Pastoral Response: Abortion
Trigger warning: this article offers a historical-grammatical view of abortion in the Bible. Although this article leans more to the traditional "pro-life" side of the debate, my bibliography includes articles from both "conservative" and "progressive" sources to keep a healthy academic balance. The focus of this essay is the value of human life, neither politics nor an ad hominem attack on the "pro-choice" side. I hope readers on both sides of the abortion debate may find some common ground.
Today, people across the world are hopelessly divided over the abortion of human pregnancies. On the "pro-life" side, giving a woman the legal right to abort her child in the womb is tantamount to murder—sometimes, even in the context of rape or incest. On the "pro-choice" side, denying a woman this means a denial of her libertarian free will. In the Didache, the first-century Christian authors wrote, "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born" (Did. 2:2). This statement is a likely expansion of the commandment, "You shall not murder" (Exod. 20:13). The Law of Moses deemed the murder of a human being a capital offense, as it is in most legal systems today (Lev. 24:17). From the earliest days of Christendom, the followers of Jesus were horrified by the pagan custom of abortion and exposing infants to the elements to kill them (i.e., infanticide). The Didache represents a community of Judaic Christians who wanted a more obvious prohibition against abortion than what the New Testament already offered. It is one thing to teach the concept of life by example (Deut. 30:19-20), but another to do so more explicitly.
Personhood in the Womb
The author of Genesis wrote, "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). Theologians give this doctrine the fancy Latin title imago Dei, the "image of God." The implication is that God made human beings in his likeness to be good leaders and stewards of his creation—we are his crowning success (Ps. 8:5-7). Though Augustine of Hippo (AD 354—430) believed humankind lost its imago Dei when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and inherited original sin, this was not the teaching of the apostles: "With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God" (James 3:9). If it is wrong to verbally abuse someone, how much more wicked is it to murder one?
The most explicit verses in scripture that imply the personhood of a child in the womb come from Psalm 139:
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 (Ps. 139:13-16).
To further the point, both the prophet Jeremiah and Paul of Tarsus witnessed how God planned their lives and vocations before they were born (Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15; Eph. 1:3-4). That said, he does so for all of us, especially Christians who obey him. Keep in mind that when Mary of Nazareth visited her cousin Elizabeth, the prenatal John the Baptizer leaped in her womb for the joy of Jesus' conception (Luke 1:41-44).
Many pro-choice advocates use arguments about personal agency and independence to silence their critics about the morality of abortion. Simply put, they believe a woman should be allowed to do whatever she wants with her body. However, the scriptures address this for both men and women: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body" (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Yes, our bodies belong to God since he created them in the first place. Human beings only have a limited amount of free will, which is compatible with God and the laws of nature. The concept of libertarian free will—that is, choice without consequence—is impossible.
In my essay "Netherworld: Down to Death," I mention the ancient pagan sacrifices of children to the idol Moloch. This evil spread to the Hebrews by cultural infusion:
They mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood (Ps. 106:35-38).
Most pro-choice advocates deny that fetuses in the womb are "sons" or "daughters" out of a rejection of their personhood. However, this is an argument from silence, focused more on the convenience of a woman's perceived conflict with her goals versus motherhood—such a conflict does not have to exist. The psalmist wrote, "[Children] are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward" (Ps. 127:3). Likewise, the ancient pagans sacrificed their children to Moloch for socio-economic gains, believing that this idol would bless them for their dutiful obedience. However, God has never taught Jew nor gentile to sacrifice children to him. Even in the tragedy of Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19), his point was to explicitly forbid the practice.
The scriptures also deny the validity of abortion for disabilities: "Then the Lord said to him, 'Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'" (Exod. 4:11). Again, this is a debate from convenience, the convenience of not seeing an imperfect person made in God's image, or having to care for their needs.
Interpreting the Texts
Sometimes, pro-choice advocates use verses in Exodus 21:22-25 and Numbers 5:12-31 to suggest the Bible permits abortion in some instances. If we compare the translations of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) to the Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB) for the Exodus verse, we may see a difference of intent:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine (bold mine).
If men fight and hurt an isha harah (pregnant woman) so that she gives birth prematurely but not with any injury; he shall be surely punished, according to the ba’al haisha will assess a fine upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine (bold mine).
The NRSV translators understood the Hebrew phrase "to go forth" (yeladeyha weyatse'u; H3318, H3206) to imply the fetus miscarries when it proceeds without further injury. However, Phillip E. Goble, the Messianic Jewish interpreter of the OJB, realized the original grammar suggested premature birth instead of miscarriage. Likewise, the Jewish authors of the Septuagint (i.e., the formal translation of the Old Testament for Greek-speaking Jews) understood it this way: "If two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty: as the woman's husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. But if it is perfectly formed, he shall give life for life" (bold mine).
The correct interpretation depends on whether the reader views the child or the mother as the subject or object of the sentence. Given the overall context, the child is the subject since the price of his/her life is the matter at hand (e.g., "fined what the husband demands"). The passage has to do with reimbursement and compensation for various types of criminal or civil violations. Simply put, the Law of Moses granted compensation to the husband for the life of his unborn child. However, it also suggests that the accidental death of a fetus is a different matter than a deliberate death—murder. Either way, the writer of Exod. 21:22-25 was not so much answering a question forecasting the contemporary abortion debate, but whether the unborn child's life is worth compensation. The answer to this question was "yes."
The second passage in question is Num. 5:12-31. This deals with a man who believes his wife committed adultery against him. According to the Law of Moses, he was to present her before the Levitical priests in the temple before God. The priests gave her "bitter water" to drink. If she was innocent of adultery, then she was free to go. However, if she was guilty, then her uterus would drop and her womb discharge. This appears to be a scriptural rite of abortion, at least in the pro-choice mind. The context is limited to the legal system of ancient Israel, with its 613 laws. That said, the "bitter water" custom is hard to reconcile with so many other Bible verses that tell us to choose life. We cannot expand one circumstance and make it the rule for all other circumstances. Of course, the assumption is the guilty woman is pregnant when her uterus drops and womb discharges. The text does not say either way, and neither should we make arguments from silence.
O Lord Jesus the Messiah, who took little children into your arms and blessed them: Bless the children of this family, that they may grow up in godly fear and love. Give them your strength and guidance day by day, that they may continue in your love and service to their lives' end. Grant this, blessed Savior, for your own name's sake. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019.
Chance, Nynia. "Biblical Abortion: A Christian’s View." Rewire.News. Bethesda, MD: Rewire.News, 2012.
Goble, Phillip E. Orthodox Jewish Bible. New York: AFI International, 2011.
Koukl, Greg. "What Does Exodus 21:22 Say about Abortion?" STR.org. Los Angeles: Stand to Reason APR, 2010. https://www.str.org/publications/what-does-exodus-21-22-say-about-abortion#.XRyv2OhKiM8.
Lowery, Rick. "Abortion: What the Bible Says (and Doesn’t Say)." HuffPost.com. New York: Verizon Media, 2012. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/abortion-what-the-bible-says-and-doesnt-say_b_1856049.
McDaniel, Thomas F. "The Septuagint has the Correct Translation of Exodus 21:22-23." St. Davids, PA: Palmer Theological Seminary, 2012. http://tmcdaniel.palmerseminary.edu/LXX_EXO_%2021_22-23.pdf.
Piper, John. "The Misuse of Exodus 21:22–25 by Pro-Choice Advocates." DesiringGod.org. Minneapolis: Desiring God, 1989. https://www.desiringGod.org/articles/the-misuse-of-exodus-21-22-25-by-pro-choice-advocates.
Sprinkle, Joe M. "The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (Lex Talonis) and Abortion." Westminster Theological Journal 55. Glenside, PA: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1993. 233-53. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7753/f08b4403fde53865cb58a30812f0be3b318d.pdf.
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.