Why does Judaism differ from Christianity on abortion? It all comes down to two missing nouns in this week’s Torah reading. Let’s take a look at that text to see the ambiguity:
“When men fight and knock a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, if there is no tragedy [to whom?], the responsible party must pay compensation… But, if tragedy ensues [to whom?] the penalty shall be life for life.” [Exodus 21:22-23].
In the Septuagint, the early translation of the Bible into Greek, the missing nouns are filled in with the word “child.” On that basis, Augustine (354–430 CE), the influential early Church Father, stated that human life begins with conception. For the rabbis of the early centuries of the Common Era the gaps in the verses are filled in with the word “mother.” Hence, if the fetus dies, but the mother survives then only monetary compensation is due; if the mother dies then life for life. In the Jewish tradition, human life only begins with birth. In the womb there is “life” that warrants increasing protections as it develops, but the mother’s health takes priority.
Last week Norma McCorvey passed away, the Roe of Roe v. Wade [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/18/obituaries/norma-mccorvey-dead-roe-v-wade.html]. The 1973 Supreme Court ruling passed 7 to 2, recognizing an expanded right of personal privacy that permitted abortion. Debate has lingered: To what extent does a woman control her body? What are the rights of a fetus? The Biblical roots of the differing views gives us pause to consider both the power of the Bible in shaping ethics and how much any Biblical reading is a product of interpretation. There is no such thing as the plain reading of the law. Words by their very nature are ambiguous. This is true for interpreting Holy Scripture, the Constitution, or any legislation. We are challenged to determine right and wrong with humility and deep wisdom in order to act justly.