Abortion and the Christian (Part 2)

In Part 1, we looked at the problem of unwanted children, and the historical practice of infanticide. For example, in the Roman Empire, personhood depended on recognition by the father: “A baby not vouchsafed such recognition could be killed, left to die by exposure or sold as a slave. In all such cases the infant was treated as not fully human.”[1] This kind of thing has not been rare in human civilization, unfortunately.

The State of New York, very soon after Part 1 was published, changed its laws to allow for abortion—simply a form of infanticide, as argued in Part 1—beyond the point of fetal viability and up to the point of birth if the “health” of the mother is at stake. “Health” is left undefined and could be applied to emotional, financial, or psychological health. And as abortion is often justified as a personal and private matter, one would expect little accountability for a mother who decides to kill rather than raise her child on “health” grounds. Such children are not treated as fully human or accorded legal personhood. There is no reason for this other than the arbitrary standard that New York has decided to establish. If in future days they go the Roman route of requiring a ceremonial and religious lifting of the child for human legitimation post-birth, it would not be very surprising.

It may be that in the near future, one thing distinguishing Christians from the surrounding culture will be that Christians do not abort their offspring. It was one of the things distinguishing them in the early days, and it may again—The Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century A.D.), describing Christians scattered throughout the Roman world says that they “marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring” (Epistle to Diognetus 5:6).

One would hope this would be true of Christians, but as Part 1 highlighted, many Christians seem to not think this is a very important issue, and some professing believers even try to defend abortion as a Christian good. So in this article, Part 2, I want to go back to basics and consider why, from a biblical perspective, all Christians should be opposed to abortion entirely. We will see, first, that the Bible takes the personhood of the unborn for granted, and second, that despite the absence of any explicit references to abortion, broader biblical considerations support its moral illegitimacy. Biblical testimony here confirms what nature itself tells us, that human life can only begin at conception and that abortion ought to be regarded under law as murder.

Pre-Born Personhood: Specific Texts

The Bible prohibits murder, and the pre-born are included within the biblical conception of the human person. One important text that shows us this is Exodus 21:22-25. Here is the text in the ESV:

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Some interpret the phrase “so that her children come out” (the literal translation) to refer to a miscarriage or stillbirth.[2] In this case, those who caused the stillbirth must pay a fine, but there is no other punishment unless there is further “harm” to the mother. If there is harm to the mother, the “eye for eye” rule would apply. On this reading, the imposition of a mere fine rather than capital punishment for the miscarriage could imply that the fetus is not accorded the status of full personhood. But the linguistic evidence favors the view that the phrase “her children come out” does not actually refer to miscarriage but to premature live birth,[3] and some English translations explicitly render the phrase that way. For example, the NIV says, “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury . . .” The NASB does the same. This would seem to be the better translation. The law envisions a scenario where a pregnant woman becomes “co-lateral damage” to a street brawl, and as a result gives birth prematurely, and the punishment depends on the amount of harm caused.

If this is right, the reference to harm would concern either or both the mother and child. The fine is paid because of the actual striking of the pregnant woman, but then any harm to either the mother or child would be paid “eye for eye.” The implication would then be that the fetus is in fact regarded under biblical law as a person under full legal protection, up to the point of “life for life.” That is, the killing of a fetus, even accidentally, can be a capital offense.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Job 10:8-12 and Psalm 139:13-16 both regard the fetus in the womb as a person undergoing creation by God, and prophets like Isaiah (44:24) and Jeremiah (1:5) have the same perspective.

Your hands fashioned and made me,
and now you have destroyed me altogether . . .
You clothed me with skin and flesh,
and knit me together with bones and sinews (Job 10:8, 11).

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:13-16).

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb (Isaiah 44:24).

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations . . . (Jeremiah 1:5)

Another consideration is the assumed continuity in personal identity between the being in the womb with the being when grown up: “Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived’” (Job 3:3; see also Genesis 25:22, Luke 1:35, etc.). In keeping with this, biblical language implies that the person born is the person who was conceived. Eve “conceived and bore Cain.” It was Cain who was conceived, and Cain who was born. There are also incidental details like the fact that Samson’s Nazarite obligations extended to his life in the womb of his mother, for whom grape products were forbidden during her pregnancy, as these would pass on to Samson in utero (Judges 13:4-5, 14). When Gabriel told Mary about the pregnancy of Elizabeth, he said, “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren” (Luke 1:36). Six months into the pregnancy, what was inside Elizabeth was already “a son.” A few verses later (Luke 1:41, 44), her son is called a “baby,” and he leaps in her womb. Mary herself is also “with child” (Luke 2:5), and the incarnation of the Son of God with human flesh thus begins at his conception. What is in Mary and in Elizabeth is not “mere tissue,” but a child. Of course, the being in the womb is composed of tissue, but so are adults.

All of this suggests that the biblical silence regarding the specific act of abortion should not be taken as evidence that the practice is morally neutral, any more than its silence regarding many of the other infinite forms of murder. The Bible is silent on abortion, but the Bible does not mention beating one’s neighbor to death with a shovel either. It would be more accurate to say that the Bible does not address the practice directly because what is evident from nature is taken for granted in the biblical perspective: The fetus cannot be denied personhood on any moral or logical grounds, and so abortion is covered by the general prohibition on murder. Qualities like dependency or size or level of development cannot serve as markers for personhood, since the required level of achievement in any of these areas could only be an arbitrary choice. The being in the womb is alive; it is genetically distinct from any other living being; it is genetically human.[4] And while dependent, so also are newborns and adults in the hospital. Denying personhood to the unborn is simply a linguistic expedient to justify extinguishing an inconvenient life.

Some might argue that in the creation story, Adam becomes “a living being” at the point when God breathes into him the breath of life (Genesis 2:7), and so “first breath” might be considered the biblical point when life begins. In response, first, it may be said that since Adam’s creation was unique and he did not undergo normal conception and fetal development, his coming to life cannot be regarded as normative. Second, the wider biblical witness, as already demonstrated, is that children in the womb are regarded as persons, and we would be wiser to take our cue from the Second Adam, Christ, the New Man, who did undergo conception and fetal development and is the true model for humanity. Third, one could point to Leviticus 17:11, which says that “the life of the flesh is in the blood”—and the fetus in the womb has its own blood cells within the third week after conception, earlier than many women are even aware that they are pregnant.

Biblical Considerations Weighing Against Abortion: Broader Principles

It is clear enough that the Bible considers children in the womb as persons, and the command against murder should be recognized as covering abortion. Broader biblical considerations and principles point in the same direction and argue against abortion as an acceptable practice as well.[5]

(1) First, in the Bible, children are always seen as blessings: “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). There is no case in the Bible in which pregnancy is presented as a problem. In one case it is inconvenient for an adult as an exposure of sin—Bathsheba’s pregnancy by David—but abortion is never considered as a legitimate way out. David’s attempt to exonerate himself through murder (of Bathsheba’s husband, not her baby) is instead treated as a great sin in its own right, and the baby’s eventual death is considered tragic.

(2) A second consideration is the Biblical principle that reasonable precautions are obligatory when it comes to protecting life. In ancient Israel, God commanded that “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8). Roofs often served as living space, and so fencing it off was an obligation as a reasonable safety provision. An equivalent today might be fencing off a pool if small children are likely to be near it. When it came to dangerous animals there were similar laws: “But if [an] ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:29). There were penalties attached to unintentional manslaughter (Numbers 35:9-15) as well. Now, I do not think it is a stretch to say that if God expects his people to take reasonable precautions in protecting life and even holds men who kill by accident morally accountable, if there is any reasonable question as to the personhood of the unborn, we ought to err on the side of protecting rather than destroying life.

(3) Fathers have a high and vital responsibility when it comes to raising children, and as Richard Hays says, “The fact that abortion is usually treated as a ‘women’s issue’ shows how disastrously the general culture has allowed males to abdicate responsibility for children.” How many thousands of women have felt driven to abortion as a necessity because men have refused responsibility for fathering their own children? It is a popular if bizarre contention today to say that men should have no say at all when it comes to abortion. This is foolish for any number of reasons (here are seven), not least of which is that fathers have an obligation to nurture and protect their families. Hays is right: the epidemic of abortion is in fact a standing witness against the failure of men to take responsibility as fathers. If men fulfilled their biblical role as fathers, there would be perhaps less occasion for abortion to seem “needed” in the first place.

(4) Fourth, the Christian ethic of giving up what might be lawful practices for the sake of Christ, when necessary, as Paul did in his missions (1 Corinthians 9:12), not to mention duties of compassion, caring for the vulnerable, etc., suggests with regard to abortion that personal ease or convenience should always take a back seat to welcoming children into the world. And it should be noted, let me emphasize, that this is a call to the Christian community as a whole, not just to mothers in isolation. Our calling is to help those in need, perhaps especially mothers for whom pregnancy and a child would represent an excessive difficulty. So within the church particularly, abortion should never be seen as a “tragic necessity.” Rather, the Christian community should step in to help the fatherless. Even outside the church, Christians should be (and historically have been) very active in orphan care and caring for mothers in desperate situations.

(5) Fifth, God is the Creator and sustainer of life, and whatever we think about the “personhood” of the unborn (again, really a dispute over words rather than facts), abortion represents a violent destruction and interruption of God’s work for which we have no authorization.[6] This consideration is all the more serious when it means destroying the very image of God on earth—human beings. We do not create ourselves or belong to ourselves, and abortion represents the usurping of an authority to take life that does not belong to us.

Perhaps, along these lines, it has not been very helpful for the pro-life movement to allow the abortion issue to be framed as a conflict over “rights” in the first place—right to life of the baby vs. the mother’s right to bodily autonomy. The fact is, there is no ultimate right to autonomy, and no one other than full anarchists really think otherwise, since every law regulates the use of the body in some way.[7] And there is no ultimate “right to life” in the Bible either, as if anyone has ultimate claim on themselves. Life is a divine gift, and God alone has authority over it. So Christian opposition to taking human life rests first on the principle that it is not ours to take, not on any “sacredness” or supposed overriding value or dignity that life may have.[8] Humanity was given stewardship over creation, which means we are to manage and administer on behalf of another, not usurp a claim over whatever life we find inconvenient. It is true that God has delegated to civil authorities, as God’s image, the authority of the sword to take life in certain instances (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:4; etc.), but in these cases taking life is an exercise of public justice done by those operating as God’s appointed ministers, with this authority delegated to them, and only underscores the point.[9]

Conclusion

I have not dealt here with the “what about” cases like pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. But on the basis of what has been said, it should be clear that even the horrible circumstances in which a child might be conceived cannot change its status as a human person, and cannot warrant our intentional and violent ending the child’s life. No child should be made to pay for the crimes of his or her father.[10] The fact is, in America the vast majority of abortions are not for these reasons but are abortions of convenience, and certainly no sweeping allowance for the practice should be made on the basis of relatively infrequent exceptional circumstances. In fact, it is quite difficult to make a consistent case for abortion only in certain instances, because if one agrees that there should be some restrictions, the question then becomes, why? And when that question is answered honestly, the “exceptional cases” can no longer stand up to scrutiny. This is why the abortion lobby no longer uses the old slogan of “Safe, Legal, and Rare.” If we ask why it should be rare, the “safe and legal” part becomes untenable. So now we have “Shout Your Abortion.” Abortion must ultimately be abhorred or celebrated. There is no middle ground.

It also should be clear that Christians ought to support legally classifying abortion as homicide, and voicing this support is our obligation if we believe that governments are appointed by God precisely in order to maintain justice in society. Surely if anything is a “justice issue,” defending innocent life is. Also, Christians should not be thrown off by the red herring that is more and more common these days, that if we were “really” pro-life we would be advocating for gun-control legislation, government-controlled healthcare, pollution regulations, etc. First, reasonable people may differ on the effectiveness of particular policies or whether government regulation is appropriate in different spheres, without calling into question the good of healthcare itself or the need to lessen pollution. But abortion is an act of direct murder and should be outlawed accordingly. Of course, we should be consistently pro-life, that is a given, but honest people can differ over what this entails when it comes to gun, environmental, and public healthcare policies at the federal or state levels.

The continued acceptance of abortion in society is the most pressing issue of social justice that we face. It is a crime that is as shameful as any in America’s history, and the euphemisms that are used for it (“women’s healthcare,” “women’s rights,” “reproductive health”) are embarrassingly transparent evasions of what abortion really is. All believers should pray for the day when life is embraced as God’s good gift and guarded by those appointed by him to protect the flourishing of human life on earth.


[1] Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, p. 234.

[2] Richard Hays takes it this way in his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (pg. 446). Claiming that the Bible never addresses abortion directly, he says this passage only deals with accidental miscarriage and imposes a fine in such cases, implying that the destroyed fetus was not a “person” in the full sense. Richard Hays opposes abortion on broader biblical grounds but is also fairly reserved in pressing his views since he considers the biblical witness to be less than direct or explicit.

[3] The case for this has been made by many exegetes according to Davidson, whose summary I am following here (Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, pg. 495).

[4] Merriam-Webster defines life this way: “An organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.” All of this is true of the fetus in utero. If it is alive, we have to ask what type of creature it is, and that can only be human. This is the plain scientific fact whatever word games one wants to play with “person” or “human.”

[5] Some of the ideas of these points are adapted from Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

[6] As we do for killing certain animals for food, or people in certain civil cases, etc.

[7] Despite pro-choice protests about “a woman’s right over her own body,” everyone recognizes that this principle cannot be unlimited. There are laws against public indecency (bodily exposure), regulations about trespassing (bodily location), perjury (speech), molestation and pedophilia, etc.

[8] This ethic is understood in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. There is a scene where Denethor, the old Steward of Gondor, is about to kill himself and his still living but unconscious son, by burning, on a funeral pyre. Gandalf the wizard confronts him with these words:

Authority is not given you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death . . . And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.

Gandalf calls out Denethor’s impending suicide as a transgression of his proper authority. Gandalf also confronts Denethor’s attempt at murdering his own kin as a prideful and despairing move, driven ultimately by the desire to “ease his own death.” Whatever grand ceremony and noble-sounding speeches Denethor might make, his actions are finally driven by a disregard for authority, by pride, by despair, and by selfishness. There is a pervading sense in Middle-Earth that life is a gift which is not ours to take, or to give. As Gandalf had earlier reminded Frodo who was rashly wishing death upon the wicked Gollum, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

[9] Obviously, civil authorities do not always fulfill their obligations in a genuinely righteous or godly way in this regard.

[10] I confess I am no expert on the medical ins and outs of when pregnancy may endanger the life of the mother, but this statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops seems reasonable to me (though I am not a Roman Catholic):

Very rarely, continuing a pregnancy may put the mother’s life at risk. In certain cases, such as aggressive uterine cancer or an ectopic pregnancy, it is morally licit to remove the threat to the mother’s life by removing the cancerous uterus, or by removing part or all of the Fallopian tube where the child implanted, even though it is foreseeable that the child will die as an indirect and unintended effect of such surgery. Abortion, a direct and intentional attack against the child’s life, is never morally licit. The unborn child and his mother have equal human dignity and possess the same right to life. When a medical crisis arises during pregnancy, there are always two patients involved. Doctors should do whatever they can to save both their lives, never directly attacking one—through drugs, surgery or other means—to save the other.”