Is Abortion Biblical?
Reprinted by permission of Christian freedom Foundation, Inc., Buena Park, California.
Dr. Robinson is professor of Practical Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas, and director of the Christian Medical Society.
Sometime ago, a British citizen applied to emigrate from England to America. He filled out a number of forms and on one he was asked, “Why do you want to become a citizen of the United States?’ The man answered with a single word: “homosexuality.” The immigration officer, a bit startled at the answer, asked for an explanation. “Well,” the man replied, “a few years ago a government commission decided that homosexuality was immoral but not illegal. A little later a Church commission decided that homosexuality was neither illegal nor immoral. I just wanted to get out of the country before some commission made it compulsory!”
That story could be applied to abortion in the United States. Considering the rapid changes that have taken place both in the legislation and practice of abortion in America, some expecting parents might be tempted to leave the country. Up to 1967, only four American jurisdictions permitted abortions on grounds other than to save the life of the mother. Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama and the District of Columbia, the four which had more liberal laws, allowed abortion only if the physical health of the mother was at stake. Up until 1967, therefore, most of the abortions performed in the United States were illegal.
After 1967, however, abortion laws changed. States such as Colorado, North Carolina, California, Hawaii, Kansas and New York liberalized their abortion statues. The New York State Law, among the most liberal, declared legal all abortions performed by a physician through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. The year following the passage of this legislation, over 200,000 abortions were recorded in New York. In the year prior to the law there had been only 1,856 legal abortions.
The most sweeping change, however, came in January 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court in a seven-to-two decision declared anti-abortion laws unconstitutional. In the future, abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy was to be a decision made between a woman and her physician alone. For all practical purposes, “abortion-on-demand” had become the law of the land.
Abortion, of course, is not an abstract legal issue. It is an issue of life and death. Discussions on the subject are often heated and highly emotional and reflect a wide spectrum of opinion. On the conservative end of the issue stands the judgment of the Roman Catholic Church that no grounds exist at all for abortion except where the fetus dies as an indirect result of an attempt to save the mother’s life. At the other extreme, the liberal humanist insists that abortion is simply a woman’s right with no questions allowed about the rights of the fetus. Evangelicals can be found who support either of these positions as well as a number of positions in-between.
The crucial moral question in the abortion debate are these: “Is the fetus a human life? When does human life begin?” If the fetus is actual human life, then abortion has profound moral and legal implications. If human life starts at birth, however, then abortion does not terminate a human life and the moral issues are less urgent.
That thoughtful evangelicals disagree about abortion is evidence that the Scriptures do not supply a clear, unambiguous reply to the basic theological question “When does the fetus become a soul?” If the Bible addressed this issue directly, then for a biblical Christian the matter would be settled. Conclusions on abortion resting on the Bible, therefore, are usually made from deductions based on implications from the biblical data.
What biblical evidence must be considered? For one thing, it should be noted that the Mosaic Code which is quite complete in dealing with issues of sexual ethics makes no mention of abortion. The silence on the subject may possibly be explained on grounds that abortion in the Old Testament Community was such an exceptional occurrence that it needed no injunction forbidding it. On the other hand, since abortion was practiced in the Old Testament world and was severely condemned in other ancient legal codes, absence of any explicit prohibitions may support the proposition that the Scriptures do not consider the fetus actual human life. Certainly, the argument from silence is at best inconclusive.
A second kind of biblical data is drawn from specific passages. Probably the most tantilizing passage which appears to touch on the subject is Exodus 21:22-24. The New American Standard Version reflects the emphasis of most translations when it renders the passage this way: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. but if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” From this translation, it may be inferred that the fetus is not considered human life since the loss of the fetus by miscarriage is punished only by a fine while lex talionis, (a life for life, an eye for eye) would be expected penalty in the death of a human person. This interpretation has the support of many respected evengelical scholars (for example, Bruce Waltke of Dallas Seminary and Meredith Kline of Gordon Conwell Seminary), most commentators and the large majority of translators.
But the passage may be translated in a different way: “When men struggle together and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and her children come out but no harm happens, he shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may extract from him … But if harm does ensue, then you shall impose soul for soul.” In this rendering of the Hebrew text the qualification “but no harm happens” applies to the premature infant as well as its mother. The phrase “But if harm does ensue,” therefore, also applies to either mother or child.
According to this translation, then the law of “life for life” would be in effect and the text would prove that the premature baby is considered a human person. This translation stands or falls on the interpretation of the phrase “and her children come out” and whether or not the passage refers to the miscarriage of a dead fetus or the premature birth of a healthy child. Exodus 21:22-24 gives no conclusive answer to the question, “Is the fetus human life?”
A second major Old Testament passage that touches on the issue of the nature of fetal life is Psalm 139:13-16. In this well-known Psalm David pictures God’s involvement in the shaping of the fetus. While the Psalm may fall short of declaring that the fetus is actual human life, certainly it demonstrates that the fetus is of great concern to God.
Other Old Testament texts sometimes introduced into the abortion discussion seem to be much less helpful. For example, Genesis 2:7 reports that God breathed into Adam the breath of life and man became a living soul. Based on this, it is deduced that life begins at breath since that was true of Adam. Yet, Adam is obviously a special case. Since it was not into a growing fetus that God breathed but a complete, developed man, the passage appears to have little application to the question of whether the fetus should be considered human life. Perhaps it might be more to the point at issue to note that the Hebrew word nephesh translated “soul” is also the Hebrew word for “breath” or “person.” While this could indicate that personhood and breath are closely related, strong cases cannot be built on the derivation of a word.
Some opponents of abortion feel that the commandment “Thou shalt not murder” establishes their position. To equate abortion with murder, however, is to avoid the basic question of whether or not the fetus is a human life. If, indeed, the fetus is not yet human, then the commandment may not apply at all. Even if it could be demonstrated that the fetus is human life, and that the injunction against murder does apply to the fetus, would all abortions then be ruled out completely? While the sanctity of human life is clearly established in the sixth commandment, Lewis P. Bird points out that the Old Testament recognized at least four occasions when taking human’ life was “permissible though regrettable.” These are (1) capital punishment (Exodus 21:12); (2) manslaughter and the cities of refuge(Numbers 35:6-11); (3) just wars (Deuteronomy 20:4) and (4) self-defense. In the light of these exceptions, a question to be faced is this: even if the fetus is human life, might there be a few instances where abortion could be “regrettable but permissible?”
Other Old Testament passages which have been suggested for consideration are Job 3:11-19 which appears to speak of human life starting at birth since Job distinguishes between a miscarriage and the death of an infant; Isaiah 44:24 in which God speaks of having formed the nation Israel “from the womb” and Jeremiah 1:5 where Jeremiah was set apart as a prophet before birth (and before conception, for that matter). None of these passages speaks directly to the issues of the nature of fetal life or abortion. Depending on the interpreter, each passage may be applied to either side of the issue or put aside as Hebrew poetry and irrelevant to the question.
What can be concluded from the Old Testament evidence? First, it is clear that God is directly involved in fetal development and, therefore, this creative work of God gives the fetus great significance. Second, the fetus is at least regarded as potential human life being shaped by the Creator and, less certain perhaps, actual human life. It must be admitted, thirdly, that the Old Testament evidence does not in itself provide a clear, unequivocal answer to the question of when a fetus become a human being.
The New Testament evidence for the discussion actually revolves around a single passage that deals with a fetal life: Luke 1:26-56. In these thirty verses, Elizabeth during her sixth month of pregnancy, has the unborn baby in her womb, John, leap for joy at the greeting of Mary. Robert P. Maye in his consideration of this passage feels that it should be put aside as a specific text applying only to Jesus Christ, a unique person, and should not be used as evidence about the nature of the fetus.
Not everyone agrees that this passage can be so easily dismissed. Graham A. O. Scott insists that this is the crucial text to be examined.
He writes, “From the New Testament doctrine of the incarnation in general and from Luke 1 in particular, one can deduce that each individual human life begins at conception … From this one can conclude that induced abortion involves the termination of human life.”
He argues that the incident took place when the unborn Jesus was merely a zygote implanted or still to be implanted in the wall of Mary’s womb. When John within Elizabeth responded, it was not merely to the divine nature of Christ, Scott contends, but to his humanity as well. This contention is based on Elizabeth’s address to Mary as “the mother of my Lord.” Mary was not a mother of a “thing” but of “my Lord.” By use of the term “Lord,” John was responding to the presence of the Lord Christ in the womb of Mary who was both completely God and completely man. “If ever there was a clear sign that even a zygote was for all its minuteness and rudimentary form none other than the Christ, John’s response to Jesus’s presence was that sign.”
The weight of the argument rests on Elizabeth’s question, “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (v. 43) It is not at all clear that the phrase “mother of my Lord” should be regarded as a description of the nature of the fetus in Mary’s womb. This may only be a reference to the child still to be born without any implication as to the state of the fetus when Elizabeth was speaking. While the passage may have the complete force that Scott attributes to it, it could hardly be said to be clear, undisputable biblical evidence for the full humanity of the fetus.
What, then does the examination of the biblical evidence tell us? The fetus is regarded as God’s creative work in which He is involved in a special way in each individual. Even if the fetus may become a full human being only at birth, God is still involved in fetal growth and development. Certainly, it cannot be stated categorically that the fetus is not a human being, and it could be argued that since doubt exists it would be wise to consider each case in favour of life rather than of abortion. The Scriptures teach the sanctity of human life and abortion for convenience would be repugnant to anyone who takes the Bible seriously.
Yet, the biblical evidence leaves areas for moral wrestling and responsible decisions. Christians must recognize that while abortion is now legal, it is not necessarily moral. Moral questions must still be dealt with in agony and tears. Christians should offer love and support to men and women who must face the abortion question in the ambiguity of life’s circumstances. While the issue is one of life and death, it must be dealt with in Christian grace. Insult, hostility, judgment of motives put us under the judgment of God. Instead as weak fallible believers we will choose what we honestly believe to be the will of God and rest in the reality of divine forgiveness for those wrong decisions that may be made from honest motive.
1. “262,807 Abortions in State in 1971,” New York Times (September 1, 1972), p.23.
2. “Unofficial Abortion,” Time (September 11, 1972), p.47.
3. See “Abortion Issues: The Range of Evangelical Thought,” Eternity (February 1971), p.18.
4. Graham A.D. Scott, “Abortion and the Incarnation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Winter, 1974), p.29.
5. Bruce K. Waltke, “Old Testament Texts Bearing on the Problem of the Control of Human Reproduction,” Birth Control And The Christian. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1969.
6. Support for this translation is offered by Jack W. Cottrell, “Abortion and the Mosaic Law” Christianity Today (March 16, 1973), pp. 6-9.
7. “Can a Christian Ever Consider Abortion?” Eternity (May 1973), p.30
8. “New Testament Texts Bearing on the Problem of the Control of Human Reproduction,” Birth Control and the Christian, p.41.
9. Graham A.D. Scott, op. cit., p.41.
10. Ibid., p.38.