ABORTION & THE BIBLE
Both sides in the abortion debate appeal to the Bible to make their case. But what does the Bible actually have to say when it comes to the issue of abortion? The answers may surprise you and not be what either side expects. This article does not seek to make the argument one way or another, but merely to examine what scripture says and doesn't say about this issue. The reader needs to decide for him or herself.
Six Commonly Cited “Pro Abundant Life [PAL]” Bible Verses
Jeremiah 1:4-5 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
[PAL] God spoke directly to the prophet Jeremiah reminding him that he had a purpose and plan for his life even before he was born. [COUNTER] God’s call is exclusive to Jeremiah. We are not Jeremiah, not pre-consecrated nor pre-appointed.
Psalm 22:9-10 Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
[PAL] King David acknowledges that God was active in his life even while he was still in the womb. [COUNTER] Incorrect reading. The expressions “who took me from the womb,” “from my birth,” “from my mother’s womb” are postpartum references.
Isaiah 49:1,5 Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name... and now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him — for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength.
[PAL] The prophet Isaiah acknowledges God’s calling on him before he was actually born. [COUNTER] As with the prophet Jeremiah, God’s call is limited to Isaiah. We are not Israel’s prophets. This is not a calling of all mankind. God foreknows the elect. Romans 8:29 "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters." If we used PAL's logic, absolutely everyone who is ever born, would be predestined as the elect which = "universal salvation," which scripture rejects.
Judges 13:2-5 There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. 3 And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. 4 Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink or to eat anything unclean, 5 for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
[PAL] Samson’s mother was given specific instructions from God for her pregnancy and her son’s future. Samson, God declared, was a “Nazirite to God’ from the womb, born with a specific purpose to save Israel. [COUNTER] Again, a specific calling to a specific individual, not applicable to all of humanity.
Psalm 139:13-16 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
[PAL] God was intentional in every aspect of our individual creation. He has a plan and purpose for every human life from conception. [COUNTER] This is a slight of hand. The passage doesn’t say “conception,” a non-biblical notion, but speaks to God’s specific plan for David to be both the King of Israel and the royal house through whom the Messiah would come — not exactly a description of us.
Galatians 1:15-16 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being,
[PAL] Even the New Testament affirms that life begins in the womb as Paul declares that God had set him apart and called him by grace before he was actually born. [COUNTER] The Greek says, “set me apart from the womb,” — not “before I was born.” Not all who are born are "set apart." Again, as in the case of the aforementioned persons who were specifically set apart, Paul alone is purposed and set apart for this singular task. To say “life begins in the womb” is an obvious catch-all. The issue for Judaism via the Hebrew scriptures, though, is not “What has life?” but “When is life a person?”
Given that the question of abortion is woman-specific, who better to ask than women? And when it comes to Old Testament Mosaic Law, who better to ask than Jewish women?
Judaism and Abortion (NCJW)
National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) works to ensure that every single person can make their own moral and faith-informed decisions about their body, health, and future. Our Jewish values compel us to support full access to safe and legal abortion care as basic health care. Below is a Q&A regarding some common misconceptions about Judaism and abortion.
· Does Jewish law state that life begins at conception? No, life does not begin at conception under Jewish law. Sources in the Talmud note that the fetus is “mere water” before 40 days of gestation. Following this period, the fetus is considered a physical part of the pregnant individual’s body, not yet having life of its own or independent rights. The fetus is not viewed as separate from the parent’s body until birth begins and the first breath of oxygen into the lungs allows the soul to enter the body.
· Does Jewish law assert that it is possible to murder a fetus? No, Jewish law does not consider a fetus to be alive. The Torah, Exodus 21:22-23, recounts a story of two men who are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, resulting in her subsequent miscarriage. The verse explains that if the only harm done is the miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. However, if the pregnant person is gravely injured, the penalty shall be a life for a life as in other homicides. The common rabbinical interpretation of this verse is that the men did not commit murder and that the fetus is not a person. The primary concern is the well-being of the person who was injured.
· According to Jewish law, is abortion health care? Yes, Jewish sources explicitly state that abortion is not only permitted but is required should the pregnancy endanger the life or health of the pregnant individual. Furthermore, “health” is commonly interpreted to encompass psychological health as well as physical health. NCJW advocates for abortion access as an essential component of comprehensive, affordable, confidential, and equitable family planning, reproductive, sexual health, and maternal health services.
· What does Jewish law say about the rights of the person who is pregnant and the rights of the fetus? Judaism values life and affirms that protecting existing life is paramount at all stages of pregnancy. A fetus is not considered a person under Jewish law and therefore does not have the same rights as one who is already alive. As such, the interests of the pregnant individual always come before that of the fetus.
· Do abortion bans unduly favor one religious viewpoint over another? Yes, different religions believe that human life begins at different stages of development. Science can explain developmental timelines, but philosophic and religious viewpoints largely determine what exactly defines “life” or “personhood” for each individual. NCJW believes, as the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees, that no one religion should be enshrined in law or dictate public policy on any issue — including abortion.
Resource originally created by National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis, adapted with permission.
Biblical views on abortion: an Episcopal perspective
Much scholarly work has been done to determine the biblical and traditional attitudes about abortion. One must ask what was said and why, what was its context, and inquire about what was not said as well. This discussion identifies some of the conclusions reached in scholarly literature. The word "abortion" is not mentioned in the Bible, but much in the Bible speaks to the issue. The most obvious passage is from Exodus 21:22-25.
Exodus 21:22-24 22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."*
This part of the Covenant Code legislates the case of a pregnant woman who becomes involved in a brawl between 2 men and has a miscarriage. A distinction is then made between the penalty that is to be exacted for the loss of the fetus and injury to the woman. For the fetus, a fine is paid as determined by the husband and the judges. However, if the woman is injured or dies, "lex talionis" is applied -- life for life, eye for eye, etc. The story has somewhat limited application to the current abortion debate since it deals with accidental and not willful pregnancy termination. Even so, the distinction made between the woman and the fetus is important. The woman is valued as a person under the covenant; the fetus is valued as property. Its status is certainly inferior to that of the woman. This passage gives no support to the parity argument that gives equal religious and moral worth to woman and fetus.
The biblical portrait of a person does not begin with an explanation of conception but with a portrayal of the creation of Adam and Eve. Thus, the biblical portrait of a person is that of a complex, many-sided creature with the god-like ability and responsibility to make choices. The fetus does not meet those criteria.
When considering the issue of abortion, the one who unquestionably fits this portrait of personhood is the pregnant woman. The abortion question focuses on the personhood of the woman, who in turn considers the potential personhood of the fetus in terms of the multiple dimensions of her own history and the future. In biblical perspective, this is a god-like decision. Any study of the tradition of the church over the centuries must deal with at least 2 related questions: the morality of the act of induced abortion; and the definition of the person. These are related, because if one does not believe that the fetus is a person until a certain age the act must be defined differently than if one considers the fetus a person from conception.
[* This verse is the closest one can come to abortion being referred to in the Bible, though what is being discussed here is a miscarriage, not abortion. "Serious injury" refers to the woman, not the fetus. That the fetus was regarded as a part of the woman and therefore her property is clear from the penalty of an eye for an eye, but a monetary fine which the woman (and her husband) could demand of the perpetrator for the death of the fetus. If the fine was considered too high, it could be appealed to an arbiter who could then reduce it to a lower fee.]
"THOU SHALLT NOT KILL"
5th Commandment: “Thou shallt not kill.” = In Hebrew: “murder” ratsach, (to slay a human being, to be a man slayer, to commit homicide); Deuteronomy 5:17
Thou shalt not kill: Not meaning any sort of creatures, for there are some to be killed for the food and nourishment of men, and others for their safety and preservation; but rational creatures, men, women, and children, any of the human species, of every age, sex, condition, or nation; no man has a right to take away his own life, or the life of another; by this law is forbidden suicide, or self-murder, parricide or murder of parents, homicide or the murder of man; yet killing of men in lawful war, or in defense of a man's self, when his own life is in danger, or the execution of malefactors by the hands or order of the civil magistrate, and killing a man at unawares, without any design, are not to be reckoned breaches of this law; but taking away the life of another through private malice and revenge, and even stabbing of a man's character, and so all things tending to or designed for the taking away of life, and all plots, conspiracies, and contrivances for that purpose, even all sinful anger, undue wrath and envy, rancor of all mind, all malice in thought, word, or deed, are contrary to this precept.
So what does the Bible say about abortion? Nothing.
Rabbinic Judaism does not regard the fetus as a full human being. While deliberately killing a day-old baby is murder, according to the Mishnah (Torah), a fetus is not covered by this rule. In the reading of Biblical homicide laws, rabbinic sages argue that homicide concerns an animate human being (nefesh adam from Lev. 24:17) alone, not an embryo... because the embryo is not a person (lav nefesh hu). An embryo is not deemed a fully viable person (bar kayyama), but rather a being of "doubtful viability". Hence, for instance, Jewish mourning rites do not apply to an unborn child. The status of the embryo is also indicated by its treatment as "an appendage of its mother." (Islam teaches the same.)
Ben Sarbey, a doctoral candidate in Duke University's department of philosophy who studies medical ethics, echoed that perspective, recounting the Paradox of the Heap, a thought experiment that involves placing grains of sand one on top of the next. The philosophical quandary is this: At what point do those grains of sand become something more — a heap?
"We're going to have a rough time placing a dividing line that this counts as a person and this does not count as a person," he said. "Many things count as life — a sperm counts as life, a person in a persistent vegetative state counts as life — but does that constitute a person that we should be protecting?"
Other relevant passages:
2 Samuel 12:14-31 God terminates the life of King David's newborn. This was not an abortion, the child was already born. In Judaism a fetus is not a "baby" or "person" (Mensch in Yiddish) until it has cleared the birth canal and taken its first breath.
Genesis 2:7 Often pointed to by rabbis and Old Testament scholars. Adam , though fully formed, is not considered a human being until God breathes into his nostrils and he takes his first breath (ruach).
Ezekiel 37:7-10 The dry bones covered in sinew and muscle, though complete in every physical way, are not alive (nephesh) until they receive the breath of life.
POINTS TO PONDER
Israel did not ban abortion in either the Old or the New Testament even though its surrounding neighbors did.
Abortion was not only not forbidden; in the event of any harm or "difficulty" the mother might experience, abortion was required under Jewish law.
Jesus was a Jew and well acquainted with the law, including the question of abortion. He expounded on matters of the law on a regular basis (divorce, murder, theft, greed, adultery, child abuse, etc.), yet never once said a word about abortion (or homosexuality, for that matter). If abortion is the most egregious and greatest moral failing of our time, as the Catholic Church and fundamentalist Christians maintain, why did Jesus never address it? Why is it never mentioned in the New Testament?
The claim that "life begins at conception" is not biblical, but Roman Catholic, first expressed in the scholastic philosopher and moral theologian Thomas Aquinas' 13th c. theory of “ensoulment,” the supposed moment when the fetus becomes a soul, (the timeline of which continues to be debated). A "soul," is biblically loosely and variously defined as the center of human thought, the mind, of rational thinking. Defined thusly, it is less in keeping with Catholic teaching that "life begins at conception" and more in keeping with the Jewish belief that rational thought begins postpartum.
It thus appears that religion serves as a poor barometer for settling the question on abortion. The Bible is silent. A better barometer may be science. So-called "pro-life" advocacy in the U.S. today advances the religious belief of one particular religion (Roman Catholicism) over all other beliefs, and is one that looks to the law. But no one is justified by the law (Galatians 5:4), because "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." — Romans 10:4 Any appeal to the rightness or wrongness of abortion is therefore never anything other than an appeal to the law which is a dead end street. But where there is faith in Christ, the law cannot accuse, for as Luther notes, "One can sin against the law, but one cannot sin against faith." Therefore, "If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed." — John 8:36. Thanks be to God!
When all is said and done, it must be remembered that the United States is still a democracy. Until the day it becomes a theocracy — biblical arguments do not apply.