This blog post discusses pro-choice views and anti-abortion views of scripture. Some of the views relate to when a fetus becomes a human being. This matters in part because over 91% of U.S. abortions are performed in weeks 1-13 of pregnancy; about 7% in weeks 14-20; and about 1.3% in week 21 or later.
This post continues an introduction of the debate over what the Bible says about abortion by discussing three Biblical matters often cited by pro-choice advocates. (My prior post began the introduction by discussing Biblical passages often cited by anti-abortion advocates.)
For each of the three matters, I quote the Biblical passage (if there is one) and describe some of its context. I then briefly describe some of what pro-choice advocates say about the passage and some of what anti-abortion advocates say about it.
One: Absence of Specific Scripture
Context: The Bible includes instructions from God (commandments, law, guidance, etc.). Virtually all sources recognize that the Bible does not specifically call out self-elective abortion and provide instructions on it. There is no verse in the Bible that specifically states that “Thou shalt not commit abortion.”
What some pro-choice advocates say about the absence of specific scripture: The absence of specific instructions on abortion speaks volumes. There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible, including these:
- “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as security for a loan, you must return it before sunset….”
- “If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner.”
- “You must not offer the blood of my sacrificial offerings together with any baked goods containing yeast.”
These are specific instructions on things far less important than a fetus. If God intended to declare abortion to be murder or wrong, it would have been mentioned specifically in at least one of those 31,000 verses.
What some anti-abortion advocates say about the absence of specific scripture: Does God have to spell out the obvious? Scripture like those cited in the last post indicate that God’s commandment against murder generally includes abortion. Genesis explains that “God created human beings in his own image.” How can any Christian think that the ending of an innocent life that is created in God’s image is OK with God? Even taking a not-a-human-being-at-conception view, how can any Christian think that killing an innocent life that will soon become a life in the image of God is OK with God?
Two: Exodus 21:22-26 (JPS Tanakh)
“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
Context: God expressed a list of rules to Moses that God wanted the Israelites to follow. The passage above comes in the middle of several passages stating rules from God.
What some pro-choice advocates say about this passage: Since the punishment specified by God for the death of the fetus (a fine) is less than the punishment specified by God for the killing of a human being (death), then God must not consider the fetus to be a human being. Earlier, God explains that “Anyone who assaults and kills another person must be put to death. But if it was simply an accident permitted by God, I will appoint a place of refuge where the slayer can run for safety.” (Genesis 21:12-13).
More of what some pro-choice advocates say about this passage: The second sentence of the passage (“But if other damage ensues ….”) refers to damage to the woman, not to the fetus. The first sentence specifies punishment for the death of the fetus, and the second specifies that the normal punishment applies for any other damage to the woman. Regardless, this passage involves a miscarriage caused by someone else, not an abortion chosen by the woman.
What some anti-abortion advocates say about this passage: The most accurate translation of this passage refers to giving “birth prematurely,” not miscarriage. The passage requires the man who caused the premature birth to pay a fine. Yes, translations that express the passage as giving “birth prematurely” also indicate that “miscarriage” or “so her children come out” are alternative translations, but giving “birth prematurely” is best.
More of what some anti-abortion advocates also say about this passage: The remainder of the passage (if there is other damage, or further injury) applies to both the woman and the born-premature child, such that if there is other damage to the child, like death, then the punishment for the man who struck the woman and caused the death of the child is “a life for a life.”
Three: Numbers 5:11-28 (JPS Tanakh)
“[God told Moses to tell the Israelites that if a husband suspects that his wife has had sex with another man, then the priest is to say to the woman that “if] no man has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell. But if … a man other than your husband has had carnal relations with you … may the Lord make you a curse … among your people, as the Lord causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend….”
He is to make the woman drink the water of bitterness ... —if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not …, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed.”
The context: The Israelite people escaped slavery in Egypt and lived together at this time in a large tent-camp in the wilderness of the Sinai. God gave Moses instructions (or laws) to pass on to the people. God is speaking in the passage about instructions for a procedure to use when a husband feels jealous.
What some pro-choice advocates say about this passage: God says that the appropriate procedure is to make the potentially pregnant woman drink something that will cause, in certain circumstances, sterilization and an abortion if she’s pregnant. Since the fetus is killed as punishment, God must consider a fetus closer to a part or possession of the woman (or her lover), rather than a separate person.
What some anti-abortion advocates say about this passage: This passage has nothing to do with abortion. The passage does not say that the woman is pregnant. If she were, the procedure would likely be different. Also, it only says that her belly will distend and her thigh will sag and she will be cursed. Even if she were pregnant, such a punishment does not mean that the fetus is killed.
My aim with this post and my prior post was to introduce some of the Biblical passages that are cited as relevant to abortion and to introduce the debate over their import. As I mentioned last time, people say lots about these passages and this subject, and more can be found in the sources below.
(Picture: The picture at the top is a picture I took last night of one of the passages in my Jewish Study Bible discussed in this post.)
http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/data_stats/ (the statistics are from 2012, the latest year available)
A good friend of mine used the phrase “Thou shalt not commit abortion” in a question to me recently, and I thought it fit well here.
The “if you” and “you must” quotes come from Exodus 22, 23, and 34
The featured quote of each passage comes from the JPS Tanakh translation. If I quote a different translation in this post, I mention the translation quoted.
Note that I am not citing these sources as authoritative, but as showing various views of anti-abortion advocates and pro-choice advocates relative to scripture.
Updated: 6/26, edited opening for clarity