Abortion and the Bible

The purpose of this article is to address Biblical citations used in the abortion debate and evaluate their effectiveness and relevance.

It must be counseled that "thou shalt not kill" is not a very good verse to use against abortion -- as shown in Link 1 below, "kill" has the connotation of killing after the manner of a predatory animal, and while one might (in some cases properly) ascribe predatory motives to those in the abortion industry, this doesn't help as much in addressing the act itself.

Certain passages (Ps. 139:13-16 and Jer. 1:5 for example) used to defend the personhood of a fetus are not useful without a definition of a person in Hebrew terms. This can be found out, however. Under the Semitic Totality Concept (see link 2 below), a "whole person" consisted of physical body and immaterial spirit. A body without a spirit was dead; a spirit without a body was incomplete. There was never one without the other, and they rightly belonged together.

There is therefore a strong burden -- even based on this conception alone -- for those in favor of abortion rights, and using the Bible as an authority -- to prove that the writers of the Bible would not have considered a newly-conceived human to be a person. The fetus would have to be believed to be "dead" before it is even born.

At the least, verses like Jer. 1:5 do speak of the foreknowledge and creation of God -- and suggest that to interfere with the process upon one's own volition is not a matter to be taken lightly. Most in the pro-life movement (indeed all the people I know) concede "life of the mother" issues (rare as they are) to be the only real justfication for an abortion. With this I concur. Matters can and should be weighed in the balance, and life-for-life is the heaviest.

On the contrary, not wanting more children doesn't pass the test, especially when such a broad range of social options are available.

Jer. 1:5 is not able to be argued away by saying it only applies to prophets; the verse is part of an overarching theological premise evident throughout the OT: God is sovereign, God is Creator, God is possessor of Heaven and Earth (Gen. 14:9). If he foreknew Jeremiah and had a plan and place for him, and if God is sovereign, how can it be argued then that the same is not said for all with respect to their place?

That we only read of such instructions with regard to a few (Jeremiah here, and in Romans 9, Jacob and Esau) does not lead to the conclusion, in the context of a God with foreknowledge, that only these three had a calling of any sort. It has nothing to do with being uniquely a prophet.)

Some claim there are verses that actually support abortion -- if we take certain verses out of context. And that is indeed right. Verses like Eccl. 6:3-5 ("If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things, and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, `Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he.'") do reflect quality of life issues, but they do far more than that. Ecclesiates (and Job), as we note in Link 3 below, belong in the genre of the ancient wisdom dialogue in which arguments were batted back and forth like tennis balls in order to reach a conclusion.

Works like A Dialogue About Human Misery and Pessimistic Dialogue Between Master and Servant from Babylon; The Man Who Was Tired of Life from Egypt; and the book of Job and Ecclesiastes from the OT, are all examples of this genre in which problems were discussed and resolved via dialogue.

Exodus 21:22-5 is, however, one passage sometimes seriously claimed to support abortion:

And if men struggle and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

One summary is as follows: "In it we find a woman losing her child by being stuck by men who are fighting. Rather than it being a capital offense, however, it is relegated to a civil matter, with the father-to-be taking the participants to court for a settlement. But, as we read on, if the woman is killed, a 'life for a life,' then the men who killed her shall be killed...Thus we can see that if the baby is lost, it does not require a death sentence -- it is not considered murder. But if the woman is lost, it is considered murder and is punished by death."

But this exegesis is mistake. When the offending man was striking the woman, was he trying to kill the baby? Of course not -- for most of the 9 months of pregnancy he would have no sure sign that a baby was there, and even after that in the heat of a fight is hardly going to have the rational capability to take on such a distinction.

And even if he did, chances are he wasn't aiming for the baby anyway. It's like shooting into the woods and accidentally hitting a hunter instead of a deer; no one calls that murder, it's an accident.

But barring the interpretation just above, an accident never earns the death penalty in the Bible. On the other hand, the woman was quite visible and there was no such excuse. Any struggle that affects the woman to the point of inflicting serious injury could hardly be "accidental."

Note that cites of Babylonian and Hittite parallels are not convincing, since in other cases it is clear that the Hebrew laws are a "step up" from these codes in other areas. Accidental deaths would also be covered by cities of refuge in the Deuteronomic code (Dt. 19) and so the injunction would not be repeated.

Argument: "In Leviticus 27:6 a monetary value was placed on children, but not until they reached one month old (any younger had no value). Likewise, in Numbers 3:15 a census was commanded, but the Jews were told only to count those one month old and above - anything less, particularly a fetus, was not counted as a human person."

Since there is no more here about what is defined as a "person" than elsewhere, it means no such thing; no more so would it allow infanticide of those under a month old.

But Lev. 27 has to do with dedicating persons to the service of the Lord, and Numbers 3 has to do with assessing for redemption money (3:49) which would support the Levites. You can't dedicate a child to service before it is born (since that involved serving and living at the sanctuary -- cf. 1 Sam. 1:21; note that there was also some flexibility in this), and you don't need to collect taxes to support the unborn (and given the high rate of infant mortality in ancient times, with at least a third of children dying before they reached the age of 6, it would be rather crass and hurtful to collect on a baby that might not survive).

The site of a contact of ours adds: "Monetary value was placed on human beings in Leviticus 27 based on the person's ability to perform work for the tabernacle. Since children (and the elderly) are not capable of performing the same tasks as adults, it is clear why they should not be valued as highly for this type of offering. Males between the ages of 20 and 60 were valued the highest simply because of their greater abilities."

Argument: "In Ezekiel 37:8-10 we watch as God re-animates dead bones into living soldiers, but the passage makes the interesting note that they were not alive as persons until their first breath. Likewise, in Genesis 2:7, Adam had a human form and a vibrant new body but he only becomes a fully-alive human person after God makes him breathe."

But in both of these cases we have living adults as the result -- this speaks not at all to at what point the unborn are alive; moreover, the Hebrew ruach was used to refer to the living breath and the intangible spirit. (Our allied site adds: "...the 'breath of life' exists in the preborn child from the moment of conception. It is the form, not the fact, of oxygen transfer [breath] that changes at birth. Since Adam was not 'born of a woman,' it is only natural that he drew his first breath from his nostrils.")

Argument: "And in the same book, in Genesis 38:24, we read about a pregnant woman condemned to death by burning. Though the leaders of Israel knew the woman was carrying a fetus, this was not taken into consideration."

This is Tamar we're talking about; it is only Judah who calls forth the punishment, not the "leaders of Israel," and this reflects no more than that Judah exercised poor judgment in his anger.

Note as well that the punishment was reversed 2 verses later; there is no need for extra commentary here from God or anyone else.

  • A reader adds this note: "This review may be fittingly concluded with a reference to the very first Jewish statement on deliberate abortion. Commenting on the Septuagint version (itself a misrepresentation) of the only Biblical reference, or at least allusion, to abortion in Exodus 21:22-23, the Alexandrian-Jewish philosopher, Philo, at the beginning of the Current Era declared that the attacker of a pregnant woman must die if the fruit he caused to be lost was already "shaped and all the limbs had their proper qualities, for that which answers to this description is a human being . . . like a statue lying in a studio requiring nothing more than to be conveyed outside."

    -JPH

    Other Links:

    • Here
    • Here
    • Here
    • For Numbers 5, see here, here and here.
    • Some also appeal to the destruction of the unborn in war; for notes on that see here.

    • One critic dismisses Ex. 22:21 on the grounds that we are no longer under the law, but as shown here, the law still gives us an idea what God considers moral and right, even if we have not signed on to the covenant.