Answering the Theological Case for Abortion Rights

Author: Klusendorf & Wanamaker


I. Why Scripture's alleged silence cannot be used to justify abortion. II. The intent of the Bible writers. III. Why Exodus 21 and other passages cannot justify abortion. IV. The Church's historical position on abortion.

I. Why Scripture's alleged silence on abortion cannot be used as an argument to justify the practice.

A. First, the argument goes like this: "Because a particular behavior escapes mention in Scripture, it is therefore permissible. There are a number of problems with that assertion: 1. Infanticide is also not mentioned, but who among us would argue that killing an infant should be permissible? Slavery is not specifically condemned, but who would argue that Scripture's silence in condemning slavery is a basis for justifying the practice? Nuclear war is not specifically condemned, but who would argue that Scripture's silence is a basis for justifying nuclear war? 2. While Scripture may not specifically forbid abortion, it does forbid the taking of innocent human life. a. Exodus 23:7 b. Proverbs 6:16-17 c. Matthew 5:21


The question, then, isn't whether Scripture specifically condemns abortion, but whether or not it treats the unborn as fully human. For, we already know that we are not to shed innocent blood.

B. Scripture affirms that the unborn are human persons.

1. Scripture uses the same language to describe both unborn and born children. In Luke's gospel, the word "brephos" (from the original Greek manuscript) is used to describe both the unborn John the Baptist and the born Christ child and other born children.

a. Luke 1:41, 44 (Greek: Brephos used to describe the unborn)

b. Luke 2:12, 16 (Greek: Brephos used to describe an infant)

c. Luke 18:15 (Greek: Brephos used to describe the unborn)

d. Acts 7:19 (Greek: Brephos used to describe the unborn)

e. 1 Peter 2:2 (Greek: Brephos used to describe the unborn)

Additionally, in the Old Testament ...

f. Job 3:3 (May the night perish...)

g. Psalm 51:5 (In sin did my mother conceive me)

C. Scripture shows that God knows the unborn in a personal way.

1. The unborn child is a person with whom God interacts:

a. Jeremiah 1:5 (Before you were born I knew you...)

b. Psalm 22:10 (From my mother's womb you have been my God)

c. Psalm 139:13-16 (My frame was not hidden from you ... your eyes saw)

2. Abortion advocates try to dismiss these passages with the notion that Scripture only refers to special people in such ways. Of course, God is no respecter of persons, and this is reflected in Scripture:

a. Job 31:15 (reference to the humanity of Job's slaves, as created by God)

D. Scripture teaches that God not only knows the unborn, but endows them with purpose long before birth.

1. Judges 13:7 (Samson is made a Nazarite to God from the womb until death).

2. Galatians 1:15 (Paul has been made an Apostle before birth)

3. Hebrews 12:7 (In all things He had to be made like His bretheren...)

II. The Bible's alleged silence on abortion does not mean that it's authors condoned the practice, but that prohibitions against it were unnecessary.

A. Old Testament

1. Deuteronomy 30:19 (Concept of life regarded as the highest "good," while death was regarded as the worst evil.)

2. Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 23:7 (Man is created in the image of God and is not a mere assemblage of cells, resulting in the express prohibition against the shedding of innocent blood.)

3. Psalm 127:3-5; 113:9, Genesis 17:6; 33:5, etc (Children seen as highest blessing and not as a burden.)

4.Genesis 15:5 and Psalm 127:3 (Immortality achieved through one's descendents.)

5. Genesis 20:17-18,; 30:22-23, 1 Samuel 1:6 (sterility and bareness seen as a curse and source of sorrow and great shame)

6. Psalm 139:13-16, Isaiah 49:1,5, Jeremiah 1:5 (God was at work in the womb).

Among a people who regarded life as the highest good and death, the worst evil, who saw man created in the image of God, who saw children as the highest possible blessing, who saw immortality achieved through offspring, who saw sterility as a curse, who saw God at work in the womb, the concept of induced abortion would have been extremely unlikely to find any advocacy. Consequently, the Old Testament's silence on abortion indicates that specific prohibitions against it were unnecessary. The idea that women had a God-given right to kill their offspring would have been totally foreign to the Hebrew culture of the day.

B. New Testament

1. First Christians (including all but one of the New Testament authors) were Jewish Christians with an essentially Jewish morality. If a Jewish consensus against abortion existed at the time, the New Testament authors would certainly have shared that consensus ...

Early Judaism was firmly opposed to abortion. Jewish documents from the period (as cited by Michael Gorman in the Jan. 11, 1993 issue of Christianity Today) condemn the practice:

The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (written sometime between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D.): "A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before dogs and vultures."

Sibyline Oracles includes among the wicked those who "procure 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 41 A.D.) 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."

2. New Testament theology primarily task theology intended to address specific problems. For example, the Apostle Paul never discusses the historical context of Jesus' work, but this fact cannot be used to support the idea that Paul was ignorant of it or questioned it's importance or validity. And, as Gordon Eldon writes in A Theology of the New Testament, we know only of Paul thoughts, that which he wrote in response to specific problems at specific Church locations.

3. Many texts used by early Christians did specifically condemn abortion. And while these texts were not included in the Canon, they do express what the early Church Fathers taught on several issues, abortion included:

The Didichae (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), "You shall not procure abortion, nor destroy a newborn child."

The Letter of Barnabas (approx. sometime between 70 and 79 A.D. or between 117 and 132 A.D.) "You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn."

Apocolypse of Peter [describing a vision of Hell] "I saw women who produced children out of wedlock and who procured abortions."

III. Passages that abortion advocates use to discredit the full humanity of the unborn do not support their position (which is that any woman has the right to have her unborn child killed, for any or no reason, during all 9 months of pregnancy).

A. The most commonly used passage to refute Scripture's assignment of full humnity to the unborn is Exodus 21:22-25:

"When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

Abortion advocates will say that the unborn is not considered fully human because the penalty for accidentally killing a fetus is less than that given were her mother accidentally killed.

There are several flaws in this reasoning:

1. Even if we grant the abortion advocacy position, it does not follow that the unborn are not fully human. The immediately preceding passage describes a situation in which a master unintentionally kills his slaves and escapes without penalty. Yet abortion advocates would not likely argue that those slaves were not human persons. Further, they would not likely argue that the Old Testament authors considered slaves less human.

2. Even if we grant the abortion advocacy position, this passage cannot be used to support the position of abortion on demand (see above). This passage does not even remotely suggest that anyone has a right to deliberately kill an unborn child. At best, it shows that there is a lesser penalty for accidentally killing an unborn child than there is for accidentally killing the mother. To move from this truth to the conclusion that abortion-on-demand is justified is a fallacy of logic.

3. This single passage cannot be used to invalidate the numerous other Scripture references that treat the unborn as fully human.

B. Abortion advocates argue that since God created man with free moral agency, laws restricting abortion must be against His will.

1. Laws restricting free moral agency are not against God's will. God prohibits acts of free moral agency by those who would murder, rape, steal, etc. Few abortion advocates would claim that laws restricting these activities are against God's will.

2. The argument from free moral agency, then, only applies if the unborn are not fully human. Otherwise, the argument assumes the position that the unborn are not fully human as already true, which has not been proven.

C. Psalm 51:5 & 139:13-16. Abortion advocates insist that these passages teach only that the unborn are being formed, not that they are human persons.

1. Even if we grant this position, abortion advocates would still have to deal with the numerous other passages that assign full humanity to the unborn (by their reference to a person's existence beginning at conception).

2. Those who argue from this position make the mistake of interpreting the writing to mean today what it couldn't have meant when it was written (according to other historical texts of the time).

3. Far from undermining the position of fully humanity from conception, the passage actually reaffirms it. The Psalmist clearly tells us in Psalm 51:5 "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me."

4. Abortion advocates claim that, because the unborn are still unformed (as cited in Psalm 139), they are, therefore, not fully human. However, in the next sentence of Psalm 139:16, we discover that God's plan for us was written before we were formed. Additionally, if we are to subscribe to the point of view that "unformed" means inhuman, we also would need to seriously consider the view that "deformed" means inhuman.

D. Genesis 2:7, abortion advocates argue, supports a position that the unborn become fully human at breath. And, they argue, that since the unborn don't breath before birth, they are not fully human.

1. It is scientifically imprecise to say that the unborn do not breathe until birth. From conception, the newly conceived individual is using oxygen.

What changes at birth is the mode of how oxygen is taken in, not that oxygen is now used (at birth) where before it was not.

2. If the ability to sustain oxygen transfer through the lungs is a requirement for personhood, we would have to disqualify from rights of personhood, all those born individuals dependent on ventilators and aspirators.

3. The analogy between Adam and the unborn child is flawed logic. The creation of Adam was a unique, historical event in which God formed Adam from inanimate matter and then breathed into him the breath of life. The unborn child is a living entity from conception.

IV. The Church's historical position on abortion has been unanimously against abortion, until the 20th century.

1. Althenagoras of Athens (approx. 177 A.D.) defending Christians against murder charges writes: "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 object to God's care [and then kill it]." (Supplication for the Christians)

2. Tertullian (approx. 197 A.D.) writes in defending Christianity against charges of child sacrifice: "In our case, murder being once for all for- bidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being dreives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder birth is merely a speedier man-killing; not 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)

3. St. Hippolytus of Rome (approx. 222 A.D.) writing of a heretical teacher: "Callistus even permitted women, if they were unmarried and burning up at an unsuitable time of life, or if they did not wish to lose their own dignity by a lawful marriage, to take a man of their choosing as bedfellow, whether slave or free, and to regard such a one as a husband, through not lawfully married. For this reason women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceieved, since they would not, on account of relatives and excessive wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person.

See, then, into what reat impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time. (Philosophoumena)

4. Clement of Alexandria (sometime between A.D. 150 and 215):

"But women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion kill not only embryos but, along with it, all human kindness. (Paedagogus)

5. John Calvin wrote: "The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of it's mother, is already a human being and it is a most monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy." (Commentarius in Exodum)

6. Martin Luther wrote: "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)

Scott Klusendorf is the principal author of this document. Scott is Director of Education for the Center for BioEthical Reform in Anaheim, CA. Additional material and transcription (with permission from Center for BioEthical Reform) by Dave Wanamaker, Director of Education, Johnson County Kansans for Life. Sources, where not specifically cited, are taken from Sacred Scripture (translations: NIV and NRSV) and The Faith of the Early Fathers by William A. Jurgens. Additonally, some arguments against abortion rights from scripture have been condensed from Politically Correct Death; Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights by Frances J. Beckwith.