IS THE BIBLE SILENT ON ABORTION? NO, IT SPEAKS CLEARLY Since the Supreme Court of the United States overruled Roe v Wade, there has been a flurry of pro-choice anger, […]
IS THE BIBLE SILENT ON ABORTION? NO, IT SPEAKS CLEARLY
Since the Supreme Court of the United States overruled Roe v Wade, there has been a flurry of pro-choice anger, misunderstanding and misrepresentation. The Dobbs decision is apparently anti-democratic – which is ironic because the Supreme Court gave back the right of the people to vote on this matter at the State level (like Australia). This had been illegitimately taken from them in Roe in 1973. Rather than acting like an unaccountable legislator enforcing its own policy ideals, the majority of the court recognised they were there to interpret the Constitution. All the criticism of the decision I’ve seen has been of its impact, not the reasoning.
In the wake of Dobbs, pro-choice talking points have been circulating, one of them by Associate Professor of New Testaments Studies, Sean Winter. Winter asserts that the Bible is silent on abortion, and that Christians opposing abortion do it for cultural and political reasons, not theological.
These assertions are wrong. While not all arguments against abortion are theological (as demonstrated by secular pro-life groups), the Bible clearly has a pro-life ethic.
From the Old Testament
Granted, the word “abortion” is not used. Nevertheless, the Bible commands: “you shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). The question now becomes: are the unborn living humans? If they are, abortion becomes a sub-category of murder. Not specifically outlawing a sub-category does not invalidate the broader command.
Winter suggests, without evidence, this interpretation was a “cultural accommodation to the Greek/Platonic idea that the fetus is a living being”.
Is it not more likely that the Judaism of Jesus’ day already had moral objections to abortion, especially given the value placed on childbearing?
Winter asserts that Psalm 139:13-16 and Jeremiah 1:5 have no direct relation to the legal/ethical issues at stake. He is wrong. They are supremely relevant. The authors assume an identity between themselves in the present and themselves as an unborn baby. Nothing happened at birth to transform them into people.
These passages address profound questions. Was I “me” in the womb? Did I have rights competing with my mother’s? Just because these debates are modern does not mean these words from Scripture have no bearing, and simply asserting they are irrelevant does not make them so.
Winter cites John Collins who says there is “no divine revelation to be had.” Yet Collins cites Jeremiah wishing the man who brought his father news of his birth had instead killed him in the womb. Jeremiah was alive and himself in the womb, and wishes he had died there. The Bible says the unborn child is alive. Therefore, biblically, abortion kills an innocent life and is against God’s law of murder.
There are more examples. Samson’s mother is told that her son is to be a Nazarite from birth – especially set apart for God. Being a Nazarite was usually voluntary, but this was given to Samson from birth. His mother was told to refrain from certain activities forbidden to Nazarites because her childwould be a Nazarite. The process was starting even before his birth.
Winter uses Exodus 21:22-25 to defend his point that the unborn were not seen as persons. Exactly the opposite is true. The passage describes men who are fighting, and a pregnant woman is injured. Winter says, “the Hebrew version of this passage is clear about priorities: if all that happens is the fetus is lost through miscarriage then the man who injured the woman should just pay a fine.”
Yet the Hebrew is not clear. The Hebrew word for miscarriage is not used. Rather, the word is literally translated “to come out”. At least one translation retains this ambiguous word, some interpret it as “miscarriage”, while others, rightly in my opinion, interpret it as “born prematurely.” This interpretation makes sense of the eye-for-eye principle in those verses.
From the New Testament
John the Baptist “leaped for joy” when he heard the voice of Mary, pregnant with Jesus. This demonstrates the relationship between John and Jesus was in play even before their birth. John “prepare[ed] the way of the Lord” even before his birth.
Assertions that such an interpretation is “ridiculous and tendentious exegesis” do not make it so, especially in the wider biblical context concerning life in the womb. It’s also fascinating to note that the same Greek word describes the unborn John, the infant Jesus and the children/infants being brought to Jesus to bless.
Jesus himself, conceived by the Holy Spirit, was not a non-person until his birth. Throughout the history of the church, it has been held that the incarnation – God becoming flesh – occurred not at Jesus’ birth, but his conception.
Silence from Jesus and Paul on this issue is hardly surprising. Jesus was in a (Jewish) culture where abortion was seen as an attack on the image of God, breaking the law against murder, not to mention the cultural understanding that children are a blessing from the Lord.
Paul wrote letters to churches who took on the Jewish scriptures as their own, and so would be formed by its worldview on children. Moreover, they were letters written in response to problems in the church. Abortion was not one of those, it seems.
But their silence is hardly an argument. It is entirely possible they did speak on these issues, but it wasn’t recorded. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Winter notes that second century Jewish teachers made exceptions when the life of the mother was threatened. As far as I’m aware, that is the argument for all pro-life groups, and is irrelevant – even calling it “abortion” is misleading. In these cases, preserving life is the goal, and the death of the unborn is the tragic side-effect. Killing the unborn is the goal of abortion.
The Bible is not silent on abortion. Its view on the unborn, that they are humans deserving protection, accords with other ancient cultures, and with science. As medicine has advanced, we have discovered the unborn child is a unique, complex, living human being, with DNA distinct from the mother’s. Science agrees with the Bible, as other ancient cultures did, and many cultures around the world today.
Christians should not feel intimidated when an associate professor of New Testament Studies asserts that their views are not actually biblical. Not even when they use words like “ridiculous”. First, plenty of Biblical scholars argue strongly that our views are biblical. Second, and more importantly, our authority is not the “experts”, but the Scripture itself. We read it, all of it, interpreting Scripture with Scripture, understanding one part in the light of the other parts. We become like the Bereans, examining what we’re told to see if these things are so (Acts 17:11).
– Jesse Walz is the Presbyterian minister at Eaglehawk in Victoria