Abortion in the Bible
Passages from the Pentateuch: the
|Genesis 2:7 God made Adam's body out of the dust of the earth. Later, the "man
became a living soul" only after God "breathed into his nostrils the
breath of life." |
Some suggest that this passage seems to state clearly that Adam's personhood started when he took his first breath. Following this reasoning, a newborn would become human after it starts breathing. If a fetus is only potentially human, then an abortion would not terminate the life of a human person. The most important word in the Hebrew Scriptures that was used to describe a person was "nephesh;" it appears 755 times in the Old Testament. It is translated as "living soul" in the above passage. One scholar, H.W. Wolff, 1 believes that the word's root means "to breath." He argues that during Old Testament times, "Living creatures are in this way exactly defined in Hebrew as creatures that breathe."
An alternate interpretation is that Adam and Eve were unique creations. They did not start as a fetus, and were not born. They were fully formed as adults. It is not valid to compare a newborn who has not yet breathed to a fully formed adult who has not yet breathed.
|Genesis 25:21-23 "...Rebekah his wife conceived. And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the LORD.
And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger."|
The passage refers to the twin fetuses of Rebekah as being "nations." They are clearly not nations at that stage of development; the word has to be interpreted symbolically. They are rather two fetuses who were later born and whose subsequent descendents -- according to the Bible -- became two nations. The passage also refers to the twin fetuses as "banim:" a Hebrew word which almost always means a "newborns" or "infants," or "children." The ancient Hebrews did not have a separate word to describe "fetuses." So they used the same word to describe fetuses that they also used to refer to children.
Some suggest that since the ancient Hebrews used "banim" to refer to fetuses, newborns, infants and children, that they regarded all four as simply stages of human personhood.
English translations of the Bible use the term "children" here; this would more accurately be translated as "fetuses" except that the latter primarily a medical term. Again, the passage does not address the main question: were the fetuses full persons, or are they potential persons at the time?
|Genesis 38:24 Tamar's pregnancy was discovered three months after conception,
presumably because it was visible at that time. This was positive proof that
she had been sexually active. Because she was a widow, without a
husband, she was assumed to be a prostitute. Her father-in-law Judah ordered that she be
burned alive for her crime. If Tamar's twin fetuses had been considered to be
human beings, one would have expected her execution would have been delayed until after their birth. There was
no condemnation on Judah for deciding to take this action. (Judah later changed his mind
when he found out that he was the man responsible for Tamar's pregnancy.) |
If the fetuses that she was carrying are not to be regarded as living human beings at the end of her first trimester of pregnancy, then causing their death would not be a great moral concern.
However, if the twin fetuses are to be considered as human persons, then it seems strange that they would be considered of such little value as to allow them to be killed for the alleged sin of the woman carrying them. In this latter case, we see another example of a theme that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation: that it is acceptable to kill or otherwise punish innocent persons for the sins or crimes of others -- the pregnant woman in this case.
An alternate interpretation is that innocent persons were often punished for the sins of one member of the family. See Joshua 7:21, Daniel 3:28-19, and Daniel 6:24). So it would be normal to give little concern to the fetuses.
|Exodus 13:1-2 "The Lord said to Moses, 'Consecrate to me every firstborn
male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether
[hu]man or animal.'" Throughout much of the ancient Middle East, the firstborn
son in each family was ritually murdered as a sacrifice to the Gods. However if the
first son was preceded either by the birth of a girl or a miscarriage, then the ceremony
is not performed, as the son was not the first offering of the womb. In later years, this
practice evolved into a substitute animal sacrifice, or a cash donation to the temple, or
a dedication of the child to their deity. "...the ancestors of the Israelites
probably at one time actually sacrificed their first born children, as Genesis
22:1-14 implies." 2 These passages relate to
infanticide, not abortion, because the infant would be killed after birth. But it shows
the low regard for newborn humans during that era. Other references of human
sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures are found at:
|Exodus 20:13"You shall not murder." This
verse is often mistranslated "Thou shalt not kill." Murder
is actually being referred to -- the killing of a
human person. |
Since the Jewish religion has traditionally interpreted the Torah as implying that a fetus as achieving full personhood only when it is half emerged from the birth canal, this verse would not apply to abortion.
|Exodus 21:22 If men strive [fight] an hurt a woman with
child, so that her fruit [fetus] 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.
One source comments that
because some Bible translations (KJV, RSV) use the phrase "woman with child"
that God considers a fetus to be a human child. 3 But other
translations render the phrase simply as "pregnant woman" and make no
direct reference to the fetus.
Verse 22 is confusing. The key Hebrew word "yatsa" literally means to "lose her offspring." 4 This has been translated in different Bible versions as:
The New International Version of the Bible uses the phrase: "gives birth prematurely." and offers "miscarriage" as an alternative translation in a footnote. These two options result in totally opposite interpretations: one supporting the pro-choice faction; the other supporting the pro-life movement.
Some liberal theologians reject this interpretation. 5 They point out that this passage appears to have been derived from two earlier Pagan laws, whose intent is quite clear:
Author Brian McKinley, a born-again Christian, sums the passage up with: "Thus we can
see that if the baby is lost, it does not require a death sentence -- it is not considered
murder. But if the woman is lost, it is considered murder and is punished by death."
|Exodus 22:29"Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors: the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me." Many Old Testament theologians believe that this is another remnant of the time when the ancient Hebrews and Canaanites ritually murdered their first son, sacrificing him to their god.|
|Leviticus 17:11: For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I
have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it
is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. It is a bit of a
stretch, but this passage might possibly be interpreted as implying that
personhood begins in the embryo when blood first becomes present. Since the
heart starts beating about 21 days after conception, then one might argue that
the embryo becomes a human person at that stage of pregnancy.|
|Leviticus 27:6 And if it be from a month old even unto five years old, then
thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of silver and for the female three shekels.
A child was only given a value after the age of one month; boys were worth five shekels;
girls were of less value at three shekels; below that age, (and presumably before birth) they were assigned no monetary
An alternate explanation is that there was such a high infant mortality rate that one could only be confident that there was a reasonable chance of a newborn surviving after the first month had passed.
|Numbers 3:15 Take a census...including every male a month or more old.
Only male babies over one month of age were considered persons for the purposes of
enumeration. One explanation of this policy was that an infant under one month of age and a fetus were apparently not worthy of being
counted as a human. Another is that the death rate among newborns was so
high, that one could not have a reasonable certainty that the child would
live until it was at least a month old.|
|Numbers 5:12-31 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some
dust from the tabernacle floor into the water..... This passage
describes a ritual that a husband could force his wife to endure if he
suspected that she had engaged in an adulterous relationship. He would
and an offering of barely meal to the tabernacle, where the priest would make a magical drink consisting of holy water and
sweepings from the tabernacle floor. He would have the woman drink the water while he
recited a curse on her. The curse would state that her abdomen would swell and her thigh
waste away if she had committed adultery. Otherwise, the curse would have no
effect. If she were pregnant at this time, the curse
would certainly induce an abortion. Yet nobody seems to have been concerned about the fate of
any embryo or fetus that was present. Needless to say, there was no similar magical test that a woman could require her husband
to take if she suspected him of adultery. |
|Numbers 31:17-18 Now, kill all the boys. And kill every women who has slept
with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. This
occurred at end of the genocidal campaign against the Midianites. Moses, presumably under orders
from God, ordered the soldiers to kill every boy and non-virgin woman. Presumably,
a significant percentage of
the latter would be pregnant. So, their fetus was killed along with the mother-to-be.
The fetuses would be destroyed, presumably because they were perceived to have
had no value. The
female virgins would be spared, because they were considered to have significant
|Deuteronomy 2:34 "At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed
them - men, women and children. We left no survivors." The Israelites tried to
negotiate peaceful passage through the land of Heshbon. They were unsuccessful. So,
apparently under the instruction of God, they
exterminated all of the people, including innocent children. This
killing the fetuses of pregnant
women . This is an early example of
genocide based on religious belief, not unlike the genocides perpetrated by
Christians against non-Christians in Nazi Germany during
World War II, and in Bosnia Herzegovina
in the 1990s. It demonstrated no regard for the life of the fetuses
who were destroyed.|
An alternate interpretation is that this genocide was perpetrated during wartime, when very ugly things happen.
|Deuteronomy 30:19: "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may
live." The segment "choose life, that...thy seed may
live" at first glance might be interpreted as referring to
the choice to not have an abortion. It is even clearer in the Living
Bible which says "Choose life, that...your children might
It is always important to consider the context of any isolated quotation. Verses 15 to 18 clearly state that the choice referred to in verse 19 is whether to worship either Jehovah, or the gods of the Canaanites, whose land they were about to invade. Verse 20 picks up the same theme. Verse 19 thus relates to religious choices and is unrelated to abortion. However, the "choose life" portion of this verse is often quoted by pro-life groups. Michigan Christians for Life offers a free, 3" x 6" bumper-sticker which says simply "Deuteronomy 30:19." 6 Automobile license plates that carry the "choose life" message are available in several Southern U.S. states, although their constitutionality is suspect.
|Deuteronomy 32:23-26: "I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them. They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction: I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them, with the poison of serpents of the dust. The sword without, and terror within, shall destroy both the young man and the virgin, the suckling also with the man of gray hairs. I said, I would scatter them into corners, I would make the remembrance of them to cease from among men." God is here describing how he will commit genocide against a specific nation. He will murder of persons of all ages and both genders, from infants to old people. It also involves erasing the memory of them as a nation. Presumably, fetuses would also die during the genocide.|
|History of beliefs about abortion in the early Christian movement|
|Jewish beliefs about abortion|
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Copyright © 1997 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on
Last update and review: 2010-JAN-29
Author: B.A. Robinson
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