Myth: The Bible forbids abortion.
Fact: All Biblical arguments on abortion are indirect and open to debate.
The Bible does not comment directly on abortion, even though abortion
was practiced even then. All Biblical arguments on abortion are indirect
and open to interpretation, and debate continues even among the world's
most respected theologians. Even so, the Bible seems to suggest in several
places that the unborn are not endowed with the qualities or rights of
personhood. In fact, the Jews, who are famous for their preservation of tradition,
have never considered abortion to be a sin.
Many Christians believe that their opposition to abortion is firmly
supported by the Bible. This is untrue. The Bible is remarkably silent
about abortion, and all arguments about the subject are indirect and highly
questionable. Not even the world's most respected theologians have been
able to draw a firm conclusion one way or the other, despite continuing
Most Christians know only one Biblical reason to oppose abortion, and
that is the obvious one, "Thou shalt not kill." This is one of
the most critical laws a society can obey, and every pro-choice advocate
agrees with it. However, it is impossible to break this commandment if
there is no person on the receiving end of this action. The challenge to
Christians is to find a text that declares at what point a fetus becomes
ensouled, and hence a person.
Before we look at these texts, we should consider a quick attempt by
Christians to sidestep this entire question. Personhood is irrelevant,
they argue; even if the zygote were not yet a person, it is nonetheless
human life, and killing it is wrong. But this argument falls easily. The
Hebrew word for "kill" in the 6th Commandment is rasach,
which more accurately means "murder," or illegal killing judged
harmful by the community. It is itself a relative term! Many forms
of killing were considered legal; indeed, God often gave Israel permission
to kill. (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…")
Generally, levitical law permits killing in times of war, the commission
of justice and in self-defense. But recall that the levitical law we have
in the Bible is incomplete, and comes to us in large gaps. If a law did
exist on abortion, then we simply do not know what it was. Fortunately,
we have an excellent idea on what the law on abortion might have been.
As Rabbi Balfour Brickner, National Director of the Commission on
Interfaith Activities, says:
"Jewish law is quite clear in its statement that an embryo is not reckoned
a viable living thing (in Hebrew, bar kayama) until thirty
days after its birth. One is not allowed to observe the Laws of Mourning
for an expelled fetus. As a matter of fact, these Laws are
not applicable for a child who does not survive until his thirtieth day."
Since the fetus is not considered a person under Jewish law, it would be
impossible to consider its abortion a murder. Indeed, most Jewish scholars
have agreed that abortion was legal under Jewish law. This fact alone
should give serious pause to the pro-life movement.
The legality of abortion in Jewish law fits into a larger
and perfectly coherent philosophy on personhood according to the Bible.
The philosophy I am about to demonstrate is this: that physical creation
of the body comes first, and ensoulment only comes much later.
Pro-choice Christians note that the creation of Adam was a two-step
process: God first formed Adam from the dust of the ground, and only then
did he give him the breath of life, turning man into a living soul. This
closely resembles the scientific description of pregnancy, which notes
that the first seven months are devoted to constructing the organs and
body, and only by the 8th month does the fetus display a waking consciousness.
There is also a long Christian tradition of the body/soul dichotomy.
The flesh has long been condemned as temporary, imperfect, sinful and weak,
whereas the soul has long been revered as eternal, pure, holy and God-like.
It would be perfectly consistent for Christians to believe that personhood
resides in the soul, and that there is no sin in disposing of a physical
entity before it is given the soul of a new person.
From here we turn to specific Biblical evidence for ensoulment and
personhood. Pro-choice activists have a near-argument stopper in Exodus
"If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely
but there is no serious injury [i.e., to the mother], the offender must
be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But
if there is serious injury [i.e., to the mother], you are to take life
for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot…"
The traditional interpretation of this text, which even rabbinical
scholars accepted for thousands of years, is this: if a man hurts a woman
enough to cause a miscarriage, he reciprocates according to how much injury
he caused her, i.e., an eye for an eye, etc. However, if the miscarriage
resulted in no injury to the woman, then all the assailant had to pay was
a monetary fine. The fact that the Bible does not equate the assailant's
life with the stillborn's life is proof that the Bible does not count the
fetus as a person.
This was the traditional interpretation -- until recently, that is,
when pro-life Christians became alarmed by the pro-choice side's successful
use of it in the debate on abortion. They took a close second look at the
passage, and discovered a second possible interpretation. The text actually
turns out to be ambiguous. It does not say who exactly suffers the "mischief"
or harm; it could be the fetus as well as the mother. In that case, a miscarriage
resulting in a live birth was punishable by a monetary fine, but a miscarriage
resulting in fetal injury or death would call for the same from the assailant.
This new interpretation suffers from three drawbacks. First, the Jews,
who know their own tradition best, have always accepted the first interpretation.
Second, the laws of surrounding cultures (Assyrians, Hittites, Sumerians,
Babylonians, Hammurapi and Eshnunna) were similar to Israel's, due to widespread
copying of laws. There is no ambiguity in their laws; any harm caused clearly
refers to the mother. Finally, miscarriages in ancient times almost always
resulted in stillbirths; saving premature babies is an achievement of modern
An even more astonishing pro-choice passage is Numbers 5, where the
Lord appears to give a curse that causes abortions in unfaithful wives.
According to this passage, the Lord instructed Moses that a husband who
suspected his wife of sleeping with another man could take her to the priest
for a test that would either confirm or deny his suspicions. The test involved
his wife drinking a cup of "bitter water," which consisted of
holy water mixed with the dust of the tabernacle floor. If the woman were
innocent, then no harm would come to her by drinking it. But if she were
guilty, then she would be cursed with "bitter suffering;" namely,
"she will have barrenness and a miscarrying womb." In this text,
God himself appears to be endorsing the practice of abortion.
This text produces angry reactions in pro-life advocates; here are
some of the defenses that this writer has encountered. First, there is
a translation problem. In the King James Version, verse 27 is translated
as "her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot." What this
means, unfortunately, is open to interpretation. However, newer translations
of the Bible, which are based on improved scholarship, give less ambiguous
translations. The New International Version gives "her abdomen will
swell and her thigh waste away," but adds in the footnotes that an
alternate translation is "she will have barrenness and a miscarrying
womb." The New Revised Standard Version, one of the most respected
translations by scholars, gives "her womb shall discharge, her uterus
drop…," which more clearly indicates an abortion procedure.
A second objection is that water mixed with dust from the tabernacle
floor does not sound severe enough to be an abortive agent. This observation,
however, is irrelevant, in that God curses the water in verse 21 to cause
a miscarrying womb if she is guilty. It is the curse, and not the water,
which is relevant to the abortion procedure.
Another objection is that God alone has the power and the right to
give life or death, and in this passage, it is clearly God's curse that
causes the miscarriage. It follows that humans would still not have permission
to conduct abortions at will. Put another way, we know that a third of
all fetuses less than 10 weeks old are spontaneously aborted; this could
be viewed as an act of God, but it does not give humans the same right.
This argument nonetheless fails to a few observations. First, it was
the suspicious husband's choice to subject his wife to
this procedure, and it was the priest who carried it out, which gives humans
both a choice and a role in carrying out abortions. True, God may have
made the final determination whether or not to cause the miscarriage, but
if he had intended for humans to have no role in the process, he would
have spontaneously aborted the fetus without their knowledge, choice or
Second, humans are forced to "play God" whenever they make any
decision about their reproduction. Bringing a life into a world of needless
and acute suffering is just as terrible as not -- who are humans to make that decision?
The Bible certainly doesn't speak to that issue, either -- hence humans are
placed in a God-like position no matter what they choose, with no Biblical
direction on either option. Not many pro-life Christians have considered this
flip-side to their arguments.
Finally, this passage establishes
a precedent: God does not desire children to be raised in sinful environments.
In the absence of explicit Biblical instruction on whether or not to bring
life into a world of needless suffering, these precedents are the best we have.
A third pro-choice passage is Genesis 38. In this story, Judah mistakes
Tamar as a prostitute, and orders her to be burned to death, despite the
fact she is three months pregnant. If her twin fetuses had been considered
persons, the law would have delayed her execution at least until her twins
were born. (The execution order was later lifted, not because of this consideration,
but because Judah learned Tamar's true identity.)
When Jehovah gave monetary equivalents to the value of people of certain
age groups in Leviticus 27:1-7, the lowest values were given to
children between the ages of one month and five years. Boy babies were
worth five shekels, and girls were worth three. Below the age of one month,
they did not even merit a price.
For census purposes in Numbers 3:15, only male babies older than one
month were to be counted. Below this age, they were not considered persons
to be counted.
These texts, combined with the traditional Jewish acceptance of abortion,
form a consistent philosophy on personhood. Of course, the religious right
has its own favorite Biblical texts in this debate. As we go over them,
however, notice how they do not at all contradict the above philosophy.
The most commonly quoted texts occur in poetry, an unfortunate fact
for Christian conservatives, because they are already clearly on record
for denouncing the idea that Biblical poetry can be taken as scientific
fact. For those unfamiliar with this controversy, a brief digression is
in order. The issue in question is the flat earth debate. The ancient Egyptians
believed that the earth is flat, and the sky is a dome or tent-covering
that God pulled over it. The sun, stars and planets were said to have hung
from the ceiling. The Israelites were heavily influenced by many Egyptian
beliefs, and this was one of them. For this reason, all the Bible's descriptions
of the earth sound like a house: the four corners of the earth, the pillars
of heaven, the firmament (literally translated, a firm dome or ceiling),
the windows of heaven (which, once opened, allowed the oceans above the
firmament to pour through, causing rain), and the sun entering the sky
through a door in the east and exiting through a door in the west. Isaiah
wrote: "It is He that... stretcheth out the Heavens like a curtain,
and spreadeth them out like a tent to dwell in." Jews and Christians
both interpreted these texts as literal fact for thousands of years. When
Columbus sought to sail around the world, Catholic bishops used these texts
against him, warning him that his lack of faith would cause him to fall
off the edge of the earth.
Of course, Columbus and Magellan proved otherwise, and Christian apologists
have ever since defended their error by claiming that these texts were
metaphors, mere poetic flights of fancy, ones that described appearances
only. It follows that poetry is not meant as literal science.
Let's give pro-life Christians the benefit of the doubt, however,
and treat the following poetic texts as literal descriptions. Even a literal
interpretation does not detract from the philosophy of personhood
The first texts are Job 10:8 and 11, describing the experience of Job
in the womb:
"Your hands shaped me and made me… Did you not… clothe me with skin and
flesh and knit me together with
bones and sinews?"
This text describes only God's physical construction of the fetus, and brings pro-lifers
no closer to proving when ensoulment occurs. Besides not resolving the central
question, however, this text raises one of the thorniest issues in all
theology. And that is: if God is responsible for the physical creation of the
fetus (indeed, the entire universe), then is God responsible for physical deformity,
imperfection, even the Devil and sin? Fortunately, we need not resolve this 3,000 year-old
controversy to prove the following point: despite the belief that God made everything,
which is reflected in this text, some of these things nonetheless turn
out evil, and even God permits humans to correct evil.
The second passage is Psalms 139:13-16:
"For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works
are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written
in your book before one of them came to be."
This is a favorite passage among pro-life Christians, but they probably
be much less enthusiastic about it if they knew more about the third verse.
The philosophers of many cultures around Israel -- including Plato of Greece
-- believed that the unborn were formed and designed in the soil of the
earth, and then were supernaturally lifted into the womb of the mother.
The third verse of this passage betrays this ancient superstition.
Pro-life Christians try to get around this damaging observation by
claiming it is only poetry. Which, of course, ruins their attempt to use
this passage as literal science.
Even disregarding the third verse, this passage says nothing about
personhood. The first verse, like the passage from Job, notes that God
is involved in the creation of physical entities -- no controversy there.
The second verse states an obvious truth about the wonder of the human
body, but mentions nothing about ensoulment or when it occurs. The fourth
verse shows that God has foreknowledge of the unborn, and a purpose for
their lives. Yet foreknowledge does not equal personhood. Thomas Edison,
for example, had both foreknowledge of the light bulb and a purpose for
it before he created the first one. That God knows the future is no theological
secret. God would have known about David even before he was conceived,
even before the earth was created. Our earlier philosophy on personhood
remains uncontradicted: God may simply have kept David's soul ready until
the right fetal body came along. Which fetal body may have been unimportant
-- it was the soul that mattered.
Jeremiah 1:5 repeats this theme:
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I
set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."
This text comes right out and says it: before I formed you -
that is, before conception -- God had foreknowledge of Jeremiah. Again,
foreknowledge does not equal personhood.
Another pro-life text is Genesis 9:6:
"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for
in the image of God has God made man."
One rebuttal to this interpretation is that the zygote bears no
resemblance whatsoever to a finished person; a 12-week fetus resembles
perhaps only 70% of a person, and only by the 8th month does a fetus possess
the completed organs of a full-fledged person. Besides, this law is relative;
God permitted many legal forms of killing.
Finally, pro-life Christians use the birth of Christ to prove that
fetuses are ensouled immediately upon conception. Luke 1:15 says that Jesus
would be "filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth." Some
translations say "from his mother's womb." The text does not
clarify the exact moment of ensoulment: was it childbirth, or an indeterminate
amount of time before childbirth (say, during the last few months of viability)?
Others argue that the because the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, it
must have been present from the very beginning; therefore, ensoulment occurs
upon conception. The conception of Jesus, however, was a unique and supernatural
event, and it is not at all certain that the birth of Christ compares to
that of ordinary mortals. We do not know, for example, whether the Holy
Spirit completed the genetic code upon fertilization, only to ensoul the
fetus later. And being half-God, the fetus may have possessed the omniscient
Holy Spirit in a way that a fully human fetus might not. The answers to
these questions can never be known, and the extraordinary event of
Jesus' conception cannot be used to describe normal childbirth.
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