Bottom Line Up Front: The Bible is not black and white when it comes to abortion

“The Bible clearly states that life begins at conception…It is murder according to the Word of God.”[1] Chances are, if you’ve discussed abortion with an evangelical Christian in America in the last 30 years or so, you’ve heard something like this. It’s a common refrain. And, as a “Bible-believing Christian” myself, I can appreciate the rhetorical appeal of such a statement, especially when used in conversation with other Bible-believing Christians. After all, “You wouldn’t dare contradict the Bible, would you?”

But here’s the problem: The Bible does not clearly state that life begins at conception, nor does it clearly state that abortion is murder. So what does the Bible say about abortion?


Not a thing.

Regarding abortion, the Bible is silent.

Don’t just take my word for it. Even the evangelical pro-life apologist Scott Klusendorf admits that the Bible does not explicitly address abortion in his book The Case for Life.[2] Additionally, the well-respected biblical scholar Richard Hays, who believes that Christians should oppose abortion, states it this way in his chapter on abortion in The Moral Vision of the New Testament:

The Bible contains no texts about abortion. This simple fact—often ignored by those who would make opposition to abortion into a virtual litmus test of true Christian faith—places the issue of abortion in a very different category from the other test cases that we have examined in this book. Here it is not a question of how to interpret a contested text or how to negotiate between texts in tension, or how to resolve the competing authority claims of the New Testament and contemporary experience. Here the Bible offers us no direct word at all (Emphasis added).[3]

Now, before the pro-choicers go “Aha! Gotcha!” Both Klusendorf and Hays, as well as myself, would tell you that just because the Bible doesn’t address an issue explicitly or directly doesn’t mean that the issue can’t be informed by uncovering a moral framework in the text. As Klusendorf rightly notes, the Bible does not condone everything it does not explicitly condemn. There are a host of behaviors that almost all of us would agree are wrong that are not explicitly or directly condemned by scripture. To state it another way, biblical silence on an issue should not be understood as biblical support for that issue. So, what does the biblical silence on this issue mean? I think Hays gets it right:

The absence of explicit…evidence suggests first of all that a certain humility about our claims and convictions concerning abortion is appropriate. Those with whom we differ are not necessarily monsters; they might have serious grounds for their position (emphasis added).[4]

Despite the fact that the Bible does not address abortion directly, appeals to the Bible are still often made by people on both sides of the issue. On the pro-life side, several disconnected and out-of-context verses are often strung together to give the illusion that “the Bible clearly states that life begins at conception…It is murder according to the Word of God.” For example:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
-Psalm 139:16, NRSV

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
-Jeremiah 1:5, NRSV

You shall not murder.
-Exodus 20:13

“See!” They’ll say. “The Bible clearly says that God knows us humans in the womb and killing a human is murder and the Bible says ‘You shall not murder.’” That kind of simplistic proof texting, however, does not lend itself to sound biblical ethics. These passages from Psalms and Jeremiah are not, as Hays notes, intended to be “scientific propositional statements” about when life begins. They are, rather, “confessions about God’s divine foreknowledge and care.”[5] Therefore, quoting “you shall not murder” only begs the question, since it has not as yet been determined whether or not abortion is, in fact, murder.

Luke 1:41-44 is another passage commonly referenced by people on the “pro-life” side as biblical evidence of the personhood of the unborn. The context of the passage is the pregnant Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Both women can be said to have experienced miraculous pregnancies following angelic announcements. Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, had been told by the angel Gabriel that his wife, who was barren, would give birth to a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Gabriel also told Zechariah that this child, quite uniquely, would be “filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb” (Luke 1:15). Mary likewise had been told by Gabriel that she would become pregnant, only in this case instead of a human father, she would conceive directly by the Holy Spirit and that the child would be the literal Son of God. So it’s already clear from the context that everything about this situation is out of the ordinary. This brings us to the pregnant Mary’s encounter with the pregnant Elizabeth in Luke 1:41-44:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 

Some “pro-life” Christians see the fact that the child leapt for joy while still in utero as biblical evidence of the personhood of the pre-born. That conclusion, however, is itself a bit of a “leap.” First of all, as we’ve already noted, everything about this entire scenario is out of the ordinary. Most pregnancies aren’t announced in advance by angels. No one else has ever been said to have been “filled with the holy spirit from the womb.” The unborn child’s “leap for joy” is presented precisely as a supernatural event in connection with all of the other supernatural events surrounding the conception and birth of the Messiah, which itself was a one-time event. To quote once again the pro-life New Testament scholar and ethicist Richard Hays,

To extrapolate from this text—whose theological import is entirely christological—a general doctrine of the full personhood of the unborn is ridiculous and tendentious exegesis; indeed, it should not be dignified with the label “exegesis”…the text cannot be used to prove any particular claim about prenatal personhood, nor does it have the issue of abortion in any way in view.

There is, really, only one text in the entire Bible that even comes close to addressing abortion in any direct way and it comes from an example of case law found in the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
-Exodus 21:22-35

The first thing that should be said about this passage is that it is not dealing directly or explicitly with intentional abortion in any real sense. This passage is addressing unintentional damage and injury. Whatever light it sheds on abortion, it does so quite indirectly.

The second thing that needs to be said is that this passage is not necessarily “clear.” It has been and continues to be the subject of interpretive debate. At first glance it appears to suggest that if the mother miscarries but is otherwise uninjured then the one responsible must only pay a fine. However, if the mother herself is injured or killed, then the offender would pay life for life, etc. Based on this reading, it certainly appears that the ancient Hebrews believed there was a qualitative difference between the unborn and the born. In other words, if this reading is correct, the termination of a pregnancy was notregarded as murder.

It is worth noting that this reading is the reading adopted by most, but not all, ancient Jewish commentators. Dr. Fred Rosner, a medical doctor, professor of medicine, and a recognized expert on Jewish medical ethics summarizes the historical position this way:

An unborn fetus in Jewish law is not considered a person until it has been born. The fetus is regarded as a part of the mother’s body and not a separate being until it begins to egress from the womb during parturition (childbirth).”[6]

This, however, does not mean that abortion has been viewed with approval by Jews, either ancient or modern – more on this later – it simply goes to show that most ancient Jewish interpreters did not believe that their scriptures teach that human life begins at conception or that the termination of a pregnancy is equivalent with murder.

Ancient Jewish interpreters are not alone in interpreting Exodus 21:22-25 in this manner. Writing for the flagship evangelical Christian magazine Christianity Today in 1968 (5 years before Roe v. Wade), Bruce Waltke, then professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Dallas Theological Seminary, drew the following conclusion from this passage:

A second factor suggesting that abortion was permissible is that God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed…According to Exodus 21:22-24, the destruction of a fetus is not a capital offense…Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul (emphasis added).[7]

Eight years later, as the national debate surrounding abortion was raging, Waltke wrote a follow-up piece for the Journal of the Evangelical Theology Society modifying his previous position. Having been challenged by some of his evangelical colleagues, he ultimately reverses his previous position and concludes:

The fetus is human and therefore to be accorded the same protection to life granted every other human being. Indeed, feticide is murder, an attack against a fellow man who owes his life to God and a violation of the commandment, ‘you shall not kill.[8]

Interestingly, however, Waltke’s change of heart is not based on a revised interpretation of the passage from Exodus 21. In fact, in a footnote, he states that he “still think[s] that interpretation is the proper one” and not only that, but that it is the “traditional interpretation” and “the unanimous interpretation of the ancients.”[9] In other words, although he still does not believe that Exodus 21 equates the termination of a pregnancy with murder, he does not think that alone warrants the “illogical conclusions [he] drew from it” in the Christianity Today article eight years earlier.

Noted Hebrew scholar Robert Alter has adopted this same reading in his recent translation and commentary, translating verses 22-23 like this:

And should men brawl and collide with a pregnant woman and her fetus come out but there be no other mishap, he shall surely be punished according to what the woman’s husband imposes on him, he shall pay by the reckoning. And if there is a mishap, you shall pay a life for life…

In the commentary notes he observes that various ancient manuscripts differ slightly regarding the phrase he’s translated “and her fetus comes out.” According to Alter, the traditional Hebrew of the Masoretic Text reads “and her children come out” while the Samaritan text and the Septuagint both have “and her fetus come out.” As for the phrase “no other mishap” Alter follows the older rabbinic interpretations and says, “The reference would have to be to the death, or at least grave impairment of the pregnant woman.”[10]

Richard Hays, mentioned above, interprets the passage similarly. He writes,

Although the passage does not directly deal with abortion, it seems to posit a qualitative distinction between the fetus and the mother; only the latter is legally a person with reference to whom the lex talionis applies (emphasis added).[11]

Although this particular interpretation has widespread agreement, not everyone agrees that it is, in fact, the correct reading. Various other interpreters have found the language to be more ambiguous. For example, as mentioned earlier, the traditional Hebrew could be literally translated “and her children come out,” and interpreted to be a premature birth, not necessarily a miscarriage. In such a case, the “following harm” could be interpreted to be the death or serious injury either of the prematurely-born infant or the mother. In other words, if the pregnant woman is struck causing her to give birth prematurely but the baby is alive and otherwise healthy, the attacker is only fined. But, if either the baby or the woman dies or is seriously injured, then the attacker must pay life for life, etc. Jack Cottrell, who served as a Professor of Theology at Cincinnati Christian University for 48 years, made this very argument in an article he wrote for Christianity Today in 1973. He concludes:

The interpretation of this passage that is most faithful to the text is that which distinguishes between a premature birth that harms neither the mother nor the child and a premature birth in which one or the other is injured or even dies. In the latter case, the life of the fetus is valued just as highly as the life as the mother.[12]

It should be noted, however, that Cottrell acknowledges that his is the minority view. In the very same article he states, “The majority of commentaries and translations are favorable to the interpretation discussed above. In numerous allusions to this text, the Talmud uniformly sees it as referring to a miscarriage.”[13] Cottrell also acknowledges that “if this interpretation is correct, the implications for the abortion dilemma are significant indeed” and “could have a profound influence upon how the principle of the lesser of two evils is applied to the problem.”[14] He further acknowledges that

If it can be established from Exodus 21:22-25 that the unborn fetus is qualitatively inferior to fully human life, then the Bible-believing Christian must give serious consideration to the contention that there are several circumstances that may be greater evils than abortion, such as mental disorder in the mother, the probability that the child will be born malformed, or the trauma of a pregnancy resulting from rape (emphasis original).[15]

In other words, Cottrell acknowledges both that the majority of interpreters believe this passage makes a qualitative distinction between the unborn and the born and that such an interpretation has significant implications in the abortion debate.

The concluding paragraph to Cottrell’s article contains a statement that I believe most of us today on both sides of the aisle would find shocking:

[My] conclusion about Exodus 21:22-25 will by no means settle the abortion issue. One might grant the validity of this interpretation and still in good Christian conscience be in favor of more liberal abortion practices (emphasis added). [16]

In the following installment in this series we’ll see yet another interpretation of this passage as we study what Christians and Jews throughout history have said about abortion specifically. Before we go there, however, I’d like to offer a few closing thoughts.

First, even though I believe the passage in Exodus 21 does describe a qualitative difference between the fetus and the mother in ancient Jewish case law, I think we must be careful about the kind of conclusions we draw from that in regard to the abortion debate. As I stated earlier, whatever light it shines on this issue, it does so quite indirectly. I agree with Klusendorf when he says

This passage does not even remotely suggest that a woman can willfully kill her unborn child through elective abortion. Nothing in the context supports this claim. At best the text assigns a lesser penalty for accidentally killing a fetus than for accidentally killing his mother. It simply does not follow that a woman may deliberately abort her own offspring.[17]

Furthermore, even if the Mosaic Law clearly permitted abortion, which it doesn’t, that would not automatically mean that we should permit abortion in twenty-first-century America. There are plenty of aspects of the Mosaic Law that I believe most of us are glad are not enshrined in our laws today. Additionally, even if the Bible clearly prohibited abortion, that would not automatically mean that we should criminalize abortion in twenty-first-century America. America is not a theocracy and not every Biblical command or prohibition ought to be codified into national law.

The only point I’m trying to make in this installment is that, contrary to what many of us have been told, the Bible does not clearly state that life begins at conception and it does not clearly state that abortion is murder. To sharpen the point from the other side, the Bible also does not clearly state that abortion is acceptable. What I hope has been clear is that the Bible is not black and white when it comes to abortion.

[1] Jerry Falwell, Listen America! (Garden City: Doubleday, 1981), 165–180.

[2] Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 135-144.

[3] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 446, Kindle Edition.

[4] Hays, 445.

[5] Hays 448.

[6] Fred Rosner, “The Fetus in Jewish Law,” My Jewish Learning, accessed February 6, 2019, (Reprinted with permission from Dr. Rosner’s book Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law.

[7]Bruce Waltke, “The Old Testament and Birth Control,” Christianity Today 13, no. 3 (November 8, 1968): 3.

[8] Waltke, “Reflections from the Old Testament On Abortion,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 19, no. 1 (March 1976).

[9] Waltke, Reflections.

[10] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol. 1, The Five Books of Moses (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019), 302-3.

[11] Hays, 447.

[12] Jack Cottrell, “Abortion and the Mosaic Law,” Christianity Today 17, no. 12 (March 16, 1973).

[13] Cottrell, “Abortion.”

[14] Cottrell, “Abortion.”

[15] Cottrell, “Abortion.”

[16] Cottrell, “Abortion.”

[17] Klusendorf, 142.