For additional notes and resources check out Douglas’ website.
What does the Bible say on the subject of abortion? In fact, no scriptures address the subject head-on. This is curious, because abortion and exposure of unwanted infants were common in the ancient world. Various poisons were administered to induce abortions. Several ancient texts related to abortion and exposure of infants:
- The Hippocratic Oath forbade abortions: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art” (c.400 BC). There would be little need to forbid them if they were unknown or not performed by some physicians.
- "Ah, women, why do you dig out your child with sharp instruments and administer harsh poisons to your children as yet unborn?... Neither the tigress has done this in the jungles of Armenia, nor has the lioness had the heart to destroy her unborn young. Tender woman does it, though, but does not go unpunished. Often she who slays her own in her uterus dies herself."—Ovid (43 BC-17 AD), Loves 2.14.27-38.
- Exposure: "If you chance you bear a child, if it is male, let it live. If it is female, throw it out."—Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 744 (a text from ancient Egypt, dated to 1 BC).
While early Christians were vocal in their opposition to abortion (see ¶3), the scriptures typically referenced are far from conclusive. Principles may be adduced, such as the injunction against murder, but it seems circular to define abortion as murder in order to settle the question of its morality. Might there be exceptions? If there are, then a universal prohibition is not possible.
Most Bible students believe life starts at conception, based on the poetry of Job 10:8-12; Psalm 139:13-16; and Jeremiah 1:5. If they are right, then any abortion is tantamount to killing. But did God intend poems to be mined for literalistic doctrine? Not likely. Consider Psalm 139:13-16.
13 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
Psalms are poetry. We were not literally “knitted,” nor were we woven “in the depths of the earth.” The psalm clearly affirms that life begins before birth; it does not establish the time of that first moment of that life.
In Matthew 1:18-20, Joseph is told that Mary was "with child," and about this child, "What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” This gives stronger support for the idea that conception is the point of the beginning of life. But even here we might wish for clearer testimony. An omniscient God knows the future, and so can easily have a providential view of our entire existence, even before we have a soul.
What about Exodus 21:22-23?
22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [or has a miscarriage] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life…
This passage is capable of two translations: miscarriage or premature birth. Here the penalty for causing an abortion or miscarriage was a fine, not the death penalty, as if the baby were already born. Although I am not pro-abortion, I hold that the Bible appears to recognize some differences between a baby already born and one still in the womb.
In the absence of direct, explicit, crystal-clear scriptural teaching on abortion, it may be fruitful to ponder the following questions. Try to answer them honestly.
2 Questions for thought
- The fertilization process requires many hours, and is followed by another day in which the individual (diploid) is formed. In what sense is the mother-to-be pregnant before the process is complete?
- Is the loss of a 16-cell embryo equal to the loss of a full-term fetus?
- Up until two weeks, the zygote can split into twins, triplets, and so on. The process of individuation is still incomplete. Can a soul be shared three ways?
- The baby's heart starts beating after 22 days. Does life begin with the heartbeat?
- The sex of the embryo is not determined until the seventh week. Accordingly, many Muslims and Jews consider the embryo to be fully human only after 40 days. (Though I interpret the Muslim Hadith of Bukhari 4.549 to indicate ensoulment at 40 or 120 days.) Do Jews and Muslims value life less than Christians?
- All the organs are formed by the end of the first eight weeks of gestation. Yet recognizable EEG patterns (the mental activity associated with humanity) don’t appear until 24 weeks. What are the implications? Is it possible that the individual becomes fully human on a continuum?
- Continuous brainwaves do not begin until about 28 weeks. Until then, the neurons carrying pain impulses to the brain are not yet fully wired. What are the implications? (On the other end of life, at what point does the spirit depart from the body? At the cessation of brain activity?)
- Is abortion allowable if this is the only way to save the mother’s life?
3 Historical Christian viewpoints
Views on abortion have varied through the course of history.
- “You shall not murder a child by abortion” is a command found in early 2nd-century sources Barnabas 19:5 and the Didache 2:2.
- Late 2nd century apologist Tertullian wrote, "It does not matter whether you take away a life that is born or destroy one that is coming to birth. In both instances, the destruction is murder" (Apol. 9.4).
- Augustine too spoke of the sin of aborting a human life, referring to "the murder of an unborn child" (On Marriage, 1.17.15, about 400 AD). Yet he believed in delayed ensoulment (Enchiridion 85). Jerome held to a similar position: “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs” (Letter to Aglasia). The church fathers of the East, on the other hand, tended to view ensoulment as simultaneous with conception.
- An Anglo-Saxon (Old English) document found at Canterbury, referring to the fetus, reads “… In the third month he is a man, except for the soul” (Anglo-Saxon Prose, Michael Swanton, tr. London: J. M. Dent, 1993), 263.
- Gratian, a Canon Law jurist, decreed in 1140, "He who procures an abortion before the soul is infused into the body is not a homicide” (Concordia discordantium canonum, Decretum, Ad. c8, C. XXXII, q.2.).
- In the High Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas believed that the rational soul [many souls] is infused by God into the body at 40 days for males and 90 days for females. – John Haldane and Patrick Lee, “Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion and the Value of Life,” Philosophy 78 (2003), 255-8.
- As Anthony Joseph concluded, "American abortion law today is vastly less protective of the unborn than the civil law tradition of medieval Europe" ("The Crime of Abortion & the Middle Ages," in The City, Houston Baptist University, Winter 2015, 86.
- Modern scholar Richard Swinburne suggests that the soul does not function until about 20 weeks after conception (The Evolution of the Soul [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987], esp. ch. 8).
4 Conscience and Consistency
Whatever believers think about this important subject should be consistent, informed by science and theology, and moderated by conscience.
- 2% of abortions result from rape, incest, or the mother's life being threatened by the pregnancy (so Charles Camosy, author of Beyond the Abortion Wars). This would mean 98% of abortions are performed because the pregnancy is inconvenient. The fact is important because abortion is often defended as a standard practice because of its potential desirability in extreme situations.
- Antiabortionists are inconsistent when they are pro-life in regard to an embryo or fetus but anti-life when calling for the execution of the abortionist. On the other side, abortionists are inconsistent when they affirm that a fetus is fully human (when they approve of the pregnancy) and that it’s at the mother’s disposal (as part of her body). Is it human, or not? If it’s a baby before it’s born, it must not be cast off. Otherwise, on what grounds could eliminating a one-year-old baby be rejected as murder?
- Attacking or killing physicians who perform abortions is hardly the way to underscore the sanctity of life.
- Some feminists observe that legalized abortion does less to emancipate women than to empower irresponsible men. Good point.
- Life clearly begins before birth, and so I hold that abortion of a living human, a viable fetus, is murder. Yet at which point does the pre-human become a person? Could this take place on a continuum? So it seems to me, as to a number of ancient and modern thinkers.
- If the fetus is viable outside the womb, it seems impossible to distinguish abortion from murder. Even in case of rape, it is far from clear that the child should be punished / aborted for the actions of an adult (the rapist).
- Conservative Bible-believers range from forbidding abortion in nearly all cases to opposing it in all cases—quite a narrow range, when you think about it.
- Of course the Lord is pro-life, yet he also wants us to make a right choice. Choose our words wisely; choose our battles wisely; pray for the Lord to make up the difference at any point where we may be defective in our knowledge, relatability to others, or Christ-like compassion.
- While I am pro-life, I am not advocating any specific governmental policy. Like many, I'm acutely uncomfortable when governmental "experts" attempt to regulate every aspect of our private lives (education, ethics, religion, and other personal choices).
- There is no doubt that abortion creates a tremendous load of guilt. Therefore this is one subject we should discuss with wisdom and love.
- Abortion is a sensitive issue. While holding to biblical conviction—uncompromisingly—still we need to behave and speak with genuine concern for others.
- This is probably not suitable for a small group Bible discussion. Advice for preachers: sensitivity when tempted to publicly call abortion "murder."
- As we deal with all matters of personal interest to those we hope to reach, students of the word should strive to:
- Take a stand on the truth. Know the facts.
- Be silent where the Bible is silent. Don't create laws, even when they seem wise, without full biblical warrant (Colossians 2:22).
- Present the gospel message in a gracious spirit (Colossians 4:5-6).