Abortion’s prominence in this year’s presidential race spurred me to look again into what the Bible has to say about it.
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.
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: We are not all appointed as God’s “prophet to the nations,” so this verse is specific to Jeremiah and is not about all of us. Even if it applies generally, “formed” does not mean “made you a human being.” 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. (Genesis 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.”). Therefore, Jeremiah 1:5 is applicable only to the prophet Jeremiah (and not all of us) and, in any event, it does not 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.
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, …). 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, which is different from reporting 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. And 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 person by 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. In fact, the text suggests that she does not become pregnant until later.
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: Revised the pro-choice Luke section to make it clearer.