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THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Moses has entered the abortion wars.
From the “Baby Moses Law” in Texas to a pitched battle over “Choose Life” on license plates, the Bible’s leading prophet has become the latest touchstone in America’s hottest hot-button issue.
This week, synagogues across the country consider Moses’s farewell speech on Mount Nebo in which he gives the Israelites a choice as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.
“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live.”
This passage has a storied history in America. John Winthrop quoted it at the end of his speech in Boston Harbor in 1630 in which he called America a “shining city upon a hill.” Ronald Reagan quoted it at the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Al Gore quoted it in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 2007.
Now this speech has become ground zero in the abortion wars in America. Twenty-four states have approved specialized license plates with the tag line “Choose Life” sponsored by anti-abortion groups. New Jersey denied the license plate and was sued by a New York based pro-adoption agency, Children’s First. The state argued before the 3rd U.S. Circuit court that it rejected “Choose Life” because the law limits designs to group names and logos, like the Sierra Club or Rutgers football, and does not permit slogans. A decision is pending.
In Texas, pro-adoption groups latched onto Moses for a different reason. A law passed in 2000, called the “Baby Moses Law,” allows that a parent may leave any baby up to 60 days old at any hospital or fire station with no questions asked. The reference comes from the opening of Exodus in which the pharaoh orders the slaughter of all newborn Israelite males, and the mother of Moses wraps him in a small basket (the Bible uses the term “ark”) and floats him down the Nile. About 100 babies in Texas are said to be saved by the “Baby Moses Law.”
So what did Moses really think?
The Bible doesn’t say. Of the 613 laws of Moses, none comments on abortion. Exodus 21:22 – 25 says that if a woman has a fight with a man and suffers a miscarriage, the man should be fined. “If other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” As the closest mention of a terminated pregnancy, this phrase was the centerpiece of rabbinical arguments about abortion. Most commentators agree that “other damages” refers to harm of the mother.
Jewish law generally asserts that an unborn fetus does not become a person (or a “soul”) until it is born, thereby excluding a fetus from the Ninth Commandment against killing. Still, many Jewish commentators denounce abortion as a serious moral offense, though the great Jewish commentator Maimonides did explicitly support abortion if the life of the mother was endangered. (For a fuller discussion of Jewish law and abortion, click here.)
Given this controversy, perhaps all sides can get behind another use of the phrase “choose life.” The Scottish government has adopted it as the name of a program to reduce suicides by twenty percent. It’s the name of an HIV campaign in Africa. And the Ewan McGregor character in Trainspotting uses it as an ode to a drug-free life. “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family … But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life.”
Could Moses be the next face of “Your Brain on Drugs”?