Several Christians have used the Bible to defend their position on whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had established the right to abortion in the United States, should be praised. However, the word “abortion” does not mean the deliberate removal of a human fetus from its mother’s womb anywhere in the Bible.
Is There No Mention of Abortion In The Bible?
Despite the Bible’s lack of an explicit reference to abortion, both abortion opponents and supporters have used it to back up their arguments.
Opponents of abortion often cite several verses from the Bible that, when considered together, seem to indicate that human life has value even before birth. For instance, the Bible begins by stating that God created humankind “in his image,” which is intended to illustrate the worth of each human existence even before birth.
The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, as well as the Christian apostle Paul, are all said to have felt a calling to their respective vocations from the moment they were conceived. God “knit me together in my mother’s womb,” as the psalm goes.
However, the Bible isn’t just a rallying cry for those who disagree with abortion. According to the advocates, a case can be made using other biblical passages.
Other biblical scriptures appear to endorse women’s autonomy over their bodies, even though doing so would have been socially unacceptable at the time. For instance, in the fifth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, a woman with a gynecological sickness that has caused her to bleed continuously takes a huge risk by reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak in the desperate hope that it will heal her, even though touching a menstruating woman was thought to result in ritual contamination. But Jesus affirms her decision and applauds her trust in him.
For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus supports Mary’s decision to breach the societal taboo of touching an unrelated man so personally by having her pour a whole jar of expensive ointment on his feet and wipe them with her hair, even though it seems wasteful.
The Practice of Abortion in Antiquity
The entire idea was undoubtedly familiar to the ancient world. An Egyptian papyrus from the 16th century BCE contains a prescription for an abortion. The only ancient Near Easterners to reject it outright were the Assyrians, who were more infamous for their brutality in battle than their concern for the welfare of the weak.
Israel’s population was aware of abortion as a viable option. Jeremiah laments his birth date and the man who delivered the news to his dad, “because he did not kill me in the womb, so my mother would have been my grave.”
The Bible, however, makes no explicit prohibitions against such behavior.
Exodus 21 And The Weight It Bears
Scripture from the Book of Exodus, Chapter 21, which served as a springboard for later Jewish discourse, reads (in Hebrew): “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, but no other harm occurs,” there will be a financial penalty.
The Greek version of this passage reads considerably differently, reflecting Greek ideas about the beginning of life: “If two men fight and the pregnant woman is struck, and the child does not come out fully formed, he (the offender) will be required to pay the penalty. Yet if it is fully formed, he will give life for life.”
To kill a “completely developed” baby carries the same penalties as murder. If the fetus were not developed fully, the punishment would be monetary, as was customary for property crimes at the time.
Many have taken this to indicate that the legality of abortion, too, hinges on whether or not the fetus has developed fully.
There has been much back and forth over the ages just when a fetus reaches this point. The question of whether or not the bulk of the head has emerged frequently arises in later Jewish tradition, which is founded on the Bible but strives to fill in the voids where the Bible is not definite. If this happens, abortion will be illegal. Sometimes a baby isn’t considered a person until after its birth has reached the point of complete maturity. Increased understanding of the fetal development stages is made possible by modern medicine.
An unintentional miscarriage does not equate to abortion. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing towards the end of the first century CE, asserts that the Rule of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, condemns abortion and considers it infanticide. However, there is no such law in the Bible.
The Mishnah (a compilation of regulations based on oral tradition, written around 200 CE) represents traditional Jewish thought; it permits abortion when the mother’s life is in danger during particularly difficult labor.
Abortion is not mentioned once in the New Testament. The Didache, which purports to be founded on the apostles’ doctrines, and the Epistle of Barnabas, another early Christian text patterned after the letters of Paul, both make emphatic condemnations of abortion in the second century CE.
When Does Life Begin?
This topic of when life begins from a legal standpoint is fundamental to discussions over abortion limits. Anti-abortion campaigners may argue that after this time, abortion should be illegal. Many high-profile opponents of abortion have stated that scientific evidence supports the view that life begins at conception.
However, there isn’t a similar agreement among the scientific or religious communities. The advent of science has only served to complicate the issue further, and several specialists in religious ethics have noted that there is just as much dispute and change as there has ever been, even within a single faith.
Let’s examine some scientific and religious beliefs about when life begins.
In medieval Europe, “the quickening” was the first time a pregnant woman felt a baby kick – about four months into the pregnancy. This move was a sign of personhood in legal writings and midwife instructions. Even the Catholic Church didn’t consider abortion before quickening murder at the time.
As science advanced in the 19th and 20th centuries, the discussion shifted. The Catholic Church didn’t officially consider abortion a sin until 1869. Does that seem like a unified opinion? Nope.
Despite widespread perception, new research doesn’t provide an “irrefutable” answer. The question became more complex. We now know numerous developmental phases called “life’s beginning.”
First, there’s conception and fertilization. Some Christians believe this is when ensoulment occurs. The embryo contains entire genetic material, but that’s not proof of life. Most body cells have it, although they’re not considered alive.
Gastrulation occurs two weeks later. The embryo is now unique and can’t have twins or triplets. This might also be considered a “person.”
An ultrasound can detect a “flutter” of electrical impulses at about six weeks. So-called “heartbeat legislation” restrict abortions after six weeks. The moniker is deceptive because the heart isn’t fully formed, say, by several doctors.
Neuroscientists say life begins about six months when brainwave patterns appear. When we lose these brainwaves, we’re legally dead in the U.S. and many other nations. Therefore some say they signal when a fetus becomes a person.
The fetus can be born around this time. That’s another important legal moment. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court said states couldn’t restrict abortions before 1973. The point of viability depends on clinical resources and medical advancements.
At 40 weeks, the birth occurs. Some Jews and Christians consider this first breath the start of life, using Bible verses to support this.
You can understand why we don’t have “biological proof” or “religious consensus” on when life starts.