What does the Bible teach about abortion?

What does the Bible teach about abortion? August 19, 2022


What does the Bible teach about abortion?


This question is raised by the assertion that the Bible “says nothing about abortion.” So writes Melanie Howard, a Scripture scholar at Fresno Pacific University, a Mennonite Brethren campus self-defined as both “evangelical and ecumenical” that “embodies Christ-centered values.,” Her July 25 article titled “What the Bible actually says about abortion may surprise you” for theconversation.com was widely distributed to Associated Press and Religion News Service clients under the three outlets’ cooperative agreement.

Later in the article, Howard is more precise, explaining correctly that though abortion was known and practiced in biblical times it “is not directly mentioned” in Scripture. True, but there’s more to be said about how the Bible views unborn human lives.

The biblical passage that applies most specifically is Exodus 21:22-23, which involves miscarriage but was extended to the abortion issue by ancient rabbis. It states that if a pregnant woman is hit accidentally “when men fight” and “a miscarriage results,” the person responsible pays a negotiated fine. But “if other damage results” (understood to be the woman’s death), then the “life for life” principle requires the death penalty. (This Memo uses the 1999 JPS translation throughout).

The Jewish Study Bible (2nd edition, 2014) presents the faith’s understanding from ancient times that this passage means “abortion is permitted when necessary to save the mother.” Today, even pro-life conservative Christians mostly agree with that. Due to this passage, Judaism also teaches that “feticide is not murder” because the unborn life is not yet regarded as fully a person. Over the centuries, authoritative “responsa” from rabbis issued varied opinions on allowing abortions in specific circumstances.

Otherwise, one Christian Web site lists 100 Bible passages said to bear on abortion. However, most of these address the illicit killing of people who are already born or else denounce evil in general.

It is certainly fair to say that the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament for Christianity) conveys deep reverence for human life and joy in new births. In 2 Kings 8:12 and 15:16, biblical writers are particularly appalled when women are killed with their unborn babies, and God directly condemns this in Amos 1:13.

Several passages cherish life in the womb in poetic fashion, as with the beloved Psalm 139: “You fashioned me in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made; Your work is wonderful; I know it very well. My frame was not concealed from You when I was shaped in a hidden place . ,. .”

Psalm 22:11 says that “from my mother’s womb you have been my God,” while Psalm 127:3 calls “the fruit of the womb a reward.” Ecclesiastes 11:5 observes that “just as you do not know how the lifebreath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman, so you cannot foresee the actions of God.” And God revealed to the prophet Jeremiah that “before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you.” (1:5).

Only one New Testament passage relates to this question. Luke’s account of Jesus Christ’s birth (1:41) records that when the pregnant Elizabeth met her cousin Mary, also pregnant with Jesus, “the baby leaped in her womb.” Thus the unborn John the Baptist was cherished at least by the point of “quickening,” which occurs as early as 16 weeks, as Elizabeth felt John’s motion in her womb.

Just after New Testament times, the Didache, a late lst Century or early 2nd Century church manual rediscovered in 1873, reflects the belief of the original Jewish and Gentile Christians. (The archived Q & A for July 22, 2021, discussed this text.) The text’s catalogue of “grave sins” states that “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born,” alongside adultery, pederasty, fornication, and other evils. Subsequently, major “Church Fathers” taught the same.

Such general respect for unborn life does not directly decide the 21st Century moral debates on the value of a fetus during the stages of  pregnancy or what circumstances of the mother might justify abortion. For a survey of religious groups’ beliefs on such matters see the Q & A posted May 12.

(Incidentally, Howard’s phrase that began this article reflects another intense moral debate. Just the other day The Guy heard a TV panelist assert that Jesus Christ never said anything for or against same-sex relationships, and religious authors sometimes use that argument, which is  mistaken due to his teaching in Mark 10:6-8 and Matthew 19:4-5.)

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