The Tragic Topic of Abortion
It is hard to know which topic is more guaranteed to lose friends, when discussed with people of different views – abortion, or the current US President.
One could credibly argue that the topic of the current US President, whoever he/she may be, should not be a primary topic for a Christian ministry, and to paraphrase our article “Reconciling the Law of the Land with the Law of God“, while we’re not required to like our government or its leadership, we are generally expected to accept it and follow it.
Could it possibly be there’s a clue within that article when we delicately shift the subject to abortion? Is abortion truly a subject for churches to wade aggressively into the middle of, and for individuals to proclaim the force of God as justifying their opinion and imposing it on others? Or should we again submit to the law of the land? Or – a third option – is it a private and personal matter that each person should freely decide for themselves?
Let’s look at the scriptures, prayerfully and with an open mind, to see what we are indeed taught about abortion in the Bible. All seven of our top-level principles need to be carefully deployed to help us in this effort, and if you find yourself ardently disagreeing with anything we say, we urge you to prayerfully strip away the rhetoric of the arguments both for and against this fraught topic and dispassionately consider the pure Word of God. If you disagree, considered commentary is welcomed in response.
We are not saying you should change your opinion about abortion (whatever you currently feel), but we are asking you to distinguish between your personal views and those handed to us through the Bible from God.
Let’s carefully walk through the issues, and start of with a concession that understanding the Bible’s position on abortion is difficult, because it is totally silent on the subject in the New Testament. If we look to the weaker authority in the Old Testament, it seems there may be some acceptance of and approval for abortion in certain circumstances.
Old Testament Views on Abortion
Abortion, primarily in the form of induced miscarriage, was certainly a known practice in Biblical times and used by women.
The Bible itself invokes a form of abortion approvingly in one case. Numbers 5:11-31 talks about a test for a woman’s unfaithfulness that would cause her to abort if she had been impregnated by another man – most translations speak of this obliquely, and substitute the euphemism “thigh” for womb, but (and perhaps surprisingly) the sometimes politically correct NIV makes it plain what is being spoken about :
20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”—
21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell.
22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.” “‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
23 “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water.
24 He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her.
25 The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar.
26 The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water.
27 If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse.
It would seem, at least in this situation, that God sees no problem at all with artificially inducing an abortion. Which then begs the unanswered question “If it is acceptable in this context, is it acceptable in other contexts too? Is it acceptable in all contexts?”
There is also a passage (Exodus 21:22-25) that has been translated and interpreted several different ways. It describes the punishment if a man hits a pregnant woman and causes her to either give birth prematurely or miscarry (premature birth and miscarriage being of course much closer to synonymous back in those days). If no additional injury follows, no matter if a viable live birth or a miscarriage occurred, then the man who assaulted the woman is liable to a fine, but if the woman or possibly fetus/child is injured, then retribution is called for.
The Holman Christian Standard Bible and the New International Version both seem to imply that the reference to premature birth includes miscarriage, as do some other less well-known translations, although other well-known translations omit the explanation that both live births and miscarriages are to be treated the same. Curiously, the Amplified Bible switches its translation from the earlier Classic version to the more recent revised version.
These verses of Exodus are controversial and have been interpreted several different ways, either to support abortion or to oppose it. This lack of consensus is inconvenient and we have to wonder if people aren’t approaching the text and then shaping it to fit their preconceived notion, rather than approaching the text with an open mind and allowing it to be read neutrally.
Our point here is that in Exodus, it may be that causing a miscarriage is considered to be a lesser crime than causing injury (presumably to the woman), and the nature of crime and appropriate punishment appears to be focused on the woman, not her unborn child. If this interpretation is correct, it shows that an act resulting in a miscarriage is not viewed as seriously as an act resulting in injury to the woman (or possibly to a live child born) of any kind.
This is not altogether surprising. Back in those days, with of course very primitive healthcare and varying degrees of healthy nutrition, miscarriages were much more common than they are now, and probably accepted more matter of factly.
There is also a fair line of logic that would suggest that if miscarriages involve the murder of a person, then is the woman herself guilty of murder if she fails to follow every possible best practice to give her child-to-be the greatest possible chance at life?
The concept of natural miscarriage is also a curious one to reconcile with the suggestion that all life is sacred and starts at conception. According to the Mayo Clinic, 10% – 20% of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and because this doesn’t allow for early unreported miscarriages before the pregnancy is known, they believe the actual percentage is very much higher, and describe it as a relatively common experience. Many more miscarriages occur than abortions (in the US).
We express no opinion at all as to why God allows miscarriages at such a high rate, and we hesitate to use that as justification to therefore allow abortions, because if that were the case, one could also reason “teenage boys often die from accidents caused by their foolish behavior, therefore it is also okay to murder them”. (Should we quickly add we’re not advocating that teenage boys should be killed, for any reason at all!)
But, perhaps one could wonder, just as how God allows justified killing in certain situations (the much misquoted Commandment is poorly translated as “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and is usually much more accurately stated these days as “Thou Shalt Not Murder” which is a very different type of prohibition – murder implies an unjustified illegal killing, whereas killing, per se, may be lawful or not depending on the circumstances), maybe there may be justified situations for abortion, too.
Beyond these two passages in the Old Testament, the Bible is otherwise silent, and there is no statement directly considering abortion, even though it was a known practice in the society in which the Jews lived.
This is mildly surprising. While all Christians are aware of the Ten Commandments, and vaguely understand there to be some other things also required or forbidden, do you know the total number of such requirements? In total, the Jews deem there to be 613 laws/commandments in the Old Testament. Slightly less than half are things you should do, the rest are things you should not do. Some are very similar to others, and some are very specific for infrequent events, so it isn’t as though adding one more to do with abortion would have been an impossibility.
Of course, it is also true that maybe the silence is because the prohibition on abortion was so self-evident as to not need to be stated, but we feel this to be a weak explanation – look at some of the laws on the list and they are certainly very self-evident, either on a “just because” basis or because they are virtual restatements of others of the 613 laws.
So, in general, it seems the Old Testament, and society in general during those times, may have allowed abortion, and it was so uncontroversial as not to need further comment.
There is one more verse in the Old Testament that is interesting and relevant. Genesis 2:7 says (AMP)
then the Lord God formed [that is, created the body of] man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being [an individual complete in body and spirit].
If one considers this literally (as we should) at what point in this wondrous transformation from dust to man do you think the man’s nostrils are formed and able to accept the breath of life from God? At the start, from the very first assembling of the first grains of dust? Half way through? Or at the end, as one of the final finishing touches?
It might seem from this verse that the breath of life, completing the man in both body and spirit, is something that occurs much closer to the end, not the beginning of the process.
We of course concede that this Genesis account relates to the creation of the first ever man, Adam, not the ordinary process of conception, pregnancy and birth. So the probability that breathing life into Adam was the last part of his creation doesn’t automatically mean it is the last part of every pregnancy now, but it remains as a mildly relevant hint/clue that tells us that at least in certain circumstances, life and soul is the final part of the creation of a person, not the first part.
New Testament Views on Abortion
May we start our New Testament section by continuing to quote from the Old Testament, because it seems appropriate to continue to look at one of the framing issues that surrounds the abortion debate. When does life start?
We know that we are all given life by God alone. Psalm 139:13 tells us (AMP)
For You formed my innermost parts;
You knit me [together] in my mother’s womb.
But simply being made by God does not give us instant and automatic ‘protection’ or rights. Everything in this world is made by God, and much we do, to our benefit, involves harm to other objects and creatures, whether they be as inanimate as crushing rocks and landscaping the countryside, or as semi-sentient as growing crops, or as definitely sentient as raising and slaughtering farm animals.
Well, of course, there’s a huge difference between our fellow-men (and women and children) and rocks and trees and food crops and animals. But within that difference there is perhaps a clue as to the nature of God’s protection and creation of us as sentient humans. When does a thing become a soul possessing person? In particular, when during a pregnancy does the baby-to-be get gifted with a soul – “breathed with life” in terms of the Genesis reference, above?
Non-Biblical early philosophers have speculated that the life force or soul appears in a fetus when it “quickens” (hence the phrase, “the quick and the dead” – quick not meaning fast-moving, but living). The concept of quickening is quite simply when the fetus starts to move. Others have considered the life force/soul is present when a fetus can live outside the womb. And of course, there are other opinions too.
These opinions are of little relevance to a Biblical interpretation, but they indicate the general thinking in which the Bible was written and the nature of underlying cultural assumptions that may have been incorporated.
Luke 1:41-44 seems to clearly show the life force in an unborn child and is much quoted in the abortion debate – here is the AMP translation :
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered by Him.
42 And she exclaimed loudly, “Blessed [worthy to be praised] are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
43 And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?
44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
But, as is often the case, this needs to be read more broadly in context to better understand its message and meaning. If we read back a bit, (in Luke 1:13-15) we learn that the angel Gabriel appeared before Elizabeth’s husband, Zacharias, and told him that his elderly wife, until then incapable of child-bearing, had been chosen to bear a son, who would become John the Baptist, and who was to be filled with the Holy Spirit prior to birth. Unfortunately, we are not told when, prior to birth, the son would be filled with the Holy Spirit.
But the angel’s visit and message indicates this was not a normal pregnancy and birth. Why would an angel have appeared (a very rare event) to tell Zacharias of this if it was normal? So we need to consider that the life force in Elizabeth’s unborn child, prior to birth, may have been unusual, rather than normal – the exception, rather than the rule.
Continuing Luke’s account, we also read that Elizabeth was at least 6 months pregnant at the time of this reported incident (Luke 1:36-40).
Our point here is that we probably can take Luke 1:41-44 as proof that this particular special unborn children already had life that should be respected and protected, and more weakly we can extend from this special unborn child perhaps to all unborn children. But – and this is often overlooked – we don’t know at what point their life-force (may we perhaps refer to this as their ‘soul’) is breathed into their nascent being. Clearly this happened by the time a pregnancy has proceeded for six months, but is there an earlier point, prior to that, where the embryonic fetus has not yet received their soul?
Rather than endlessly debate an issue that perhaps can never be exactly known, it has been convenient for some people to err on the side of caution and to simply say “life begins at the instant of conception”. But is there a Biblical authority for that assertion?
We see in Galatians 1:15 another reference to pre-birth life, when Paul tells the Galatians that God had chosen him for his future role as an apostle before he was born. But we’re not told if this choice was made on the date of his conception, or at some unstated point subsequently. Without that additional information, we’re just guessing as to at what point the fertilized egg became imbued with Paul’s soul.
Perhaps there is a clue to this answer back in the Old Testament, in Jeremiah 1:5 (AMP)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you [and approved of you as My chosen instrument],
And before you were born I consecrated you [to Myself as My own];
I have appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
This is interesting, because it suggests that God had chosen Jeremiah at some unknown time, well before his parents even conceived him. Does that mean all potential parents also have special status and protection, because they may conceive a special child? After all, there has only been one birth in history that didn’t require both a man and woman to initiate the new life!
On the other hand, if God chooses someone for some purpose, even before they are born, is not God’s Will and Power mightier than any man or medical procedure? Does God’s Will and Power need the protection of mere men? The Bible has several tales of God choosing special people to be his servants, and in all cases, God’s Will is done.
Is Abortion Murder?
One possible approach and interpretation of the Bible’s failure to directly address the topic of abortion is to suggest there is no need to specifically call out abortion as wrong, because murder is already deemed to be wrong, and abortion, which is the process of killing an unborn child, is therefore obviously murder and so covered by the commandment given to Moses, not to commit murder.
For this interpretation to stand, we have to confirm several things.
- First, is abortion murder?
- Second, if it is murder, how can we reconcile the Old Testament procedure in Numbers 5, and the penalties for beating a woman who miscarries in Exodus 21 with the Old Testament commandment not to murder?
- Thirdly, with so much specificity in the Old Testament, why is abortion not specifically mentioned as a prohibited practice?
For the first point, the concept of abortion being murder relies upon the belief that God gives a soul to a newly conceived entity at some point very early on in the process of gestation and prior to when the abortion occurs.
Certainly, as we have cited above, there is Biblical evidence that at some point not long after the sixth month of pregnancy, in the case of Elizabeth and her unborn child John, he already had a soul and therefore a protected status. From this point, and adding the observation that unborn children by this stage in their pregnancy frequency exhibit responses, in the womb, to stimuli, we feel comfortable extending John’s special case and asserting that all unborn children at this point probably have souls. Therefore, abortion in the third trimester probably does qualify as murder from a Biblical perspective.
We have also mentioned the non-Biblical based but contemporaneous view that life starts when the fetus “quickens” and starts to move; a point variously believed (more on philosophical than medical or spiritual grounds) back then to happen somewhere from as short as 40 days to perhaps as long as after the first trimester. And the Genesis reference to breathing life into man’s nostrils would seem to suggest that a person’s life and soul may be conveyed at some uncertain point later in the gestation process rather than in the early part of the process.
We have also cited cases where God chose people for specific roles not just before they were born but before they were even conceived. But these are rare and specific cases, and we have also wondered that when God does designate a particular future role for a person as yet not even conceived, is it possible that God also surrounds that person-to-be with some type of protection to ensure that God’s purpose can be carried out?
So, for the first point, is abortion murder, we feel comfortable asserting that in the third trimester it probably is, in the second trimester it may be, but at some earlier time (which we hesitate to exactly state), we see no clear and certain Biblical authority directly asserting it to be so.
For the second point, reconciling the Numbers 5 procedure to ‘test’ for a woman’s unfaithfulness, with the idea of unborn children being sacred and protected, we can not reconcile these two concepts at all. Clearly, if there is a Biblical protection for unborn children, it is not absolute and doesn’t date all the way back to conception in the Old Testament. And while the Exodus 21 passage is mildly ambiguous, it seems entirely possible that a miscarriage was viewed as a less severe outcome than injury to the woman (and/or possibly injury to her premature but live-born infant).
With the New Testament generally relieving us of the burden of the Jewish Law of the Old Testament, it would be very hard to say that although the Old Testament allowed abortion in some cases, the New Testament silently, without telling us, somehow made abortion totally banned in all cases. That is a total reversal of the general principle of relieving us from the burden of Mosaic Law, and surely would have required a specific statement telling us of the exception.
While this point is sandwiched in the middle of our three points, we feel it may be the most important of all, because in the various opinions we’ve read advocating that abortion should not be allowed, we’ve seldom seen the writers cite Numbers 5 and come up with a credible way to reconcile it. You can’t ignore the inconvenient elements in the Bible and cherry-pick only the verses more malleable to one’s pre-existing opinion. You need to approach all issues with an open mind and then allow the Bible to speak to you, fully, no matter what conclusion it then leads you to.
For the third point, why abortion is not specifically mentioned anywhere, it is easy to say “If it was so important, it would be mentioned, and so if the Bible is silent on this matter, perhaps it is not important”. We’re uncomfortable saying that, but we’re equally uncomfortable putting words into God’s mouth that there is no record of him having said, and our interpretive principle suggesting that Biblical silences on topics were generally permissive rather than prohibitive seems to apply.
Even if Abortion is Wrong, Can/Should We Force Non-Believers to Comply?
One further thought, offered to those who protest at, and sometimes more actively interfere with abortion clinics and other places that permit and possibly even promote the act of abortion.
Accepting the sincerity of your belief that abortion is wrong, and even understanding your desire to protect the unborn soul-filled children you perceive the pregnant women to be carrying, do you have any authority or mission from God to interfere with these other people and their actions, which under the laws and government of the land that we are obliged to follow are legal and acceptable?
We certainly understand that unborn children can’t defend/protect themselves and so deserve someone to act on their behalf (Proverbs 31:8); but we also accept that God’s Will can’t be frustrated and doesn’t need our imperfect help. In past cases where the life of an unborn child was important to God and his Plan, he sent the angel Gabriel to tell the parents of the importance of the child the woman is carrying, and presumably did whatever was needed to ensure the child is successfully carried to term and born without complications.
Noting that God gives everyone free will, including the freedom to choose him or to choose sin, and noting that God’s grace extends to small children who have not yet had a chance to accept Jesus as their savior (a complex subject discussed sensitively here) and therefore surely must extend also to children prior to their birth, is your involvement essential or even necessary? Can’t we rely on God to ensure that any aborted children are fairly treated in his great plan?
If unborn children deserve special protection due to their helpless nature, and if life begins at conception, what message is God sending us by allowing the vast number of spontaneous miscarriages?
For some women and their economic circumstances, being forced to bear an unwanted child sentences both the mother and the child to a lifetime of poverty and squalor. If you feel you have the right to impose this sentence on the woman and the child you are saving, aren’t you then obliged to help her with the consequences of your actions?
Are there perhaps other less contentious ways you could serve the Lord and help young women and/or the (unwanted) children they may be pregnant with – ways that are uniformly good, without any well intentioned but clearly negative consequences?
We personally know some women who have greatly regretted having abortions, and who have wished they had better access to reliable contraception and understanding of its use prior to the event, and/or better access to counseling and advice before they made their fateful decision after getting pregnant. But we also know others who feel profoundly grateful that – and sometimes arising through no fault of their own (rape or contraceptive failure) – they have been able to “dodge a bullet” and avoid an unwanted and (in their view) disastrously negative life-changing event.
It would certainly be wonderfully positive to help the women in the former category, but do we really have the right to overrule the personal decisions and intrude on the lives of women in the latter category, and do we have the wisdom to understand, better than the women themselves, what is best?
Appropriate education, access to contraception so that children are brought into this world with love and choice rather than by chance and accident, plus fair counseling and generous assistance to those grappling with the consequences of an unintended and unwanted pregnancy are positive inputs to this fraught issue. Campaigning to change the law is also totally lawful and acceptable to God.
But may we suggest that murdering doctors, burning down clinics, bullying women to do what other people wish them to do rather than allowing them their own choice, and naming/shaming all involved, are not so positive and perhaps not so pleasing to God, and by claiming a mandate from God to conduct such actions alienate large sections of the community from Christianity in general.
To end this much as we started, one’s view on abortion is often a very strongly felt opinion, with some people strongly believing it to be permissible and others believing it to be so vile a sin that they are charged not only to avoid it themselves but to prevent others from committing the sin too. These feelings are often at a very visceral emotional level, and hard to discuss calmly.
We understand and respect the reasons why people feel as they do, on both sides of this vexed issue. But when looking only at the words in the Bible as a guide and ignoring other people’s opinions pro and con, we see no clear authority in the New Testament to decry abortion, and in the Old Testament it seems there may even be some ambiguous but possibly positive approval of abortion in some cases, and a view of it being a lesser crime than murder in other cases.
Our principles suggest the Bible is more likely to be permissive than prohibitive in cases where it is silent on an issue. That is not to say that God likes abortion or encourages it, but nowhere are we directly told it is a sin and to be avoided.
We also note there is no unanimity of Christian opinion on the subject of abortion. Some major denominations view abortion as permissible, other major denominations view it as prohibited. This doesn’t really support either perspective, but shows that well-meaning people can disagree on this.
Clearly, of course, it is impossible to simultaneously allow and forbid abortion, and our point here is to suggest that we all be respectful of each other’s opinions, and should act modestly in a calm and Christian manner that reflects well on us and our Christianity, rather than claim that we have been gifted with a personal special authority and understanding which others lack.
Our statement therefore is perhaps a cowardly way out of this unfortunate topic, but we can not say more than to observe that well meaning people and Biblical scholars have come up with very different answers to this question and vexing issue.
We accept that at some point during a pregnancy, the fertilized egg transitions to a human with a soul, but we can’t say for sure when that happens.
Perhaps the best way to close is with a quote from Paul – an Apostle who was quick to list all manner of requirements for various things, but who was silent on the matter of abortion. He provides this quote in his letter, 1 Corinthians 6:12 (AMP) :
Everything is permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial. Everything is permissible for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything [and brought under its power, allowing it to control me].