Now that Dobbs has made abortion a state issue once more, debates about abortion gained greater urgency. One matter that has long been a source of contention is whether the Bible says anything about abortion—and if so what it says. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible or “Old Testament,” it is usually the pro-life side that invokes the biblical commandment, “thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17), along with several biblical commandments that require society to punish those who do intentionally kill their fellow humans (for example, Leviticus 25:21). For them, to abort a fetus (whom they prefer to call an “unborn child”), is murder. Based on the Bible’s prohibitions against killing such as these, its teaching about the sanctity of human life, and its penalties for negligence that lead to miscarriages, it is clear that the Bible by no means condones abortion—and indeed even condemns it.
Biblical Morality in a Secular Society
But before we closely examine what the Bible says about abortion, some initial objections must be addressed. Since those who invoke the Bible in this dispute are mostly traditionalist Christians and Jews for whom the Bible has prima facie moral authority, their pro-choice opponents often accuse them of attempting to “preach” biblical morality to the members of a secular society. And, when pro-life people use the Bible’s moral authority to advocate laws prohibiting abortion and punishing those involved in performing abortions, they are accused of “establishing religion.” They are charged with trying to impose “theocracy” on the citizens of an essentially secular, democratic polity.
Too many religious pro-life advocates are unable to cogently answer these accusations. For example, when religious pro-life advocates naively invoke biblical prohibitions of homicide, they presume these prohibitions carry the prima facie moral authority of the Bible in a polity where, in fact, the Bible has no such authority.
Pro-life advocates would be better advised to show the evident reasons for these biblical prohibitions, and how these reasons are compatible with existing prohibitions and penalizations of abortion in non-religious polities. Indeed, the Bible’s prohibition “thou shalt not kill” only formulates in writing what the Bible itself assumes is a self-evident prohibition, already having moral authority throughout the world. That is why God holds Cain accountable for the murder of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:6-12), even though no written proscription had yet been promulgated anywhere in the world.
Whereas the Bible should not be directly cited as morally authoritative in a secular society, religious communities that accept the Bible’s moral authority are usually keenly interested in what the Bible says about abortion. Moreover, since Jewish faith and Christian faith are the only religions in the world that look to the Hebrew Bible as morally authoritative, biblically centered debates over abortion should be conducted within these communities. But Jews and Christians can also discuss this matter with one another, because they both interpret the same relevant biblical texts similarly.
Killing the Unborn
Those who disagree about the Bible’s stance on abortion often interpret biblical prohibitions against murder differently. Pro-life advocates claim that the ban on murder includes killing fetuses in utero by aborting them. Pro-choice advocates, conversely, say only human beings who exist extra-utero as separate bodies, that is, those who have already been born, count under the prohibition. Both sides cite a number of biblical texts to support their position. Yet there is one particular biblical text that pro-choice Jews and Christians often cite to support their conclusion that the unborn are not objects of the prohibition of murder and who, therefore, may be aborted.
This seminal text is in Exodus 21:22-23:
When men are fighting and a pregnant woman is pushed so that her offspring is expelled, but no other damage occurs, whoever is responsible for this should be punished. The judges determine what this woman’s husband may extract from the culprit. But, if other damage occurs, the penalty shall be a life [nefesh] for a life.
Before I discuss how this passage is used in abortion debates, let’s first pin down what exactly is being said. From the wording of this passage, we see that it is dealing with an unintended miscarriage, not an intended miscarriage, which would make it an abortion. It is clear that the “damage” here is unintended. It is an involuntary consequence of the two men fighting, which they might have avoided had they taken the proper precaution of not fighting so close to a vulnerable pregnant woman. That is why the punishment they receive from the court for causing this miscarriage (according to one Jewish exegete) is a fine to be paid to the husband of the injured woman: the husband is responsible to rectify as best he can the damage caused to both his wife and their unborn child.
It is unclear, though, who the victim of this “other damage” is. The Hebrew term for other damage is ason, which only appears in one other place (Genesis 42:4), meaning an unforeseen “mishap.” Now the ason here might be unforeseen by the person so harmed, yet it is not totally unforeseen by the one inflicting harm on a victim due to his or her carelessness. Some say the victim here is the woman herself. However, in biblical law, this would be manslaughter, not murder; and the punishment for manslaughter is not the death penalty (Numbers 35:11-25). Others say the victim might well be one of the two men fighting, who actually intended to kill the person he is fighting. In this case, the crime is more than manslaughter; it is murder, and the killer deserves the death penalty. Nevertheless, it is clear that the person here who was killed, and whose killer is guilty of murder, is not the unborn child who was miscarried.
Nefesh vs. Adam
Now we can consider why these two verses are cited to argue for the absence of a biblical prohibition of abortion.
In the Bible, the death penalty for taking a nefesh—that is, the life of an independently breathing human being (see Genesis 2:7)—does not apply to a fetus; pro-choice advocates conclude that since abortion is not a punishable murder, abortion is permitted. This type of reasoning involves a great leap in logic: it assumes that what the Bible does not prohibit is therefore permitted. Thus, pro-choice advocates say a fetus is not a nefesh, which can also be translated as a “person” or a “self” (see, for example, Job 16:4), and only persons or “selves” can be murdered in the legal sense.
Pro-life advocates, on the other hand, have argued that fetuses are “persons,” for whom the protection of the law can be rightfully claimed. But by so arguing, they have shifted the debate to focus on who is a “person” and who is not. It seems to me, though, they are thereby setting themselves up for the argument that fetuses do not come under the category of a “person” insofar as they are still part of their mother’s body. If an unborn baby is not a nefesh, those who perform abortions are not murderers in the strict legal sense.
Nevertheless, that rhetorical danger could be avoided by pro-life advocates if they were to argue instead that the prohibition of abortion pertains to any adam, namely, any “human being” (see Genesis 9:6; Job 14:1), defined as anybody conceived by undeniably human persons (see Genesis 4:1; Job 10:8-12). This definition of a human being is aided by the fact that we now have scientific evidence that a distinct human life, having its own unique DNA, begins at the moment of conception. Furthermore, killing any innocent adam deserves punishment (Leviticus 24:21), because it is a direct assault on the image of God, and ultimately an attempted assault on God Himself (see Deuteronomy 21:22-23). And, even if one regards a fetus to be a “potential human person,” such potential persons are still human beings who are not to be killed. Even if abortion is not strictly murder insofar as it cannot be punished as a capital crime, society should not be indifferent to it by not penalizing those who do kill or have others kill innocent victims (see II Samuel 12:9).
Penalties for Harming the Unborn
Those who argue that because abortion is not punishable as murder in biblical law, it is therefore permitted, commit an error in moral-legal reasoning. The error here is presuming that abortion incurs no penalty. However, even the miscarriage due to negligence is penalized with a fine. In fact, one Jewish exegete points out that in the case of what is almost an accident, there should be no penalty at all for what happened. Nevertheless, God showed His love for even unborn babies by penalizing those whose carelessness led to these babies’ being miscarried. Reasoning a fortiori (an acceptable method of biblical exegesis) we could say: how much more so should there be a penalty when the miscarriage was intended, when the miscarriage was truly an abortion!
Furthermore, even if there is no stated penalty for abortion, it doesn’t follow that the Bible permits abortion. There are some cases in which murder doesn’t incur a penalty but is still prohibited nonetheless. For example, a murderer is not to be punished by a human court when there are no witnesses to ascertain that the killer actually intended to kill the person whose corpse now lies before us (Genesis 4:9-11; Deuteronomy 17:6, 21:1-8). No punishment can be justly given to the killer, but the killing itself is still nonetheless prohibited. In a similar way, we can infer that even if no punishments for abortion are specified, it doesn’t follow that abortion isn’t prohibited by the Bible.
The Jewish legal tradition called Halakhah (akin to Canon Law in the Catholic tradition) can further illuminate the cases where there’s a biblical prohibition without a tangible penalty for its violation. Although suicide is prohibited in Halakhah, those who do kill themselves are not to be penalized by refusing them proper burial and mourning rites. We assume that there were factors (like psychosis) other than premeditation on the part of the one committing suicide that led to his or her tragic death. But those who willingly enabled other persons to kill themselves would face penalties. Unlike self-perpetrated suicides, in suicides assisted or performed by second parties, the difference between the perpetrator of a crime and the victim of a crime is quite clear. Assisting a suicide is homicide, and the perpetrator of the act and the victim of the act are two different persons. It is not like suicide, where the perpetrator is the victim and the victim is the perpetrator of the killing.
This principle from Halakhah can instruct our approach to women seeking abortions. Pro-life advocates might be on surer moral ground by sparing from our condemnation many pregnant women, who often submit to abortion due to internal and external pressures on them. Just as we try to dissuade a desperate person from taking his or her life, and of course condemn those who aid in suicides, so too should we provide abundant support to women seeking abortions and condemn those who aid them in obtaining one. Even more so, we should—and we more and more actually do—provide these women in their crisis pregnancies with real, tangible care and support. This helps many of these women resist the temptation to have an abortion because of their desperation at the thought of having to carry, give birth to, and raise this child alone. Our political efforts, though, should be directed to fighting, legally and morally, those who have more autonomy in enabling the killing of innocent human life, let alone those who actual do the killing themselves.
In conclusion, I hope it is now clear that there is no basis at all in the Bible for permitting elective abortion. Indeed, the Bible teaches that all human life is uniquely created by God in His image and is therefore sacrosanct. This teaching is the great bulwark for those fighting for the right of all innocents—whether they be born or unborn—to be protected from death at the hands of those who should be caring for them (see Exodus 1:15-22). When Jews and Christians, who are beholden to biblically based morality, say the Bible endorses abortion as a right, they might be honestly mistaken in how they interpret Scripture. May this brief essay help correct that mistake.
For a more detailed discussion of abortion from a philosophically honed traditional Jewish perspective, see my 2017 book, The Sanctity of Human Life (Georgetown University Press), chapter one, pp. 35-58.