isaiah’s exhortation applies: “Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is. 1:17).
Who are the fatherless? Might they not include unborn babies whose fathers have left, or have sought to deal with the “problem” by abortion? Who are the widows? Might they not include pregnant women who find themselves alone and vulnerable? Abortion, therefore, should be in the foreground of the Church’s understanding of what it means to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
Second, it is important to remember that the issue includes both the fatherless and the widow. Too often the discussion gets set up as a conflict between the best interests of the woman and the best interests of the child. Scripture would say that God works together for the best of both. The welfare of the mother should therefore be as important to the Church as the welfare of the baby. Where it is not, the Church loses its authority in the matter.
Third, recognizing the unborn as children should clarify the Church’s position on abortion. But the fact remains that religious support for abortion finds its justification largely in the unbiblical distinction of fetus and child. The Church should have a ready answer to the charge that Scripture is silent on this matter.
Fourth, it is important to realize that abortion is a community issue (a point Hays forcefully argues). If the Church is going to faithfully reflect God’s concern for the unborn, we must be available, sacrificially and practically, to walk alongside women with difficult pregnancies.
Finally, any proclamation that the unborn are children must be made in light of the gospel. Abortion is painfully personal for many. No one can hear the truth concerning abortion unless he or she has ears to hear. For those who have been involved in abortion, it will often be too painful to admit they have participated in taking the life of a child, unless they can understand that God wants to forgive them for aborting their child.
It is therefore imperative that Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and restoration be kept at the center of the discussion: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). For many, abortion is a not a head issue, but a heart issue. If one does not have a sense that he can handle the guilt of admitting the truth, it is easier to hide behind arguments, even bad ones. The gospel must be brought to the forefront.
One final thought. Roughly 45 million unborn children have been killed since 1973 in the United States. Multiply that number by the number of fathers, mothers, friends, abortionists, clinic workers, fundraisers, activists, and others, and the numbers of those involved are vast. Tens of millions bear the guilt of abortion.
What are the practical implications for the Church? Here is a tremendous opportunity for sharing the gospel. In the perspective of a missionary, it could be said that there is a people-group in the United States of well over 100 million joined by the common experience of being involved in abortion, some of whom may have turned away from God simply because they believe that they have forfeited forever their place with him.
In other words, the Church’s call in responding to abortion is not only in supporting the unborn and their parents, but to bear witness to the world that “there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). How best to reach such people is a matter for much thought and prayer, but the opportunity is there for the taking (Eph. 5:16; Col. 4:5).
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“The Silent Witness Speaks” first appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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