Murder begins as a thought. Homicide, the broader category that includes murder, begins as either a thought or the failure to take thought—that is, the failure to take care. Let’s say I was texting on my phone while driving a car. If in my distraction I hit a pedestrian who then died as a result, a prosecutor might charge me with negligent homicide.
In Arizona, for example, as in Florida and many other states, I’m liable for negligent homicide even if the pedestrian lives but she was pregnant and the accident caused her to miscarry. At the same time, surgical and medical abortion are legal across the United States. In some jurisdictions, then, two ostensibly conflicting laws coexist, one that protects the life of the unborn child and one that grants his mother the right to abort him. How can anyone reconcile the contradiction? By assuming that everyone has a right to die as well as a right to life and that the mother of an unborn child is his natural proxy in the matter of choosing which of those two rights of his should be exercised. Even on this strained, restricted understanding of the sanctity of life, I did a grave wrong when I came along and caused the unborn child to die, despite the absence of any intention to harm.
In a passage on negligent homicide, as we now call it, we find the clearest legal discussion of abortion in the Bible (Exodus 21:22–23). Say that some men are fighting and, in the mayhem, one of them hurts a pregnant woman and causes her to go into labor prematurely. If the child lives, the man still incurs a fine, which is assessed by the woman’s husband and approved (or not) by judges. If, however, the woman miscarried and the child died, the guilty man is subject to the death penalty. Different readers interpret those two verses differently, but the account I lay out here reflects, at least to my knowledge, the original Hebrew better than do some conventional accounts that rely on unfortunate word choices in the King James Version or other English translations.
Most negligent homicide is not actionable. Only cases in which the link between one person’s negligence and another person’s death is not too convoluted will stand up in court. Judges will make judgment calls. Behavior that they deem to be not unlawful may be, alas, immoral. It may be worse even than negligence. It may amount to cruelty. Police will not arrest me for hurting someone’s feelings, even though my words may have cut so deep that he never fully recovers from the psychological trauma and, because one thing leads to another—the butterfly effect—he begins a long, slow descent into a depression from which he will find no escape except by taking his own life years later. Or perhaps he doesn’t take his life but his health declines, because his mind is anguished and his body follows suit, and he dies sooner than he would have had I held my tongue years earlier.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount teaches this lesson (Matthew 5:21–23):
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council, and whoever says “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire.
Does Jesus here equate insult and murder, counting them as two forms of the same evil? Or does he only draw an equivalence between them, implying that they are separate injustices but of equal moral weight? The juxtaposition of murder and insult is suggestive in any case. In ancient thought, our life is in our blood. Jesus adds that our life is in our spirit even more so. We take a person’s life by shedding his blood. Or we can rob him of his confidence and vigor if we speak sharply to him, making our words poisoned arrows that pierce his heart. He might not die of the injury then and there. If he still lives, though, he’ll have suffered some diminishment of his liveliness.
For the most part, that understanding of murder falls outside the scope of law and policy. You can’t legislate morality, we often hear. That pro-choice cliché is hyperbole but not nonsense. We can learn from it. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted many of us to face a hard question that is always present but up to now has been easier for most of us to evade. On one scale, I place my quality of life; on the other, the finite amount of time that my neighbor has left to live. How much hardship should I be willing to accept if it will protect her from losing the expected remaining year or two of her life? We have no pat formula into which we can plug variables for quality of life and length of life. The purpose of asking the question is not to answer it but to meditate on it. It should make us sober and humble. Let it inform our conduct and the spirit in which we communicate the pro-life ideal to the wider world. We can’t legislate an elevation of public morality above a rather low floor. The work of cultivating a culture of life demands, above all, finesse.