Myth: Abortion is murder.

Fact: Abortion does not meet the moral or legal definition of murder.


Murder is defined as "illegal killing with malice aforethought." Abortion fails this definition for two reasons. First, abortion is not illegal, and second, there is no evidence to suggest that expecting mothers feel malice towards their own flesh and blood.


Is abortion murder?

Not all killing is murder, of course. Murder is actually a small subset of all killing, which includes accidental homicide, killing in self-defense, suicide, euthanasia, etc. When pro-life activists call abortion "murder," they are suggesting that abortion fits the definition of murder, namely, "illegal killing with malice aforethought." However, abortion fails this definition for two reasons. First, abortion is not illegal, and second, mothers hardly feel malice towards their own unborn children.

Some might object the first point is overly legalistic. Just because killing is legal doesn't make it right. Exterminating Jews in Nazi Germany was certainly legal, but few doubt that it was murder.

But why do we still consider the Holocaust murder? The answer is that we hold the Nazis to a higher law. When the Nazis were tried in Nuremberg for their war crimes, they were not accused of "crimes against Germans" or even "crimes against Jews." Instead, they were charged with "crimes against humanity." The reason is because there was no legal basis to charge them otherwise. The massacre of Jews was legal under German law. So in order to punish the German leaders for clearly wrong behavior, the Allies had to evoke a higher law, a law of humanity. (1) The Holocaust was condemned as illegal, and therefore murder, because it violated this law.

Many pro-life advocates claim that the same reasoning applies to abortion. Although abortion is legal under current U.S. law, it is not legal when it is held up to a higher law, namely, the law of God.

Let's assume, for argument's sake, that the Bible is indeed the law of God. Unfortunately, this doesn't help the pro-life movement, because there is no Biblical law against abortion. (Abortion is as old as childbirth.) The Hebrew word for "kill" in the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is rasach, which is more accurately interpreted as "murder," or illegal killing judged harmful by the community. It is itself a relative, legalistic term!

Many forms of killing were considered legal in ancient Israel, and levitical law listed many of the exceptions. Generally, levitical law permitted killing in times of war, the commission of justice and in self-defense. Sometimes, God even gave Israel permission to kill infant children. In I Samuel 15:3, God ordered Saul to massacre the Amalekites: "Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants…"

Unfortunately, the levitical law we find in the Bible today is incomplete, and comes to us in large gaps. That is because the ancient Jews passed down their laws orally, and only wrote down the more complicated laws to jog their memory. As a result, levitical law is filled with tremendous omissions; for example, we know little of their laws on libel, business, lending, alimony, lease, rental agreements and civil rights. But perhaps the most unfortunate gap in ancient Jewish law is abortion. If a law did exist on abortion, then we simply do not know what it was. Fortunately, we have an excellent idea of what the law might have been. The Jews are legendary for their fanatical preservation of the law, and they have never considered abortion to be a sin. That alone should make many pro-life advocates stop and reconsider the legal basis, holy or otherwise, for their opposition to abortion.

Some pro-life Christians claim that just because there is no commandment prohibiting abortion does not give us the right to perform it. Since human life is so precious, we should err on the side of caution, they argue. But according to this logic, we should not drive cars! Each year in America, there are about 40,000 deaths due to automobile accidents. These deaths are accidental, to be sure, but our decision to participate in a mode of transportation that we already know will kill 40,000 people is not accidental. We also know there were virtually no deaths in horse-and-buggy days. We have decided to accept those 40,000 deaths a year simply because we value the convenience -- a notion surely not found anywhere in the Bible. But should we stop all automobile travel just because of Biblical silence on the issue?

One could equally argue that if God thought the issue were important, he would have made sure to include such a law in the Bible. The omission of such a law suggests that God allows humans to exercise their best judgment in the matter.

The second part of the definition of murder involves malice. Is it really reasonable to assume that mothers feel malice towards their own unborn children? Why would they even feel that? What has the fetus done to inspire the mother's hatred, anger, hostility and revenge? This is not the way women react to news of their pregnancy, even an unwanted one, as any woman who has gone through an abortion will tell you. It is a reaction that only men in the pro-life movement find plausible.

Some abortion opponents may then try to claim that the murder is cold-blooded, that the malice involved is really a callous, unfeeling disregard for human life. But again, any woman who has gone through an abortion will tell you that it just isn't so. They are fully aware of what they are doing and the moral implications of it. All would prefer not to go through the abortion, and feel sorrow and regret for having to do so. But they ultimately decide that the abortion is for the best, that they are not ready for the even greater moral responsibility of bringing a child into the world. Christian conservatives may question the wisdom of such a choice, but they can hardly question the emotions behind it.

The accusation that abortion is murder, in fact, places the burden of proof on the accuser. If women do indeed feel malice towards their own flesh and blood, then the accuser needs to supply the requisite proof, studies, or surveys to make his case. But such evidence will probably never be forthcoming.

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1. Although the moral basis of the Nuremberg trials has never been in doubt, their legal basis is still a matter of controversy. Germany never signed an agreement of international law prohibiting genocide -- indeed, genocide was declared a violation of international law only at the Nuremberg trials themselves. In other words, the Allies retroactively applied international law to the Nazi war crimes. Ultimately, the legal basis for the Nazis' prosecution rested on the law of world opinion, or even, many claimed, the law of God. This raises many thorny questions, such as: whose opinion? And whose God? When the criminals are as obviously evil as the Nazis, then world opinion tends to be united, and there is no controversy. But what about a subject like abortion, in which the majority of public opinion is pro-choice, and on which most religions have different teachings? In this case, evoking a "higher law" becomes problematic, to say the least.