Course Content Supplement: Abortion and the Bible
PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
You will not be tested on any of the information in this document. I provide it only as supplemental material. If you are not interested in the issue of what the Bible has to say about the morality of abortion, feel free to ignore these notes.
At the end of Elements of Moral Philosophy (EMP) ch.4, Rachels makes a number of points about the relationship between morality and religion, especially Christianity:
Rachels claims that this is the case with the Bible and abortion. Here is an argument that many conservative Christians give against abortion:
A fetus is a human being from the moment of conception.
Killing a human being is morally wrong.
Therefore, killing a fetus (i.e., abortion) is morally wrong.
Rachels then says that there is no straightforward support for the first premise in the Bible. Is he right about this?
Below are some Bible passages, some of which seem at first reading to support a pro-life position, others of which seem to support a pro-choice position. (Some of them are mentioned by Rachels; others are not.)
Jeremiah 1:4-5: “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you’...”
According to Rachels, this passage about God knowing Jeremiah in the womb is often quoted out of context. It is quoted, in context, at EMP p.59. Rachels says this passage has nothing to do with abortion. Jeremiah is here asserting his God-given authority as a prophet and doing so in poetic language. The passage should not be taken as a quotation of God’s words to Jeremiah, as if God has spoken these exact words to him.
But even if this passage is a literal transcription of a conversation between God and Jeremiah, it still does not imply anything about anyone else’s status before birth. If Jeremiah was a prophet, then God had a special relationship with him. Part of that special relationship might have been allowing his soul to enter the fetus that would grow into the adult Jeremiah. But this does not imply that this happens in every other case of pregnancy. Not all of us are prophets, and it is possible that God treats the development of “non-prophets” differently that He did that of Jeremiah. So it is not obvious that this passage about Jeremiah implies anything about the morality of abortion in general.
Luke 1:39-41: “Now at this time Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacarias and greeted Elizabeth [the mother of John the Baptist]. And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”
The same point applies here as in the Jeremiah passage. The fact that the prophet John the Baptist had some special quality while in the womb (in this case, the seemingly miraculous quality of recognizing the voice of Mary mother of Jesus) in no way implies that we non-prophets have the same special qualities. So this passage implies no general conclusion about the morality of abortion.
Psalm 139:13-16: “For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to Thee, for I art fearfully wonderful [some ancient versions read “for Thou art fearfully and wonderfully made”]; wonderful are Thy works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from Thee, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth. Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Thy book they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”
That God is given credit for forming a fetus implies nothing about the moral status of that fetus. Further, the fact that God knows, before a person is born, what that person’s life will be like, does not imply anything about the moral status of the fetus that will eventually become that person. Presumably, God knows in advance whether a fetus will be aborted, just as he knows when a fetus won’t be aborted. This passage actually suggests a defense of abortion based on the divine foreknowledge of God, a defense that is consistent with belief in ensoulment at birth: if God knows in advance whether a pregnancy will be aborted, then presumably he won’t waste time ensouling that fetus. So when you abort a pregnancy, you are not killing a being with a soul.
Ecclesiastes 6:3-5. “If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things, and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, ‘Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he.’”
These are the words of King Solomon. See also Ecc 4:1-3.
Exodus 21:12, 22. [These passages are mentioned by Rachels at EMP p.60.]
“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” (21:12)
“And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide.” (21:22)
Rachels cites this passage from Exodus as suggesting a pro-choice view. But not everyone would agree with his assessment. Commentators disagree about whether 21:22 actually refers to miscarriages. Above I’ve quoted the New American Standard version; the King James version reads:
“If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.”
Some have argued that this rule is meant to cover cases in which a woman is caused to give birth prematurely and thus that it should not be contrasted with the case of murder in order to show that the Israelites had a different moral position with regard to murder than with regard to abortion. In fact, this is what the translators of the New International Version and the New English Translation assume:
“If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.” (New International Version)
“And if men fight and hit a pregnant woman and her child is born prematurely, but there is no serious injury, he will surely be punished in accordance with what the woman’s husband will put on him, and he will pay what the court decides.” (New English Translation)
But this interpretation implies that the Israelites had a specific law to cover cases in which fighting (“striving”) men accidentally cause a pregnant bystander to give birth prematurely— certainly an odd thing for which to have a specific law.
A more reasonable interpretation may be to take the passage to refer to men “striving” (trying) to make a woman lose her pregnancy—to cause the abortion of that pregnancy, in other words. On this interpretation, Hebrew law includes a penalty for performing an abortion, but it is a far weaker penalty than its penalty for murder. So on this reading, the Bible suggests that murder is much worse than abortion.
I learned of the controversy about how best to translate Exodus 21:22 from the Stand to Reason web site: http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5700 . Stand to Reason is an organization the mission of which is “to provide the training to build a new generation of confident, courageous, yet winsome and attractive ambassadors for Christ capable of restoring credibility to the Christian world view.” I cannot vouch for the contents of this web site in general, nor for the reasoning contained in the article about Ex 21:22. I am referring to it only to demonstrate that there is no universal agreement about how best to interpret the Exodus passage.
All that I can say with confidence on this issue is this: a well-founded view on how best to translate Ex 21:22 must take account of the meaning of the ancient Hebrew in which the passage was written.
This page last updated 1/28/2014.
Copyright © 2014 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.