With “pro-life” evangelicals and other Christian conservatives about to achieve their wet dream — the imminent repeal of Roe v. Wade — one question that arises is, does the Bible prohibit abortion.
And the answer is: absolutely not.
First of all, as any number of commentators have noted, the word “abortion” never once appears in the Bible. Not in the Old Testament. Not in the New Testament. Not in the letters of Saint Paul. Not in the non-canonical Gospels. Not anywhere.
The old Testament does, however, include 613 laws, including such items as:
- To circumcise the male offspring (Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:3)
- To put tzitzit on the corners of clothing (Num. 15:38)
- To read the Shema in the morning and at night (Deut. 6:7)
- To recite grace after meals (Deut. 8:10)
- Not to stand by idly when a human life is in danger (Lev. 19:16)
- To assist in replacing the load upon a neighbor’s beast (Deut. 22:4)
- Not to leave a beast, that has fallen down beneath its burden, unaided (Deut. 22:4)
- Not to afflict an orphan or a widow (Ex. 22:21)
- Not to wrong the stranger in buying or selling (Ex. 22:20)
- Not to eat a worm found in fruit (Lev. 11:41)
- Not to have intercourse with a woman, in her menstrual period (Lev. 18:19)
- Not to eat anything from an ocean or river that doesn’t have scales and fins, thereby excluding all shellfish (which is why we have the website God Hates Shrimp).
So, did God just forget to lay down the law on abortion?
It should be noted that Jews, who adhere to the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) — which is very close to (but not identical with) the Old Testament — generally do not believe that life begins at conception.
There is ample evidence, by the way, to show that abortion was practiced in the Levant as far back as sixteen centuries before the birth of Christ. What we don’t find are many prohibitions against it. And again, none at all in the Bible.
In addition, there are plenty of stories in the Bible that suggest that God was not all that concerned about either fetuses or abortion.
Consider, for example, Exodus 21:22-25, which relates the story of a the case of a pregnant woman who becomes involved in a brawl between two men, resulting in a miscarriage. A distinction is then made between the penalty that is to be exacted for the loss of the fetus and injury to the woman.
If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
It doesn’t sound like God value’s the fetus that much.
Or consider, for example, this passage from Numbers where God details the punishment for an unfaithful wife who was not caught in the act:
But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you” then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman “the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot.”
Some commentators have argued that what is being done here to the woman is the forced ingestion of an abortifacient.
So, if it’s not in the Bible, where does Christian opposition to abortion come from?
Three words: the Catholic Church.
(And people wonder why I have problems with the Catholic Church.)
Actually, the Catholic church was not always opposed to abortion, at least not before “ensoulment“ (the moment that a body gains a soul) occurs.
And when is that?
Most early Christians believed that this did not happen until “quickening,“ the moment when a pregnant woman starts to feel or perceive fetal movements.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1869 that the Catholic Church seemed to take the position that a person acquired their soul at the moment of conception. This was back in 1869 when Pope Pius IX, eliminated distinction between the “fetus animatus” and “fetus inanimatus,” so that the soul was believed to have entered the pre-embryo at conception. It took the church over 1800 years to come to this conclusion.
When Christians do try to justify their belief that life begins at conception through texts from the Bible, they find that the pickings are slim. For the most part, they quote passages that suggest that humans were created in God’s image. For example, a passage which some pro-life advocates have argued establishes the sanctity of life before birth is the following:
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
But this is not a passage about the sanctity of fetuses. It is instead a passage about how the Lord has ordained Jeremiah to be a prophet unto nations.
Or, the following passage has been used to argue that a fetus is truly a living human being and deserves the same protection as any other human being:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
But this is not a passage about the holiness of a fetus. It is a passage about the excitement that the future John the Baptist (at that point still inside his mother Elizabeth) feels upon meeting the future Jesus (at that point still inside his mother Mary). It’s about the future relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, not about the sanctity of fetuses.
Or here is a beautiful passage from Psalm 139 about how we are “knit together” in the womb:
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know 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 beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
That’s a lovely sentiment, of course, but nowhere in there is any kind of prohibition on abortion.
Conservatives like to claim that they are “textualists,” especially in their reading of the Constitution. But where is their textualism when it comes to reading the Bible for passages prohibiting abortion?
Nowhere, that’s where.
They got nothing.
They got nothing at all.
And yet, they want to prohibit abortion for all of us because of their (mistaken) belief that life begins at conception.
Something begins at conception, but it is not human life.
And crucially, it is not life that can survive outside of the body of a woman.