December 11, 2017

A Biblical Understanding of Abortion

Robert V. McCabe

At the conclusion of the 20th century, some reports indicate that there have been more than 38 million abortions performed in the United States. We must not lose sight of the staggering nature of this number of abortions. This number is roughly 26 times larger that the total number of deaths (approximately 1,456,000) from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, and the Viet Nam War combined (Ankerberg and Weldon, The Facts on Abortion, p. 5). While this enormous number of abortions is alarming, we are equally alarmed because many Bible-believing Christians are surprisingly uninformed, and in some cases apathetic, about the Bible’s teaching on this subject. We must have a Biblical understanding of abortion. To fully understand what the Bible has to say on this subject, we need to examine three issues: the reason the Bible never explicitly discusses abortion, the Bible’s teaching concerning the value of human life, and its teaching about the inception of human life. But before we examine these issues, we need to define abortion and some of the issues associated with it.

An abortion is the expulsion of an embryo or fetus from the womb of its mother before it is capable of independently sustaining life. An abortion that happens naturally is called a spontaneous or involuntary abortion. A miscarriage is an example of a spontaneous abortion. An induced or voluntary abortion is medically induced. This type of abortion results in the termination of a pregnancy by killing the embryo or fetus. The induced abortion is the focal point of the modern abortion debate.

Most informed, Bible-believing Christians would maintain that an induced abortion is a moral atrocity. However, if this is true, then why does the Bible never explicitly address the issue? The answer is found in the Israelite view of children. God was responsible for opening the womb (Gen. 30:22; 1 Sam 1:17–20). Consequently, children were viewed as a gift from God (Gen. 33:5; Ps. 127:3). An Israelite expected proliferation in childbearing as an aspect of the prosperity that God had promised them in the Mosaic Covenant (Deut. 7:13; 28:4). The abundance of children was a blessing, but the lack of children was often considered a curse. Therefore, a voluntary abortion was unthinkable for an Israelite and, consequently, was not an issue to them. To understand the moral ramifications of this, we must approach the issue of medically induced abortion in light of other Biblical material.

What does the Bible teach about the value of human life? To answer this question, we must briefly examine the Bible’s teaching about man. Moses wrote in Genesis 1:26–28 that man was created in the image and likeness of God. The divine image refers to those personal, rational, moral, and spiritual qualities of man that make him like God. Though it was marred at the Fall, the divine image in man was not lost (James 3:9). This is cogently demonstrated in Genesis 9:5, 6 with God’s institution of capital punishment for murder. The motivation for this command is God’s creation of man in His image (v. 6). Whatever else Genesis 9:5, 6 may affirm, it clearly emphasizes the sanctity of human life. This is reinforced by the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill [murder]” (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17), and is reaffirmed by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21, 22). Though this data clearly asserts the sanctity of human life, it does not deal with when genuine human life begins.

What does the Bible teach concerning the inception of human life? A key passage is Psalm 51. This is a record of David’s confession of sin after having committed adultery with Bathsheba. In verse 5 David traces his moral culpability back to the time of conception by asserting that he was sinful from the time his mother conceived him. Another significant passage is Psalm 139:13–16. Having dealt with God’s omniscience (vv. 1–6) and omnipresence (vv. 7–12), David then gives an exposition on God’s providential involvement with his prenatal development. God created David’s inmost being (v. 13) and his body (v. 15). David asserts in verse 16 that his “substance,” his embryo, as well as the course of his life, was part of God’s plan. David’s personal identity extends back to his prenatal state.

In addition, Luke 1:41, 44 have a bearing on this subject. After an angel had announced to the virgin Mary that she would carry the Messiah, she went to the home of Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with her son, John. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her unborn son leaped for joy. This demonstrates that John the Baptist had rational and spiritual capacities in his prenatal state. These passages indicate that a child in his prenatal state has personal, rational, moral, and spiritual qualities and, therefore, is fully human.

This understanding of a child being fully in the image of God from the time of conception is further supported by two other Biblical items. The first is the Biblical teaching concerning the origin of the human soul. God created the human race immediately in Adam. Adam and Eve transferred their spiritual and physical characteristics to their children through the process of procreation (Gen. 5:3; Acts 17:26). When an ovum and sperm unite, a new person containing the hereditary characteristics of one’s father and mother is brought into existence. This should lend further support that a prenatal child is a genuine person. The second item supporting an unborn child as being fully human relates to how we interpret Exodus 21:22–25. This passage has been used by some to support the legitimacy of having a medically induced abortion. The passage reads as follows:

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit 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. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

There are two principal views of this passage: the miscarriage view and the premature birth view.

Many holding the miscarriage view take this passage as a reference to a situation where two men are fighting and one of them happens to hit a pregnant woman who suffers a miscarriage (“so that her fruit depart”) but she herself is not harmed; the offender then must pay a fine (v. 22). However, if something subsequently happens to the woman, then the offender was to suffer punishment in proportion to the damage that he has inflicted upon the woman (vv. 23–25). Since the law of retaliation is applied to the woman and only a monetary compensation for the aborted fetus, it is implied that the woman had a higher value than the unborn child. This is then used to infer that under some difficult circumstances, a voluntary abortion is justifiable because the mother’s life has more value than the unborn child. This is the view of some commentators and translations. For example, some translate the clause “so that her fruit depart” as “so that she has a miscarriage.” Against this view, it should be observed that the Hebrew verb translated as “depart,” when used in the context of childbirth, is never used for a miscarriage. Furthermore, the noun “fruit” is normally translated as “child,” “son,” or “boy.”

When the noun “fruit” or “child” is used with the verb “depart,” this can only be understood as a reference to a premature birth. This view correctly sets forth that Moses was describing a situation where two men were fighting and one of them hits a pregnant woman causing her to give birth prematurely. However, there is no “harm” (“mischief” in vv. 22 and 23 may also be taken as “harm”) but because of the potential danger for the mother and her child, a fine was to be enacted (v. 22). If, however, there was harm, a penalty corresponding to the crime was to be enacted (vv. 23–25). For example, if either the mother or her child died, then a capital punishment would have been in order. Rather than being a justification for voluntary abortion, this is actually a solid text to suggest that the life of a child in its prenatal state is of equal value to its mother. Consequently, the unborn child is fully human.

As Bible-believing Christians, our responsibility is to understand what God has affirmed about His moral will on the issue of abortion and, consequently, to regulate our lives and spheres of influence according to a correct Biblical understanding. In light of the Biblical material examined here, we must emphatically maintain that a medically induced abortion violates God’s moral standard against taking another person’s life, and, as such, falls under the divine prohibition in the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not kill [murder]!”


Dr. Robert V. McCabe is Registrar and Professor of Old Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, Michigan.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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