The topic of abortion is probably one of the most divisive and emotionally charged issues in our country today. How should a Christian view this controversial subject? On one hand, we want to be loving and compassionate to the women who are struggling with an unwanted pregnancy as a result of rape or perhaps whose lives are threatened by a pregnancy, but on the other hand, if the fetus is indeed a human life, then we don’t want to allow the murder of an innocent life.
When all things are considered, the issue of abortion boils down to one fundamental question: Is the fetus a human life? If it is a human life, then it has inherent worth and value and deserves all the legal protections that you or I are afforded. If it is not a human life and just a clump of cells, then the moral case against abortion virtually disappears. It would simply devolve into whether the procedure is safe for the woman and becomes a decision between the woman and the doctor, the same as any other surgery.
So, what does the Bible say about abortion? Does Scripture answer questions concerning the personhood of the fetus?
The Bible and Abortion
The Bible does not directly address the issue of abortion, nor does it explicitly state, “Life begins at X.” Instead, what we see is that rather than forming an explicit doctrine concerning abortion or when life begins, the personhood of the fetus is just assumed to be a given fact. There are a plethora of indirect references, implicit assumptions, and logical deductions that can be made to support this conclusion.
1. The Mosaic law appears to give the same legal status to a fetus as it does to its mother.
The passage in Scripture that deals with this issue most directly is Exodus 21:22-25. In this passage, the Mosaic law appears to give a legal status to the fetus. It says,
When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
There is debate concerning this passage that revolves around whether the word “harm” applies only to the mother or to the fetus as well. Over time, three main thoughts of interpretation have developed.
In most rabbinic and Jewish tradition, the passage is understood to mean that “killing the pregnant woman is a capital offense, whereas causing a miscarriage, and killing the unborn children in the process, only merits a fine.” This would appear to not value the unborn child as much as the mother, leading some to conclude that the fetus is not a person.
A second line of thinking draws from the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Hebrew text, which says that if the children come out “not fully formed,” then the one who caused it would only be fined, but if it did come out “fully formed,” then the guilty party would be punished life for life. This interpretation influenced many early Christian writers to make a distinction between a “formed” and “unformed” fetus, concluding either that the soul did not enter the body until a certain point during gestation or that the soul did not acquire certain properties of intelligence until a certain point in gestation.
But as interest in Hebrew exegesis increased during the Reformation, a third line of thought developed that became critical of the Septuagint’s interpretation. It held that “this law does not refer to miscarriage at all but to premature birth in which the children are born alive.” The great reformer John Calvin comments on this passage, saying,
Wherefore this, in my opinion, is the meaning of the law, that it would be a crime punishable with death, not only when the mother died from the effects of the abortion, but also if the infant should be killed; whether it should die from the wound abortively, or soon after its birth.
This interpretation relies on two key pieces of evidence from the Hebrew. First, is the fact that the word translated “come out” is the Hebrew word yatsa, which is normally used for live births; a more specific word (shokol) exists to refer to a miscarriage and is used only a few chapters later in Exodus 23:26. A second piece of evidence from the Hebrew is that the term yeled is used for “children” rather than nephel or golem. R.C. Sproul makes note of this, stating,
The term yeled in Exodus 21:22 is never used to describe a nonviable fetus. The Hebrew language has such a word, golem…When Scripture speaks of the death of an unborn child… the word is neither golem nor yeled but nefel, which means “one untimely born.” Yeled, then, in the absence of strong considerations to the contrary does not mean a miscarried child.
David Albert Jones, author of the book The Soul of the Embryo, remarks,
It should also be emphasized that in its ancient context none of these schools of interpretation was thought to justify free access to abortion…The only explicit permission for abortion is found in the rabbinic tradition and relates to the forcible extraction of the infant to save the mother’s life.
While it isn’t fully conclusive, the third line of interpretation provides the strongest evidence to suggest that the fetus was viewed as a person worthy of legal protections.
2. The personhood of the fetus was assumed by many authors of the Bible.
The second piece of Scriptural evidence that supports the personhood of the fetus rests on the terms used to describe the fetus. There are several passages in which the authors of Scripture use terms that can only be applied to persons. They would often call the fetus a “child” or “son,” terms which imply personhood. Whether we are talking about historical narrative or poetry, the personhood of the fetus is assumed across multiple literary genres. It’s important to point out that the authors are not teaching these things as formal doctrines, but rather these are examples meant to display how the Jewish authors implicitly understood the personhood of the fetus.
- In Genesis 25:21-26, Jacob and Esau are called “children” while in the womb (Genesis 25:22); this is also acknowledged by Paul in Romans 9:10.
- In Judges 13:5-7, Samson is called a “child” and a “Nazarite to God from the womb.”
- Job describes himself as a “man” when he was conceived (Job 3:3), and describes the unborn in a miscarriage as a “child” and “infant” (Job 3:16). He also describes God as fashioning him in the womb (Job 31:15).
- In one of the most famous passages describing the unborn, David describes himself as being “knitted together in my mother’s womb” and being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14).
- When describing the early stages of Israel’s history, Isaiah and God use the analogy of a child in the womb to portray God’s lovingkindness towards Israel (Isaiah 44:2, 21, 24; 46:3; 49:1–5). This begs the question – if God does not view the unborn child as human, why would he use that as an analogy to describe his chosen nation Israel?
- When talking about the conception of John the Baptist, “…we read concerning Elisabeth that she ‘conceived a son in her old age’ (Luke 1:36; compare with v. 57). Also, the word for ‘babe’ that is used in Luke 1:41, 44 in reference to the child in the womb is also used for newborn children (Luke 2:12; 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:2). Hence, God uses the same words to describe children before and after birth.”
- Solomon states in Ecclesiastes 11:5, “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” He not only calls the fetus a child, but also says that its soul or spirit enters into that child during pregnancy.
While not explicitly stated, it is clear that multiple authors of the Bible held the implicit assumption that the fetus was in fact a human person.
3. Characteristics are given to fetuses that only persons can have.
Finally, several passages of Scripture ascribe characteristics to fetuses that could only be rightly applied to persons.
- Having a Will – In Genesis 25:21-26, Jacob and Esau (twins) are described as “struggling” in Rebekah’s womb, having a will of their own; Jacob is grasping his brother’s heel as they are being born. Perez and his twin Zerah are described as struggling to get out first when being birthed (Genesis 38:27-30).
- Purpose/Destiny – The fetus is shown to have a purpose and destiny. God himself describes Jacob and Esau as being two “nations” and “peoples” (Genesis 25:23). He also says of Jeremiah that while he was in the womb, that he had “known” him, consecrated him, and appointed him (Jeremiah 1:5). The Hebrew word for ‘know’ (yada), “may simply mean ‘to know’ or ‘to take cognizance’ of someone or something, but may also be used in the more pregnant sense of ‘taking knowledge of one with loving care,’ or ‘making one the object of loving care or elective love.'” Paul makes a similar statement regarding himself in Galatians 1:15-16, saying that God’s calling on his life to preach to the Gentiles began prior to his birth.
- Moral Characteristics – The fetus is portrayed as having moral characteristics. David describes himself as being conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5) in reference to his own sins. Paul, referencing Jacob and Esau, mentions that while in the womb, they had done neither “good or evil” (Romans 9:11), clearly assuming that they have moral capacities. If the fetus is just a body without a soul, how can it be described as having moral characteristics and capacities such as this?
- Emotions – The fetus is depicted as having emotions. John the Baptist is described as leaping for “joy” (Luke 1:44) upon hearing the voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Given that his destiny was to prepare the way in Israel for Jesus, this seems entirely appropriate. But if the fetus is not a person, how could he have had joy?
- Being filled with the Holy Spirit – John the Baptist is also prophesied by the angel Gabriel to be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Although this is not normative for all fetuses, the question should be asked whether the Holy Spirit (God himself) would dwell in a merely physical object or in a person.
Conclusion from the Biblical Evidence
The Bible gives the fetus legal rights, is assumed to be a person by the authors of the Bible, and is described as having human characteristics, the same as if it were outside of the womb. Although it is never explicitly stated, the preponderance of the evidence shows that the personhood of the fetus can be supported from Scripture.
Given the evidence presented in Scripture, up until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Church has had a virtually unanimous condemnation of abortion, even when they disagreed on topics such as ensoulment (when the soul enters the body) or if the fetus was fully human.
One of the earliest sources from the Christian church comes from the Didache (also known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), which most scholars date to the first century. In it, it is stated, “Thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide.”
Even those who were uncertain about whether the fetus was fully human still condemned abortion on grounds that you were killing a life that God certainly intended to bring into fruition. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder. A great many motives may lead to an action of this kind…but they cannot in any way alter the fact of murder.
Application to Our Current Context and Moral Dilemma
The preponderance of the evidence points towards the fetus being fully human, created in the image of God, and therefore, it is worthy of the dignity and protection that our laws afford. However there are still several reasons that proponents of abortion will use to promote the legality of abortion.
- Viability – When the fetus is able to survive on its own, then it becomes fully human. This argument falls flat on its face when you consider cases in which people who have already been born are completely dependent on machines (such as those on life support) or other people to meet their needs. Even children at a very young age are still completely dependent on their mothers in order to survive. Unless you are willing to say that people in all of those situations are not fully human, then viability is not a valid argument.
- Autonomy – This is my body; no one else should have a say in this decision. Certainly, abortion is a decision that will have ramifications on the woman’s body. However, if we consider that the fetus is human, then it has its own separate body and is a unique individual. From conception, it has its own unique DNA. Within only a matter of weeks it has its own heartbeat and brainwaves. Take the development further, and you get a fetus who has a will and can act independently of the mother, such as we observe when the fetus kicks the mother. It becomes rather hard to argue that the fetus is simply a part of the woman’s body when it has its own unique DNA, heartbeat, brainwaves, and ability to act, qualities that are usually considered essential to individuality.
- Feminism – Abortion is a woman’s issue; men should not have a say in it. This is an example of what’s called a genetic fallacy or even an ad hominum attack. Essentially, you are saying that my reasons should be rejected because of who I am rather than on their own merits. Stated another way, you are attacking me personally rather than attacking my argument.
- Safety – It’s better to have legal abortion than to have women doing it in back alleys. While legal abortion certainly allows qualified doctors and nurses to perform abortion safely, this argument completely ignores the fact that abortion involves the murder of an innocent child. We would never argue that something inherently evil such as murder (or insert any other evil act) should be legalized simply because people are going to try and do it themselves anyway.
- Rape/Incest – Are you going to make a woman go through with a pregnancy if she is the victim of rape or incest? This is a genuinely difficult issue to deal with emotionally because of the trauma and injustice done to a woman through these actions. The child conceived from such situations is a constant reminder of what she went through and is certainly very emotionally, physically, and financially burdensome on her. Regarding abortion, the question then boils down whether the greater evil comes from the burdens and stresses the mother faces in having to carry, give birth and potentially raise the child versus the murder of the innocent child. In such a situation, the right to life should take precedence. Otherwise we would run into very ethically dangerous territory if we say that murder could be justified because of an emotional, physical, or financial burden.
- Life of the Mother – Are you going to make a woman go through with a pregnancy if her own life is in danger? This is a situation which, as Christians, demands our attention. We should not call ourselves pro-life and then seek to disregard the life of the mother. Her life is of equal worth and value to that of the child within her. In such a situation, when you have two individuals with an equal claim to life, every effort should be made to save both lives. However, I realize that we don’t live in a perfect world. There will be situations where that is not possible. With this case, it may be necessary to forcibly remove the child prematurely, knowing that there is a high probability of its death depending on the stage of development. However, it is important to note that there is an ethical difference between doing this and the deliberate killing and dismemberment of the fetus that occurs during abortion. This is similar to the ethical difference between end-of-life decisions that family members make when deciding to take someone off life support to let them die naturally versus giving someone a lethal injection and killing them deliberately.
With the possible exception of the life of the mother, none of the common objections raised provide any justification for allowing abortion.
For the record, I know that many advocates of abortion do not relish in the fact of its existence. Some view it as a necessary evil that should be used sparingly to help women in difficult situations. But we should also want to live in a society of ethical decision making and for our laws to be a reflection of those ethics and morals. While many of the situations surrounding abortion are very difficult on multiple levels, we should not allow those situations to compromise what is right and wrong or what is true.
The evidence from Scripture indicates that the fetus is a human being created in God’s image. When we consider this evidence along with some logical thinking, there seems to be almost no justification for abortion except in the case where the life of the mother is threatened.
 David Albert Jones, The Soul of the Embryo: An enquiry into the status of the human embryo in the Christian tradition (London: Continuum, 2004), 47.
 Jones, Soul of the Embryo, 47-48.
 Jones, Soul of the Embryo, 50.
 Jones, Soul of the Embryo, 51
 R.C. Sproul, Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1990), 197-198.
 Jones, Soul of the Embryo, 53
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 174.