Christians’ views on abortion vary a great deal. For example, per Pew Research, over 70% of U.S. Christians in the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 20% or less of those in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) believe the same.
Many anti-abortion Christians assert (1) the Bible plainly establishes that a fetus is a human being at conception or very early in the pregnancy and (2) elective abortion at any point in the development of a fetus is the killing of a human being in God’s eyes (and thus murder, generally).
Many pro-choice Christians assert (1) the Bible does not indicate that a fetus is a human being at conception or until the later stages of pregnancy at the earliest and (2) the issue is very personal and murky such that the government should not have any say in a woman’s decision, at least until later stages of the pregnancy. Some assert that because women are images of God, this includes their body, which as God is sovereign over God’s body, interference with the sovereignty over these images of God over their bodies is wrong.
This post introduces the debate over what the Bible says about abortion. It does so by discussing three Biblical passages often cited by anti-abortion advocates. (My next post will continue the introduction by discussing Biblical matters often cited by pro-choice advocates.)
For each of the three passages, I quote the passage and describe some of its context. I then briefly describe some of what anti-abortion advocates say about the passage and some of what pro-choice advocates say about it.
One: Jeremiah 1:5
[God said] “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my prophet to the nations.”
Context: Jeremiah, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, said (in the book of the Bible named after him) that the above was a message given to him by God. God told Jeremiah that God knew Jeremiah before God formed Jeremiah in his mother’s womb.
What some anti-abortion advocates say about this verse: It indicates that God knew you—as a person, as a human being—before God formed you. God formed you at conception, when sperm and egg joined, and thus you were a “you”—a human being—from conception. Therefore, according to this verse, God knew you as a human being from before the time you were conceived, and anyone who ends the life of a fetus at any time after conception kills a human being in God’s eyes. This is confirmed by God explaining in the second line of the verse that he took action relative to this newly formed person—setting apart and appointing—before birth of the person.
What some pro-choice advocates say about this verse: God is talking to an adult person, Jeremiah, born many years before. Don’t you agree that God is omniscient, knows and sees the future and, at least in some respects or instances, decides the future? God saying to adult Jeremiah that God “knew” him before Jeremiah was formed in the womb is just as likely, if not more so, God referring to God knowing — before Jeremiah was formed— the future-Jeremiah that God foresaw and to which God is now speaking and then God deciding that this future-Jeremiah would be a prophet. Chapter 1 of Jeremiah speaks with reference to God knowing and deciding the future (e.g., verse 14-15, 19). Jeremiah 1:5 doesn’t indicate that Jeremiah existed as a person before being formed or born.
And “formed” doesn’t mean “made you a human being or person.” Scripture indicates that more than “formed” is needed to become a human being or person. For example, Adam was “formed” by God but did not become a human being or person until after he was both formed and something else happened, the breath of life. (Gen. 2:7–God “formed the man from the dust …. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.”). Thus, Jeremiah 1:5 doesn’t indicate that a fetus is a person or human being at conception and, in any event, it doesn’t say how long before birth a fetus becomes a human being or person in God’s eyes (if it is before birth).
Two: Psalm 139:13-16 (JPS)
“It was You who created my conscience;
You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
I praise You,
for I am awesomely, wondrously made;
Your work is wonderful;
I know it very well.
My frame was not concealed from You
when I was shaped in a hidden place,
knit together in the recesses of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed limbs;
they were all recorded in Your book;
in due time they were formed,
to the very last one of them.”
Context: A psalmist (writer of the psalm) is the speaker and writer in this passage. Many say King David is the psalmist in this passage. He praises God and God’s greatness. The passage quoted comes roughly in the middle of a ~50 line psalm.
What some anti-abortion advocates say about this passage: The second line of the passage (“You fashioned me in my mother’s womb”) indicates that a “me” was completed (“fashioned”) in the womb, before birth. “Me,” of course, is a human being.
Some anti-abortion advocates also say: According to American Right to Life, the “book” in the last four lines of the passage is the DNA of a child’s parents and (after egg and sperm come together) of a new single-celled organism, the new child. “That single cell contains step-by-step, day-by-day directions of … the child’s development in the womb.” God “saw” the child’s “unformed limbs” in God’s book—in the DNA—when the single cell formed at conception, if not before. Thus, this passage indicates that the single cell is a human being recognized by God at the moment of conception at the latest.
What some pro-choice advocates say about this passage: The second line of the passage indicates, at most, that the Psalm-writer was fashioned in his mother’s womb, but does not say when this fashioning occurred (could be the second trimester, could be the third, …) or when it was completed. And, again, Scripture indicates more is needed besides “fashioning,” “forming,” or the like to result in a human being or person, per scripture such as Genesis 2:7.
Some pro-choice advocates also say: Even if “book” refers to DNA, the last four lines say, at most, these three things: “God saw the Psalm-writer’s unformed limbs. They were recorded in the Psalm-writer’s DNA. The Psalm-writer’s limbs were eventually formed.” The passage does not say when these three things occur, much less when the unformed became a human being or person (could be second trimester, could be third, could be upon breath, could be …). Regardless, this is the psalmist, King David or another human, speaking to God, not God speaking.
Three: Luke 1:44
[Elizabeth said to Mary] “When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.”
The context: Mary, the mother of Jesus, visits her relative, Elizabeth, shortly after Mary is told by an angel that she will give birth to the Son of God. At the time, Elizabeth is pregnant with John (known later as John the Baptist).
What some anti-abortion advocates say about this verse: The verse indicates that a fetus in the womb has feelings and is thus a human being in God’s eyes. American Right to Life explains that “the Bible here refers to the fetus as a baby (brephos) and does not use non-human or non-personhood terms. … Thus the baby, who would be named John, experienced the emotion of joy when Mary, being pregnant with the incarnate Jesus, entered Elizabeth’s home.”
What some pro-choice advocates say about this verse: Luke is reporting what Elizabeth said to Mary, not what God said about whether a fetus has feelings, is a person, etc. So, regardless, this does not tell us God’s view of the matter. Also, that Elizabeth said that “the baby in her womb” did something does not even tell us whether she considered the fetus a person or not, much less whether Luke or God did. No one refers to a fetus as “the fetus in my womb,” whether they believe the fetus is a “person” or not. It is a conventional expression. Also, earlier verses indicate that Elizabeth was over 6 months pregnant at the time (see Luke 1:26, 39), so this verse does not address whether a fetus is considered a baby or person by Elizabeth or God earlier than over 6 months, in any event. And the text does not say that Mary is pregnant at the time she visits Elizabeth.
My aim with this post was to introduce some of the relevant Biblical passages and to introduce the debate over their import. I hope to introduce some additional verses and assertions related to this topic in my next post.
There are many permutations of anti-abortion and pro-choice views. And, of course, each side says more about these verses and points to other verses, too. You can find more discussion about this subject at the sources listed below.
(Picture: The picture at the top is a picture I took last night of the first scripture the post discusses (in one of my hard-copy Bibles.))
The featured quote of each passage comes from the New Living Translation. If I quote a different translation in this post, I mention the translation quoted. I used the JPS TANAKH translation for Psalm 139 because it used the term “conscience.”
Update: Updated 6/26/22 for clarity and to add the material regarding God seeing the future and image of God.
That God tells an adult person — Jeremiah — that God knew or chose that adult person, Jeremiah, before Jeremiah was formed in the womb is not surprising, as God is omniscient and knows the future.
To claim that it means, instead, that Jeremiah was a person before he was born would require ignoring a basic attribute of God, omniscience.
Indeed, that same chapter of Jeremiah goes on to describe God explaining to Jeremiah what will come in the future (e.g., verse 14-15, 19), indicating that the description in chapter 1 is with reference to God knowing and expressing the future.