Billboards and Prooftexting abortion

I pass this billboard at least three or four times a week:

Anti-abortion billboard in Louisville

“Thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb,” it reads, from the Revised Standard Version translation of Psalm 139, 13th verse. It makes me angry almost every time I see it — much more so than any of the other billboards placed around town by this Catholic group. I think it’s because this billboard assumes – and relies on – the Biblical illiteracy of its audience.

What happens if we look ahead only 2 verses in that same Psalm? Verse 15 reads, in the RSV:

my frame was not hidden from thee,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.[1]

So which is it? If we’re going to take “knit together in my mother’s womb” literally, then why don’t we take the “wrought in the depths of the earth” part literally?

This why prooftexting anything, especially from the Psalms, is a complete abuse of the text: it ignores the basic concept of genre. It’s taking poetic metaphors and contorting them into a box of literal meaning. I assume the people who want to try to make verse 13 into a scientific observation are also on the lookout for literal feathers as evidence of hope, or trying to deduce the speed, in knots, of those “rough winds” that shook “the darling buds of May.

David Van Blema, writing about the varied uses of Psalm 139 for Religious News Service a few years back, gave a sense of the history of this particular usage:

The womb verses arrived in the anti-abortion discourse in the late 1970s, along with conservative Protestants. Sermons on Psalm 139 helped establish an anti-abortion biblical bridge between Scripture-minded evangelicals and Roman Catholics who are motivated by official church teaching.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic church, I can understand the Catholic anti-abortion perspective based on church teaching and a more wholistic view of themes of the Bible. But when conservative Evangelicals shifted in the late 70s to align with anti-abortion politics, they brought along their penchant for cherry-picked, out-of-context verses — interpreted “literally,” of course. The problem is there’s really only a handful of verses you can use that way to support restricting access to abortion, and so they’re left with pretending that select lines from a Jewish poem about the omnipresence of God are really about human embryonic development.

As Van Blema writes:

In fact, a bit of caution could be useful all around, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, an expert in Jewish bioethics. Dorff noted that Psalm 139 has never been part of rabbinical discussion of abortion; Jewish tradition instead revolves around a legal passage in Exodus about a miscarriage.

Ancient jurists who framed the abortion debate, he said, would have regarded legalistic use of Psalms — which they understood as emotional, metaphorical speech — as “a category mistake.”

Put aside, for a moment, that in practical political terms the anti-abortion movement often depends on deception and hostility to scientific facts. I don’t think it’s a theologically sound position. I’m not alone in this among Christians — most of the big mainline Protestant denominations in the US are generally in favor of legal abortion: the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Episcopal church, and my own Presbyterian Church (USA). Other religious groups, like the American Friends Service Committee, have also been active in pro-choice activism. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has advocated for abortion rights since 1973, as has Catholics for Choice. All these groups have made wide-ranging arguments in favor of abortion rights. For me, it comes down to the principle that women[2] are fully-formed moral actors capable of making moral decisions.

Relying on the authority of the Bible, as this billboard does, while also relying on ignorance of the Bible, strikes me as deeply cynical. It’s profaning a beautiful piece of scripture that I – along with the Catholic group who made the sign – think is sacred. In a word, it’s immoral.

  1. I prefer the NSRV’s version here: “intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” There’s something about the knit/woven metaphor and its connotations of a gentle handiwork and intimacy that makes the rest of this poem sing, while “wrought” evokes more struggle.  ↩
  2. I mean this inclusively here: anyone for whom abortion is an option.  ↩