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Lot, his daughters and the abortion debate

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 25 November 2004


There is a large painting in a small museum by Strasburg Cathedral, of Lot being seduced by his daughters. Lot takes centre stage, curly hair, smiling and in his cups. To the left, one daughter wears a cheeky smile and carries a goblet and a jug of wine. On the right, the other daughter is giving her father an amorous look and her left leg, only partly revealed, is provocatively turned outward in invitation.

This is a very sexy painting, but its sexiness is complicated by the subject: a father and his daughters and the universal taboo of incest. If you go to the book of Genesis chapter 19, you will find the tale of Lot and his daughters. Lot was Abraham’s nephew and when the Lord told Abraham to leave his father’s house and land and to go to a land that the Lord would show him, we are told that Lot went with him. Their ways parted and Lot and his family end up living in Sodom.

The story of Lot is taken up again when two angels (men) come to Sodom and Lot gives them hospitality. But the inhabitants of Sodom demanded that Lot release them so that they may “know them”. Lot refuses and surprisingly offers his two virgin daughters. The offer is refused but the angels strike the inhabitants blind and urge Lot to flee with his household because the Lord was going to destroy the city. The sons-in-law who were to marry Lot’s daughters stayed and were consumed and Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back.

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Lot ends up living in a cave with his daughters who, in the absence of their potential husbands, plan to seduce their father so that they may bear children. The text is adamant that Lot knew nothing of their actions and is therefore innocent of the crime of incest. The daughters became pregnant and the sons they bore became the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites. This is where the tale of Lot ends, but it is not the end of the Moabites. Ruth, who is a Moabite, seduced the rich Boaz on the threshing floor and thus saved her and her mother in law’s life. The son she bore to Boaz was the father of David and she is listed in the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew. Thus the immoral act of the daughters of Lot cascaded down the generations into the genealogy of the saviour of the world.

I tell this story because it is just one example in biblical literature in which life is extended via all sorts of hanky panky. This culminates in the pregnancy of Mary who is betrothed to Joseph. It seems that the way of God is found through the scandalous and the unexpected, even to the point that Pilate and Judas are instruments in God’s hands. It seems that the bible is not a moral manual after all.

Blood brothers, aired on the ABC’s Four Corners, is the story of an English couple whose first born son had a disease that prevented him from making his own red blood cells. The only way he could be cured was for the mother to give birth to a child with the right genetic make up so the stem cells could be used to establish a new blood cell factory in the sick child. The ethicists protested that this was the commodification of reproduction and the British Government would not allow the selection of the right cells from the mother’s embryos. Undaunted, the Whitakers went to the US where the procedure went according to plan and they ended up with two healthy sons. In the face of this success, the ethicists backed down and the Government changed it stance.

This is a very biblical kind of story, for life triumphs out of all kinds of adversity even over quite rational objections to the path that is taken. No one seeing the two healthy boys playing together could object. This is just another way that academic ethicists get it wrong.

We are, presently, engaged in two dilemmas involving the medical ethics of stem cell research and abortion. It is a sign of our moral confusion that they are lumped together. While stem cell research promises much healing and extension of life, abortion can only mean the death of a potential person. In the biblical mentality, the womb is the sight of the action of God. In story after story we are told that God opened or closed a woman’s womb in blessing and in curse. To be a barren woman was one of the worst fates.

We are not talking about some divine law that we can turn our back on because we no longer believe in God: we are dealing with historical experiences that tell us what it is like to be a human being. To be human is to count children as a blessing. The abortion debate is really about what kind of community we have become by ignoring that blessing. Instead, we predict a sordid future that we do not want by acting to do away with the one we see as its cause. The nameless daughters of Lot and their descendant Ruth act against morality in order to secure life, while we act against morality to foreclose a future we cannot know, by killing the promise of new life.

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The reason the debate about abortion does not go anywhere is because it is bogged down in abstract arguments about whether and when the fetus is a person, although we all know that from implantation on development is an unbroken continuum. Just as abstract are the rights of the woman to govern her own body as if she exists apart from the father, the grandparents, other siblings and the community, all of whom have a genuine interest in the welfare of the child. We are not islands unto ourselves, we live in close connection to others and indeed that is the core meaning of the neighbour in Christian theology.

The isolation of decision-making is just another side of the isolation that precipitates a woman’s decision to abort. We are dealing with two myths when we speak of individual human rights. First, that we exist as individuals in any important aspect of our lives, and second, that human rights have some warrant other than that we think something is a good idea. When the feminist movement insists that abortion is a woman’s choice and that men are excluded even from having an opinion, we establish a deep schism in our humanity and further isolate the woman. We also hear that abortion is a medical not a moral issue.

How nice to have the world so neatly divided so that we are saved from moral questions. The other red herring that has reared its ugly head is that when people with religious orientations talk about what they believe they are accused of foisting their beliefs on others, when what has happened is that first wave feminism and utilitarian thinkers have foisted their opinions on all of us. There has been a determined attempt to keep religion and morality out of the debate. We may wonder what we have left?

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Article edited by Jill McGavin.
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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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