Abortion: What the Bible Says (and Doesn't Say)
Posted in the Minneapolis Forum
Saint Paul, MN
#1 Sep 14, 2012
Todd Akin and the Republican platform have highlighted the "personhood" movement to legally define fertilized eggs as human beings with the same constitutional rights born children have.
Proponents argue their case on religious grounds, so it's worth asking what the Bible says about it.
The Bible doesn't talk about abortion, but it does say when a human being's life begins.
Genesis 2:7 is clearest. The first human became a "living being" (nefesh hayah, "a living breath") when God blew into its nostrils and it started to breathe. Human life begins when you start breathing, biblical writers thought. It ends when you stop. That's why the Hebrew word often translated "spirit" (ruah)-- "life force" might be a better translation -- literally means "wind" or "breath."
But what about babies in the womb?
A few passages talk about someone called by God before birth: "The LORD called me from the womb. From the innermost parts of my mother, God named me ... and said to me,'You are my servant Israel, in whom I'll be glorified" (Isaiah 49:1-3).
Here, the one called is the nation Israel, not an individual. A nation of course can't occupy a womb. The language is figurative not literal. It isn't describing prenatal biology or pinpointing when human life begins. It's affirming God's power and Israel's calling to a special mission in the world.
Other passages make the same point by saying someone's called by God before they're even conceived (Genesis 18:9; 1 Samuel 1:17; Luke 1:31). I've not heard anyone make the case, based on these texts, that human life begins before conception.
It's hard to ask biblical texts the modern question, "when does human life begin?" because the Bible has a very different understanding of human reproduction. Biblical writers don't talk about sperm fertilizing eggs. They talk about male "seed" planted in fertile female ground. Just as a seed becomes a plant when it emerges from the ground, so too a man's planted seed becomes another human being when it emerges from the womb.
The only verses I know that address the legal status of "seed" in the womb come in a brief section of case law.
Exodus 21:22-25 describes a case where a pregnant woman jumps into a fight between her husband and another man and suffers injuries that cause her to miscarry. Injuries to the woman prompt the normal penalties for harming another human being: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Killing the woman is murder, a capital crime.
The miscarriage is treated differently, however -- as property loss, not murder. The assailant must pay a fine to the husband. The law of a life for a life does not apply. The fetus is important, but it's not human life in the same way the pregnant woman is.
My impression is that most Americans have a more nuanced and conservative view than the Bible does on this, though we're getting at the same idea: an important moral and legal line is crossed when the fetus can survive outside the womb.
For the Bible, that's when a child is born and starts breathing. For many of us today, it's when a fetus becomes "viable" -- somewhere between 21 and 27 weeks into the pregnancy, thanks to our amazing medical technology.
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