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Abortion, the Bible, and Personhood: What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?

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The Christian Right, the Bible, and Abortion:


Christian Right opposition to abortion frequently includes numerous references to the Bible; according to them, the only valid Christian position on abortion must be based upon what the Bible says. The Bible, in turn, unequivocally condemns abortion and endorses the idea that a fetus is a person endowed with rights. Why, then, are so many Christians conflicted about abortion and/or support abortion rights? Why doesn’t Judaism condemn abortion unequivocally? Because the Bible is ambiguous.

The Bible Says Nothing About Abortion:


The problem for people on either side of the abortion debate is the fact that the Bible doesn’t say anything specifically about abortion. There are no references to women seeking to end pregnancies, for example by using herbs or other chemicals, despite the fact that abortion must have been a known practice at the time. This silence might be interpreted as tacit acceptance, but most believers pick apart other verses in order to argue that some position on abortion is implied.

Abortion, the Bible, and Murder:


Exodus 21:22 says: “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.” Exodus is clear that a murderer receive capital punishment, but killing a fetus is not punished with death. This is the closest the Bible comes to commenting on abortion; Judaism’s refusal to unequivocally condemn abortion stems from this.

The Bible’s View of a Person as a Decision Maker:


Genesis describes the creation of humanity as God making man in his image. Physical likeness and powers aren’t the point here, obviously. More plausible would be spiritual qualities. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God described them as having “become as one of us,” knowing good from evil. All of these depictions of humanity as a moral agent capable of decision-making apply to adult humans, but not to a fetus.

The Bible on the Fetus in the Womb:


A couple of verses suggest that a person exists already as a fetus. Psalms 139:13-15 describes God knowing someone in the womb. There are several reasons, textual as well as contextual, to read this more as poetry than as a literal description of the nature of a fetus. Similar passages elsewhere, like Jeremiah and Luke, aren’t so poetic but nevertheless are conveying information other than the idea that the fetus is a person. It’s a stretch to use these passages for anti-abortion purposes.

Using the Bible as the Basis of Public Policy:


At best, the Bible is ambiguous on the moral status and personhood of the fetus. It’s possible to use it to argue against abortion, but those arguments are inconclusive and perhaps not as strong as those using the Bible to argue that abortion is, at a minimum, not murder. In addition to all of this we have a further problem: regardless of what the Bible says, it is an inappropriate basis for public policy.

Even if the Bible unequivocally condemned abortion as a sin, that wouldn’t be a good reason to make abortion illegal. It would be a reason for believers in the Bible — Jews, Christians, and perhaps Muslims — to personally reject abortion and argue against others undergoing the procedure. That is not the same as criminalizing it, however, because criminal prohibitions apply to all citizens, not just those who regard the Bible as holy scripture.

Were the government to ban abortion on the basis of biblical injunctions, it would be elevating the Bible to a position of authority over everyone, Jew and Gentile, Christian and non-Christian. The government doesn’t have the authority to single out the Bible — or any one group’s interpretation of the Bible — for this sort of special treatment. Regardless of how important the Bible may be in some believers’ lives, they cannot abuse their power as an electoral majority to impose it upon everyone else.

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