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,
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
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.
Return to Overview
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.