the human embryo in Jewish and Christian moral tradition. (dissertation)

This study deals with the status of the human embryo in Jewish and Christian tradition from a moral point of view. In Jewish and Christian ethics the question of the human embryo is connected with the biblical law in Exodus 21:22-25. This study investigates the influence of this law upon the different views of this law upon the  embryo in the Jewish and Christian tradition.  The aim of this inquiry is twofold: (a) to gain insight in the motives and backgrounds of contemporary ideas about the issue in Jewish and Christian ethics and (b) to examine the possibility if any lessons can be drawn from Jewish and Christian tradition  to develop a contemporary moral concept for  birth control and procreation. 


{A/C}  The first chapter describes the role of Exod. XXI vss.22-25 in the debate about the status of the human embryo in the second half of our century. The importance of the interpretation of this law becomes apparent when reading the statements on the legitimacy of abortion. B.K. Waltke states ‘…God does not impose a death penalty fort he destruction of a fetus … according to Exod. XXI 21 vss 22-25 , the destruction of a fetus is not a capital offence. Clearly, then, in contrast tot he mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul’.  In contrast to this interpretation, H.W. House agrees with B.S. Jackson, ‘Exod. XXI vss22-25 refers not to a miscarriage but rather to a premature birth, a Frühgeburt, not a Fehlgeburt. So this passage , then, does not support  the legitimacy of abortion anyway’. The opinion of House is in clear contrast with the conception of Waltke. In view of the contemporary debate about the status of the embryo the question rises what tradition tells us about the role of Exod.XXI vss 22-25 for the debate about the status of the human embryo in Jewish and Christian ethics.{/AC}

{AC}  The second chapter pays attention to readings and interpretations of Exod. XXI vss. 22-25 in Jewish tradition. Analyses of historical texts make clear that this law was in early Jewish tradition already a guide for the  status of the embryo. A specific  example is found in the reading of this text in the Greek translation, the Septuagint (LXX).  In this translation the killing of a formed embryo is regarded a capital offence. The translator changed the text dramatically and took the oppotunity to incorporate a social pratice in the law. The translator not only refers to an actual practice, he also takes use of new concepts on the development of the embryo.  Aristotle learned that the embryo lives already in the womb[1].  So killing a formed embryo is like killing a person. Philo and Josephus followed the opinion of the translator: only the killing of a formed fetus is murder. ACBR  Philo points out that the formed fetus is a person. In his exegesis of the LXX-reading of ‘our’ law he pays special attention the value of the fetus as image of God. Philo further states that Moses introduced this law to protect the embryo. This was an important statement in a Helenistic culture were abortion was carried out frequently.  Philo’s contemporary and famous historian Josephus seems to hold the same position. But Josephus is also in another way interesting for us. He lifts a veil over the meaning of the original law or Urgesetz. He thinks the original law protected the pregnant female slave against her master. {/AC}

{AC}In the meantime one finds the commentaries on the Hebrew text in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. Here also the pregnant woman is the central theme. However here no dialogue on abortion but on therapeutic abortion. In spite of their different opinions their commentaries show us a clear  view on the status of the fetus in the Tannaitic period.  The fetus is considered to be a part of the mother, that can become a assailant of his mother during her pregnancy. If so than an abortion is allowed to save the woman. ACBR  Abortion in this situation however is not an intentional killing of the fetus but an abberatio ictus, a missing blow, as happens in the casus of the law in Exod 21: 22. In the casus of the law the pregnant woman is not intentional hidden. In a therapeutic abortion the fetus is not intentional hidden.  it’s the duty of  the physisian to help the woman and to eliminate the disease.  In doing so it is possible that he hits the fetus. In that case an abortion isn’t murder, the rabbis stated. {/AC}

{AC}  The third chapter deals with the influence of Exod XXI vss 22-25 on the discussion about abortion  in the early Christian era. In Hellenistic cultures drugs were frequently used to induce an abortion. In aristocratic circles this method of birth control was very popular. Birth control was initiated by the pater familias. His politcal ambitions required wealthy families. Consequently, small families were required to keep the property of the family together. Christians attacked this policy bij referring to their religious duty not to kill the fetus, als is stated in our law. In later comments Christians have supported the idea that the fetus is human as soon as God implanted the soul. ACBR

The fouth chapter is an overview of the outcome of our inquiry.  By analysing the comments on Exod.XXI vss.22-25  an insight is created in the motives of the rabbis and the churchfathers. The result is an ongoing debate about birth control, abortion and therapeutic embryotomy for the sake of the womans life. But also one sees different points of view, based on different social problems, cultures, religions,  politica land philosophical theories and medical knowledge. {/AC} 

{AC} Chapter five describes  the developments  of the different views in western societies. In Jewish medical ethics the health of the pregnant woman was and is the main topic. What to do when see becomes ill during her pregnancy? In Christian tradition the protection of the embryo was the main topic. The church stated: There could be no reason to kill the fetus in whatever circumstances, because it is a innocent person that noone can harm ACBR

The final sixth chapter shows the difficulties of soms positions. What to do for example when the fetus is regarded as a person, but in the specific situation of a woman is regarded as a assailant. Nobody has the duty to give his own body to rescue another person. “The woman does...”J.J. Thomson stated (1971), refering to the womans position in the laws of western countries. ACBR But not only the law, in many ethics about bith control and family planning the womans right to decide on one’s own body is a controversial topic. In this cases the Jewish ethics can be helpfull. In that ethical theory the fetus is not regarded as a person, but as a part of the woman. In this way there is no moral conflict between mother and child.  The fetus is protected by the rights of the woman against attacks from outside. The relation between mother and child is valued by the specific situation of everyday live. This is in accordance with moral values the human rights of women in our modern society. {/AC}

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[1] In his “Politics, Book 7, 16, 20”, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) wrote that the following laws must be made about abortion and the deliberate exposing of newborn children to death: “As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live, but that on the ground of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation.”