What Does the Bible Really Say About Abortion?

It’s official. The Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade returning to the states full authority to regulate medical termination of pregnancies without regard to a women’s needs or desires. As a practical matter, this means the issue is no longer a mere culture war talking point. The extent to which women are entitled to determine the medical treatment surrounding their pregnancies will be a hotly contested issue in several states. As has been the case from the get go, religion figures heavily into the debate. Volumes have been written and I am sure more will be forthcoming about all the implications of this development. However, I am confining this discussion to the question posed in the title of my article, namely, what the Bible really says about abortion. As a disciple of Jesus, I want to make sure that if the Bible is to be dragged into this debate, people understand what it does and does not say. As a lawyer who took an oath to uphold the Constitution (back in the days when that actually meant something), I want us to be clear about what the issues actually are so that we do not clutter the airwaves, internet and barber shop with a lot of fruitless, ignorant chatter. One can only hope. So here goes.  

In the strictest sense, the answer to the question posed is “nothing.” The Bible does not address abortion anywhere. The one place where the status of a fetus is discussed is Exodus 21:22. Here the law provides that, where a pregnant woman is injured in the course of a brawl such that she miscarries, the responsible party must pay a fine to the woman’s husband. The provision clearly does not treat the wrongfully caused miscarriage as a homicide. It is rather a civil offense against property, more specifically, the property of the woman’s husband. This verse does nothing to support either the proposition that a fetus is the equivalent of a mature human or the claim that a woman should have the right to control her own body. It has no useful ammunition for either army in the abortion culture war. Not surprisingly, both sides ignore it.  

Now some anti-abortion advocates cite passages like Psalm 139:13-18, Jeremiah 1:5 and Genesis 25:21-26 (Jacob and Esau wrestling in Rachel’s womb) and Luke 1:41-44 (John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb) in support of their claim that human life begins at conception. All reputable biblical scholars agree that these texts are poetic expressions of God’s involvement with and destiny for the people involved. They are not addressing our Twenty-First Century culture war disputes about how or when a person comes into being or when a person becomes a sentient human creature. The Lord says to Jeremiah, before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” The psalmist declares that his or her days “were formed for me when as yet there was none of them.” Yet if one insists on ignoring the biblical writers’ intent and taking these verses as addressing the moment when life begins, then one can only conclude that life begins before conception. As a matter of fact, the biblical authors did not even know about conception. The ancient view was that a person springs from the “seed” of one’s father. Females are simply incubators for their husband’s seed.[1] This understanding is exhibited by the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews who states that the patriarch Levi was in the loins of his great grandfather Abraham. Hebrews 7:9-10. However valid the theological point made by the author, one must admit that his or her understanding of human biology is wanting. Nonetheless, if you insist on taking the Bible literally at this point, then we should be regulating penises rather than wombs.

So here is the bottom line. I don’t know when a psycho-spiritual being emerges from the human reproductive process. Neither do you, nor does anyone else for that matter. The Supreme Court was incapable of making that determination and said as much. Science cannot answer the question for us and, as we have seen, the Bible is silent on the matter. Your opinion that the emergence of sentient being occurs at conception, birth or some point in between or after is just that-an opinion. More precisely, it is a religious/philosophical opinion.[2] Of course, you are welcome to your opinion. But you cannot maintain that it is a biblical teaching to which all Christians are bound and you certainly are not entitled to have it enshrined in law on that basis. The truth is that when, if ever, in the process of reproduction a fetus is deemed a person is purely a legal determination. It is a decision we as citizens make based not on religion or metaphysics, but by weighing the rights and interests of women, the interests of society as a whole and our understanding of pre-natal fetal development gleaned from medical science. The Supreme Court balanced all of these interests in its 1973 decision, Row v. Wade,  and determined, rightly I think, that the right of women to privacy in this most personal of decisions predominates. You can argue that these interests should have been balanced in some other way. But you cannot argue either that the Bible or medical science supports the proposition that a “person” emerges at conception. As they say down south, “that dog won’t hunt.”

[1] Thus, the same reasoning applies to Jacob and Esau as well as John the Baptist. The point made is that their origin lies in the mystery of God’s predestination. Yet, once again, if we take this text as a literal description of when a person comes into being, that point would have to be before conception takes place.

[2] I have an opinion on this matter as well. I choose not to share it in this article as it is no more germane than yours. Nevertheless, if you are interested, you can find it at this link.

2 thoughts on “What Does the Bible Really Say About Abortion?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s