I’ve thought and thought about those four verses below that I’ve called the “problem verses” in Psalm 139, problematic, not in themselves, but because they are being used heavily in debate over birth control and abortion, and I’ve realized that writing about those two subjects, especially abortion, from a biblical perspective could require a very long blog post or a series. So, I will, instead, make a few observations and ask a few questions. For a consideration of the verses themselves in their biblical context, see my previous blog post, “The Problem Verses.”
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:13-16 NRSV)
The first observation concerns context for the public conversation about human reproduction and for a biblical approach to understanding the issues. I place the conversation within the context of the relationship between women and the human community, and I believe it is very important that we consider the issues within that context. Throughout the history of the human race, men’s ability to impregnate women has served both the purposes of love and the purposes of domination. In a world turned over to itself and its own natural processes, the human reproductive process has been both a blessing and a bane for earth’s people. Now that infant mortality has dropped from its appalling premedical levels (though still too high), blessing and bane alike threaten to overwhelm the ability of the human community to sustain itself, but my starting point in considering laws governing choices in human reproduction is and will continue to be the life and humanity of women. That a one-or-two-celled organism should have more rights than a living woman I find outrageous, and that a potential conception should also have more rights than a living woman absolutely absurd. That a rapist should have any say or rights in his victim’s reproductive choices is beyond outrageous and absurd.
The kind of thinking that would elevate potential for conception above the rights and dignity of living women seems to me based upon these notions: (1) that biblical thought and faith require us to see human sexuality as primarily or even solely for the purpose of reproduction, (2) that every conception happens by the will of God, (3) that the male seed has life like that of a person and should never be “killed,” and (4) that women are created to serve the needs and desires of men and to have babies. Three of those notions are matters of biblical and theological misunderstanding, but #3 is just a primitive belief overruled long ago by science. There are, however, still church doctrines based in part upon #3 as well as upon the other three notions I am calling fallacies.
The first fallacy is overruled by the second chapter of the Bible’s book of Genesis where the love and sexual communion between man and woman are based upon need for a partner who is “like but opposite” and which makes no mention of the result of having children. “It is not good for the human to be alone.”
I have addressed the second fallacy which holds that all conceptions happen in accordance with the will of God in my other blog, in a discussion of abortion following rape here.
and in a follow-up blog post here.
The third fallacy is so outdated that only superstition or doctrine could preserve it. Sperm die in a man’s body and are expelled regularly, and so the lingering idea that both male masturbation and birth control “murder” human beings has no basis in our biology for being taken seriously.
The fourth fallacy moves us into what for me is the principal context for helpful conversation about issues of human reproduction: the full humanity and dignity of women. Biblically, women and men together make up the human community created in the image and likeness of God, placed by God in creation to represent the Creator’s love and care for that creation and for each other within that human community. Only after the rebellion against God in Genesis chapter 3, a rebellion which disrupts and strains all the kinds of relationships in which humanity lives, does the Bible speak of the man’s lording it over the woman, not as a command but, rather, as a recognition of the social reality into which creation has descended in what we call “the real world.”
For me, all further conversation about family planning, choices in unwanted pregnancies, adoption as an alternative to abortion, and any other matters of choice in human reproduction should be held within the context of the freedom and dignity of women as full, responsible human beings whose very persons (body, mind, emotion, spirit) are centrally engaged in that reproduction. The starting point should be the freedom and dignity of women and their right to make choices about their bodies and their lives and not have those choices taken away. The current abortion debate (if even that word “debate” does not over-dignify it after the lunacy of this past election season) is not about the choices to be made but about who has the right or power to make those choices. I see a severe misuse of Psalm 139 when people appeal to it to say women have no valid choice but to accept whatever has been done to them and no responsibility but to bear children no matter the circumstances or consequences and keep doing as men tell them.
So, can we take steps to reduce rape and incest, to see that people are informed about human sexuality in general and birth control in particular, and to enable women (and men) to strengthen themselves for responsible and dignified lives? Can we work to overcome poverty and exploitation? Can we enable the education of girls worldwide? Can we enable the education of boys to find delight (see Genesis 2) rather than shame in female strength and competence? Can we help turn sex from a weapon of control, of cruelty, and even of warfare into a shared delight of love and mutual respect? With these and similar questions I believe we must begin.