What the Bible Says about Abortion
Can the Bible have anything to say about abortion when it does not even mention the subject? In such cases, and there are many in the modern world, we have to apply the general principles taught in the Bible. The most important of these is the sanctity of human life as made in the image of God.
Genesis 1:26-28 tells us that God created human beings, male and female, in His own image, after His own likeness, and gave them dominion over creation. They were created to have fellowship with God and to fulfil His purposes for creation. This, sadly, was disrupted by the Fall into sin, leading to death, disorder and suffering (Genesis 3). However, human life was invested with the utmost importance even after the Fall.
In Genesis 9:5-6 the shedding of blood – that is, the unlawful taking of human life – was to be punished by the ultimate sanction of the death penalty. The seriousness of murder was underlined by the 6th Commandment (Exodus 20:13) and re-emphasised in the NT (e.g. 1 John 3:15).
God showed the great value of human life by sending His own Son, Jesus, to give us eternal life. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ certify for us the worth of human life in God’s sight.
Why is abortion never mentioned in the Bible, though it was widely practised in antiquity (and forbidden in some ancient law codes)? The reason seems to be that it was not commonly practised in Israel and thus there was no need to forbid it specifically. The ability to beget and conceive children was regarded as a gracious gift of God (e.g. Psalm 127) and it would have been unthinkable for an Israelite to terminate that life in the womb by a deliberate act.
Biblical References to Prenatal Human Life
We must beware of reading our modern scientific knowledge of the process of conception into the Scriptures, but we must also recognise that what we read there will not conflict with the findings of modern science.
The Bible gives prominence not only to the mother’s role in conceiving a child, but to the father’s role in begetting or generating a child. For instance we read, “Abraham begat Isaac” (Matthew 1:2, AV). He became the father of Isaac not at Isaac’s birth but at his conception.
OT references: In Psalm 51:5 David speaks of himself as being sinful from the time of his conception. In Psalm 139:13-16 he sings poetically of God’s foreknowledge of him even before he came into existence in his mother’s womb. David understood that he existed as an individual from the time of his conception. This is confirmed in Jeremiah 1:5 with regard to the call of the prophet.
NT references: From Matthew 1:20 and Luke 1:31-35 it is clear that the incarnation of the Son of God took place not at the birth but at the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Luke 1:39-45 we read that Elizabeth regarded Mary as the ‘mother of my Lord’, even though she was just pregnant. Also, her six-month gestation baby (John the Baptist) leapt in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. Luke, a doctor, uses the Greek word brephos for baby, the word used for the babes in arms brought to Jesus for his blessing (Luke 18:15). There is no doubt that Luke regarded John and Jesus as having personal identity in the womb.
Some Problems with the Biblical Material
In Exodus 21:22-25 (about a pregnant woman having a miscarriage or going into premature labour after being struck while two men are fighting), it is not clear whether the serious harm spoken of is to the woman or to the baby, or to both. Although the woman’s life and wellbeing may have been considered more important than the unborn child from the point of view of reparation, this does not minimise the importance of the unborn child, since the welfare of the child depends largely on the mother.
From Job 3:16 it might be argued that Job regarded a stillborn child as not having a fully human existence. But taking the whole passage from 11-19 it is clear that he regarded the stillborn and the child who dies at birth as going to the same realm of the dead as adults who die.
Scientifically it seems irrefutable that a new human individual is formed at fertilisation. All the genetic material needed to form an adult human being is present and, unless the process is interrupted, there is a continual progression to maturity. Of course interruption is all too common due to various factors.
Many fertilised ova (possibly more than 50%) never implant in the uterus and so never develop to full maturity. Also many pregnancies abort spontaneously very early on, before the woman realises she is pregnant. A number of these show evidence of genetic abnormalities. Some would argue that if God allows such a high degree of wastage naturally, surely He does not count early embryonic life to be as precious as fully developed human life. However, this is a perilous line of argument. We live in a fallen world, and disruption of the process of procreation is one of the results of the Fall. The fact that some early pregnancies do not go on to full maturity is no reason to abort otherwise healthy foetuses who would go on to full maturity if left alone in what should be the safest and most natural place for them.
The fact that many spontaneous abortions seem to be caused by genetic abnormalities is used by some as an argument to support the abortion of babies having malformations or genetically inherited diseases. This argument is inadmissible because we have no control over spontaneous abortions, whereas the foetus with some abnormality which is not spontaneously aborted will probably be born and survive if we do not interfere with it. We have a duty to protect the life of even a malformed child in the womb. Just because that child may be a “burden on society” does not deprive him or her of the right to life. Selective abortion of the foetus which has some “abnormality” leads to devaluing all disabled members of society.
When Does the Foetus Become a Person?
This is the angle from which many people, including some Christians, approach the problem. Until the foetus can be recognised as a person, it is only a potential human being and therefore cannot be deserving of the full protection of the law when there is a clash of interests with the wellbeing of the mother or the existing children. Various stages have been suggested.
For instance, the development of the neural tube at about 24 days’ gestation, from which the nervous system forms, with its capacity to feel pain, has been canvassed by many as the stage at which true personhood is reached. This is behind the 14-day limit on experimentation on embryos produced by IVF and not implanted. They appeal to the analogy of brain-death of a comatose accident victim being recognised as a legitimate reason for switching off the life-support system. When there is no brain activity, the comatose patient is regarded as having come to the end of human life. In the same way, they argue, the embryo cannot be regarded as having human life until it has a nervous system. The analogy is not legitimate, however, as the cases are entirely different. The comatose patient with brain-death has no hope of longterm survival and recovery, whereas the normal developing human embryo has a very high chance of survival unless deliberately destroyed.
Others would see the 12-week embryo, with its recognisable human form and all major systems present, as being more like a real human person. Others would go for the stage of “quickening” at 16-20 weeks, when foetal movements can be felt by the mother. Others still would go for the stage at which the foetus is capable of extra-uterine life, at 24-28 weeks (this is being reduced as scientific advances make treatment of premature babies more successful). The impossibility of deciding such a question on any satisfactory basis should prevent us asking it in the first place. Such an approach is a veritable slippery slope, because if the foetus has to earn its right to be treated as a human being, what about the handicapped child or the demented adult, who may not come up to society’s criterion for personhood? This is the way such reasoning will inevitably be applied.
When Does the Soul Enter the Body?
Rex Gardner, a Christian gynaecologist and Pentecostal pastor, whose book Abortion: the Personal Dilemma, published in the early 1970s, was so influential in leading many Christian to a compromised view on abortion, argued that the soul only enters the body when the baby takes his or her first breath. Thus a foetus does not have a soul. This is based on a misunderstanding of Genesis 2:7,
The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (soul).
There is no notion here of a soul entering the body. Man became a living soul; he was not entered by a soul. It would seem reasonable to assume that man is a living soul from conception. It is only at death that soul and body are separated. Another argument that Gardner used is that since identical twins develop from a single fertilised ovum, they cannot have souls until after the ovum splits into two, otherwise we would have to envisage the soul splitting as well. However, since identical twinning seems to be genetically determined, it would be quite possible for the two souls to be present from the beginning, since two individuals are potentially present in the genetic make-up of the fertilised ovum.
So our view of the sanctity of pre-natal human life rests on the sovereignty of God, who gives and takes away life, His creation of us in His own image, and His love for us in sending His own Son, incarnate as the Lord Jesus, so that we may have eternal life and fellowship with Himself. Each human being, from the time of conception, bears that image and deserves to be protected.