03/14/2014 03:39 pm ET Updated May 14, 2014

Therapeutic Rituals in Leviticus Shed Light on the Abortion Debate

First, I shall draw a lesson about human psychology out of the discussion of ritual sacrifice in Leviticus. Next, I shall make a seemingly unrelated observation about the contemporary abortion debate. Finally, I shall apply the Leviticus lesson to the abortion debate.

One reason for ritual sacrifice

The book of Leviticus contains detailed rules governing five different sorts of sacrifices. Each played a different role in Israelite life. Although we no longer do ritual sacrifices, these tasks still need to be accomplished. For example...

Suppose Dick is driving to a restaurant alertly, under the speed limit, with recently inspected brakes, but Baby Sally jumps in front of Dick's car, and is run over. If Dick is a normal person, he feels guilty. His friends try to comfort him. They tell him that it is not his fault, for he took reasonable precautions. But Dick still feels terrible. At an emotional level, he is mistakenly conflating physical responsibility with moral responsibility.

Dick: "Baby Sally would be safe if I had stayed home."

Friends: "True, but you did nothing wrong."

People need some mechanism for defusing these feelings of guilt and moral responsibility. The sin offering (chatat) and guilt offering (asham) described in Leviticus performed this therapeutic function. They were offered by Israelites who had inadvertently transgressed God's commandments. By allowing transgressors to discharge their inappropriate guilt feelings, these ritual sacrifices restored transgressors to proper relationships with God, the community, and themselves.

Switching gears: Pregnancy-due-to-rape

Consider the common, moderate pro-life position that abortion is wrong except in cases of pregnancy-due-to-rape. Notice that this position cannot be consistently maintained by people who think that abortion is murder -- a violation of the right to life of the fetus. Fetuses which are the result of rape clearly have the same right to life as fetuses which are not the result of rape. Thus, if abortion is wrong because it is murder, then the exception for pregnancy-due-to-rape is illegitimate.

The moderate pro-life position is based upon a very different belief about the wrongness of abortion. By choosing to become pregnant, a woman makes a commitment or promise to the fetus. Abortion is wrong because it breaks that promise. Obviously, a raped woman has made no promise to the fetus, which is why abortion in cases of pregnancy-due-to-rape is not wrong.


The promise-breaking rationale also justifies abortion in a different sort of case. Consider ...

  1. Abortion is wrong because it is promise-breaking. (the moderate pro-life position.)
  2. Women who become pregnant despite taking reasonable precautions bear no moral responsibility for their pregnancies.
  3. Women who use effective contraception are taking reasonable precautions to avoid pregnancy.
  4. Therefore, women who become pregnant despite using effective contraception have made no commitment to their fetuses. [from (2) and (3)]
  5. Therefore, abortion in cases of pregnancy-due-to-contraception-failure is not promise-breaking. [from (4)]
  6. Therefore, abortion in cases of pregnancy-due-to-contraception-failure is not wrong. [from (1) and (5)]

Moderate pro-lifers wishing to avoid this conclusion might deny that, (1) "Abortion is wrong because it is promise-breaking." But if people switch rationales whenever their position threatens to collapse, discussions will just bounce from one bad rationale to another. No rationale will ever be decisively refuted, and no progress will ever be made. Let's avoid this trap by focusing on only one line of argument. Let's not switch rationales.

Moderate pro-lifers might deny that, (2) "Women who become pregnant despite taking reasonable precautions bear no moral responsibility for their pregnancies." They might insist that to avoid making a commitment to the fetus, a woman must take all possible precautions to avoid pregnancy rather than merely reasonable precautions. Presumably, they are thinking of abstinence.

Like other methods of contraception, abstinence has a failure rate. I am not referring to virgin birth, but rather to rape. Sadly, women whose method of contraception is abstinence do sometimes become pregnant. (Indeed, in areas where rape is common, women who use the pill and engage in regular sex may have fewer unwanted pregnancies than women who practice abstinence!) Thus, "all possible precautions" does not mean abstinence. To demand "all possible precautions" is to demand hysterectomy. I presume that demand would be absurd.

Moderate pro-lifers must deny that, (3) "Women who use effective contraception are taking reasonable precautions." They must maintain that only abstinence constitutes reasonable precautions. However, this claim is problematic for two reasons.

First, it is paradoxical to claim that by using contraception in voluntary sex, a woman simultaneously tries to prevent the existence of a fetus and makes a commitment to it.

Second, the demand for abstinence is out of line with our expectations for all other aspects of human life. We don't generally expect people to refrain from behaviors which have risks; we only require precautions. Just as we should not expect Dick to refrain from driving to restaurants in order to avoid traffic accidents, so we should not expect Jane to refrain from sex in order to avoid accidental pregnancies.

Bringing Leviticus to bear on the abortion debate

Earlier, I suggested that some of the ritual sacrifices described in Leviticus constitute therapy for a common, troubling belief: the belief that people who take reasonable precautions against calamities are nevertheless morally responsible. This belief is still making mischief, today. Dick thinks he is responsible for running over Baby Sally. Moderate pro-lifers think women who use effective contraception are responsible for their pregnancy. Both are mistaken. Their mistake is to conflate physical and moral responsibility.

The fact that a fetus is inside of Jane does not mean that Jane is morally responsible for the fetus. If she has become pregnant through rape or contraception failure, she has made no promise to the fetus, and so abortion would not be promise-breaking. Abortion is not wrong in either case.

Since we no longer engage in ritual sacrifice to defuse inappropriate attributions of guilt, we must substitute persuasion. Hopefully, this post will suffice.