Abortion: What Do the Scriptures and the Churches Say?
Abortion may be the most morally charged political issue in U.S. society today. For some Christians and other Americans opposition to or support for the legality of abortion is the priority driving their party affiliation and voting decisions. Yet, looking carefully at Scripture and church history we find nuance and complexity. When does personal human life begin? Does being pro-life/anti-abortion as a moral conviction necessarily mean wanting the Government to legislate its prohibition? Is there a place for the pregnant woman’s decision-making? These are challenging questions. Let’s explore them together.
Roe v Wade (1973) and subsequent Supreme Court decisions ruled that the fetus (from the Latin “bringing forth, offspring,” so, fetus = unborn offspring) begins to have legal protection only at “viability,” or when capable of living outside the womb. This is now typically between 22 to 23 weeks. Prior to viability no reason for an abortion is needed. Individual states can place some requirements as long as they don’t create a “undue burden” for a woman to secure an abortion (though in practice some state regulations do). After viability states are free to prohibit abortions, and most do, as long as there is an exception for when the life or health — physical or mental — of the woman is endangered. The most recent available survey shows that in the U.S. only 1.3% of abortions took place at 21 weeks or later; 65% took place in the first 8 weeks, and 91.1% were at or before 13 weeks.
The majority of those getting abortions are unmarried women in their 20s. The reasons most often given for obtaining an abortion are that having a child would interfere with education, work or the ability to care for dependents, and insufficient financial resources to raise a child. 12% relate to the health of the woman or fetus, 1% rape and .05% incest. According to U.S. government statistics, after reaching a high of more than 1,600,000 in 1990, the number of reported abortions in the U.S. has fallen to around 600,000 annually. This is about the same as it was the year before Roe. In 2014 17% of women getting abortions identified themselves as mainline Protestant, 13% as Evangelical, 24% as Catholic, 8% another religion and 38% no religious affiliation.
When does personal life begins?
No Scripture directly addresses abortion. There are, however, passages that may have a bearing on when life begins. For many Christians this is the key to whether abortion should be legal or illegal.
Texts about life in the womb. In Luke 1: 15 the angel says that John the Baptist “will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.” This is followed by Luke 1:44 where Elizabeth says to Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” The Psalmist (139:13) writes, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” In Jeremiah 1:5, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” In Isaiah 44:24, God says to his people that he “formed you in the womb.” The Apostle Paul writes about “God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb” (Gal. 1:15).
Many Christians understand these verses to affirm personal human existence in-utero. Taken literally, the Luke verses especially speak in these terms. However, scholars generally understand these verses as poetically emphasizing the profoundness of God’s love and calling and expressing the wonder of developing new life, rather than literally affirming in-utero personal existence. And even if taken literally, they don’t say at what point during fetal development an individual human being emerges. Mary was in her sixth month when she visited Elizabeth. The issue of when in the womb “ensoulment,” or what today we might call “personhood,” occurs has been debated throughout church history.
The repeated Old Testament phrase that a woman “conceived and bore” a child also suggests a continuity of existence from conception to the life of the fetus to birth and beyond. Science too affirms this continuity. If I trace back my existence as a unique living organism coded with my DNA, human in nature, biologically alive and distinguishable from all other, to its earliest state, that would be the zygote – the new product of conception. Biologically, the embryo in my mother’s womb is me at the earliest stage. Still, as Scripture shows, a human being is more than biological existence, so personal life could be understood as coming later than conception. Scientists themselves tend to view human life as emerging during a process of in-utero development rather than occurring at a single, identifiable point.
Texts identifying life and breath. Some Christians believe Scripture says that human life begins at birth, with the first breath. In their view abortion doesn’t take a life. Several Scriptures identify life with breath. In Genesis 2:7 after fully forming Adam’s physical body, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Adam becomes alive only after starting to breathe. Similarly, in Ezekiel 37 and Revelation 11 life is bestowed only with the gift of breath.
More generally, life and breath are equated in Genesis where God gave plants for food to “everything that has the breath of life in it.” God tells Noah that he will “bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it” (Gen. 6:17). Job uses a classic Hebrew parallelism (where a second phrase repeats the first in different words having the same meaning) equating life and breath when he says that he will speak truthfully “as long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils” (Job 27:3). As does Isaiah, when he writes that the earth’s Creator “gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it” (42:5). Finally, death occurs when breath ceases. “Then Abraham breathed his last and died” (Gen. 25:8). “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last” (Mark 15:37).
For these Scriptures, to be alive is to have breath. The Hebrew words “breath” and “spirit” are the same. Because humans begin to breathe at birth, these verses may invite the understanding that personal human life begins with the first breath, exists while breath lasts, and ends (for mortal existence) when breath permanently stops. For some Christians these verses support the legality of abortion.
Exodus 21:22-25. “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that her fruit depart (lit.), and yet no 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.”
Churches and scholars differ over whether “her fruit depart” means a miscarriage or a premature birth, and whether “harm” refers to injury to the mother or to a child. The great majority of translations historically and today read “has a miscarriage” or its equivalent. They indicate that the harm or injury subject to the “life for life, eye for eye” (lex talionis) penalty for personal injury or death is harm to the mother, not to the child. If these translations and the scholars who made them are right, Exodus 21:22-25 says that under Mosaic Law the fetus has an important value but is not considered to be a living person.
Beginning in 1978 a few translations have rendered the passage, as “she gives birth prematurely, but there is no serious injury (implied, to the child).” This translation suggests that a fetus is considered a human person. Indeed, in this reading if there is a premature stillborn birth as a result of the mother being accidently hit, even if she herself is uninjured, the “life for life” penalty is invoked.
A unique alternative: The 2nd century B.C. Greek “Septuagint” translation of the Hebrew Scriptures – popular with Jews of Jesus’ time and quoted in the Greek New Testament — has an intriguing rendering that influenced some early Christian theologians. It reads in English, “and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a [monetary] penalty . . . But if it be perfectly formed [and the baby is injured], he shall give life for life, eye for eye . . .” In this wording only a fetus that is fully formed is considered a living person with the offender subject to the lex talionis(law of retaliation).
In sum, focusing on specific verses doesn’t tell us much. Depending on which verses we emphasize and how we interpret them, we might conclude that personal life begins at conception, or at birth, or perhaps at some point in-utero. We should be honest with ourselves that no individual verses tell us when personhood begins without taking some verses out of context and ignoring others. Nevertheless, whether or not the fetus is a living person, abortion ends a potential and developing human life. If not homicide, abortion intervenes in a natural process that barring miscarriage would result in the birth of a unique individual and precious member of the human family loved by God.
Looking to Jesus and Scripture as a whole, we find a tremendous value placed by God on human life, the sacredness of life created in the image of God, and God’s sacrificial love in Christ to redeem human life. Jesus calls us to love the vulnerable, the person of a different race or ethnicity, the foreigner, and even our enemies. His story of the Good Samaritan shows that the “neighbor” we are to love at great risk and sacrifice is the one who needs us, who may not survive without our compassionate care. It is not difficult to see Jesus’ breathtakingly inclusive love as extending to the emerging human life in the womb.
God is the Creator of life, and the new life developing in the womb is a work of God. It is how God makes us. All life belongs to God, not to us, and is a gift to be received with thanksgiving. Jesus who welcomes the little children asks us to do the same. Welcoming a new life into the world and working to make the world a place where every child once born can flourish, shares in the Spirit of Christ. Non-theists too can experience wonder at the in-utero formation of new human life and celebrate its preciousness.
Also important to this discussion is that Jesus relates to women with uncommon respect. He lifts up the position of women, who were devalued in society. He recognized women’s personal agency, chose women to be among his close followers, and appeared first to women as witnesses of his resurrection. Women are created in the image of God, possess intrinsic dignity and, like men, are called to “reign” in life as God’s viceroys (Gen. 1:26-28; Rom. 5:17). Accordingly, a pregnant woman’s discernment of God’s will in a matter directly affecting her life and emerging child should be accorded significant weight.
The Early Church and Catholicism. In the late 1st and early 2nd centuries post-apostolic Christian teaching consistently condemned abortion. And from the time of its emergence, the institutional Catholic Church has opposed abortion. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” Even so, U.S. Catholic Church members are about evenly divided on whether most abortions should be legal or illegal.
Yet Catholic theologians and popes historically differed over when “ensoulment” occurred, that is, when the fetus becomes a human person. Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395 AD) and others argued that human life begins at conception and that all abortions were homicide. Others said that the fetus becomes a human being only when it takes on human form. Today we view this as occurring at 10 to 14 weeks, though the ancients considered it to be at 40-50 days. The two greatest Catholic theologians held this view. St. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) did not think that the abortion of an “unformed” fetus was murder. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD) also believed that the fetus received a human soul when it took human form. Nevertheless, Augustine, Aquinas, and the Catholic Church throughout history condemned abortion as wrong – if not always homicide — regardless of when the fetus becomes a human person.
Reformation Protestants. Martin Luther and John Calvin wrote almost nothing about abortion, but the little they did say strongly condemned it. Some of their ecclesiastical heirs today disapprove of abortion as a method of birth control or mere convenience, but they believe that decisions about abortion must be left to the pregnant woman and not dictated by law, at least prior to viability. Others call for legislation making abortion illegal at all stages of pregnancy except to save the life of the mother.
Evangelicals. In 2010 the National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement lamenting that abortions are “human lives deliberately terminated,” and that “each life lost is a unique creation made in God’s image who might have blessed our society in extraordinary ways.” It goes on to say that “The NAE actively, ardently and unwaveringly opposes abortion on demand.” . . . “However, we do not dismiss those who advocate for legal access to abortion as unconcerned for human life or unworthy of our respect . . .”
Prior to the 1970s, however, Evangelicals were more ambivalent about the nature of the fetus. In 1968 a symposium of 30 Evangelical leaders and scholars concluded that, “The human fetus is not merely a mass of cells or an organic growth. At the most, it is an actual human life or at the least, a potential and developing human life. . .” Even so, abortion is acceptable “to safeguard greater values sanctioned by Scripture . . . individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility.” Today, according to Pew studies, about 2/3 of Evangelicals oppose abortion in most or all cases, while 1/3 say it should be legal.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, today “affirm[s] the full dignity of every unborn child and denounce[s] every act of abortion except to save the mother’s physical life.” However, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the SBC embraced this consistent anti-abortion position. In 1971 the SBC passed a resolution urging that laws recognize the “sanctity of human life, including fetal life,” while calling for such legislation to allow abortion in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
Wayne Dehoney, a past president of the SBC, explained this resolution by saying that “Protestant theology generally takes Genesis 2:7 as a statement that the soul is formed at breath, not with conception.” Former SBC President W.A. Criswell initially welcomed Roe v Wade, saying, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.” Criswell later reversed his position, and in 1980 the SBC revised its view and made the life the mother the only exception. Today 70% of SBC members believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while 30% believe it should be legal.
A small majority of members of the major Black Church Denominations, which often align theologically with Evangelicalism, say abortion should be legal in most cases. Tragically, just as the disparate impacts of the Coronavirus has made visible institutional racial discrimination in access to health care and economic opportunity, these injustices are likely responsible for a high abortion rate among African Americans women. Lowering that rate requires our society to address the underlying structural racism.
The movement of many white Evangelicals in the 1970s from more nuanced views to opposition to almost all legal abortion has generated considerable analysis. Historically it coincides with organized efforts to bring religious conservatives – who had long held conservative policy views– into the partisan political arena, many in opposition to racial integration and in support of a range of secular conservative policies.
Mennonite Church U.S.A. (my denominational identification). MCUSA’s 2003 Statement on Abortion attempts a balance. On the one hand it reads, “Human life begins at conception. . . The fetus in its earliest stages . . . shares humanity with those who conceived it. . . We stress the importance of respect for the life of the fetus. . . Abortion runs counter to biblical principles which give a high value to human life.” And “the church should witness to society in favor of the general presumption against any human decision to terminate life,” and “offer counsel about alternatives to abortion.”
On the other hand, “neither is the fetus treated as a human/person in the full sense of that term. . . We condone abortion only under the most exceptional of circumstances. . . [W]e stress they need for discernment in the faith community. . . Through this process of counsel and mutual accountability the church may promote a standard without insisting on uniformity for all.” While urging “members of the faith community to engage in a discernment process rather than making decisions in isolation,” the statement says that “the individual woman or couple must finally decide on the question of abortion.”
The MCUSA statement recognizes that the ability of church members to provide community support for bringing a child to birth in difficult circumstances is essential to any legitimate pro-life position. Those of us who want to see parents “choose life” for their unborn children do well to focus our efforts on creating churches where members genuinely “bear one another’s burdens” and advocating for governmental policies that ensure families have the resources they need for their children to flourish.
What can we conclude?
The focus above on when personal human life begins is important because many Christians answer that question in a way that makes them feel certain on the issue of abortion. Yet an unbiased reading of Scripture, church history, and science does not tell us that personal life begins at conception.
The best understanding may be that the fetus is a developing or emerging human being, not yet perhaps a person, but nevertheless part of a wonderful continuity of existence beginning with conception and the growth of the fetus, to birth and taking that miraculous first breath, on through childhood and into adulthood. Such a sacred gift from God deserves our awe and reverent care, both before and after birth.
For Christians the moral presumption is against abortion at any stage. While ending a pregnancy may sometimes for extraordinary reasons be the right decision, this should be viewed as an exception to God’s — and nature’s — creative design. The majority of reasons given for having an abortion fail to meet the standard of Jesus’ call, but they aren’t trivial. Anguished decisions are often made. Churches and society have a moral imperative to ensure that the pregnant woman or couple have the support to bring her child to birth, and unless placed for adoption, the financial and emotional resources for the family to thrive. Without such actions churches have little moral credibility regarding abortion.
Should Christians also engage politically to end legal abortion? Government control of reproduction requires significant justification, and we have no actual biblical or other basis to say that abortion is a homicide that ends the life of a person. We can, however, argue that government has an important interest in protecting developing life in-utero. For those who believe that the Government should regulate abortion, there are two biblical values that Christians should want expressed in law: respect for the life of the emerging human person who is being made in the image of God, and respect for the personal agency and moral discernment of the pregnant woman, who is made the image of God. A neglect of either of these moral imperatives falls short of the values revealed in Jesus.
While some Christians want to end all legal abortions except to save the life of the mother, abortion law that respects both essential Biblical values could provide legal protection for the emerging new life earlier than Roe’s viability threshold. The stage at which the fetus has the form of a baby – around 12 weeks, with all organs formed and functioning by 16 weeks — has an intuitive and historical appeal for protection. Improving on Roe is an understandable aspiration for many who find wonder and sanctity in the creation of new life.
The configuration of U.S. politics, however, has produced a situation where Supreme Court justices who may vote to overturn or modify Roe have struck down, among other biblically-rooted policies, legislation making life-saving medical care more widely available for poor people and protecting against racial discrimination. Christians who support the appointment of such justices hoping that they may possibly in the future end Roe – which would return abortion law to the states, not outlaw abortion — are helping create a Court that is now costing lives and undermining our society’s expression of vital biblical values.
Too many Christians have embraced partisan politics as the path to overturn Roe and made opposition to abortion their controlling political priority. In the context of U.S. politics, the result is, in practice if not intent, to cut short the lives of born children and adults.
There are 40 million poor people in the United States — a life and death matter for many. Thirty million Americans lack medical insurance. According to the National Institute of Health and other studies impoverished Americans are dying prematurely at a rate of around one million a year. The United States has the highest infant mortality rate of developed countries. And a child born here is 76 percent more likely to die before reaching adulthood than a child born elsewhere in the developed world. Countless studies have shown that ongoing structural inequities in education, health care, criminal justice, housing and wealth are cutting short Black lives and the lives of other people of color.
The political partisanship of many Christians comes at tremendous cost. It is alienating large numbers of young adults from faith in Jesus. It sacrifices broader sanctify of life concerns by exclusive support for a political party that generally opposes legislation that would help lift people in poverty, provide all Americans with adequate healthcare and advance the cause of racial equity – life-saving policies also likely to significantly reduce the number of abortions. This is a terrible trade-off for biblical Christians.
What does the Bible itself say? There are hundreds of Biblical commands for individuals, churches and governments to lift up people in poverty. God instructs us to be responsible stewards of the earth. Jesus rejects racism and dehumanizing others. He elevates the status of women. He warns that he will judge the world on the basis of its treatment of the hungry, thirsty, impoverished, sick, imprisoned, and immigrants (Matt. 25:31-46). Faithfulness to Jesus calls Christians to uphold the sanctity of all life by keeping all these biblical values at the forefront as we attempt to influence society, law and government. Our commitment to life should be as big as the Bible’s.
A partisan approach was never the only option for pro-life Christians. We can honor the Gospel by engaging in non-partisan advocacy for a “consistent ethic of life” that integrates more protection for emerging life with a greater government commitment to lift up the poor, ensure affordable medical care for all, and treat immigrants and refugees humanely. Church members can put much more effort into advocating for government policies that support raising children, such as expanded nutritional assistance, universal day-care, and income support.
Above all, like the New Testament church, we can set an example by our own life choices as believers and trust in the persuasive power of the testimony of love. Acting as a “city on a hill,” a model community, is the surest and most biblical way to change the world. And to draw people to Jesus.
If Christians want to lift up a compelling witness to Jesus while transformation of society’s values and practices on abortion, we would do well to exchange partisan politics for agape love. Our churches can become models of genuinely sacrificial, mutual supportive communities. And we can work harder to help create a nation that is more child-friendly, women-supporting and family-respecting. One that is more economically just and racially equitable. That will require Christians to become more authentically and comprehensively pro-life. “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
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