The Bible and abortion

The Associated Press has a report on the annual so-called “March For Life,” protesting the 35th anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Thousands of abortion opponents marched from the National Mall to the Supreme Court on Tuesday in their annual remembrance of the court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

A smaller crowd of several dozen abortion-rights supporters held their own rally later, marking the 35th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling that established the nationwide right to abortion.

I also happened to listen to “Focus on the Family” last night, on my way home from work, and caught the tail end of James Dobson’s interview with a former abortionist, now an evangelical pro-lifer. They were talking about the sanctity of human life, and how evil it is that our society “cheapens” human life by condoning abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. (They completely omitted even the most tangential reference to capital punishment, however.)

In honor of the occasion, I thought it might be interesting to look at what the Bible has to say about abortion.

Here’s what has to say when you type “abortion” into its search engine for the text of the entire Bible:

Sorry. No results found for “abortion” in Keyword Search.

Oops. Not only does the Bible not state that “Abortion is murder,” as so many pro-lifers like to shout, it doesn’t even mention abortion.

Maybe it states that “life begins at conception” though. Let’s type “life conception” into the Bible search engine.

No results were found for life conception in the version(s):New International Version.
Try refining your search using the form above.

Ok, so the Bible does not say that life begins at conception. What about pregnancy? Maybe the Bible says it’s wrong for a woman to end her own pregnancy?

Exodus 21:22-25 (New International Version)

22 “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [a] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.


  1. Exodus 21:22 Or she has a miscarriage

Ok, this one might be close (and it’s a favorite of pro-lifers). But notice, this is a somewhat ambiguous law, and might even be arguing against the pro-life position. If the woman miscarries (and remember, there aren’t any neo-natal intensive care units in the Sinai desert at the time God is supposedly speaking these words), the miscarriage is not a “serious injury,” even though it’s almost certainly fatal to the fetus. Modern translators tend to try and minimize this implication by translating it as “gives birth prematurely,” thus implying that a viable baby is born, but the other translation is linguistically valid enough to warrant a translator’s footnote.

Also, whose serious injuries are we talking about here? The injuries being punished are “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Except for the first and last, none of the injuries are really consistent with the harm a fetus would suffer by being born prematurely or injured in utero by a blow to the pregnant woman. The injury list sounds more like things that would happen to the unfortunate woman.

And in any case, this law applies only in cases where harm results from a violent assault. It says nothing about a woman choosing to end her own pregnancy early, with or without her husband’s consent. Pro-lifers like to argue that it shows the life of the fetus is “sacred,” and that causing its death deserves a punishment equal to the punishment for murder. It’s as close as they can get to making the Bible say what they want about abortion being murder. But again, it’s not clear from the text that the “life” referred to is the baby’s life. It doesn’t say, “If the baby is born prematurely, and then subsequently dies,” as in verses 20 and 21 about beating one’s slaves. It just says, “if there is a serious injury” (implying that causing miscarriage is not a serious injury).

Remember, the whole issue here is not about whether it’s morally right to kill infants, toddlers, and small children. The question is whether the zygote/embryo/fetus belongs in the same category. Pro-lifers assume that it is in the same category, and then use that assumption to claim that Bible references to killing children include an equal condemnation for abortion. But that’s not what the Bible says, and this verse in Exodus seems to indicate that Moses, at least, did not even regard miscarriage as a serious injury.

In fact, let’s look at some of the other things the Bible says about the topic. We’ve already seen that God is pro-choice. Genesis 2:7 also tells us that “the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being”–literally, a living soul. So apparently the body was formed first, but Adam did not become a living soul until the breath of life entered his nostrils, similar to what happens when a newborn takes his/her first breath. But the Bible is not unanimous about life being in the breath; Leviticus 17:11 tells us that “the life of the flesh is in the blood”. So you might also associate the (biblical) life of the fetus with the development of the circulatory system, about 3 weeks after conception. You could argue (superstitiously, it’s true) that the embryo does not become a person until it has blood, which would allow a sizable percentage of all voluntary abortions, including “morning after” situations and rapes.

But really, the bottom line is that the pro-life movement is fundamentally a secular, political movement that is using the Bible for its own, human-inspired ends. The Bible itself does not teach that abortion is murder, nor does it teach that a fertilized egg is a person. Even if you assume that the Bible is God’s inspired and infallible word, it’s not a pro-life document. Pro-lifers have adopted it as a sock-puppet for their own opinions, and built their case on an Old Testament law that, in the immediately preceding commandment, condoned beating one’s slaves badly enough to leave them bedridden for up to two days–even if the slave dies after the two-day waiting period!

If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.

In other words, it’s ok to give your slaves a fatal beating, as long as they linger on their deathbed for at least 24-48 hours. So much for the “sanctity of life,” eh?

6 Responses to “The Bible and abortion”

  1. valinore Says:

    What about Numbers 5:16-22

    17the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18The priest shall set the woman before the Lord, dishevel the woman’s hair, and place in her hands the grain-offering of remembrance, which is the grain-offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you’— 21let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman—‘the Lord make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; 22now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen. Amen.’

    This is from the NRSV. the NIV takes liberties with the translation and changes the womb to a thigh rotting. Clearly the priest is punishing the woman with some sort of elixer design to cause a miscarriage if the woman is indeed with child.

  2. The Professor Says:

    Wow, that’s an interesting passage all right. I’ve never read that passage in the NRSV before, the NASB being my old favorite, but that sure does sound like Moses is prescribing a magic “day-after” potion designed to cause an abortion.

    Thanks for adding to my list of pro-choice Bible verses.

  3. Founder of the pro-life movement « Evangelical Realism Says:

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  4. Keith Says:

    To deliberately choose to not have children (by whatever method) is flagrant disobedience to the cultural mandate, the first words in Scripture that God speaks to a being other than himself: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”

    Really, that is a better tack to take, rather than an argument about what words or phrases are not found in the Bible. Infertility and miscarriages were always considered tragedies. (The death of children likewise. The pagan practise of killing children in worship of Molech was heinous.)

    And if you read the whole Numbers 5 passage, you will see that the point of the “day-after potion” was to determine marital unfaithfulness. The curse seems to be a miscarriage. And in verse 28, the implication is that if she is innocent she will be able to bear children – a blessing.

  5. Em Says:

    You are a JERK! Life begins at conception. Many times in the Bible it refers to a children and sons in the womb. (Gen. 25:21-22, 2 Kings 19:3, and Ruth 1:11) If a mother decides to have an abortion, she is commiting MURDER!

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hello Em.

    I notice you quote Gen. 25:21-22, but stop before it gets to verse 23:

    The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

    If you take the whole Bible, in context, you’ll see that Scriptures can and do use “anticipatory” expressions, describing the thing you see now in terms of what it will be one day. The politicians who are manipulating you (including those behind pulpits) aren’t going to teach you this; you need to read the Bible for yourself.

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