Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Opposing Oklahoma's Personhood Bill

I spoke at a rally at the Oklahoma state capitol today opposing the personhood legislation under consideration there.

I began by reminding members of the audience that one of the reasons Mainstream Baptists in Oklahoma had opposed the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message revision was that its clause asserting "life begins at conception" would put Southern Baptists on record as opposing in-vetro fertilization, stem cell research, and some forms of contraception including the use of birth control pills. In 2000, many Oklahoma Baptists thought that was far-fetched, but the current medical and legal debate is proving us correct.

Then I delivered the following prepared remarks:

I am here to voice opposition to SB1433 because it violates freedom of religion and liberty of conscience. Extending “all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this state” to every human fertilized egg, embryo and fetus imposes one theological construct of personhood on all society by force of law. Imposing such a theological construct violates the First Amendment of our federal Constitution which prohibits passing laws establishing religion.

The theological construct in SB1433 is easily refuted by a straightforward, literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. The law of Moses says, "When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him.” (Exodus 21:22 RSV)

In the law of Moses an unborn child is respected for its developing potential for personhood, but this potential did not make an unborn child a person with a legal and moral standing equal to that of the mother. If the mother was killed, the law stipulated “a life for a life.” Only a monetary fine was stipulated for the loss of an unborn child. The Hebrew respect for the unborn child’s developing potential was augmented by a rabbinic teaching that the fetus becomes a “nephesh” (soul, person) when the head emerges in the birthing process. (Sanhedrin 72b)

Under the influence of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, some early Christians adopted a modified version of the Pythagorean belief that souls pre-existed in a disembodied state and were infused into a body at the moment of conception. Their view of the afterlife differed from the Pythagoreans in that they believed in the resurrection of the body rather than in reincarnation and the further transmigration of souls.

Theologians of the medieval church were influenced by a different Greek philosophy that staked a middle ground between the rabbinic tradition and that of the Pythagoreans. Augustine and Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s doctrine of “delayed ensoulment” and believed that a developing fetus received its soul somewhere between the 40th and 90th day of gestation. (See Augustine’s, On Exodus and Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima)

The modern Catholic doctrine that personal life begins at fertilization was prompted by the Roman Church’s opposition to contraception and family planning as well as by a concern to protect the sanctity of human life in the face of advances in modern science and technology. Their commitment to preserving the sanctity of life is highly commendable, but there is wide disagreement among Christians (even within the Roman Church) over the timing for when a fetus has developed sufficiently to begin actualizing its potential for personhood.

Protestants share the concern for the sanctity of human life, but historically, Protestants have not viewed fertilized human eggs and embryos to be persons. Most Protestant denominations have long been on record as considering matters of contraception, family planning and reproductive health to be matters of personal conscience. Among most Protestants, these matters are perceived to be too personal and too sensitive to be predetermined by either ecclesiastical or government decree. Wise and prudent decisions on these matters can only be made under private consultation with licensed physicians, with the counsel of family members, and under the spiritual guidance of the family’s own ministers and clergy persons.

The government has no business inserting itself into these personal matters. In doing so it is infringing on one of the most basic and inalienable of human rights – the right of fully conscious and sentient persons to make vital decisions – life and death decisions -- regarding their own life and their own health under the liberty of a conscience formed by their own religious beliefs and convictions.


Dan Nerren said...

Amen to that.

Theresa h said...

Thank you for speaking at the protest on Tuesday. The information you provided was very helpful in explaining a balanced perspective that includes so many conflicting aspects to this issue. I also want to thank you for making the information available on your blog.

Mary Francis said...

Re: your scholarly remarks.
Knowing the science AND the religious literature is an unbeatable combination. Thank you.
I reposted them on the Tulsa World's comments.
Mary Francis

Mary Francis said...

I also put your analysis on the yahoo news story at http://news.yahoo.com/personhood-usa-decries-sitting-oklahoma-senator-shockingly-vulgar-030243940.html

Chris S. said...

Dear Dr. Prescott,

I can't thank you enough for your statement. This is what I believe, but I could never have said it so well, particularly the theological logic. I'm active in efforts against personhood laws, and what you've written is a powerful reply to the fundamentalist position. I intend to use it. With attribution, of course.

My best regards,

Chris Schulman

wsforten said...

Dr. Prescott:

I recently had the opportunity to read your article "Opposing Oklahoma's Personhood Bill," and I find myself puzzled over your position favoring abortion. Particularly disturbing is your claim that Exodus 21:22 somehow teaches that the unborn child is not a person of equal moral standing with those who have been born. This is simply not the case.

In your article, you claimed to present a "straightforward, literal interpretation" of this verse, but you quoted from the RSV which presents neither a literal nor a straightforward translation. This version uses the word miscarriage in verse 22, but the Hebrew word for miscarriage (məsakkelah) is nowhere to be found in this passage. The Hebrew phrase actually used in this passage is "wəyasə’u yəladeha" which is literally translated as "her child come out" or, in the more poetic language of the King James Version, "her fruit depart from her." Therefore, a truly "straightforward, literal interpretation" of Exodus 21:22 would be that this verse describes a woman who has delivered her child prematurely.

This understanding is significant enough to raise the question of whether the mischief described in verses 23-25 is a reference to calamities which befall the prematurely born child rather than the mother. That this mischief refers to harm to the child is clearly seen in the fact that it is said to follow the delivery of the child. If verses 23-25 were made in reference to the mother, then it would make no sense to wait until after the child is delivered to determine if the guilty party should be punished for harm done to eye or tooth or hand or foot. It would only make sense to withhold judgment until after the delivery if these verses are referring to injuries suffered by the child.

In contrast to your claim that "only a monetary fine was stipulated for the loss of an unborn child," a proper interpretation of this passage teaches the exact opposite. A monetary fine was imposed against the man who caused a woman to deliver her child prematurely if that child was born healthy and whole. If the child died as a result of the premature delivery, then the guilty party was to be forfeited of his own life. If the child was born maimed, then the guilty party was to be maimed in like manner. Instead of justifying abortion, Exodus 21:22-25 condemns to death any man who causes the death of an unborn child.

Thus, we can conclude that this passage agrees with the many other passages in Scripture which place unborn children on the same plane as every other human being. In Job 10:18, Jeremiah 20:17 and Numbers 12:12, we can see that the Bible recognizes the unborn child as a person in the womb. From Judges 13:4-5, Jeremiah 1:5 and Hosea 9:11-12, we can conclude that the personhood of the unborn child begins at conception. And finally, from Genesis 9:6, Exodus 20:13 and Numbers 35:31 we can conclude that abortion is wrong since "whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death." The Bible clearly equates abortion with murder, and that correlation is fully consistent with the passage found in Exodus 21:22-25.

I trust that you can understand why I found your article so puzzling. I am utterly at a loss to explain how a theologian of your caliber could arrive at the conclusion that abortion is permissible. If you would be so kind as to respond to my letter and explain your exegesis I would be very appreciative.

Humbly yours in Christ,

Bill Fortenberry
The Personhood Initiative

Bruce Prescott said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

I am on the road for the next few days and do not have my Hebrew reference works with me.

I will comment more fully later. For now I will just make note of the odd logic in your comment. It appears to assume that the life of an unborn child has greater value than that of the mother.
If the recitation of the lex talionis refers to the child, then the monetary fine must refer to the life of the mother. That seems odd to me.

Rock_N_Roll_A_Bye_Momma said...

Dear Mr. Prescott,

As an abortion abolitionist, I agree fullheartedly with Bill Fortenberry. Also as a Christian I am appalled that you would support abortion in such a manner. I am leaving you with an article that I adore, that confers with Mr. Fortenberry's comment.

Here is an excerpt:

To further confirm the fact that God views the unborn child as a person, please consider Exodus 21:22-23:

"If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,"

If the woman has a premature birth and the child lives ("no mischief follows"), then there's no death penalty. However, if the child dies (or the woman dies) God says the death penalty applies: "thou shalt give life for life." Why would God require the death penalty if He didn't consider the unborn child to be a human being?

Friend, like it or not, God says that life begins at conception, and the unborn child is a human being.

Here is the link:


May I have some more please? said...

Thank you Bill Fortenberry for pointing out to Bruce Prescott that he needs to get out his KJV Holy Bible, surely he has one, and read it.

Bruce Prescott said...


Isn't it amazing how, according to some of my recent commenters, Jewish rabbi's have been misinterpreting the Mosaic law (Ex. 21:22) for millenia?

wsforten said...

If I remember correctly, Jesus taught that the Rabbis were wrong about many things. Is it really any marvel at all that they should be wrong about this passage as well?

Bruce Prescott said...

Here's the commentary on Ex. 21:22 from The Broadman Bible Commentary published by Southern Baptists in 1969:

"Injury to a woman during pregnancy, resulting in miscarriage, was satisfied by an appropriate fine, suggested by the husband and paid under the supervision of the judges." The rest of his remarks make it clear that the Lex talionis referenced the mother.

The commentary was written by Roy Honeycutt while he was Dean and Chair of the Old Testament department at Midwestern Seminary. He later served as President of Southern Seminary.