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An article donated by Dr. Sanford Aranoff

A detailed analysis of diverse views about the
beginning of a person, with biblical references


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I. Introduction.

Anthony Kenny wrote 1 an article discussing when a human life becomes a human being. This long and serious article omitted several relevant and critical points.

  1. He mentioned quotes from the Bible, but failed to mention quotes from Hebraic Law.

  2. He fails to discuss self-defense.

  3. 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" approaches.

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 a Holocaust.

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.

Joyce Arthur 5 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. Baldwin6 discusses Hebraic law and its influence on American law. He states:

"Its 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.

"In 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.

"Such 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.

"By 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 life.

"Because 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 modifications.

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 American law.

III. Self-defense

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 it.

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 claim self-defense.

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.

This discussion continues in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Anthony Kenny, "The beginning of an individual human", Dædalus, Winter (2008)
  2. 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
  3. 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]
  4. Exodus 21:22
  5. Joyce Arthur, First published in Humanist in Canada, 22 (3), Autumn (1989). Revised and expanded August (2001), at
  6. Baldwin, Edward Chauncey, "The Permanent Elements in the Hebrew Law." International Journal of Ethics 25 (April 1915): 360-71. at:
  7. 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.

Written: 2008-DEC-27
Originally posted: 2009-MAR-01
Latest update: 2017-OCT-18
Author: Dr. Sanford Aranoff, Adjunct Associate Professor of Mathematics and Science, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648

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