Myth: The Bible forbids abortion.

Fact: All Biblical arguments on abortion are indirect and open to debate.


The Bible does not comment directly on abortion, even though abortion was practiced even then. All Biblical arguments on abortion are indirect and open to interpretation, and debate continues even among the world's most respected theologians. Even so, the Bible seems to suggest in several places that the unborn are not endowed with the qualities or rights of personhood. In fact, the Jews, who are famous for their preservation of tradition, have never considered abortion to be a sin.


Many Christians believe that their opposition to abortion is firmly supported by the Bible. This is untrue. The Bible is remarkably silent about abortion, and all arguments about the subject are indirect and highly questionable. Not even the world's most respected theologians have been able to draw a firm conclusion one way or the other, despite continuing debate.

Most Christians know only one Biblical reason to oppose abortion, and that is the obvious one, "Thou shalt not kill." This is one of the most critical laws a society can obey, and every pro-choice advocate agrees with it. However, it is impossible to break this commandment if there is no person on the receiving end of this action. The challenge to Christians is to find a text that declares at what point a fetus becomes ensouled, and hence a person.

Before we look at these texts, we should consider a quick attempt by Christians to sidestep this entire question. Personhood is irrelevant, they argue; even if the zygote were not yet a person, it is nonetheless human life, and killing it is wrong. But this argument falls easily. The Hebrew word for "kill" in the 6th Commandment is rasach, which more accurately means "murder," or illegal killing judged harmful by the community. It is itself a relative term! Many forms of killing were considered legal; indeed, God often gave Israel permission to kill. (In I Samuel 15:3, God ordered Saul to massacre the Amalekites: "Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants…") Generally, levitical law permits killing in times of war, the commission of justice and in self-defense. But recall that the levitical law we have in the Bible is incomplete, and comes to us in large gaps. If a law did exist on abortion, then we simply do not know what it was. Fortunately, we have an excellent idea on what the law on abortion might have been. As Rabbi Balfour Brickner, National Director of the Commission on Interfaith Activities, says: Since the fetus is not considered a person under Jewish law, it would be impossible to consider its abortion a murder. Indeed, most Jewish scholars have agreed that abortion was legal under Jewish law. This fact alone should give serious pause to the pro-life movement.

The legality of abortion in Jewish law fits into a larger and perfectly coherent philosophy on personhood according to the Bible. The philosophy I am about to demonstrate is this: that physical creation of the body comes first, and ensoulment only comes much later.

Pro-choice Christians note that the creation of Adam was a two-step process: God first formed Adam from the dust of the ground, and only then did he give him the breath of life, turning man into a living soul. This closely resembles the scientific description of pregnancy, which notes that the first seven months are devoted to constructing the organs and body, and only by the 8th month does the fetus display a waking consciousness.

There is also a long Christian tradition of the body/soul dichotomy. The flesh has long been condemned as temporary, imperfect, sinful and weak, whereas the soul has long been revered as eternal, pure, holy and God-like. It would be perfectly consistent for Christians to believe that personhood resides in the soul, and that there is no sin in disposing of a physical entity before it is given the soul of a new person.

From here we turn to specific Biblical evidence for ensoulment and personhood. Pro-choice activists have a near-argument stopper in Exodus 21:22-23: The traditional interpretation of this text, which even rabbinical scholars accepted for thousands of years, is this: if a man hurts a woman enough to cause a miscarriage, he reciprocates according to how much injury he caused her, i.e., an eye for an eye, etc. However, if the miscarriage resulted in no injury to the woman, then all the assailant had to pay was a monetary fine. The fact that the Bible does not equate the assailant's life with the stillborn's life is proof that the Bible does not count the fetus as a person.

This was the traditional interpretation -- until recently, that is, when pro-life Christians became alarmed by the pro-choice side's successful use of it in the debate on abortion. They took a close second look at the passage, and discovered a second possible interpretation. The text actually turns out to be ambiguous. It does not say who exactly suffers the "mischief" or harm; it could be the fetus as well as the mother. In that case, a miscarriage resulting in a live birth was punishable by a monetary fine, but a miscarriage resulting in fetal injury or death would call for the same from the assailant.

This new interpretation suffers from three drawbacks. First, the Jews, who know their own tradition best, have always accepted the first interpretation. Second, the laws of surrounding cultures (Assyrians, Hittites, Sumerians, Babylonians, Hammurapi and Eshnunna) were similar to Israel's, due to widespread copying of laws. There is no ambiguity in their laws; any harm caused clearly refers to the mother. Finally, miscarriages in ancient times almost always resulted in stillbirths; saving premature babies is an achievement of modern science.

An even more astonishing pro-choice passage is Numbers 5, where the Lord appears to give a curse that causes abortions in unfaithful wives. According to this passage, the Lord instructed Moses that a husband who suspected his wife of sleeping with another man could take her to the priest for a test that would either confirm or deny his suspicions. The test involved his wife drinking a cup of "bitter water," which consisted of holy water mixed with the dust of the tabernacle floor. If the woman were innocent, then no harm would come to her by drinking it. But if she were guilty, then she would be cursed with "bitter suffering;" namely, "she will have barrenness and a miscarrying womb." In this text, God himself appears to be endorsing the practice of abortion.

This text produces angry reactions in pro-life advocates; here are some of the defenses that this writer has encountered. First, there is a translation problem. In the King James Version, verse 27 is translated as "her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot." What this means, unfortunately, is open to interpretation. However, newer translations of the Bible, which are based on improved scholarship, give less ambiguous translations. The New International Version gives "her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away," but adds in the footnotes that an alternate translation is "she will have barrenness and a miscarrying womb." The New Revised Standard Version, one of the most respected translations by scholars, gives "her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop…," which more clearly indicates an abortion procedure.

A second objection is that water mixed with dust from the tabernacle floor does not sound severe enough to be an abortive agent. This observation, however, is irrelevant, in that God curses the water in verse 21 to cause a miscarrying womb if she is guilty. It is the curse, and not the water, which is relevant to the abortion procedure.

Another objection is that God alone has the power and the right to give life or death, and in this passage, it is clearly God's curse that causes the miscarriage. It follows that humans would still not have permission to conduct abortions at will. Put another way, we know that a third of all fetuses less than 10 weeks old are spontaneously aborted; this could be viewed as an act of God, but it does not give humans the same right.

This argument nonetheless fails to a few observations. First, it was the suspicious husband's choice to subject his wife to this procedure, and it was the priest who carried it out, which gives humans both a choice and a role in carrying out abortions. True, God may have made the final determination whether or not to cause the miscarriage, but if he had intended for humans to have no role in the process, he would have spontaneously aborted the fetus without their knowledge, choice or participation.

Second, humans are forced to "play God" whenever they make any decision about their reproduction. Bringing a life into a world of needless and acute suffering is just as terrible as not -- who are humans to make that decision? The Bible certainly doesn't speak to that issue, either -- hence humans are placed in a God-like position no matter what they choose, with no Biblical direction on either option. Not many pro-life Christians have considered this flip-side to their arguments.

Finally, this passage establishes a precedent: God does not desire children to be raised in sinful environments. In the absence of explicit Biblical instruction on whether or not to bring life into a world of needless suffering, these precedents are the best we have.

A third pro-choice passage is Genesis 38. In this story, Judah mistakes Tamar as a prostitute, and orders her to be burned to death, despite the fact she is three months pregnant. If her twin fetuses had been considered persons, the law would have delayed her execution at least until her twins were born. (The execution order was later lifted, not because of this consideration, but because Judah learned Tamar's true identity.)

When Jehovah gave monetary equivalents to the value of people of certain age groups in Leviticus 27:1-7, the lowest values were given to children between the ages of one month and five years. Boy babies were worth five shekels, and girls were worth three. Below the age of one month, they did not even merit a price.

For census purposes in Numbers 3:15, only male babies older than one month were to be counted. Below this age, they were not considered persons to be counted.

These texts, combined with the traditional Jewish acceptance of abortion, form a consistent philosophy on personhood. Of course, the religious right has its own favorite Biblical texts in this debate. As we go over them, however, notice how they do not at all contradict the above philosophy.

The most commonly quoted texts occur in poetry, an unfortunate fact for Christian conservatives, because they are already clearly on record for denouncing the idea that Biblical poetry can be taken as scientific fact. For those unfamiliar with this controversy, a brief digression is in order. The issue in question is the flat earth debate. The ancient Egyptians believed that the earth is flat, and the sky is a dome or tent-covering that God pulled over it. The sun, stars and planets were said to have hung from the ceiling. The Israelites were heavily influenced by many Egyptian beliefs, and this was one of them. For this reason, all the Bible's descriptions of the earth sound like a house: the four corners of the earth, the pillars of heaven, the firmament (literally translated, a firm dome or ceiling), the windows of heaven (which, once opened, allowed the oceans above the firmament to pour through, causing rain), and the sun entering the sky through a door in the east and exiting through a door in the west. Isaiah wrote: "It is He that... stretcheth out the Heavens like a curtain, and spreadeth them out like a tent to dwell in." Jews and Christians both interpreted these texts as literal fact for thousands of years. When Columbus sought to sail around the world, Catholic bishops used these texts against him, warning him that his lack of faith would cause him to fall off the edge of the earth.

Of course, Columbus and Magellan proved otherwise, and Christian apologists have ever since defended their error by claiming that these texts were metaphors, mere poetic flights of fancy, ones that described appearances only. It follows that poetry is not meant as literal science.

Let's give pro-life Christians the benefit of the doubt, however, and treat the following poetic texts as literal descriptions. Even a literal interpretation does not detract from the philosophy of personhood outlined above.

The first texts are Job 10:8 and 11, describing the experience of Job in the womb: This text describes only God's physical construction of the fetus, and brings pro-lifers no closer to proving when ensoulment occurs. Besides not resolving the central question, however, this text raises one of the thorniest issues in all theology. And that is: if God is responsible for the physical creation of the fetus (indeed, the entire universe), then is God responsible for physical deformity, imperfection, even the Devil and sin? Fortunately, we need not resolve this 3,000 year-old controversy to prove the following point: despite the belief that God made everything, which is reflected in this text, some of these things nonetheless turn out evil, and even God permits humans to correct evil.

The second passage is Psalms 139:13-16: This is a favorite passage among pro-life Christians, but they probably be much less enthusiastic about it if they knew more about the third verse. The philosophers of many cultures around Israel -- including Plato of Greece -- believed that the unborn were formed and designed in the soil of the earth, and then were supernaturally lifted into the womb of the mother. The third verse of this passage betrays this ancient superstition.

Pro-life Christians try to get around this damaging observation by claiming it is only poetry. Which, of course, ruins their attempt to use this passage as literal science.

Even disregarding the third verse, this passage says nothing about personhood. The first verse, like the passage from Job, notes that God is involved in the creation of physical entities -- no controversy there. The second verse states an obvious truth about the wonder of the human body, but mentions nothing about ensoulment or when it occurs. The fourth verse shows that God has foreknowledge of the unborn, and a purpose for their lives. Yet foreknowledge does not equal personhood. Thomas Edison, for example, had both foreknowledge of the light bulb and a purpose for it before he created the first one. That God knows the future is no theological secret. God would have known about David even before he was conceived, even before the earth was created. Our earlier philosophy on personhood remains uncontradicted: God may simply have kept David's soul ready until the right fetal body came along. Which fetal body may have been unimportant -- it was the soul that mattered.

Jeremiah 1:5 repeats this theme: This text comes right out and says it: before I formed you - that is, before conception -- God had foreknowledge of Jeremiah. Again, foreknowledge does not equal personhood.

Another pro-life text is Genesis 9:6: One rebuttal to this interpretation is that the zygote bears no resemblance whatsoever to a finished person; a 12-week fetus resembles perhaps only 70% of a person, and only by the 8th month does a fetus possess the completed organs of a full-fledged person. Besides, this law is relative; God permitted many legal forms of killing.

Finally, pro-life Christians use the birth of Christ to prove that fetuses are ensouled immediately upon conception. Luke 1:15 says that Jesus would be "filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth." Some translations say "from his mother's womb." The text does not clarify the exact moment of ensoulment: was it childbirth, or an indeterminate amount of time before childbirth (say, during the last few months of viability)?

Others argue that the because the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, it must have been present from the very beginning; therefore, ensoulment occurs upon conception. The conception of Jesus, however, was a unique and supernatural event, and it is not at all certain that the birth of Christ compares to that of ordinary mortals. We do not know, for example, whether the Holy Spirit completed the genetic code upon fertilization, only to ensoul the fetus later. And being half-God, the fetus may have possessed the omniscient Holy Spirit in a way that a fully human fetus might not. The answers to these questions can never be known, and the extraordinary event of Jesus' conception cannot be used to describe normal childbirth.

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