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IV. Answering the Theological Case for Abortion Rights: The Bible

[The following material is presented here, with permission, from the Center for Bioethical Reform. Priests for Life is grateful to the authors, Gregg Cunningham and Scott Klusendorf.]

I. Why the Bible's Alleged Silence on Abortion Cannot Be Used To Justify the Practice

A. Some actions are wrong even if Scripture is "silent"

B. Scripture affirms the humanity of the unborn child

C. The Bible's alleged silence on abortion does not mean that its authors condoned the practice, but that prohibitions against it were unnecessary

D. The texts that abortion advocates use to discredit the full humanity of the unborn do not support their position

A. Some actions are wrong even if Scripture is "silent."

1. Strange as it may seem, liberals are now citing Scripture (well, sort of) to defend child killing. They argue that since the Bible does not expressly condemn abortion, pro-lifers shouldn't either. As one abortion advocate put it, those against abortion should "speak when the Bible speaks and be silent when the Bible is silent."

2. There are a number of problems with this argument, not the least of which is the twisted assumption that because a particular behavior escapes mention in Scripture, it is therefore permissible. To cite an example, the Bible does not expressly condemn ax-murdering, yet few liberals would venture a defense of Jeffrey Dahmer. Nor does the Bible directly condemn infanticide (the killing of babies immediately after birth), but not even Gloria Steinem would sanction cutting up newborns for their body parts. As Francis Beckwith points out, if one accepts the principle that whatever the Bible does not expressly forbid is permissible, "one would be in the horrible position of sanctioning everything from slavery to nuclear warfare."

3. But while the Bible may not expressly condemn abortion, it does condemn the taking of human life without justification (Exodus 23:7; Proverbs 6:16-17; Matthew 5:21, etc.). From this it logically follows that if Scripture establishes the humanity of the unborn child, then abortion-on-demand cannot be morally permissible. Hence, the key question is not "Does the Bible expressly forbid abortion?" but "Does Scripture treat the unborn as human?" When framed this way, it becomes clear that Scripture indeed establishes the humanity of those in the womb.

B. Scripture affirms the humanity of the unborn child.

1. Scripture uses the same language for the unborn as it does other children. Luke's gospel uses the word "baby" or "child" (Gr. brephos ) to describe John the Baptist prior to his birth. We are told in 1:41 and 1:44 that the "baby" (brephos) leapt in Elizabeth's womb. But one chapter later (2:12,16), the already born Christ child is also referred to as a "baby" (brephos ). Since brephos is commonly used to describe infants and older children (Luke 18:15, Acts 7:19, 1 Peter 2:2), Luke's use of the word for the pre-born John the Baptist is not without significance.

The Old Testament, meanwhile, uses variations of the word "child" or "children" for both the born and unborn, and in several instances applies personal language to the conceived embryo. Job said (3:3), "May the day perish on which I was born, and the night in which it was said, 'a male child is conceived."' [Hebrew word gebher [man child] is used here to describe Job at the point of conception. The word is often used for adult males, but is applied here to a conceived embryo.]
As Beckwith observes, "This passage connects the individual born with the individual conceived." Job is clearly using personal language to trace his humanity back beyond birth to the act of conception. The Psalmist, using similar language (51:5), writes, "In sin did my mother conceive me."

2. Scripture shows that God knows the unborn personally. The Bible does not speak of the unborn child as an unthinking, unfeeling tissue mass, but as a person with whom God interacts. Jeremiah 1:5 quotes Jehovah as saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you." The Psalmist declares (22: 10), "From my mother's womb you have been my God" and later marvels at God forming his "inward parts" and "weaving" him together in the womb. He concludes by saying, "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in secret .... Your eyes saw my unformed substance" (139:13-16).

Now some try to dismiss these passages as applying only to prophets or other special persons. But Scripture does not discriminate on the basis of status. Job, for example, says of his slaves and maidservants (31:15), "Did not He who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same One fashion us in the womb?"

3. Scripture teaches that God not only knows the unborn, but endows them with purpose long before birth. The Angel of the Lord tells Samson's parents, "The Child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death" (Judges 13:7). Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul tells us (Gal. 1:15) that he was "set apart in the womb" to serve Christ -- something not likely to be true of a mere tissue blob or "potential" human. But perhaps the most vivid example is that of the incarnation: Christ enters our world as a conceived embryo and hence fully identifies with the whole spectrum of human existence from conception through death. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, "In all things He had to be made like His brethren that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest" (Hebrews 12:7).

4. Nonetheless, some have questioned the use of these passages to establish the humanity of the unborn. Concerning those passages that describe the unborn in personal terms, one author writes, "Such references designate individuals not only before birth but before conception... and so they are not really to the point." But passages such as Jeremiah 1:5 do not claim that unborn children exist prior to conception, but only that God knows and has plans for them before they are conceived. As Beckwith points out, "This is certainly possible for an eternal God who knows all things simultaneously and is not bound by time or space." (See, for example, Ps. 90:2; Isa.46:9-10; Col. 1:16-17.) In short, Divine foreknowledge cannot be used to dismiss the full humanity of the unborn child.

These examples, while not exhaustive, sufficiently prove that Scripture treats the unborn as human persons. And since the Bible clearly forbids killing people without justification, we can logically infer that it condemns abortion-on-demand as well.

C. The Bible's alleged silence on abortion does not mean that its authors condoned the practice, but that prohibitions against it were unnecessary.

1. If a visitor from another planet were asked to examine the Biblical documents for clues on abortion, he would have to admit that the word does not appear. But a visitor with a sense of history might say, "Tell me what the laws, beliefs and customs were when the Bible was written and from these I shall infer whether or not its authors ever intended to condone abortion."

2. Turning first to the Old Testament, our visitor would find:

*that the concept of "life" was regarded as the highest good, while "death" was seen as the worst evil. Hence the challenge found in Deuteronomy 30:19--"Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose Life, so that you and your children may live."

*that man was not a chance or a mere assemblage of cells, but that he was created in the image of God. Hence, the shedding of innocent blood was strictly forbidden (Genesis 9:6; Exodus 23:7, Prov. 6:16-17)

*that children were never seen as "unwanted" or as a nuisance, but as a gift from God -- the highest possible blessing (Psalm 127:3-5, 113:9, Gen. 17:6, 33:5, etc.)

*that immortality was achieved through one's descendants. God's "promise" to Abraham to make of him a great nation was passed on to Isaac, Jacob, etc. "Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from Him," writes the Psalmist (127:3; See also Gen. 48:16).

*that sterility and barrenness were seen as a curse, a source of great shame and sorrow. Hence, Peninnah's harsh ridicule of Hannah, the prophet Samuel's mother, because of the latter's initial barrenness (1 Samuel 1:6. see also Gen. 20:17-18, 30:1, 22-23,etc.).

*that God was at work in the womb fashioning a human for His purposes (Ps.139:13-16, Isa. 49:1,5; Jer.1:5).

Among a people who saw life as the highest good and death the worst of evils, who saw man as being created in the image of God, who saw children as the highest possible blessing, who saw immortality as being achieved through one's descendants, who saw sterility and barrenness as a curse, who saw God at work in the womb--among such a people, the concept of induced abortion was extremely unlikely to find a foothold. Hence, the Old Testament's silence on abortion indicates that prohibitions against it were completely unnecessary, not that the practice was tacitly approved. (See Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments, Corpus Books, 1970, pp. 123-127 for a lengthy discussion of this point.)

In short, liberals who argue for abortion rights from the alleged silence of the Old Testament are committing a gross hermeneutical fallacy. Basic to good Biblical interpretation is the rule that "a text can never mean [to us] what it never could have meant to its author or his readers."(See Gordon Fee, How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth, Zondervan 1982, p.60.) In other words, it is important to interpret Scripture within its own intellectual and cultural framework without reading into it a foreign world view. The idea that the absence of a direct prohibition meant that women had a God-given right to kill their offspring would have been utterly foreign to the Hebrew culture of that day for the reasons cited above.

3. Turning to the New Testament, our visitor would quickly observe:

*that the first Christians, including all but one of the New Testament authors, were Jewish Christians with an essentially Jewish morality. Hence, if there was a Jewish consensus on abortion at the time, the early Christians most certainly would have shared that consensus.

*that early Judaism was, in fact, quite firmly opposed to abortion. As Michael Gorman points out in his excellent article "Why Is the New Testament Silent About Abortion?" (Christianity Today, Jan. 11, 1993), Jewish documents from the period condemn the practice unequivocally, demonstrating a clear antiabortion consensus among first century Jews:

-- The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (written between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50) says, "A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures."

-- Sibyline Oracles: includes among the wicked those who "produce abortions and unlawfully cast their offspring away" as well as sorcerers who dispense abortifacients.

-- I Enoch (first or second century B.C.) says that an evil angel taught humans how to "smash the embryo in the womb."

-- Philo of Alexandria (Jewish philosopher, 25 B.C. to A.D.41) rejected the notion that the fetus is merely part of the mother's body.

-- I Josephus (first-century Jewish historian) wrote, "The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus." (A woman who did so was considered to have committed infanticide because she destroyed a "soul" and hence diminished the race.)

No contradictory texts exist! Given this consensus, the most logical conclusion is that the Jewish Christian writers of the New Testament shared the anti-abortion views of their Jewish heritage -- even if they never expressly mention the word "abortion" in their writings.

*that the theology of the New Testament is primarily task theology written to address specific issues in specific churches. In other words, the New Testament as a whole does not constitute a comprehensive code of ethics (although we certainly can derive certain principles of right and wrong from what's written), but rather each document deals only with those moral issues which had become problems. For example, the Apostle Paul seldom mentions the historical career of Christ, but this does not mean that he was ignorant of it or questioned its validity. Rather, it means that a discussion of this sort never became necessary. Writes theologian George Eldon Ladd:

Many studies in Paul have worked with the implicit assumption that his letters record all his ideas, and when some important matter was not discussed, they have assumed it was because it had no place in Paul's thought. This is a dangerous procedure; the argument from silence should be employed only with the greatest of caution. Paul discusses many subjects only because a particular need in a given church required his instruction .... We would never know much about Paul's thought on the resurrection had it not been questioned in Corinth. We might conclude that Paul knew no tradition about the Lord's supper had not abuses occurred in the Corinthian congregation. In other words, we may say that we owe whatever understanding we have of Paul's thought to the "accidents of history" which required him to deal with various problems, doctrinal and practical, in the life of the churches" (A Theology of the New Testament, EErdmans, 1974, pp.377-8. Emph. added).

Likewise, the New Testament's silence on abortion does not mean that its authors approved of the practice, but that a discussion of the issue never became necessary. In other words, there was no deviation from the norm inherited from Judaism. The early Christians simply were not tempted to kill their children before or after birth.

*that many of the texts used by early Christians did condemn abortion. Although these early Christian works eventually lost their bid for canonicity, they do express how the first Christians felt on a variety of issues -- including abortion. As Gorman points out, these early writings were read and preached in many congregations throughout the Roman Empire up until the fourth century. Examples include:

-- The Didache: "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn."

-- The Epistle of Barnabas: "You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn."

-- Apocalypse of Peter [describing a vision of Hell]: "I saw women who produced children out of wedlock and who procured abortions."

These texts, writes Gorman, "bear witness to the general Jewish and Jewish-Christian attitude of the first and second centuries, thus confirming that the earliest Christians shared the anti-abortion position of their Jewish forebears."

Given this overwhelming consensus against abortion by early Jewish Christians, our "visitor" would reason that what Jewish morality condemned, the writers of the New Testament never intended to legitimize.

(For further study, see Michael Gorman, Abortion & the Early Church, Intervarsity Press, 1982)

D. The texts that abortion advocates use to discredit the full humanity of the unborn do not support their position.

1. Exodus 21: 22-25. The passage as cited in the NIV reads: "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 courts allow. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye…." Liberals argue that this Scripture proves the unborn are not fully human because the penalty for accidentally killing a fetus is less than that given were its mother accidentally killed. But this argument is flawed on several counts.

First, assuming the pro-abortion interpretation of this passage is correct (i.e. that the unborn's death is treated differently than the mother's), it does not follow that the unborn are not fully human. The preceding passage presents a situation where a master unintentionally kills his slave and escapes with no penalty at all (the lack of intent being proven by the interval between the blow and the death.). Yet few liberals would argue that Scripture considers the slave to be less than human. Likewise, it does not follow that the unborn entity is non-human simply because the penalty for its death is less than that given were its mother to die. It might be argued that both the slave and the unborn child had a lesser social status in Hebrew society, but it cannot be demonstrated from this that a lesser social status meant that one was less than fully human.

Second, even if abortion advocates are correct about this passage, it cannot be used to support abortion on demand. Liberals argue that any woman should be able to kill any baby at any point in the pregnancy for any reason or no reason. This passage, however, does not even remotely suggest that a woman can willfully kill her unborn child without justification. At best, it only shows that there is a lesser penalty for accidentally killing her unborn offspring than there is for accidentally killing her. "To move from this truth to the conclusion that abortion-on-demand is justified is a non sequitur," writes Beckwith in Politically Correct Death. (p. 143)

Third, this single passage cannot be used to invalidate other Scriptures which confer full human status on the unborn. As mentioned earlier, passages such as Job 3:3,10-16, Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5, Galatians 1:15, etc. all treat the unborn as persons. The abortion advocate must somehow reconcile his own interpretation of this passage with these other Scriptures which are clearly not supportive of his view.

Finally, the pro-abortion interpretation of this passage (that a person who kills an unborn child only incurs a fine) has come under heavy fire from many Biblical scholars. There is a great deal of discussion about the phrase, "no serious injury." "No serious injury to whom?" asks theologian R.C. Sproul. Liberals, of course, argue that the phrase only applies to the mother. But only a few translations, such as the Jerusalem Bible, actually interpret the verse in this way. When read in the original Hebrew, the passage seems to suggest that both the mother and the child are covered by the lex talionis -- the law of retribution. The Hebrew term ason (harm/injury) is clearly indefinite in its reference, and the expression lah (to her), which would restrict the word "injury" only to the mother, is missing. Hence, the phrase, "no serious injury" seems to apply equally to both mother and child and if either is harmed the penalty is "life for life, tooth for tooth, hand for hand," etc. According to Hebrew scholar Dr. Gleason Archer, "There is no second class status attached to the fetus under this rule. The fetus is just as valuable as the mother." (Cited in J. Ankerberg and J. Weldon, When Does Life Begin, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989 pp. 195-6. See also, Meredith Kline, "Lex Talionis & the Human Fetus," Simon Greenleaf Law Review 5 [1985-1986] pp.73-89.)

2. Free moral agency. Some liberals argue that since God created human beings as free moral agents, laws restricting abortion must be against His will. This argument is subject to two criticisms.

First, as Beckwith points out (pp. 141-2), it is simply untrue that laws limiting "free moral agency" are contrary to God's will. For example, laws banning rape, theft, murder and the use of crack cocaine invariably restrict the free moral agency of others. Few complain, however, because it is widely recognized that these laws protect the free agency of others who have a right not to be harmed by such behavior (i.e. a woman who is raped is prevented from exercising her free moral agency, hence laws against rape are perfectly just).

Second, the argument from free moral agency only works if the abortion advocate begs the question and assumes that the unborn are not human. For if the unborn are indeed human, laws restricting abortion would be perfectly just since the free agency of another, the unborn child, would be violated by an act of abortion. Hence, the question, "Are the unborn human?" must be addressed (and not merely assumed) before the question of free moral agency is discussed.

3. Psalm 51:5 and 139:13-16. Abortion advocates insist these passages teach only that the unborn are "being formed," not that they are human persons. As Beckwith points out, there are three fundamental problems with this argument.

First, even if abortion advocates are right about these texts, they would still have to explain other Scriptural references (such as Gen. 4: 1, Job 3:3, etc.) which clearly state that a person's existence begins at conception.

Second, those who use this argument commit the world view fallacy mentioned earlier. Basic to good hermeneutics is the principle that a text can never mean to us what it never could have meant to its author or original readers. In other words, it's critical that we interpret Scripture within its own intellectual and cultural framework without reading into it a foreign world view. The distinction between "biological human life" and "human person" is a creation of modem pro-abortion thought which demands that the fetus meet certain developmental criteria before qualifying as fully human. (Carl Sagan, for example, insists that human personhood cannot possibly exist until the sixth month of pregnancy -- when the fetus becomes fully sentient.) Since neither the Psalmist nor his readers were aware of this modem distinction, Psalm 51:5 cannot be used to support the pro-abortion position without doing violence to the text.

Third, far from undermining the humanity of the unborn this passage clearly affirms it. The Psalmist tells us in no uncertain terms exactly when his life began: "In sin did my mother conceive me," he writes, linking his status as a person to the act of conception. Hence, the first part of Psalm 51:5 ("I was brought forth" or "was being formed") best describes "the subsequent physical development of David in the womb, which continues after birth into infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood" (Beckwith, pp. 148-9).

The same can be said of Psalm 139:13-16. Liberals claim that because the unborn are still "unformed" (verse 16), they are therefore not fully human. But as Norman Geisler points out, "unformed doesn't mean non-human any more than deformed does." And since passages like this actually describe God's personal relationship with the unborn, it's strange that abortion advocates would use them to support their claim of an unthinking, unfeeling fetus.

4. Genesis 2:7. the argument for "breath" (nephesh). The argument goes that the first man, Adam, became a living soul when God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Since the unborn don't 'breathe' until birth, they are not fully human. This argument is utterly vacuous.

First, it is scientifically imprecise to say that the unborn do not 'breathe' until birth. From conception forward, the unborn child receives and transfers oxygen, though not through the lungs. What changes at birth is the mode of breathing: instead of receiving oxygen through the placenta, the child begins to breathe through its lungs. Hence, the argument can be made that birth does not mark the beginning of human respiration.

Second, if the ability to sustain oxygen through the lungs is what indeed makes one human, then all those dependent on ventilators and oxygen machines would have to be classed as non-human.

Finally, the analogy between Adam and the unborn child does not fit. The creation of Adam was a unique historical event in which God formed Adam from inanimate matter (dust) and then breathed into him the "breath of life." The unborn child, on the other hand, is a living entity from conception. Hence, the passage does nothing to discredit the humanity of the unborn.

(For a complete analysis of these and other key pro-abortion theological arguments, see Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, pp. 141-150.)

Public Speaking on Abortion


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