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Answering the Theological Case for Abortion Rights
by Scott Klusendorf

My local newspaper had a headline last week that read, "President Clinton Says Bible ‘Ambiguous’ on Abortion."

The President alleges that Scripture and church history are largely silent on the issue. Hence, pro-life Christians should pause before condemning a practice the Bible does not expressly mention, let alone forbid. A liberal cleric quoted in the article agrees, arguing that no where in church history is abortion condemned until the religious right began forcing its views on the public around 1980. When abortion was proscribed, it was only to ward off pressing social problems like under population. The moral question of abortion, the cleric insists, was never at issue.

Does Silence Equal Permission?

What are we to make of the President’s remarks and those of the cleric? Does the alleged silence of Scripture and church history give license to elective abortion? The short answer is no. While the President is correct to say the word abortion does not appear in Scripture, he is wrong to suppose that this in anyway justifies abortion on demand. In fact, just the opposite is true, as I will argue below. The cleric, meanwhile, is wrong about the motive behind church teaching on abortion. From the beginning, abortion restrictions had nothing to do with practical concerns such as under population, but moral concerns for what is arguably the taking of human life.

Let me begin with a general observation. The Biblical documents (as well as the writings of the church fathers and the reformers) do not expressly condemn many things, including drive by shootings and the lynching of homosexuals. But that hardly proves we are morally justified doing these things. Hence, my question for abortion advocates is this: "Are you saying that whenever the Bible does not specifically condemn something, it condones it?" When they say "no" (and they must), I ask, "Then what is your point?"

Clearly, if the Bible treats the unborn as human persons, commands forbidding unjustified killing of other humans would apply to fetus as well. The issue, then, is not "Does the Bible expressly condemn abortion?" but, "Does Scripture teach that the unborn are human?" I will take up that question in a moment.

For now, my purpose is to argue that the theological case for abortion rights, a case based almost exclusively on the alleged silence of Scripture (and church history), is flawed for at least three reasons:

1) Even if the Bible says nothing about abortion, it does not follow that it's authors approved of the practice.

2) Those few Biblical texts that are cited by abortion advocates to discredit the humanity of the unborn do not support their case.

3) Church teaching on abortion throughout history is clear and incontrovertible: abortion is a serious moral wrong.

Can "E.T." Give Us a Clue?

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

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."

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 cursings. 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, Proverbs 6:16-17)

» that children were never seen as "unwanted" or as a nuisance (unless later in life they became wicked), but as a gift from God--the highest possible blessing (Psalms 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 authors 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.

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 anti-abortion 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."

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

-- 1 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.

-- 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.

As Gorman points out, 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 many principles of right and wrong from what's written), but rather each document deals only with those moral and theological issues which had become problems. Two examples will help here. First, the Apostle Paul does not mention infanticide, a practice common among Romans and other pagans of the time. Why? Because the Christians to whom he was writing were not killing their children. Nor does Paul provide direct teaching on the historical career of Christ (he mentions it only indirectly for the purpose of underscoring the importance of the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15), but this does not mean that he questioned its truth. 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.)

Hence, the New Testament's silence on abortion does not mean that its authors approved of or tolerated 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." (Christianity Today, January 11, 1993)

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.

What Did Moses Really Teach?

Some abortion advocates recognize the folly of arguing from the alleged silence of Scripture to justify abortion. Instead, they appeal to Scripture directly in order to prove 1) that fetuses are not human persons, and 2) that abortion is not a serious moral wrong.

The text most often cited is Exodus 21: 22-25.

The passage reads in the NASB as follows: "And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no [further] injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges demand of him. But if there is any [further] injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." Liberals argue that this Scripture proves the unborn are not fully human because the penalty for accidentally killing a fetus is less than that for killing its mother. 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 kill 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 nonsequitor," writes Dr. Frank Beckwith in Politically Correct Death. (Baker, 1993, p.143)

Third, 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. In fact, it may be more reasonable view the passage as affirming the humanity of the unborn rather then denying it, as abortion advocates suppose. R.C. Sproul points out that the crux of the debate centers around the phrase, "no serious injury." The question is "No serious injury to whom?" 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 convey 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)

Furthermore, we should not presume that the miscarriage of Exodus 21 produces a dead child, as does abortion. Greg Koukl makes an excellent point: the Hebrew word for "miscarriage" in this context is 'yasa’--which almost always refers to the emergence of a living thing. (See, for example, Gen. 1:24, 8:17, 15:4, 25:26, 1 Kings 8:19, 2 Kings 20:18.) In this case, the passage can be translated "the child comes forth."

The point is simply this. If the miscarried child is not injured, the penalty is merely a fine. But if it is harmed, the penalty is life for life, tooth for tooth, etc. Read this way, the passage treats the unborn with the same value it does the mother. The penalty for harming either is the same. (Note also the text calls the expelled fetus a "child"—a fact abortion advocates cannot easily get around.)

Silent? Hardly

The assertion that prohibitions against abortion are relatively recent is utterly false. In addition to the non-canonical documents cited above, the following sources underscore the consistent teaching of the church on abortion.

The Witness of the early church fathers:

-- Athenagoras (A.D. 177--while defending Christians against murder charges): "What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God's care [and then kill it]." (A Plea for the Christians, 35.6)

-- Tertullian (A.D. 197--while defending Christianity against charges of child sacrifice): "In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed." (Apology, 9.6)

-- Clement of Alexandria (A.D.150-215). "But women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion kill not only the embryos but, along with it, all human kindness." (Paedagogus, 2.10. 96.1.)

-- Basil the Great (374 A.D.). "Moreover, those, too, who give drugs causing abortion are [deliberate murderers] themselves, as well as those receiving the poison which kills the fetus." (Letter, 188.2)

The witness of the Protestant reformers:

-- John Calvin (1509-64). "The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being and it is a most monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light" (Commentarius in Exodum, 21,22)

-- Martin Luther (1483-1546). "Even if all the world were to combine forces, they could not bring about the conception of a single child in any woman's womb nor cause it to be born; that is wholly the work of God." (Luther's Works, VII, 21)

-- John Donne (English poet and preacher). "The sin of Er, and Onan, in married men; the sin of procured abortions, in married women, does in many cases equal, in some exceed, the sin of adultery." (Sermon preached Easter, 1625)

Modern opposition:

-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German pastor and theologian hung by the Nazis in 1945): "Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to life which God has bestowed on this nascent life...And that is nothing but murder. (Ethics, pp.175-176.)

-- Pope John Paul II: "No word has the power to change the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence." (Evangelium Vitae, Section 58)

To sum up, a survey of Scripture and church history does nothing to support the case for unrestricted abortion. Biblically and historically, the message is clear: the unborn are human persons, hence, abortion is a serious moral wrong.


For further study, see:

Michael Gorman, Abortion & the Early Church, Intervarsity Press, 1982, "Why Is the New Testament is Silent on Abortion," Christianity Today, January 11, 1993, and Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments, Corpus Books, 1970.

Scott Klusendorf is Director of Bio-Ethics at Stand to Reason. He teaches pro-life apologetics across the United States and Canada. He is the author of "Pro-Life 101: A User Friendly Guide to Making Your Case on Campus". He has also published articles on abortion in The Christian Research Journal and Clear Thinking. To schedule a presentation in your area, contact Stand To Reason or call 310-539-3932 or E-mail.

The preceding article "Answering the Theological Case for Abortion Rights"© 1995, is from the text of a speech Mr. Klusendorf made at a right-to-life convention in La Mirada, CA., 1995. Permission to copy for personal use only.

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