Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Anyone who reads or even talks with someone in a different age group knows that words change their meanings over time. Some of those changes are short-lived or used ironically so that the main meaning of the word doesn’t change. I noticed this when I moved from rural Pennsylvania to upstate New York and first heard the phrase “wicked cool.” It quickly dawned on me that wicked in that phrase actually meant good or great. Actually the dawning wasn't all that quick. At first I was in shock. Fortunately in other verbal contexts wicked still means bad or evil.

Not so for other words. Some words drop in and out of everyday language. “By the Rood” was an way of swearing in Shakespeare’s time, the Rood referring to the cross of Christ. Only Catholics, Episcopalians (and not all that many) and church architectural historians today hold on to the word when they talk about the Rood screen, a wood or metal screen between the cancel and the nave, oops between the front of the church and the place where most of the people sit. See what I mean?

Other words lose their original meaning but hold on to a sense of the original. Bedlam was originally a prison for the mentally ill in London. Now it refers to crazy situations. Crazy, on the other hand, could mean cool or wonderful back in the 1950’s. And stews, as some Presbyterians have discovered, used to mean houses of prostitution back in the 1600’s. I was going to call them bawdy houses but the word bawdy seems to have dropped out of modern English. Maybe that’s because very little that used to be considered bawdy is unacceptable today.

But some try to change the meaning of a word by continually using it in a particular way. Consider two words: choice and abortion.

Today in America someone can say, “I believe in choice,” and almost everyone will know that the person means to say that they believe a woman has the right to choose whether or not to abort the baby she carries in her womb. The word choice has come a long way.

Choice used to refer simply to the act of choosing. If I went to a restaurant and said that I wanted the steak instead of the fish I was making a choice. And it still does mean that. But used in the sentence, “I believe in choice,” the word’s meaning has become limited. After all, who goes into a restaurant, asks for the prime rib, medium rare and then says, “I believe in choice?” The server would consider you crazy if you said that. Restaurants are all about choice, about "Having it your way." In fact most retail sales and service businesses are all about choice. While Henry Ford said you could buy a Model T in any color as long as it was black you can buy a car in a wide rainbow of colors. My daughter bought a “seafoam” colored car a few years back. I didn’t even know that there was such a color!

So let’s put the word choice when it refers to abortion back in its original context. When someone says, “I believe in choice,” they really mean, “I believe a woman should by law have the right to kill her baby if she wants to do so.” And I don’t want to have an argument about whether an abortion kills a baby. The fetus (fetus means baby in Latin), is not part of the mother’s body. The fetus has a different chromosome set. And yes, the baby in the womb needs the mother to live, causes changes in the mother’s hormones and anatomy, and is in a sense a parasite. But that fetus or baby is alive. After a certain amount of time, and much less than most of us think, the baby in the womb moves, its heart beats, reacts to the mother’s voice or heartbeat, jumps at sudden noises and feels pain.

It’s curious. We debate about when a fetus becomes human. We don’t debate about when a rabbit becomes a rabbit or when a mosquito becomes a mosquito, (although the latter goes through several stages of development toward adulthood). And a virus is always a virus.

Back to choice. Those who propound on the subject of choice seek to avoid the word abortion. Saying, “I believe in the right to choose,” avoids the difficult word abortion. After all abortion suggests that something has died. There is blood and flesh involved and it’s really rather messy. So the sentence gets shortened. It sounds so much easier to say choose than choose abortion. Curiously those who so easily toss about the right to choose will get downright irate if anyone suggests that a woman might not make the choice with serious forethought. Granted most women do but if the choice is so important why not make it sound important? Why not say, “I think a woman should have the right to kill her baby before it leaves her body?” (And isn’t it interesting that we get all shocked and it makes the evening news when some woman has her baby and leaves it on the church steps? Why is killing the baby acceptable 24 hours or 2 months or 6 months before birth but a crime immediately after birth?) If the decision is so serious we ought to claim it by using words that sound serious. “I believe in choice” doesn’t sound all that serious does it?

But the word abortion has expanded its meaning in the past 40 years too! A woman used to have a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Miscarriage suggests that something that wasn’t supposed to happen happened. Stillbirth suggests that a baby should come out kicking and screaming but is still, silent, breathless, dead. And as we have learned over the past few decades women grieve for the still born babies and the miscarried. While in the 1950s and 60s women were encouraged to just forget about that lost child today we recognize that the life lost must be mourned.

However abortion now refers not only to the choice to kill one’s baby but also to miscarriage! A miscarriage is now called a “spontaneous abortion,” suggesting that the baby was aborted but no one made the choice. Yet the verb “to abort” carries a sense a choice. Military leaders say “The mission was aborted,” meaning that someone made a choice not to carry out the mission. Using the term “spontaneous abortion” suggests that abortion is somehow a bit more acceptable. After all, it happens lots of times. Women get pregnant but don’t carry to term through no choice of their own. And sometimes women make the choice.

I suggest that this change in language trivializes the radical act of aborting a child. To choose an abortion is to say that it will be better if this child does not live. That is a serious choice. It is a choice that demands careful thought. Frankly I believe it is a choice that humans do not have the right to make except in the most radical of situations. The choice of abortion is always sin. A woman should have to justify to herself that the sin of abortion would be less sinful than the sin of allowing the child to live.

I know my screed will not change the way people talk. It will also anger a great many. We prefer the easy way. Talking about choice is easier than talking about choosing an abortion. Talking about spontaneous abortion makes it easier to think about choosing abortion.

We prefer the easy way and want our words to make things easier. That doesn’t make it right.

Pastor Bob


Viola Larson said...

Thanks for posting this Bob. I agree completely with you. This kind of change of language now happens on purpose. Now some ethnic women’s groups are changing to the right to choose life. Meaning if they want the baby they have the right to choose to keep the baby. It still does not change anything.

Presbyman said...


I was disappointed by some previous comments you had made regarding abortion, so I need to affirm what you have written here. Hard words that nonetheless needed to be said. Thank you.

John Erthein
Erie, PA

Jodie said...

Hi Bob,

Just an aside here based on the following:

"It’s curious. We debate about when a fetus becomes human. We don’t debate about when a rabbit becomes a rabbit or when a mosquito becomes a mosquito, (although the latter goes through several stages of development toward adulthood). And a virus is always a virus."

The debate you describe is rare. The legal debate is about when a fetus becomes a "person", since only a "person" has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. African Americans, remember, have not always been "persons". A human fetus is always human from the moment of conception. It is, after all, undeniably a human fetus. You can tell from its DNA.

The other debate is only a religious one among those who believe that humans are unique in having a soul. The question used to revolve around when the soul enters the body. At birth? At conception? Since nobody knows what a soul really is and how to measure it, I think its an archaic philosophical debate that no longer matters. I don't debate it at least.

The issue today I think is really a subset of the question of when is it OK for one human being to kill another human being. There are many answers and ways to answer that question.

Few are self consistent.

For reasons that escape me, the conservatives in the so called "cultural warfare" have elected to say killing human fetuses is never OK, but capital punishment and preemptive war killing, including the "collateral damage" killing of innocent children is, somehow, OK.

Our religious ancestors thought nothing of the Native American genocide. And the fire bombing of Dresden only killed civilians - men women and children, born and unborn - but at the time it was considered OK to kill them because they were German men women and children - most of them Christian.

Today Iraqi life seems to not be worth very much, Palestinian life even less, and in some places in Africa, not worth anything at all.

But the conservatives only want to stop the killing of fetuses.

Liberals fall in two camps. Those that believe killing is always wrong (and you find them doing stupid things like trying to help refugees in Africa or standing in the middle of the jungles in Colombia as human shields to keep villagers from being massacred for their land), and those that place the life and livelihood of the mother ahead of that of the fetus under a set of elaborate and somewhat arbitrary constraints.

The argument then becomes one of what makes a constraint valid and why. And it is not about when a fetus becomes human, only about when it becomes viable.

I like to argue that newborn infants are not particularly more viable than 3 week old fetuses. The type of nurture they need to survive is different, but neither has the ability to live without a large amount of altruistic effort on the part of an adult.

I think the most constructive discussion to have is the one about when is it OK to kill another human being and why. I accept that it is OK in principle to kill, or at least that it is common practice, always has been and always will be. Heck, do you realize that in Mosaic law the death penalty is common, but never incarceration? When did we get the idea that locking human beings inside of boxes was more humane than death?

So let's forget about the culture war and talk about the fence we want to build around the practice of killing humans, all humans, and what rules we should use and why, and then let's be fair about applying them.

That's my two cents.

Happy New Year.

Pastor Bob said...


I'm a full pro life kind of guy. I applied the same standard to abortion that I would apply to war, the death penalty and self defense. Killing is always sin. The question is when is it less sinful, from a human point of view, than not killing. I take this standard from Bonhoeffer.

Example: It certainly is sin to walk into a high school and start shooting people. This sin is more sinful than someone killing the person who starts shooting up the high school. But killing the killer is still sin.

And yes, of course, I'm looking at this from a Christian viewpoint. That IS my viewpoint.

About souls. I am not convinced that the argument about when the soul enters the body is a Christian viewpoint. Or maybe I should say it is not a Hebrew viewpoint that underlies the Christian viewpoint. While most Christians through the past two millennia have talked about the soul and the body and sometimes the spirit the soul and the body Hebrews saw humans as unitive, that is no separation between mind, body, soul or spirit.

So I use the measurement of Genesis 1, that all humans are created in the image of God. One does not kill the image of God even if the image is terribly twisted and maybe even broken.

Except, of course, we live in a sinful world. So while God may not measure some sins as more sinful than other sins from a human perspective some sins are worse than others. Jesus says getting angry at someone is equal to killing someone. But from a human standpoint the killing affects the person being sinned against more than anger does. So sometimes we have to make choices about whether something is more sinful than something else.

Oh, and as a Calvinist I find the argument that the baby in the womb is innocent to be a false argument too. Babies have original sin although they have not yet actively sinned.

I don't think we take going to war or killing in war seriously enough. Bonhoeffer's way of looking at it should make us think more carefully before we kill.

So I am applying the same way of thinking to abortion. Abortion kills a human being. That is sin. There may be unique circumstances (like when the continuing carrying of the baby would kill the mother, very rare these days) when that sin might be less sinful than the sin of allowing the baby to be born. I want us all to take abortion very seriously.

Oh and I think capital punishment is always sinful. As a theological/ethical matter it kills the image of God. As a practical matter, as things go these days it costs less to keep someone in prison for life than to go through the appeals process. Besides, I don't think capital punishment is a deterrent to anyone else killing someone.

So there you have it. So there you have it. I don't worry about souls. Babies are human beings and deserve protection.

Disciple said...

Why are so many opponents of the death penalty -- as you seem to be -- not opposed to killing babies in the womb?

It is obviously not because they are opposed to killing human beings in general.

After all, what is the moral difference between killing a baby minutes after birth and doing the same just before the birth process is completed? Or a day, or a month before?

I believe that our value is determined by God. He has made humans in his image. He has become a human, went voluntarily to the cross to save them, prayed for those who condemned him to death, the death on the cross. Humans apparently have this enormous, "unbelievable" value in the eyes of God. We are worth the blood of Christ! That is the one real solid reason to value them, and the only solid ground for human rights. (See John 3:16 and 17).

Jodie said...

Disciple and Bob,

"Abortion kills a human being. That is sin.[...] Oh and I think capital punishment is always sinful. "

Then why did God prescribe the death penalty?

I'm not really against the death penalty. I think the burden of proof needs to be tighter than it is for capital punishment, and when a trial is over and new evidence appears that might exonerate a convict, it needs to be pursued more vigorously than it is. For certain crimes, I think the death penalty is very appropriate. But incarcerating human beings for the rest of their lives, or even for significant portions of their lives, I think is morally wrong, illogical and ineffective by any standard. Kill them, have them compensate the victim of their crimes somehow, or let them go free.

"Bonhoeffer's way of looking at it should make us think more carefully before we kill."


I deeply admire Bonhoeffer and I do not think American religious right-wingers have earned the right to claim him as their own. Bonhoeffer was a courageous pacifist who understood living by grace and conspired to assassinate the head of State of his own country. In contrast, American right wing Evangelicals supported the invasion of Iraq on false premises, were unwavering in the support of their president, and stood by in silence as the most widely recognized symbol of America went from being the Statue of Liberty to the image of a hooded prisoner, wired for torture. Bonhoeffer would be the first to condemn America’s Evangelical community.

I respect the position that killing is off limits no matter what. The position I don't respect is the one that says killing human fetuses must be stopped at any cost, but say, killing Iraqi civilians, or even Gazan civilians, is a necessary evil.

Personally I would never kill an unborn child unless it was in a Sophie's-choice kind of situation. But I would also have Bush arrested and tried for violating the Constitution and for war crimes, and if found guilty, I would support the death penalty. For example.

So back to my original point, the debate is not really about when is a human being a human being, but rather, when is it lawful to kill one. And in religious circles, when is it not a sin. Bob, you have stated it is always a sin, but even though I respect that opinion, I fail to see its justification. Maybe you could start with that.

Viola Larson said...

Interesting, "Personally I would never kill an unborn child unless it was in a Sophie's-choice kind of situation." Why would you see that as a real choice. All I could think in that movie, which I hate, is why didn't she hang tightly on to both of them in a refusal to be a part of evil.
They would have both died but at least they would have died secure in the knowledge that they were loved by their mother. Instead one died believing that she was not loved. The other probably died with a feeling of guilt.

Pastor Bob said...


You said:

"So back to my original point, the debate is not really about when is a human being a human being, but rather, when is it lawful to kill one. And in religious circles, when is it not a sin. Bob, you have stated it is always a sin, but even though I respect that opinion, I fail to see its justification. Maybe you could start with that."

Let me make this clear. I am not talking about law here. Law deals with sin on earth and makes the calculation about what sin is greater than another sin. In fact law often treats sin as if it was not sin. And besides I'm a pastor/theologian not a lawyer. Nevertheless I will say something about how theology and ethics impact the law at the end of this post.

So let's talk about sin. The basis of my ethics about how humans treat each other is that humans are created in the image of God and we must treat the image of God in a loving, honorable manner. (How humans treat God's creation is another post!) Thus killing the image of God is always sin. Jesus says that divorcing the image of God is always sin, even lusting after someone else's spouse (both made in the image of God) is sin.

In other words I think God sets the bar very high when it comes to killing others. Having said that, yes I know that God places capital punishment in the Law and instructs the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. This takes us into the difference between what God wants for humans (we could say God's intention in the Garden), and the difficult choices that we have in life in a sinful world.

(BTW I see the killing of the Canaanites as an attempt to protect the Israelites from the idolatry of the Canaanites. They didn't kill all the Canaanites and the were idolaters. I would say that it was sinful but that under the circumstances of God's chosen (set aside, holy) people it was necessary to protect them against idolatry. I know this is a facile answer and not sufficient but it's all I've got. My other comment is that I don't think God's decisions need to be justified by humans)

So to law. Here we have to look at things from a human point of view. In a sinful world it is the responsibility of the government (and again this is from a Christian point of view) to protect the weak and, as much as possible to honor the image of God. Some are simple. You don't run a traffic light because you might hurt or kill the image of God. Therefore we have laws against it.

Others are more difficult. What is self defense or defense of others? It may be lawful to kill the image of God to protect the image of God (say when a wife protects her husband by killing someone who makes clear his/her intent to kill her husband) but is it lawful to kill that person as they seek to leave the scene of the crime? What if they have already killed someone on the scene? What if they haven't? It gets complicated.

I set the bar so high when it comes to war because I want governments to think very hard, I want the leaders to agonize before they go to war. Now defense of country is different. If the US attacks Canada for territorial gain the Canadians should not agonize. While still killing the image of God the Canadian government has the responsibility to protect their people. (Yes this means I think the Mexican War and the Spanish American War were greater sin than not going to war.)

So while I think all killing of the image of God is wrong I think there are some situations in this sinful world in which it is not only acceptable but necessary. That I think is the difficult choice Bonhoeffer made.

When it comes to capital punishment you have made me think. Clearly there are some criminals who cannot be allowed back into society because they clearly will kill again (and this is true of very few in prison). So is the image of God harmed more by suffering a lifetime in prison or by being killed? That is an interesting question that I will have to ponder. Thanks for the topic to think about!

As an aside I think this means that our current punitive policy is wrong. The making of prisions is a growth industry in America. Prison should only be used for violent crimes and then provide education that would help the criminal to find lawful work when s/he gets out. I know this is terribly optimistic but less so than simply turning someone loose after their time is served.

As for abortion I wouldn't use the Sophie's Choice image. I would say that I think there is only one situation in which it is less sinful to abort a child than to not do so and that is when continuing the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

As to law about abortion, let's start with some practicalities. Roe vs Wade is not going to be overturned, particularly if Obama gets to appoint a justice or two. In fact organizations that support the use of abortion want Obama to send a law to congress that would overturn all state laws on abortion and make abortion legal throughout the whole 9 months of pregnancy. So let us all admit that what I'm about to say is not going to happen anytime soon.

I think the law should follow what I said earlier. Law should attempt to protect the image of God. Is it more sinful to abort a child or continue to carry a child that is the product of rape or incest? Clearly carrying the child will be terribly traumatic to the woman. But it will not kill her. Therefore the child has priority. The law should allow for abortion in the case where continuing of pregnancy would threaten the life of the mother.

Punishment. Clearly the one doing the abortion is doing the killing. There should be some penalty for killing the child. There should also be some penalty for the mother who makes the choice.

Now that should stir up an argument!

But since the law will not change soon I think those of us who oppose abortion should work to provide choices for those who find themselves pregnant and in trouble. Many women choose abortion because they have no choices or at least perceive they have no choices. Real choice happens in a situation in which one has a choice. Care for the woman while she is pregnant AND medical care and, in some cases, financial aid after the baby is born will allow for choice.

Curiously cooperation is happening between those who oppose and those who support abortion on providing options for women. And what really surprises me is that in some places Planned Parenthood is pushing virginity until marriage!

Pastor Bob

Jodie said...

Hi Bob,

I think the image of God rule is intriguing but…

When the Mosaic Law includes the death penalty as a punishment for adultery, and even for cursing one’s father or mother, (but not vice versa, interestingly, suggesting that the honor of the parents is worth more than the life of the child!), we can only conclude that being in the image of God doesn’t seem to be of any special value to the law, neither theologically nor biblically.

And it certainly carries no weight in secular law. Besides, modern societies rarely consider the death penalty for cases not involving murder.

The only time Jesus appealed to that rule was in answering the question on taxes.

I think we need a different rule.