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WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS

ABOUT ABORTION


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About 86% of North Americans consider themselves Christian. An inquiry into Biblical references to the status of a fetus and abortion may thus be of interest.

The Bible appears to be silent on the topic of abortion. 11 Roy Bowen Ward quotes two anti-abortion books in his essay on the personhood of the fetus: 3

  • John T. Noonan (1970) said: "The Old testament has nothing to say on abortion." 4
  • John Connery (1977) said: "If anyone expects to find an explicit condemnation of abortion in the New Testament, he will be disappointed. The silence of the New Testament regarding abortion surpasses even that of the Old Testament." 5

Ward finds this silence difficult to understand, because abortion was widely practiced during New Testament era in the Middle East. The Assyrians had a law concerning self-induced abortions as far back as the 12th century BCE.

On the other hand, there are Biblical passages which might be interpreted as referring to the worth of a fetus. One source states that pro-life groups have cited over 100 Bible passages in support of their position. 6,13 The following passages appear to be the most commonly used in abortion debates. We research the beliefs of both religious conservatives and liberals in the preparation of this and similar essays. We use here the King James Version (KJV) or the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, unless indicated. 


References from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

  • Genesis 2:7 God made Adam's body out of the dust of the earth. Later, the "man became a living soul" only after God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." This would imply that Adam's personhood started when he took his first breath. Following this reasoning, a newborn becomes human after it starts breathing; a fetus is only potentially human; an abortion would not terminate a human person. The most important word in the Hebrew Scriptures that was used to describe a person was "nephesh;" it appears 755 times in the Old Testament. It is translated as "living soul" in the above passage. One scholar, H.W. Wolff, 2 believes that the word's root means "to breath." He argues that during Old Testament times, "Living creatures are in this way exactly defined in Hebrew as creatures that breathe."
  • Genesis 38:24 Tamar's pregnancy was discovered three months after conception, presumably because it was visible at that time. Because she was a widow, without a husband, she was assumed to be a prostitute. Her father-in-law Judah ordered that she be burned alive for her crime. If Tamar's twin fetuses had been considered to have any value whatsoever, her execution would have been delayed until after their birth.  There was no condemnation on Judah for deciding to take this action. (Judah later changed his mind when he found out that he had impregnated Tamar.)
  • Exodus 13:1-2 "The Lord said to Moses, 'Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether [hu]man or animal.'" Throughout much of the ancient Middle East, the firstborn son in each family was ritually murdered as a sacrifice to the Gods.  However if the first son was preceded either by the birth of a girl or a miscarriage, then the ceremony is not performed, as the son was not the first offering of the womb. In later years, this practice evolved into a substitute animal sacrifice, or a cash donation to the temple, or a dedication of the child to their deity. "...the ancestors of the Israelites probably at one time actually sacrificed their first born children, as Genesis 22:1-14 implies." 8  These passages relate to infanticide, not abortion, because the infant would be killed after birth. But it shows the low regard for newborn human life during that era. Other references of human sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures are found at:
    • Judges 11:29-40: Jephthah promises God that he will make a human sacrifice of the first person to comes to greet him when he returns home after a successful battle. He ends up sacrificing his only daughter.
    • I Kings 16:34: This passage may refer to the killing by Hiel of his two children during the reconstruction of Jericho. Excavations have uncovered the remains of persons who seem to have been sacrificed "to obtain divine favor." 9
    • II Kings 16:3: Ahaz, king of Judah, murdered his son as a human sacrifice.
    • II Kings 17:17: The people of Judah abandoned worship at the temple in Jerusalem. They burned their children as human sacrifices to Baal.
    • II Kings 21:6: Manasseh burned his son as a human sacrifice to Baal.
    • Isaiah 57:5: Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, comments on the practice of the people of Israel in sacrificing their children, "down in the valleys, under overhanging rocks."
    • Jeremiah 7:31: Jeremiah, speaking for the Lord, criticizes the people of Judah for burning "their sons and daughters in the fire."
    • etc.
  • Exodus 20:13"You shall not murder" Murder implies killing a human being. But since the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures and the tradition of the Jewish people regarded a human person as beginning at birth when the newborn first takes a breath, this verse would not apply to abortion.
  • Exodus 21:22 If men strive [fight] an hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit [fetus] depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

    One source comments that because some Bible translations (KJV, RSV) use the phrase "woman with child" that God considers a fetus to be a human child. 7 But other translations render the phrase simply as "pregnant woman" and make no direct reference to the fetus. 

    This verse describes a situation in which a man, who is fighting another man, accidentally hits a pregnant woman, and causes a termination of her pregnancy. The following verse, 23, explains that if the woman died, the guilty man would be executed by the state. The accidental killing of a woman under these circumstances was considered a capital offense, because she was a human being.

    Verse 22 is confusing.  The key Hebrew word "yatsa" has been translated in different Bible versions as:

    • miscarriage: This would imply that the fetus died immediately as a direct result of the accident. Assuming no further harm happens (e.g. that the woman does not die), the man responsible would have to pay at a fine. The amount would be set by her husband and approved by the judges. This would imply that the death of the fetus was not considered to be the death of a human being. If it were, then the man responsible would be tried for murder and executed. However, because the fetus had possible future economic worth to the father, he would be reimbursed for his loss. 
    • premature birth: This implies that the fetus is born earlier than full term. Assuming no further harm happens (e.g. that neither the woman nor the baby dies) then the man would pay a fine. One possible interpretation of this passage would be that if the premature baby died, then the man responsible had killed a human being, and would be tried for murder. The verse is ambiguous at this point. 

    The New International Version of the Bible uses the phrase: "gives birth prematurely." and offers "miscarriage" as an alternate translation in a footnote. These two translations result in totally opposite interpretations: one supporting the pro-choice faction; the other possibly supporting the pro-life movement. 

    Some liberal theologians reject this interpretation. 3 They point out that this passage appears to have been derived from two earlier Pagan laws:

    • Code of Hammurabi (209, 210) which reads: "If a seignior struck a[notherl seignior's daughter and has caused her to have a miscarriage [literally, caused her to drop that of her womb], he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus. If that woman had died, they shall put his daughter to death."
    • Hittite Laws, (1.17): "If anyone causes a free woman to miscarry [literally, drives out the embryo]-if (it is) the 10th month, he shall give 10 shekels of silver, if (it is) the 5th month, he shall give 5 shekels of silver..." The phrase "drives out the embryo" appears to relate to a miscarriage rather than to a premature birth.

    Brian McKinley, a born-again Christian, sums the passage up with: "Thus we can see that if the baby is lost, it does not require a death sentence -- it is not considered murder. But if the woman is lost, it is considered murder and is punished by death." 10

  • Exodus 22:29"Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors: the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me." This is another remnant of the time when Israelites ritually murder their first son, sacrificing him to their god.
  • Leviticus 27:6 And if it be from a month old even unto five years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of silver and for the female ten shekels. A child was only given a value after the age of one month; boys were worth five shekels; girls three; below that age, (and presumably before birth) they were assigned no monetary value.
  • Numbers 3:15 Take a census...including every male a month or more old. Only male babies over one month of age were considered persons for the purposes of enumeration. A baby under one month of age and a fetus were apparently not worthy of being counted as a human.
  • Numbers 5:17-31 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water..... This passage describes a method by which the husband could induce an abortion, with the help of the priest. If a husband suspected that his wife had engaged in an adulterous relationship, then he would bring her to the tabernacle. The priest would make a magical drink consisting of holy water and sweepings from the tabernacle floor. He would have the woman drink the water while he recited a curse on her. The curse would state that her abdomen would swell and her thigh waste away if she had committed adultery. If she were pregnant at this time, the curse would certainly induce a miscarriage. Yet nobody seems to be concerned about the fate of the fetus. There was no similar magical test  that a woman could require her husband to take if she suspected him of adultery.
  • Numbers 31:17-18 Now, kill all the boys. And kill every women who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. This occurred at end of the campaign against the Midianites. Moses, presumably under orders from God, ordered the soldiers to kill every boy and non-virgin woman. Presumably many of the latter would be pregnant. So, their fetus was killed along with the mother-to-be. The female virgins would be spared, because they had value. The fetuses would be destroyed, presumably because they were perceived to have had no value.
  • Deuteronomy 2:34 At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them - men, women and children. We left no survivors. The Israelites tried to negotiate peaceful passage through the land of Heshbon. They were unsuccessful. So they exterminated all of the people, including innocent children and the fetuses of pregnant women - apparently under the instruction of God. This is an early example of ethnic cleansing.
  • Deuteronomy 32:23-26:  "I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them. 24 They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction: I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them, with the poison of serpents of the dust. 25 The sword without, and terror within, shall destroy both the young man and the virgin, the suckling also with the man of gray hairs. 26 I said, I would scatter them into corners, I would make the remembrance of them to cease from among men." God is here describing how he will commit genocide against a specific nation. He will murder of persons of all ages and both genders, from infants to old people. It also involves erasing the memory of them as a nation. 
  • 2 Kings 2:22-24 This describes Prophet Elisha, a bald man, and his interaction with a group of young boys. They called him by a derisive term: "baldhead" Elisha was angry; he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Two female bears came out of the woods and mauled (and presumably killed) 42 of the boys. This passage has nothing to do with abortion, but does indicate the low regard that Elisha had towards the life of children (because he issued a curse) and that God has towards the children (because he presumably sent the two bears to kill the boys).
  • 2 Kings 15:16a He [Menahem, king of Israel] sacked Tiphsah and ripped open all the pregnant women. He apparently was angry that the people of Tiphsah refused to open the gates of the city. Considering the state of medical sophistication at the time, all of the pregnant women and their fetuses probably died. The king obviously gave no value to the life of a fetus.
  • Job 3:2-4; Job 3:11-19; Job 10:18-19: Here, Job is suffering. God instructed Satan to preserve Job's life while killing his children and destroying everything of value in Job's life, including his health. Job says that it would have been better if he had died at or before birth, so that he would never have experienced such misfortune. This passage seems to imply that a terminated pregnancy is better than bringing into the world a baby who will suffer greatly.
  • Psalms 51:5 Behold I was shapen in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me. This is a reference of "original sin": the concept that because Adam and Eve disobeyed God, all subsequent humans have inherited their sin. Thus the writer's mother was in a state of sin when he, David, was conceived. Some conservative Christian commentators feel that David's reference to his own conception implies that the author regarded himself as a human being, continuously from conception, to birth, to adulthood.7 But the passage has an alternate interpretation. David may have believed that before he developed into a human, he was a pre-human fetus; and before that, he was a pre-fetal fertilized ovum. i.e. that at conception, he was a living entity which later developed into David, the human.
  • Psalms 139:13-16 For thou hast possessed my reins [formed my inner parts]: thou has covered [formed] me in my mother's womb. Again, this describes Jehovah observing and controlling the development of a fetus during pregnancy. No reference is made to miscarriage or abortion. The passage does not deal with the critical question of whether the fetus is a person. The first chapters of Genesis describe how God created every living thing: plants, land animals, fish, birds and human. But this does not say that all living entities are human.
  • Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 "...But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun." Here, the author talks about acts of oppression and the suffering that this brings to innocent people. The language is ambiguous here, but he may be referring to an interrupted pregnancy being better than a live birth, if the person born would suffer great injustices and pain.
  • Ecclesiastes 6:3-5 If a man begats 100 children...and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say that an untimely birth [a miscarriage] is better than he. The passage implies that a person can have many children and a long life; but if he is not motivated by love and goodness, and if he is not properly buried, then it would have been better if he had been born dead. The suggestion here is that a terminated pregnancy (one that does not produce a live birth) is better than a pregnancy that produced a life that is empty and miserable.
  • Isaiah 49:1...The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name. This apparently means that Jehovah was aware of the author's name before the latter was born. Some people interpret this as implying that God recognizes a fetus as a human by recognizing its name. Others simply regard this as a indication of God's ability to know the future.
  • Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified [set apart] thee. Again conservative Christians frequently interpret this passage as proof that God regarded the fetus which was born as Isaiah to be human. Others look upon the passage as referring to the process of pregnancy leading to a live birth. Jehovah is talking in this passage and emphasizes that he is able to foretell the future. God had important plans for the adult Jeremiah, a priest of the tribe of Benjamin, even before the latter was conceived. Presumably, an all-knowing God would know: when the conception would occur, that a miscarriage would not happen, the time when Jeremiah would be born, the name that the baby would be given, and the important role that Jeremiah would play as an adult. The passage does not appear to be related to the morality of abortion or whether a fetus is human. But it is often cited in debates over abortion. It merely seems to discuss how God had planned the life of Jeremiah the prophet, before he was even conceived. To say that this passages proves that a fetus is human appears to be faulty logic; the passage would then also say that an ovum and sperm is also a human being before fertilization.
  • Ezekiel 37:8-10 Ezekiel was taken by the Lord to a valley which contained many dry, human bones. As he was prophesying, the bones came together...tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. That is, they looked like humans, but were in fact dead because they had no breath. He prophesied and "breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet..." The implication of this passage is that an apparently fully formed human is not a living person until it breathes. This would seem to imply that a fetus is not alive until it takes its first breath, after birth.
  • Hosea 13:15-16 I will have no compassion...the people of Samaria...will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground; their pregnant women ripped open. Their crime was to have changed their religious belief. God obviously exhibited profound hatred against people who worship another deity, and assigned no value to the fetuses of the pregnant women.
  • Amos 1:13  "I will not revoke the punishment because they have ripped up women with child in Gilead, that they might enlarge their borders." This refers to atrocities allegedly committed by Ammonite soldiers. Disemboweling pregnant women in that era would be certain to kill both the women and their fetuses. The reference to enlarging their border may mean that the Ammonites wanted to prevent children from being born who later might grow up to fight the Ammonites. The horrible nature of the crime appears to be directed at the killing of defenseless women; the deaths of the fetuses is not discussed. 
  • The Talmud: "Talmud" means "Book of Study" in Hebrew. 1 They contain "discussions and analysis on Jewish law and how it is applied in everyday life." The Talmuds regard human personhood as beginning only at birth. Specifically, if the fetus is born normally, this happens when its forehead has left the birth canal. If the fetus is born feet-first, it happens when more than half of its body has been delivered.

References from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

These books were originally written in Greek. The authors used the word "brethos" to refer to a fetus, infant and child. The implication is that to Greek Pagans (the people who originated the Greek language), a fetus is as human as an infant or child. Some references:

  • Luke 1:15....[Jesus] shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. Some translations of the Bible refer to the interval before birth; others from the interval of time that starts from Jesus' birth. The passage appears to be ambiguous; it might refer to a time during the third trimester when the fetus is viable. At any length, it apparently refers only to Jesus' birth, not to infants today.
  • Luke 1:41...when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.... Elizabeth's fetus was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Verse 36 states that she was in her 6th month, at a time when the fetus is probably viable. The verse might be intended to imply that a 6th month (26 to 30th week) fetus has some degree of awareness of its environment, is capable of living independently, and should be considered as a "pre-born" human worthy of protection. It says nothing about a first trimester fetus without a functioning brain, consciousness or nervous system. This passage might be used to argue against the morality of a third-trimester abortion.

    The passage also clearly relates to two miraculous pregnancies: that of John the Baptist and Jesus; it would not necessarily apply to pregnancies of ordinary people. There never has been a case whereby an "ordinary" fetus could understand the words of the woman who was carrying it.

    One conservative Christian source 12 noted that the "Greek word for 'babe' in the above text is 'brephos'. In Luke 2:12, 16, the same Greek word is used to describe Christ in the manger. 'Brephos' is also translated 'babe' in I Peter 2:2, 'child' in II Tim. 3:15; 'infant' in Luke 18:15; and 'young child' in Acts 7:19. These scriptures show that God uses the same word to describe a child whether it is unborn, new-born or sometime later." Another way of looking at the term "Brephos" is to note that the Pagan Greeks had only a single word to refer to a fetus, newborn and young child. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, the authors had only that one term available for their use. The fact that they used it to refer to a fetus, newborn and young child is a reflection on Greek Pagan beliefs, not on God's intent.
  • Luke 1:42...Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. This statement by Elizabeth might imply that the pre-embryo that Mary was carrying is a child. Otherwise, she would have said "blessed will be the fruit of thy womb". On the other hand, it might simply mean that the pre-embryo is special because it will grow, become human, and eventually be born as the infant Jesus.
  • Galatians 1:15-16 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb and called me by his grace that I might preach.... This appears to repeat the beliefs of Jeremiah 1:5; i.e. that God knew Paul's role from before his birth.

References from early Christian writing:

The Didache (a.k.a. "The Teaching of the Apostles," "Doctrine of the Twelve apostles," and "The teaching of the Lord through the twelve apostles, to the Gentiles") is an important document of the early Christian church. It was written by an unknown author, probably during the late 1st century 15 or early 2nd century. 16 Many theologians link it to the Jewish Christian movement founded by Jesus' disciples. It was never accepted into the official canon of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). It reads, in part:

  • Section 2.2: "...thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born,..."

The latter part of the phrase probably refers to the widespread practice of infanticide in the Roman Empire: The mother would lay a newborn outside the home. If the father accepted responsibility for the child, he would pick it up and bring it into the house; otherwise, the child would be abandoned to die. The early Christian movement was known for its practice of scooping up such abandoned newborns and adopting them into their families. Some Roman Pagans accused the Christians of collecting newborns in order to engage in rituals of human sacrifice. Ironically, during the Satanic Panics (1980 to circa 1995 CE), the tables were turned. Some Christians  accused Neopagans of seizing children and infants for abuse and sacrifice in what was called "Satanic Ritual Abuse." Of course, ritual abuse and human sacrifice did not happened, either in the Roman Empire or modern America.


Summary

The Bible does not address abortion directly. 

One possible interpretation of a key passage, Exodus 21:22, is that the fetus is a human person; another interpretation of the same verse is that the fetus is not a human being. Other passages tend to devalue the fetus.

The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (Old and New Testament) use the same word to refer to an unborn fetus, newborn or older child. This is a limitation of the Hebrew and Greek languages. It might be interpreted as implying that:

  • Both ancient Israelites and Pagan Greeks considered that the fetus is fully human, equivalent to a newborn child...or
  • They simply called both children and potential children by the same term, much as modern-day parents-to-be refer to a fetus as a baby.

One can probably conclude safely that the 99% of all abortions (those which are performed prior to viability of the fetus) do not appear to be prohibited by Bible passages. Luke 1:41 might be interpreted to condemn abortions after fetal viability.

However, opposition to abortion appears to have been a concern within the early Christian Church as evidenced by the Didache.


Related essays in this web site:


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Reference

  1. Talmud Project at: http://www.fontworld.com/talproj1.html
  2. Hans Walter Wolff, "Anthropology of the Old Testament," Fortress Press, Philadelphia PA, (1974), Pages 14 & 59.
  3. Roy Bowen Ward, "Is the Fetus a person?" at: http://www.rcrc.org/religion/es2/comp.html
  4. John T. Noonan, "An Almost Absolute Value in History," in John T. Noonan, ed., "The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives," Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, (1970), Page. 6
  5. John Connery, S.J. "Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective," Loyola University Press, Chicago IL, (1977), Page. 34.
  6. Paul D. Simmons, "Personhood, the Bible, and the Abortion Debate," at: http://www.rcrc.org/religion/es3/comp.html
  7. D.W. Cloud, "Birth Control and the Christian," at: http://wayoflife.org/~dcloud/otimothy/tl110003.htm
  8. C.M. Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon, (1991), P. 46.
  9. C.M. Laymon, op cit., P. 193
  10. B.E. McKinley, "Why Abortion is Biblical,"  at: http://www.elroy.net/ehr/abortion.html
  11. What Does the Bible Say about Abortion?," at: http://www.infidels.org/org/ffrf/nontracts/abortion.html
  12. E.L. Bynum, "Abortion! Is it murder?", an unsolicited Email from a reader.
  13. Life Institute, "What does the Bible say about abortion?" at: http://www.lifeinstitute.org/abortion.htm
  14. J.B. Lightfoot, Translator, "The Didache or Teaching of the Apostles," at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/noncanon/fathers/ante-nic/didache.htm 
  15. John Chapman, "Didache: Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles," The Catholic Encyclopedia,  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04779a.htm 
  16. Alan Cairns, "Dictionary of theological terms," Ambassador Prod., (1998), Page 124 -125. Read reviews or order this book

Copyright 1997 to 2000 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2000-JUL-4

Author: B.A. Robinson

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