Abortion: What the Bible Says and What It Doesn’t
Updated: Jun 26, 2022
On Friday, June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a 6-3 decision, overturned the 1973 landmark decision of Roe v. Wade. In effect, the justices have returned legislative power to the states, enabling each state to set their own ethical guidelines for abortion. Given that this decision will ripple out and impact women in a variety ways, I wanted to take some time to address a fundamental issue within the abortion debate that I feel is often overlooked—what exactly does the Bible say about abortion?
I think many Christians simply assume that the Bible prohibits abortion full stop. However, the biblical scriptures that address this issue are far more nuanced and complex than most people realize. I had intended to release a different article this month, but I felt the need to address this topic in more depth (I spoke about some of the arguments surrounding abortion in my article on the Culture Wars in the United States). Since this issue is going to be at the forefront of public dialogue for months and years to come, it's important to know what the Bible says about abortion and what it doesn't.
To begin this discussion, I think it helps for us to acknowledge that there are no direct scriptural references about abortion as we understand it in our modern context. Therefore, whenever someone addresses the issue of abortion via the Bible, they are utilizing what is known as inductive reasoning. They build their arguments by citing scriptures or traditions that provide a reference point for how the authors of the Bible might have responded to the modern abortion debate. In other words, what I’m saying in this article is by no means the final word on this topic, but will hopefully provide enough background for you to be more knowledgeable when forming your own opinion.
In my experience, one of the best places to start this debate is by defining the function of sex in our lives. Sex is something that humans engage in for pleasure, but the end result of the sexual act (at least between a man and a woman) is the potential for new life. Sex propagates the species. The connection between sex and life is something that can never be decoupled. For many Christians, this connection is why sex is viewed as an act that has been sanctified by God.
Another aspect of why Christians view this potential new life as sacred is the way humans are created in the Bible. According to Genesis 1:26, humans are created in the image and likeness of God: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Since humans are the only creatures endowed with this characteristic, many Christians assume that this means that all human life is sanctified by God. This Genesis text is where the moral connection between sex and life begins for most Christians.
One of the reasons why abortion is such volatile subject for Christians is their long-standing belief that every human life is of infinite value. Since all humans are made in the image and likeness of God, the conclusion is that human life should be preserved at all costs. Therefore, the basic Christian argument against abortion goes something like this: Since all humans are endowed with God’s image, all human life is sacred. Therefore, if a sexual encounter produces a pregnancy, then that human life must be protected at all costs. As clean and clear as this reasoning might feel, there’s more to this argument than meets the eye.
One has to realize that, for the biblical authors, they believed that life is found in the sperm. Therefore, the biblical definition of abortion is much more expansive than a woman intentionally ending a pregnancy. For the biblical authors, a man spilling his semen also qualifies as an abortion because when a man masturbates, he is killing life. The best example of this is found with the story of Onan from Genesis:
Then Judah said to Onan, “Go [have sex] with your brother’s wife [Tamar] and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he [had sex with] his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. (Gn. 38:8-10)
For the authors of the Old Testament, a man spilling his semen is as much an abortion as a woman losing her pregnancy. This is why one can argue that, according to the Bible, masturbation is a sin—to masturbate is to abort life. Likewise, this text could be used to argue that any form of modern contraception—from condoms to the pill—is morally sinful. Only sex performed with the intention of reproduction is morally viable.
Today, even conservative Christians would argue that contraception and abortion are not equivalent, but we have to remember that the point of sex in the Bible is to procreate. The reason for this can be attributed to the fragility of life in the ancient world. You needed to have sex as much as possible because viable pregnancies were hard to come by.
Miscarriages: The Jewish Perspective
Today, women miscarry at a rate of around 15-20%. In the ancient world, because of malnutrition, disease and other environmental factors, miscarriages could be as high as 50%. Just to be clear, a miscarriage is a natural abortion. Miscarriages happen for a variety of reasons, but they most often happen because the woman’s body recognizes that the pregnancy is not viable and determines to flush out the fetus so that no harm comes to the mother. In our modern world, miscarriages are most often associated with a woman’s body sensing genetic aberrations within the fetus.
Beyond miscarriages, we also have to recognize that even when you had a viable pregnancy in the ancient world, there was no guarantee that your child would live into adulthood. If your newborn made it out of childbirth alive, 35% of infants would die from disease prior to reaching 1 year of life. But those who passed the 1-year mark were still not completely out of the woods. In total, 50% of all children born in ancient Rome would die before puberty. Because the death rates among children were so high, it was not uncommon for ancient people to develop a much more detached attitude towards children than we do today. Indeed, many ancient cultures saw children as disposable.
A good example of this can be found in Exodus 21 where the scripture describes a very particular kind of incident:
“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Ex. 21:22-25)
In other words, when two people are fighting and the fighting causes a woman to miscarry, then the punishment is not death to the people who caused the miscarriage. In this particular situation, the people fighting are fined a monetary sum by a judge as compensation for the loss of the child. What this verse indicates is that the loss of the child is not the equivalent of murder. If it were, then the laws of the Old Testament would indicate life-for-life as it does in other places: Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. (Ex. 21:12)
In fact, the loss of the child is seen as secondary to the life of the mother, which is what the remainder of the law is attempting to address. Whereas the first part of the law deals with the unborn child, the second part of the law indicates that if any further harm comes to the mother, then that harm is to be punished in a commiserate manner. If the mother loses an eye, then the two people fighting lose an eye. If the mother loses a hand, then the two people fighting lose a hand. If the mother loses her life, then the two people fighting lose their lives. Hence, from the perspective of the Jews who wrote this law, the unborn fetus is not considered of equal value to a fully grown human.
Infanticide: The Christian Perspective
Another example of how children were disposable in the ancient world can be found in Greco-Roman society where infanticide was a lawful practice. If a woman gave birth to a baby, she could throw it on a trash heap and allow the baby to die from exposure. This was common practice and was not considered a crime. Early Christians were, in fact, very outspoken that they felt this practice was morally wrong. If an early Christian came across a baby left to die on a trash heap, the Christian would rescue the baby and raise the child as a Christian. However, just because Christians rescued abandoned babies, doesn’t mean we can take their reasoning and easily apply it to the modern abortion debate.
It’s important to remember that these early Christians had no scientific understanding of how a fetus develops or how genetics functioned. A good example of ancient thinking on the subject of reproduction comes from the church father, Augustine, who believed that the soul was passed from the parent to the child through the act of sexual intercourse. He believed that the semen was transferring the soul of the man into the woman to create the new child.
Indeed, this concept would persist until the 17th century, when Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first observed sperm under a microscope. Up until that point, most people believed that within the sperm was a tiny, but fully formed, human being, known as a Homunculus. Hence the reason why a man spilling his semen was considered equivalent to an abortion. By ejaculating outside of a woman, they believed those little people were being killed.
That said, I think we can all agree that adopting a child abandoned by their parents on a trash heap is a good thing. But we have to keep in mind, a big reason why these early Christians were motivated to save these babies was the high mortality rate of children in the ancient world. When 50% of your population is dying before the age of 12, every chance at life matters.
Today, medical technology and vaccines can save almost every child that is born. Among industrialized nations, the infant mortality rate is often less than half of 1%. This means the urgency to save every child is not nearly as pressing as it was in the ancient world. Indeed, today we are so good at saving children that the world population has exploded from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to almost 7.8 billion people in 2020. The question we are asking today is not, “Can we bear enough children to survive?” but rather, “Are there too many people on the planet?”
When you’re living in a world where survival rates are low, the Christian ethics surrounding childbirth make a lot of sense: Sex leads to life and there are lot of barriers that prevent life from thriving. Therefore, humans need to have as much sex as possible to produce as much life as possible so that we can tilt the odds for survival in our favor. This is why the biblical authors, particularly Christians, felt it was morally wrong to abort or abandon human life.
The Modern Problem of Childbirth
The authors of the Bible never imagined a world where almost every child born will make it into adulthood. This is a big reason why the Christian focus on the preservation of a baby’s life can feel so out of place in our modern world. When almost every pregnancy is going to result in a healthy birth, it significantly changes the moral equation and allows you to pose moral questions that the Bible simply ignores.
For instance, if a woman is pregnant, does she have the necessary resources to provide for her child? Can she feed the child? Cloth the child? Give the child a good chance at leading a successful life? Speaking of resources, given that there are a finite number of resources on the planet, is it ethical to have a child when it’s becoming increasingly challenging for the earth to produce enough calories to sustain human life? Which leads to the question that propels the modern abortion debate: Should a woman be able to choose when she gets pregnant?
These questions highlight something very important about the modern abortion debate—in our world, abortion is utilized as a form of contraception. Abortion is a means of stopping a pregnancy. But this way of talking about abortion would have made no sense to the authors of the Bible. Given the high child mortality rates, why would you ever want to use contraception? They would be dumbfounded by the idea that you would ever want to a prevent pregnancy.
But in our modern world where every successful birth means you’ve just inherited an 18-year responsibility, the choice to prevent pregnancy becomes critically important. This choice means that we now have to consider the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. In other words, how did the woman become pregnant? Was she having sex with the intention of becoming pregnant? Was she having sex while utilizing birth control, believing that she would avoid pregnancy? Was the sex consensual or was she being raped? When we associate pregnancy with choice rather than being solely focused on the birth of the child, then all of these questions begin to matter.
And yet, many Christians are resistant to the notion that women should be placed in the position to choose whether or not to proceed with their pregnancy. Such a choice is seen as immoral and is often equated with murder, even though, as we discussed, the scriptures make no such claim. What has happened in the Christian faith is that certain communities have become so narrowly focused on the moment of birth that they have repressed consideration of any negative elements that might impact the child’s life before and after that moment.
A good example of this type of thinking would be this sermon by pastor John MacArthur, an evangelical preacher who espouses the pro-life message very clearly. Although I disagree with his theology, historical research, views on women and conclusions, this is probably one of the best summations of the Christian pro-life argument you can find. If you want a taste, fast forward to 16 minute mark and you will hear many of the most common arguments spelled out.
Particularly in evangelical circles, church leaders have made it taboo to discuss the social outcomes of unwanted pregnancies, which incentivizes the rest of the community to neglect those questions as well. The truth is there’s good reason why they avoid discussing social outcomes: It’s incredibly difficult to control the social outcomes of a child.
When parents lack emotional maturity or lack the resources to properly provide for their child, there’s no quick fix for that. You’re talking about years of investment with no guarantee of improvement. Whereas if we’re talking about the moment of birth, that can be controlled. It can be legislated and, by equating abortion with murder, you can erase much of the gray area that can easily occlude the discussion.
But is avoiding these issues the right thing to do? Knowing the biblical history surrounding the issue of abortion and how the world we live in today is so vastly different from the ancient world, I believe it is immoral for Christians not to take into account the circumstances surrounding the conception and social outcomes of the child. Furthermore, Christians need to stop viewing the conception of human life as an act sanctified by God. This belief was based in ancient perceptions of reproduction that, thanks to science, we now know are faulty.
Once we shift the moral marker from a sperm fertilizing an egg to the circumstances surrounding that fertilization, then choice and consent become the primary drivers of our sexual morals. In my opinion, this perspective makes sense in the 21st century where our goal is no longer to reproduce to survive, but to give every child that is born the best possible chance to have a positive and productive life.
Pro-life vs. Pro-birth
Which brings me to the final point of this article. I know that many conservative Christians see the reversal of Roe v. Wade as moving American society in a positive direction by making our laws more reflective of the morality of the Bible. Based on the information I’ve outlined above, this is a specious argument. You are welcome to believe that abortion is morally wrong, but if you are going to utilize the Bible to support your reasoning, remember it’s not as clear cut as you might believe it to be.
Furthermore, if you’re going to support the stance that abortion should be illegal, then to be morally consistent, you must also be in favor of programs that will enhance the social outcomes of these unwanted pregnancies. Ironically, many conservative Christians who fight so ardently for abortion to be outlawed are also the same people who will vote against funding programs that would support parents who are raising their children in poverty.
There’s a great quote from the Benedictine Nun, Sister Joan Chittister, who says, “I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed…That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
With the severe erosion of abortion rights resulting from this decision, I pray we will begin having that much broader conversation concerning the morality of the pro-life stance and what it means for our society as a whole. Furthermore, I hope that this article is a small contribution to that larger conversation as the women who will be most affected by the decision of the Supreme Court are going to be women living in poverty. Feel free to add your opinion about this conversation in the comments below.
Finally, much of this article was drawn from a podcast episode I did on this subject in Season 2. If you are interested, you can listen to that episode here. Unless there is another world event that warrants our attention, my next article will pick up where I left off with my April article where I was discussing the doctrine of total depravity, which I had intended to talk about this month. Until next time, all the best!