What Does the Bible Say about Abortion?
Abortion is a controversial topic. While it’s been settled in the Supreme Court for decades, it remains an actively debated moral issue, packed with difficult questions.
Does a woman have full autonomy over her body, even if another human is dependent on her body?
Is a fetus a person, and therefore entitled to basic human rights?
On either side of the debate, you’ll find people passionately defend the morality of their position. When it comes to determining right from wrong, Christians generally take their cues from the Bible. But what about when the Bible doesn’t specifically address an issue? There’s no “abortion verse” or “fetus verse.” So does the Bible have anything at all to add to the discussion?
In his online course, Moral Choices, Scott Rae lays out his argument that the Bible takes a pro-life position. The following post is based on Dr. Rae’s online course.
The Bible is pro-life
Although the Bible never specifically states that “the fetus is a person” and “Thou shalt not have an abortion,” it is misleading to insist that the Bible has nothing to say about the moral status of the unborn.
The general tenor of Scripture is resoundingly pro-life. Although some texts on the surface appear to support a pro-choice position, this doesn’t hold up when we examine the texts in context.
“Thou shalt not kill”
The Bible clearly prohibits the taking of innocent life in the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Applying this directly to the unborn begs the question about the moral and ontological status of the unborn.
Is an embryo or fetus in the womb a person who possesses the right to life?
God is deeply involved in fashioning the unborn in the womb and thus deeply cares about the unborn. Abortion is an unjustified interference in God’s sacred role in the womb. When abortion occurs, it involves not only the termination of a pregnancy, but also the termination of God’s work in the womb.
However, saying that is not the same thing as claiming that the unborn are persons and that abortion is ending the life of an innocent person. Given his role as Creator of the entire universe, God is involved in the creation of animals and cares deeply for them as well. But from that alone, it does not follow that animals have the same rights as people, since God also gave people dominion over the animal kingdom and since only human beings are made in God’s image.
The important part of the argument is to show that God attributes the same characteristics to the unborn in the womb as to a person out of the womb. In other words, Scripture must indicate a continuity of personal identity when describing the unborn.
The passages cited below are not an exhaustive list of texts that could refer to abortion, but they represent the clearest indications of a continuity of personal identity that begins at the earliest point of pregnancy and continues into adulthood. Some of the relevant passages use conception and birth interchangeably. Others suggest that the same characteristics of adults are applied to the unborn.
The Bible sometimes uses conception and birth interchangeably
In Job 3:3, Job laments both the moment he was born and the moment he was conceived:
“Let the day perish on which I was to be born, and the night which said, ‘A boy is conceived’” (NASB).
This poetic passage employs what is called synonymous parallelism, in which the second line of poetry restates the first one, essentially saying the same thing in different language. This type of parallelism suggests that the child who was “born” and the child who was “conceived” are considered the same person. In fact, the terms “born” and “conceived” are used interchangeably here, suggesting that a person is in view at both conception and birth.
What was present at birth was considered equivalent to what was present at conception. This is strengthened by the use of the term “boy” in the second half of the verse, which speaks of conception. The woman did not conceive a thing or a piece of tissue, but a “boy,” a person. The Hebrew term for “boy,” geber, is also used in other parts of the Old Testament to refer to a man (Exodus 10:11; Deuteronomy 22:5; Judges 5:30). Thus, in the same sense that an adult man is a person, the individual conceived in Job 3:3 is a person.
God appointed Jeremiah in the womb
Other passages that seem to use conception and birth interchangeably include Jeremiah 1:5, where God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Here it seems clear that God had a relationship with and an intimate knowledge of Jeremiah in the same way he did when Jeremiah was an adult and engaged in his prophetic ministry.
In the womb he was called to be a prophet, something that was commonly done with other prophets when they were adults. That is, there is more to this text than the simple parallel between conception and birth. It also describes God knowing the unborn in the same way he knows a child or an adult, thereby attributing something characteristic of adults to the unborn.
God called Jesus from the womb
A similar text occurs in Isaiah 49:1, which states, “Before I was born the Lord called me [literally, “from the womb the Lord called me”]; from my birth he has made mention of my name.”
Again the parallel suggests that conception and birth are used interchangeably, but the text adds to this the idea that the person in question was both called and named prior to birth, indicative of a personal interest that parallels the interest God takes in adults. Since the person in view in Isaiah 49:1 is the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, this passage may be a reference to the preexistence of Jesus.
God forms us in the womb
Perhaps the clearest indication that the unborn are objects of God’s knowledge may be found in Psalm 139:13–16, which clearly shows that God is intimately involved in forming the unborn child and cultivating an intimate knowledge of that child.
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”
Figurative language has a literal purpose
Some people may object to the use of these texts, suggesting that all of these refer only to God’s foreknowledge of a person prior to birth. However, in passages such as Job 3:3, the person who eventually grows into an adult is the same person who is in view in the womb.
Although it is true that these passages use poetic devices to make their point, one cannot dismiss such texts simply because they are using figurative language. Poetry is difficult to interpret in many places, but just because it uses figures of speech is no reason to minimize their contribution.
We are the same person in the womb and out
Psalm 139:13–16 describes the intimate involvement of God in the formation of the unborn. From a Christian worldview, this should be sufficient to discourage abortion, since it interrupts the sovereign work of God in the womb. However, the psalm further teaches a continuity of personal identity from the earliest points of pregnancy forward.
The psalmist who is intimately known by God in the first few verses is the same person who was described as intricately formed in the womb by God later in the psalm. And he is the same person who asks God to search him and know his heart at the end of the psalm.
Some raise the objection that Psalm 139 speaks only of the development of a person in the womb, not of the fact that what is in the womb is indeed a person. However, these texts suggest that in the womb from conception is a person with potential for development, not merely some being that will develop into a person at some point in the gestational process.
These texts, particularly Psalm 139, strongly suggest a continuity of personal identity that runs from conception to adulthood.
Sin is in us before we are born
Two other passages highlight this continuity of personal identity. Psalm 51:5 says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Here David is confessing not only his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and premeditated murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite (see 2 Samuel 11–12), but also his innate inclination to sin.
This is a characteristic shared by all people, and David’s claim is that he possessed it from the point of conception. Thus the inherent inclination to sin is attributed both to adult persons and the unborn.
Using synonymous parallelism similar to that in Job 3:3, David appears to treat birth and conception as practically interchangeable terms. Finally, the Greek term for “baby,” bréphos, is applied to a child still in the womb in Luke 1:41–44 as well as to the newborn baby Jesus in Luke 2:16.
The incarnation occurred before Jesus was born
Perhaps a more explicit reference to the significance of the birth of the baby (bréphos) Jesus comes from the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth in the early days of her pregnancy. Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–56) only a few days after she has found out that she is pregnant with Jesus.
The account of the angel’s announcement (vv. 26–38) indicates that Mary left in haste to visit Elizabeth and share this news with her. Allowing for travel time of roughly two weeks, we perceive that when she arrives at Elizabeth’s home, Mary is in the very earliest stages of her pregnancy, with a fetus that is less than three weeks old. Upon arrival at Elizabeth’s home, Mary is immediately recognized as “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43).
Even though she is carrying a very early stage fetus (in fact, at this point in the pregnancy, most expectant women do not even know they are pregnant), she is clearly recognized as a mother, and by implication, Jesus is recognized as her son, a baby. Further, John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, perhaps signifying his recognition of the significance of Jesus’ conception and in utero development.
What is clear is that all of the parties involved in this narrative—Mary, John, and Elizabeth—recognize that something very significant is occurring that is bound up with Mary being pregnant with the Messiah.
The significance of the incarnation, though likely not grasped in its fullness, is nonetheless recognized, not at Jesus’ birth, but far earlier, in the earliest stages following conception.
That is, the incarnation is recognized as having begun months prior to Jesus’ actual birth. From the earliest points of life in the womb, Mary and Elizabeth realize that the incarnation has begun. This lends support to the notion that the incarnation began with Jesus’ conception and that the Messiah took on human form in all of its stages, embryonic life included.
What about Exodus 21:22–25?
The general tenor of Scripture appears to support the idea that the unborn is considered a person by God, being described with many of the same characteristics that apply to children and adults.
However, a handful of passages seem to indicate that the unborn is less than a full person, and that the Bible does not consider the unborn to be the equivalent of an adult in terms of its essential personhood. The primary text that calls this into question is Exodus 21:22–25, which records a specific law designed to arbitrate a very specific case.
“If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [has a miscarriage] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury [i.e., to the woman], you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (emphasis added).
Some suggest that since the penalty for causing the death of the fetus is only a fine, whereas the penalty for causing the death of the mother is death, the fetus must not be deserving of the same level of protection as an adult person. It must have a different status, something less than that full personhood that merits a life-for-life penalty if taken.
This argument assumes that the phrase “gives birth prematurely” should be translated “has a miscarriage.” If that is the correct translation, then the argument that the unborn are viewed differently may have more merit, because of the difference in penalty.
However, there is significant debate over the translation “gives birth prematurely.” The most likely translation is “she gives birth prematurely” (see NIV), implying that the birth is successful, creating serious discomfort to the pregnant woman but not killing her or her child.
The normal Hebrew word for “miscarriage” is the term shakal, which is not used here. Rather, the term yasa is used. It is normally used in connection with the live birth of one’s child. The fact that the normal term for miscarriage is not used here and a term that has connotations to live birth is used suggests that the passage means a woman who gives birth prematurely.
This would make more sense of the different penalties accruing to the guilty party. Perhaps the phrase “if there is serious injury” (v. 23) could apply to either the woman or the child, so that if the woman actually did have a miscarriage, the punishment would be life for life.
The Bible treats fetuses as people
While there are no passages that say outright, “Unborn babies are people and deserve the same rights as adults,” that statement appears to reflect the way that Scripture treats the unborn.
The Bible is not “the law of the land.” But if Christians want their moral system to be informed by Scripture, then their understanding of human life and the status of the unborn should come from the passages that talk about the unborn.
The Bible uses birth and conception interchangeably—it talks about the fetus in the womb the same way it talks about the baby out of the womb.
The Bible also appears to assign the same penalty for killing a person in the womb as it does to killing a person outside of it.
So if the Bible is our guide, fetuses deserve human rights, including that most basic right—the right to life.
Learn what the Bible says about today’s most pressing issues in Scott Rae’s online course, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics