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Children as property: The common root of religious child abuse and the pro-life movement

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Why do the same people who fight against abortion argue that parents should have the right to hit their children and deny them medical care or education, as some conservative Republicans have done recently? How can someone oppose family planning because a pill or IUD might have the rare and unintended consequence of interfering with implantation, and then endorse beating a child, which might have the rare and unintended consequence of battering her to death?

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These two positions fit together seamlessly only when we understand the Iron Age view of the child woven through the Bible and how that view has shaped the priorities and behavior of those who treat the Bible like the literally perfect Word of God.

A Modern View of Childhood

Modern secularists think of children as persons with rights based on their capacity to suffer and feel pleasure, to love and be loved, to be aware and self-aware, to have preferences and intentions that are expressed via decisions and actions, and to have dreams and goals that place a value on their own future. These capacities, which make human life uniquely precious, emerge gradually during childhood, which is why children can’t take care of themselves. Parents are thought of as custodians, who have both rights and responsibilities that change over time, based on the ways in which a child’s own capacities are limited.

In this view, as children become more capable, their rights increase within developmentally appropriate limits, while parental rights and responsibilities decrease. If a five year old prefers vanilla ice cream over strawberry, most people believe that, all else being equal, he or she should be allowed to choose. A seven year old has little say in a custody agreement, but a fourteen year old who prefers to be with one or the other parent can get a hearing from a judge. Similarly, the capacity for sexual consent emerges gradually during adolescence. Young teens may be capable of consenting with each other, but their vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation means they are protected legally by the concept of statutory rape.

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In 1923, Kahlil Gibran published his much loved book, The Prophet, which contains his poem “On Children.” Gibran’s poem, though deeply spiritual, reflects a modern view of childhood:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

Gibran’s 20th Century view would have been completely alien to most of the Bible writers.

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A Biblical View of Childhood

In the Iron Age mindset of the Bible writers, children are not individual persons who have their own thoughts, with corresponding rights. Rather, like livestock and slaves, they are possessions of the male head of household, and the biblical framework governing treatment of children is property law, not individual rights law.

The legal term chattel refers to moveable personal property, economic assets that are not real estate. In the Bible, children, like slaves and livestock, are chattel. Male children grow up to become persons, while females remain chattel throughout their lives, first as assets of their fathers, then as assets of their husbands.

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The texts bound together in the Bible were written over the course of hundreds of years, and they reflect the evolution of social and ethical norms within Hebrew culture during that time span. Some express a more compassionate and dignifying perspective toward children than others. But fundamentalists and other Bible-believers treat these texts as a package, a set of perfect and complete revelations essentially dictated by God to the authors, which is why they all too often end up pitting themselves against ethical, compassionate treatment of children. Taken as a whole, the biblical formula for parenthood is based on several core assumptions:

  • Children are property of their fathers. This is why God can allow Satan to kill Job’s children  during a wager over Job’s loyalty—and then simply replace them. It is why a man who injures a woman causing her to miscarry must pay her husband for the loss.
  • Children are born bad. This mentality derives from idea of original sin, which posits that all humans are basically evil because Eve defied God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge. It is one reason that early Christians believed that Jesus, as the perfect “lamb without blemish” could not have a human father and so added the virgin birth story to the Gospels at the end of the 1st Century.
  • Children must be beaten to keep them from going astray. In the Gospel stories, Christ’s only teaching on the subject of physical punishment was “whoever is without blame, cast the first stone.” Unfortunately, many Christians prefer King Solomon’s “spare the rod, spoil the child” admonitions from the book of Proverbs.
  • A father’s right of ownership extends even to killing his child. This is why it makes sense for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac or Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter, or even God to give his “only begotten son” as a human sacrifice. In the Torah, a man can send his child into battle or sell his child into slavery. The Torah advises that a rebellious son should be put to death.
  • The primary value of adult females is to produce valuable children, meaning in particular male children of known origin. Hence, a female’s virginity is a core part of her economic value. This is why a rapist can be forced to marry the damaged goods in the Torah as is sometimes the case in conservative Islam today, or a female can be stoned for pre-marital sex. In the Hebrew Torah, the wives of the patriarchs send their slave girls to get pregnant by their husbands to up the baby count. In modern America, Evangelical girls attend purity balls and receive promise rings by which they pledge their sexual purity to their fathers until they can be “given in marriage.”

InGothard chain of command this context, the seemingly bizarre and hypocritical stance of defending embryonic life while simultaneously defending child abuse makes sense. A man has a right to offspring. Woman was made to bear them. (As both Bible writers and Church leaders through the ages have reminded us over and over, that is her purpose and her salvation, the way she makes up for Eve’s act of defiance, even if it kills her.) Within the hierarchy of the family, a woman has authority only over the children and only by proxy: she acts as an administrator of God’s will and that of her husband. A child is not a person with intrinsic rights but a man’s possession, to bring up according to his own values and beliefs, and paternal rights have few limits.

By Way of Analogy

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For a modern reader, the concept of chattel is simplest and easiest to understand when applied to livestock: A rancher owns cows for the purpose of breeding them, and he guards their fertility carefully to manage the kind of calves he wants. A young, fertile cow is worth more than an older less fertile cow. A bred cow is worth more than an open cow. A cow has no right to avoid pregnancy, however unpleasant or risky, and no-one but her owner can decide when she has given birth to enough calves. Someone who deliberately caused a cow to miscarry would be stealing from the owner. Once calves are born, they belong to the owner, who has the right to poke or prod or hit or kick (or castrate) them to get the kind of behavior he wants.

At one point in American history, this was how many Christians thought of slaves, and they cited the Bible to back up this view. Today most Christians find human slavery appalling, and the last remaining kind of legal living chattel is non-human animals. But because the Bible and Koran bind believers to the Iron Age, echoes of the Iron Age chattel structure can be found in the views and values of devout believers.

Female Birth Control Violates Biblical Property Rights

In this worldview there is little room for abortion or even pregnancy prevention, or for that matter any form of reproductive agency on the part of a woman. God is in charge, and every baby is a blessing, an arrow for the man’s quiver, one of his economic and spiritual assets. “Let go and let God,” women are told. A female is defined by her sexuality and childbearing—as a virgin, mother or whore—and contraception turns the first two of these into the third.

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Modern Catholicism’s Madonna-whore dichotomy and anti-contraceptive theology may have evolved as a competitive breeding strategy designed to serve the religion itself. But Catholic antipathy to female contraception has more ancient and primitive roots in the Iron Age culture of the Bible writers, and perhaps—beneath that—in the biological instinct that nudges individual males to control female fertility and engage in competitive breeding of their own.

Coerced pregnancy is one means to this end, and freely given prior consent is “not a thing” in either the Hebrew Torah or the Christian New Testament: Eve is created for Adam when none of the other animals are found to be suitable companions for him. Women are given in marriage as transactions between men throughout the Torah. Sexual slavery abounds, with God providing instructions on how to purify virgin war captives before they are bedded. (See Captive Virgins, Polygamy, Sex Slaves: What Marriage Would Look Like if We Actually Followed the Bible.) In the gospel story of the virgin birth, Mary is told (not asked) by a powerful being that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will get pregnant. Of course she is thrilled—if a woman’s role is to bear children, what greater honor than to bear the child of a god?—but the bottom line is that intentional, volitional decision making by females about childbearing is simply beyond the consciousness of the Bible writers.

Abortion—a woman’s decision to end an ill-conceived pregnancy—violates the biblical worldview in yet another way. In the Bible, bearing and ending life are roles that clearly split along gender lines. Females may have the power to bear life, but only males can end it. Man holds the right of life and death over his own chattel, just as God holds the right of life and death over humans, his sheep. The Bible says a man can beat his slave to death, and as long as the slave survives for a day or two afterwards, the owner is within his rights. In fact, the Bible endorses men terminating life for many reasons: eating or sacrificing animals, vengeance, territorial dispute, eradicating witchcraft or paganism, punishment, displays of power, and religious rituals, to name a few. However, it never endorses ending a life for reasons of compassion, mercy, or prudence—the reasons women often seek abortion.

A Degraded Concept of Personhood

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What about the Religious Right’s Personhood movement, which seeks person-rights for embryonic humans? Doesn’t it contradict this framework? No. The anti-abortion Personhood movement, which attempts to equate personhood with human DNA, is part and parcel of this same worldview. In the Personhood movement, the qualities normally associated with personhood (sentience, feelings, thoughts, preferences, intentions, self-awareness, etc.), the qualities that create the basis for independence and rights, are irrelevant.

The Personhood movement allows Religious Right leaders to co-opt centuries of human rights law and political philosophy while simultaneously undermining any concept of personhood that grants rights or autonomy based on the lived experience of another being. Consider, for example, the Alabama law which assigns “personhood” to a fetus—and then hands all associated rights to a (usually white male Christian) attorney. Fetal Personhood laws which equate personhood with DNA secure the Iron Age hierarchy of God and man over woman and child (and, tangentially, man over other chattel like non-human animals and artificial intelligences).

Beyond the Bible

In sum, it is much easier to extrapolate from the biblical worldview to the idea that a parent has the right to beat his child or withhold medical care, or that a teenage sex slave should be forced to bear a child, than to derive the idea that we have a responsibility to bring children into the world under the best of circumstances and to acknowledge their rights as individuals once they arrive. These are fundamentally post-biblical ideas, as is the notion that empowering women to delay or limit childbearing is a positive social good.

For those who are not bound to the priorities of the Iron Age, fetishizing fetal life while hurting and disempowering women or children is morally incoherent. Thanks to science and scholarship, we know much more than our ancestors did about embryonic development–a reproductive funnel that requires many fertilized eggs to produce a few healthy babies. We also have learned much about child development, the gradual process by which a child takes on the unique psychological capacities of the adult human.

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And we know more than ever about the lived experience of sentient beings—including women and children. A woman is an independent person and so are young people. We now know that thoughtful, intentional childbearing empowered by the full spectrum of family planning care helps women and children (and men and whole communities) to thrive. Consequently, it is a woman’s right and responsibility to plan her family so as to live her life to the fullest and stack the odds in favor of her children having rich, full lives of their own. Our Iron Age ancestors may have been doing the best they could with the information available to them, but we have the knowledge and tools to do better.


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