What the Bible Says about Abortion - Conclusion

Submitted by Ken Watts on Tue, 05/26/2009 - 17:01

IN THE PREVIOUS PARTS OF THIS SERIES, I described the path by which I, as a young, Bible-believing Christian, became more and more convinced that insofar as the Bible spoke to the issue of abortion it was on the pro-choice side.

The central question which I researched was what the Bible had to say about when an egg became a person. Various theological themes—spirit/breath, naming—and even pragmatic questions, like who got counted in a census, all pointed to the moment of birth or later.

But I wanted something more definite: something closer to the actual issue.

Then, as I explained last time, I happened on Exodus 21:22-25:

22 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.

23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,

24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Two men, fighting, cause a woman to miscarry. The penalty God assigns for this is a fine, paid to the husband—the normal penalty in this part of the Bible for the death of livestock, not of a person. The very same passage says that if the woman—a person— gets hurt as well, the penalty is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.

The miscarriage is treated as a property loss, for which the husband can expect to be compensated financially. But if someone actually dies, then its a matter of murder, or at least manslaughter.

In other words, this passage does not consider a miscarriage to be the death of a person.

But, as I pointed out in part five, there is an ingenious anti-abortion interpretation of this passage.

According to the anti-abortion camp:

  1. "Her fruit departing from her" really just means that she gives birth to a normal, healthy baby.
  2. That's why it says "no mischief follows". That means that the baby is normal and healthy and there's no negative fallout from the accident at all.
  3. So the following section is talking not about the woman but about the baby. It's saying that if something does happen to the baby then the penalty is "an eye for and eye, a life for a life, etc." And when it says "a life for a life" that's proof positive that it considers the unborn baby to be a full-fledged person, and its death to be murder.

I promised, at the end of part 5, to explain what was wrong with this re-interpretation of the passage.

Whether you're a believer or not—but especially if you are—it's important, when interpreting a text, to pay attention to context. Elsewhere, I've made this same point about Jesus' famous remark concerning rich people and the eye of a needle.

All of the interpretations of that verse which let the wealthy off Jesus' hook simply ignore the context. They ignore the fact that his disciples clearly understand him to be talking about an impossibility, and that Jesus responds to them on that basis.

Likewise, in this passage, any alternative interpretation has to be tested against the context as a whole.

But that presents a problem for the anti-abortion reframe.

The penalty prescribed is a fine, which is the same penalty required for the death of a piece of livestock—to compensate the owner for his loss.

If the baby was born perfectly healthy, if there was, indeed, no harm done, even to the fetus, and the father, instead of losing his "investment" has only gained a new child, then what was the fine for?

The entire interpretation outlined above completely ignores the fact that the situation the law is aimed at—the situation in which the woman loses "her fruit" and "no mischief follows"—is considered a loss for the husband on the level of having one of his bulls killed.

Why in the world would the husband require compensation for the birth of a healthy, normal child, who ("no mischief follows") remains normal and healthy?

The obvious meaning, the one I began with, not only explains why there is a penalty (which is, after all, the point of the passage), but also makes perfect sense of the nature of the penalty. If the ancient Hebrews didn't think of the child as a person until after it was born (which, remember, fits with all the other themes I had already examined) then a penalty on the level of cow or a bull would make perfect sense.

But the convoluted anti-abortion re-interpretation above not only fails to make sense of the kind of penalty, but fails to explain why there should be one at all .

  1. On one hand, you can interpret those verses as saying that if a man is presented with a healthy child who continues to thrive, he has suffered a harm on the level of losing an animal.

    If you take that approach, you also have to believe that the passage has no concern at all over whether his wife has been hurt or even killed in the process.
  2. On the other hand, you can interpret those verses as saying that if a man's wife miscarries he has suffered a harm, and deserves recompense.

    In that case, the rest of the passage says that if anything happens to his wife the law of an eye for an eye applies, as we would expect.

The first interpretation makes absolutely no sense. Why would the birth of a healthy, thriving child be the occasion of a penalty and recompense?

The second interpretation not only fits with all the other themes in the Bible on this point, but also with modern practice even among most anti-abortionists.

Remember, most of them treat a miscarriage as a loss, but not on the same level as the death of a person. They do not hold a funeral. They do not give the miscarriage a name. And there is no evidence of that kind of behavior in the Bible, either. But they do consider it a loss.

The anti-abortion spin on this passage obviously makes no sense to anyone who isn't simply desperate to twist the plain meaning of the text.

So that's how I came to be pro-choice, while still an almost fanatically conservative Christian.

The Bible is no longer a magic book for me, and I have other reasons for being pro-choice now.

But I still find it interesting just why, and how, I came to the position based on the same beliefs that many anti-abortionists hold today.

That's also the reason that I believe most conservative Christian anti-abortionists still take that position primarily for political reasons, not reasons of faith. They have only consulted their Bibles after making up their minds, and the only thought they give to a passage like the one above is how to explain it away.

It's another example of what I've called "political rhetoric" elsewhere : language and reasoning designed to lead to a certain place, rather than to discover the truth.

And it's another example of why the political right repeatedly turns to the religious right for support.

At least, that's what I think today.


I take it from your last comment that you wanted more of a response from me. I usually try to avoid entering into a conversation in the comments section with a reader I disagree with, because I generally feel I've had my say, and comments is your turn.

But since you seem to want my reflections to your comment, I'll try to give you an honest response.

I would urge you to consider some things before coming to a final conclusion:

  1. I take it from your name that you are male, so your interest is not about whether you will have an abortion, but whether someone else should be allowed to. As Jesus himself pointed out, judging others behavior is dangerous territory.

  2. Try to get hold of a copy of the New English Bible. It's the most accurate translation I'm aware of. The King James is simply not a comparable reflection of the underlying languages, and besides that is written in Shakespearean language--a period which uses expressions and patterns of speech that we do not, so there's the added problem of misunderstanding the English.

    Other translations are mostly re-workings of the King James with an overlay of the particular theology of the translator. This can be even more dangerous.

    If you really are serious about letting scripture be your guide, you should pick your translation based on accuracy, not on sentiment, how well it supports your current view, or what is handy.

  3. Generally speaking, your comment does two things:

    First, it gives your own, very personal and religious reasons for not liking the idea of abortion.

    I won't argue with these, except to say that they assume that the fetus already contains a spirit--which is the crux of the question from a religious point of view.

    There is a great deal of evidence that the Bible doesn't agree with you on this point.

    Everything from how God commands a census to be taken to the timing of the naming of a child to the fact that the fundamental model of the concept of spirit is the act of breathing casts doubt on any idea that it is Biblical to think of the spirit entering the body before birth.

    I would point out that I would not personally take as extreme a position on this question as the Biblical evidence implies--but I don't claim to base my position on the Bible. You do.

  4. The second thing your comment does is develop a rather convoluted interpretation of a particular passage which allows you to dismiss that passage as evidence.

    I would just suggest that you should be careful about this approach.

    You can take my position--which is that the Bible is a fascinating cultural document full of both wisdom and misunderstanding--in which case you don't need to believe every word, and therefore can be completEly open to understanding what it actually says.

    Or you can take the stance of a true believer, in which case you have a responsibility to guard yourself against explaining away a passage which seems to contradict your current position.

    But to claim to take the Bible as authoritative, and then explain away one very concrete passage after another while relying on much more abstract interpretations which assume your current position is a very dangerous game spiritually.

  5. Finally, I would remind you of the difference between being against abortions personally and religiously on the one hand--meaning that you would rather not have or perform one--and being in favor of making abortions illegal for people who do not share your personal theology on the other hand.

    There are a great many Christians who recognize that scripture does not attribute any spiritual life to an unborn fetus.

    There are a great many Christians who admit they simply don't know, and therefore do not have the right to force their interpretation on anyone else.

    And there are many people of other religions, or no religion at all who disagree with you.

    Tha anti-abortion movement in general (I don't know about you personally) is fond of calling abortion murder. But the fact is that even the kinds of evidence you yourself cite, even for those who happen to believe that theology is evidence, do not decide the issue beyond a reasonable doubt.

    I would put it to you that it's fine to make the decision any way you want for yourself, but before calling a woman making the best decision she can in a difficult situation, or a doctor acting in good faith a murderer you should have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the fetus contains a human spirit.

    That's a very high standard, and one for wihich there is no adequate support.

    In that context, I would again quote Jesus.

    "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

All my best,


Ken Watts

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 10:35

Thanks for your candor, Dennis, and for your obvious good will.

I did not mean any part of my response as an attack on you, and I am glad to hear that you don't advocate religion based secular laws. I didn't know where you came down on that, which is why I said I didn't know.

As far as "absolute truth values" goes, I would just say that there may be issues on which we can know with certainty what the absolute truth is, and issues where we can't. This appears to me to be an issue where we can't--which is my only reason for saying that as a man who will never be confronted with the issue I don't have the right to judge whether anyone else's decision is right or wrong. That's my entire position on the issue in a nutshell.

In my own defense (see? I can get defensive, too!), you seem to think I said that your understanding of scripture and what you glean from it "simply reflect [your] opinions and religious reasons for not favoring abortion". That would, indeed, be offensive, but it's not what I said.

I said that one thing your comment did was to give "your own, very personal and religious reasons for not liking the idea of abortion."--which I think you would agree is true.

As far as the interpretation of the passage goes, I find myself on your side as to the question of absolute truth. I don't think all interpretations are equal, or that anyone can make a text say anything they want. This obviously leads to the position that some interpretations are better than others.

My criticisms of your interpretation were not based on the fact that I don't agree with you on abortion--remember, I would be just as comfortable with your interpretation on that score, since I don't take the Bible as athoritative anymore, and back when I was a believer it was the Bible which convinced me, not the other way around.

My criticisms were an attempt to help you to see that your methodology was flawed. (Fair disclosure: my doctoral dissertation in theology was on method in the legitimate interpretation of ancient texts, so I care deeply about the subject.)

They had to do with method: things like using a poor translation, circular reasoning, ignoring contextual clues, allowing abstract theological conclusions from one text to override concrete textual cues from another, opting for a complex interpretations when a simple one was clear, etc.

I certainly did not mean to imply that your understanding of scripture and what you glean from it "simply reflect [your] opinions and religious reasons for not favoring abortion", or anything like that.

I'm sorry if it came across that way--which is why I'm going back to my policy of not debating readers in the comments section. :-)

All the best,


1) I'm sure you can find many articles which force a passage to a predetermined position. I've presented clear reasons for the interpretation above, based on a respect for the integrity of the text, rather than on a need to force it into a particular worldview.

2) I did Google post-abortion trauma. I found an abundance of articles by anti-abortion groups claiming it existed, and a handful of peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals offering evidence that it does not or is greatly exaggerated.

3) You have inadvertently disclosed the real reason behind the anti-abortion movement: the need to punish women who don't comply with the sexual taboos of conservative religion. Thanks for pointing that out.