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Thread: Pre-1980 evangelical views on abortion and contraception

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    Pre-1980 evangelical views on abortion and contraception

    This is amusing.


    In 1979, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

    Sometime after that, it was decided that the Bible teaches that human life begins at conception.

    Ask any American evangelical, today, what the Bible says about abortion and they will insist that this is what it says. (Many don’t actually believe this, but they know it is the only answer that won’t get them in trouble.) They’ll be a little fuzzy on where, exactly, the Bible says this, but they’ll insist that it does.

    That’s new. If you had asked American evangelicals that same question the year I was born you would not have gotten the same answer.

    That year, Christianity Today — edited by Harold Lindsell, champion of “inerrancy” and author of The Battle for the Bible — published a special issue devoted to the topics of contraception and abortion. That issue included many articles that today would get their authors, editors — probably even their readers — fired from almost any evangelical institution. For example, one article by a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary criticized the Roman Catholic position on abortion as unbiblical. Jonathan Dudley quotes from the article in his book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics. Keep in mind that this is from a conservative evangelical seminary professor, writing in Billy Graham’s magazine for editor Harold Lindsell:

    God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: “If a man kills any human life he will be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22-24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.

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    Holy Shit!

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    Yeah, that's always been Catholic doctrine - and disputed doctrine, at that. It's traditionally been a key difference between various Protestant denominations and Catholics until really recently when Jerry Falwell and friends realized it's untapped political power. Sometimes, people is dumb.

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    While I appreciate the story for its implicit warning against "groupthink," is it fair to ask whether all, or most, opponents of abortion are equating abortion with the murder of an adult human being, clichés like "Abortion = Murder" aside?

    Just because the Bible doesn't prescribe identical punishments, implying that the nature of the two acts are fundamentally different, doesn't mean that it couldn't support an anti-abortion position.

    What I find most alarming about the modern Religious Right (aside from the fundamental presumption that the Bible is good medicine for all) is that it doesn't seem to have a fundamentally "pro-life" agenda beyond the abortion issue. As we saw during the multitudinous presidential debates, there is strong, often uncritical, support for the death penalty, for elimination of social welfare, and for an emphasis on personal responsibility and opportunity that may leave disadvantaged populations far behind.

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    LOVE the money quote. Now where's my Bible.....

    Actually, it seems to say that if a pregnant woman is hit and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, then a fine should be paid. Otherwise 'eye for an eye, tooth for tooth' etc.

    Does 'serious injury' refer to the woman or the fetus? The passage is unclear. On further research, this passage seems to be translated as 'miscarriage' sometimes, which I believe implies death, right? In that case, the serious injury would refer to the mother. But there's strong evidence that 'miscarriage' is incorrect as a translation. It's a confusing passage that could be read either way though. Interesting article I found while looking this up:

    http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5700

    But I guess the point is that Evangelicals used to translate it differently? Or at least were allowed to think it might be?
    Last edited by Robert Sharp; 02-19-2012 at 06:14 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Desert Journeyman View Post
    While I appreciate the story for its implicit warning against "groupthink," is it fair to ask whether all, or most, opponents of abortion are equating abortion with the murder of an adult human being, clichés like "Abortion = Murder" aside?
    If you were born yesterday, I guess it would be.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Robert Sharp View Post
    But I guess the point is that Evangelicals used to translate it differently? Or at least were allowed to think it might be?
    Yeah, the change from "views differ" to "one truth allowed" in such a short time period is interesting. In retrospect, one of the strangest things about growing up in evangelical churches (Southern Baptist Convention) is how for anyone but the pastors, there was no such thing as a history of the church longer than the last year or so. Anyone else who knew about things like this kept their mouths shut, I guess.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Desert Journeyman View Post
    While I appreciate the story for its implicit warning against "groupthink," is it fair to ask whether all, or most, opponents of abortion are equating abortion with the murder of an adult human being, clichés like "Abortion = Murder" aside?
    Quote Originally Posted by Monsieur Eek! View Post
    If you were born yesterday, I guess it would be.
    Well, the precise scientific/philosophical views of "weak" anti-abortionists are a bit mysterious - if they believe fetuses are people, "lip-service" opposition seems like a strange response.

    But in practice, it's hard to say. People who believe in a blissful afterlife are still sad when their loved ones die; people who think most of mankind is destined to roast in hellfire for eternity don't all devote their every waking moment to their fellows' salvation.

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    My aunt was anti-abortion, but she was an atheist. She seemed to oppose it on some kind of Randian 'pay for your choices' grounds.

    I know that's a bit off topic. Just throwing it out there!

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    It's not, actually. That's a driving rationale for most anti-choice people, religious or secular. It's pretty explicit when they actually talk about it.

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    I'll assume you are right for the moment, though you are giving a generalization without support and I was just giving an anecdote. But if that is true, do such people tend to exclude rape, since it wasn't chosen?

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    I suppose I could have said it's a common rationale, but there's little meaningful difference. If you have observed the anti-choice movement, seen the bills, heard the rhetoric, or just spoken with people and tried to logically parse the rationale of it all, it's inescapable.

    As to your question, it varies in my experience, but obviously they're one step closer to it, and that's why you see bills introduced and advocacy for it among anti-choice folks. Did your aunt make such an exclusion?

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    If you were born yesterday, I guess it would be.

    The point is that, if one distinguishes abortion from the murder of someone already born, then they mightn't be troubled by the implicit distinction between the two acts that is obvious when one puts Lev. 24:17 and Exodus 21:22-24 in juxtaposition.


    My aunt was anti-abortion, but she was an atheist. She seemed to oppose it on some kind of Randian 'pay for your choices' grounds.

    It has been my personal experience that many Republicans without strong faith are generally tolerant of the party's social platforms for precisely those kinds of reasons. There is a palpable sense that unplanned pregnancy and epidemic unemployment are things that happen to other people, reflecting poor choices or weak moral character.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Desert Journeyman View Post
    The point is that, if one distinguishes abortion from the murder of someone already born, then they mightn't be troubled by the implicit distinction between the two acts that is obvious when one puts Lev. 24:17 and Exodus 21:22-24 in juxtaposition.
    And the point of the article and the thread (I think!) is less to do with the logical or theological rigor of the professor's argument, but rather that he was able to make it at all. And again, if you've been alive and aware for any amount of time, you would know that abortion is often framed as being worse than killing an adult. Indeed it's at least as bad as killing an infant. And the discussion, I thought, was about the political evangelical Christian movement rather than people who describe themselves as pro-life at large.

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    The slightly creepy thing is that children are apparently seen as a just punishment, and as people in need of protection, and as people you can leave in the care of other people who're so irresponsible they need to be punished for it.

    It's also kind of amazing, I'll admit. But mostly it's just a really scary kind of creepy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Desert Journeyman View Post
    The point is that, if one distinguishes abortion from the murder of someone already born, then they mightn't be troubled by the implicit distinction between the two acts that is obvious when one puts Lev. 24:17 and Exodus 21:22-24 in juxtaposition.

    It has been my personal experience that many Republicans without strong faith are generally tolerant of the party's social platforms for precisely those kinds of reasons. There is a palpable sense that unplanned pregnancy and epidemic unemployment are things that happen to other people, reflecting poor choices or weak moral character.
    As I noted above, a correct translation of that passage likely DOES define the fetus as a human life. But as Eek notes, that's not really the point of the discussion here, which is more about how the attitude of close-mindedness among Evangelicals seems to have spiked post 1980.

    Your second paragraph reminds me that the same aunt absolutely judged everyone on those grounds. In fact, when she passed away, I received 5 times as much of her estate as my brother and sister did. They both had children as teenagers, and my aunt objected to that and felt that she should not reward such behavior. Her will caused a bit of a rift in the family. I talked about it in a thread at the time. In any case, that's why I said 'Randian'. She believed that pretty much everything that happens to people (with exceptions of diseases and such) is their fault. The value of such people was directly related to these choices, and so she judged people on these virtues and vices (as she perceived them).

    Still, she was an extraordinary person, becoming a doctor at a time when women were not at all common in that field (in the 50s). I miss her a great deal and enjoyed our time together. But she had some views on life that were colored by her own experiences. A lot of people who take this attitude have had successful lives and thus assume that others can do the same thing. To some degree, I do this as well. I have a PhD from a good school, so I assume that such a thing is no big deal. After all, if I can do it, anyone could. To some degree, this is a positive, but it can also lead to a kind of naivete about people's abilities and circumstances. I think a lot of people suffer from this, but especially among a particular section of libertarians. Maybe we need a separate thread for this, though...I'm clearly going off on a tangent!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Robert Sharp View Post
    As I noted above, a correct translation of that passage likely DOES define the fetus as a human life.
    A quick googling suggests that those opposed to abortion consider it a erroneous translation - but the same sources seem pretty partisan. Some significant translations - the Revised Standard Version, for example - use the term "miscarriage" in the verse.

    One does wonder how many traumatic premature births had happy endings in the 6th century BCE, and why there would be a special fine in the event that mother and child survived unharmed.

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    Did you read the link I posted above? They go into the details of the translation, and it seems pretty good. The best translation seems to be to come forth, and abortion or miscarriage is NOT implied by that. It also explains why there would be a good reason to fine someone for a premature birth happening in that time period. The fine isn't for the child being unharmed. It implies that the child was harmed in some way by being born early, or that there could be expenses to deal with or whatever.

    I don't know what you mean about 'partisan' here. If you mean they are Christians, then I would think they would want to know what the Bible is actually saying. If you mean they are opposed to abortion, then I'm not sure what to say about that. But we are talking about a translation of ONE passage in the Bible, one that uses a word used in many other places, and never used to mean abortion or miscarriage. There are other words in Hebrew for those ideas.

    In any case, it would not be at all surprising that the ancient Hebrews would oppose abortion. Hell, they oppose onanism.

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    So what changed? What regressified (new word, yay!) US evangelicals?

    Quote Originally Posted by Robert Sharp View Post
    To some degree, this is a positive, but it can also lead to a kind of naivete about people's abilities and circumstances. I think a lot of people suffer from this, but especially among a particular section of libertarians. Maybe we need a separate thread for this, though...I'm clearly going off on a tangent!
    It's an illusion, or maybe a delusion considering you have to be wearing some pretty massive blinders to believe in it.
    Our societies are not built to allow for a majority of highly successful individuals. If people in general were as capable of success within the framework of their societies as, for example, yourself, then you'd be somewhere between lower middle class and poor. If shit was worth something...

    Since I don't really see anyone can argue the adversarial nature of our economies, you don't strike me as going off-topic with this.

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    I'll throw my weak anti-abortion stance out there for people to either better understand some facets of that group, or of course to nitpick as they like:

    I don't know when a lump of biomass becomes a life, and in turn when that life earns a right to self determination. Without that knowledge and the irrevocable nature of an abortion, I think it is prudent to act on the side of caution because of the potential value contained in that lump of biomass. That said, I recognize that I do not have the right to foist that viewpoint upon others and I respect that it's a decision to be left to the parents-to-be. So I don't protest clinics, I don't shout at people planning on an abortion, etc. - I may provide alternative options and the rationale behind it if I'm asked, but that's about it.

    As an aside, poverty and unplanned pregnancies are not equivalent in the "you reap what you sow" department. Unplanned pregnancies outside of rape are the direct result of a very real choice - whether to have sex or not. Un- and under-employment are generally not the direct result of such choices. My personal outlook is that you have to take responsibility for your choices, but in this case that responsibility starts with having the abortion debate with yourself and significant other, and it can end at a Planned Parenthood. Again, I'd think that would be the wrong choice, but it's still a valid one to make.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Robert Sharp View Post
    I don't know what you mean about 'partisan' here. If you mean they are Christians, then I would think they would want to know what the Bible is actually saying. If you mean they are opposed to abortion, then I'm not sure what to say about that.
    That's specifically what I mean; it's been a big deal since the 1970s, after all. This is an example of the "premature birth" argument. This is an example of the "miscarriage" argument, which, despite the author's freelance credentials, seems to make a good argument. I don't think you can read the latter and think that the "there's a word for miscarriage" argument is particularly compelling. Helpfully, it also reviewed what scriptural interpretations there were over time.

    Reading the entirety of Exodus 21 in various translations it seems more intelligible in terms of a miscarriage to me, but that's obviously subjective.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dan_Theman View Post
    I'll throw my weak anti-abortion stance out there for people to either better understand some facets of that group, or of course to nitpick as they like:

    I don't know when a lump of biomass becomes a life, and in turn when that life earns a right to self determination. Without that knowledge and the irrevocable nature of an abortion, I think it is prudent to act on the side of caution because of the potential value contained in that lump of biomass. That said, I recognize that I do not have the right to foist that viewpoint upon others and I respect that it's a decision to be left to the parents-to-be.
    Dude, you're essentially pro-choice the way anybody actually uses the term. You're like the Herman Cain of QT3!

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    Oh, I'm completely pro-choice, but I happen to be anti-abortion. And ... you may be right on that last part, lol.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jason Townsend View Post
    That's specifically what I mean; it's been a big deal since the 1970s, after all. This is an example of the "premature birth" argument. This is an example of the "miscarriage" argument, which, despite the author's freelance credentials, seems to make a good argument. I don't think you can read the latter and think that the "there's a word for miscarriage" argument is particularly compelling. Helpfully, it also reviewed what scriptural interpretations there were over time.

    Reading the entirety of Exodus 21 in various translations it seems more intelligible in terms of a miscarriage to me, but that's obviously subjective.
    Interesting read, thanks! The second one, which I agree is well constructed, rightly notes that this passage has nothing to do with abortion. It's closer to involuntary manslaughter. He thinks that the fetus is still considered basically human in the section noted, and thus abortion is likely still prohibited by the Bible (or at least this passage is not relevant to the question).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Disconnected View Post
    It's an illusion, or maybe a delusion considering you have to be wearing some pretty massive blinders to believe in it.
    Our societies are not built to allow for a majority of highly successful individuals. If people in general were as capable of success within the framework of their societies as, for example, yourself, then you'd be somewhere between lower middle class and poor. If shit was worth something...

    Since I don't really see anyone can argue the adversarial nature of our economies, you don't strike me as going off-topic with this.
    It's off topic insofar as the question at hand is about abortion and Evangelical beliefs. I suppose this relates to the broader views about Protestant Work Ethic, which is basically where we get much of the notion that success and morality are correlated.

    Also, did you just insult me?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Disconnected View Post
    So what changed? What regressified (new word, yay!) US evangelicals?
    Talking out my ass, I'd guess that it's just a backlash to society's values changing out from the under them in the 1960s. I think the early 20th century evangelical love of alcohol prohibition was newly invented in reaction to hard-drinking immigrants, but I'm not too sure on that theory.

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    And the point of the article and the thread (I think!) is less to do with the logical or theological rigor of the professor's argument, but rather that he was able to make it at all. And again, if you've been alive and aware for any amount of time, you would know that abortion is often framed as being worse than killing an adult. Indeed it's at least as bad as killing an infant.

    My sense is that the overwhelming majority of people opposed to abortion on "religious grounds" are either: (A) happily ignorant of any Biblical basis for their attitude, which is founded chiefly on the assumption that opposition to abortion is a natural tenant of their good and well-meaning religion, or (B) attached to a very specific interpretation of the text, the validity of which is probably open to a great deal of question. I would also say that while it is easy for this population to equate abortion with murder on signs, some might balk at handing down capital punishment even to a doctor carrying out an abortion. They would almost certainly be less tolerant of handing down a life sentence or the death penalty to a woman who got an abortion. These days, abortion and birth control are givens in our society. Everybody knows somebody who has had an abortion. Just as many people are generally comfortable "defending" the sanctity of "classical" marriage, but mightn't have the stomach for a well-articulated policy outlook that makes no bones about its intent to send a consistent and unstinting message of disapproval, it's probably that one long, hard look in the mirror would cost the anti-abortion movement a lot of steam in terms of the penalties that might be handed down even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, which looks to be a statistical improbability in the modern day.

    Those really getting into a theological argument are probably bringing a great deal of bias to the table in terms of what translation they prefer, and what they make not only of particular lines of text, but also the general themes that supposedly emerge from broader teachings. "Jesus stood for life," is such a truism, it could be taken to justify almost any anti-abortion position.

    Once you get down to it, I don't think many theologians are going to be tripped up by the fact that Biblical law prescribes different punishments for acts that, while ostensibly similar, arise under very different circumstances.

    And the discussion, I thought, was about the political evangelical Christian movement rather than people who describe themselves as pro-life at large.
    Those two populations overlap quite a bit.

    But she had some views on life that were colored by her own experiences. A lot of people who take this attitude have had successful lives and thus assume that others can do the same thing.

    That has also been my experience. A great many of the "immigrant bootstrappers" are very critical of government, their primary contact being through the lens of regulation and taxation as small business owners and operators.

    So what changed? What regressified (new word, yay!) US evangelicals?

    Consider that before Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion, while possible, was illegal. The state had come down on one particular side of that argument. After 1973, the state had "abandoned" a morally defensible position, from the point of view of evangelical Christians opposed to the practice. The state's role as moral compass has also been at issue in debates over whether or not to legalize marijuana and, more prominently, gay marriage and civil rights. Many conservatives, including those who aren't religious, get themselves worked up into a right hot lather complaining that it isn't the job of legislators in Washington to "legitimize" a particular lifestyle or minority group by granting special recognition or clarification, which they interpret as a discriminatory backlash against straight white people, fueled by liberal guilt. Frankly, I find that argument to be a whole lot of malarkey.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Robert Sharp View Post
    Interesting read, thanks! The second one, which I agree is well constructed, rightly notes that this passage has nothing to do with abortion. It's closer to involuntary manslaughter. He thinks that the fetus is still considered basically human in the section noted, and thus abortion is likely still prohibited by the Bible (or at least this passage is not relevant to the question).
    It isn't about abortion, but is off-handed enough with the importance of uterine "fruits" that there's been a determined attempt to uphold bad exegesis. The best argument would be "It's the Old Testament, not a great authority on human rights generally," but for whatever reason that's not wildly popular with the Christian right either.

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    Possibly appropriate:

    Things I have learnt from and about IVF.

    Written by about a woman undergoing IVF.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jason Townsend View Post
    It isn't about abortion, but is off-handed enough with the importance of uterine "fruits" that there's been a determined attempt to uphold bad exegesis. The best argument would be "It's the Old Testament, not a great authority on human rights generally," but for whatever reason that's not wildly popular with the Christian right either.
    And that surprises me most of all. Jesus is pretty clear on the Sermon on the Mount that he represents a NEW law. He specifically talks about old ways of doing things and how he is changing them. The most striking example is when he dismisses and eye for an eye and replaces it with turn the other cheek. I'm still stunned that more Christians don't know that particular passage. Oh, they've all heard of 'turn the other cheek', but they don't realize that it's meant to replace eye for an eye thinking.

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