The Bible and Abortion

By David Galston | 5.22.2019

With Missouri, Georgia, and Alabama voting in favor of severe restrictions to abortions, it is understandable that those in the Christian tradition might turn to the Bible for theological perspective. However, as with every modern social issue, the Bible actually has nothing to say since the Bible is not a modern document. Nonetheless, the instinct of many in Christianity is to turn to the Bible.

For the Christian Right, it seems particularly important that the Bible say something about abortion as well as other issues like homosexuality. On the abortion question, it is hard to find anything specific in the Bible. The only specific reading is in Numbers, where a rather awkward ritual is offered explaining how to have an abortion (Num 5:11–22). Yet conservatives assume the Bible is against abortion and will quote, among other things, Jeremiah 1:5. This is the passage where Jeremiah claims that he was called “before I formed you in the womb” to be a prophet. The Apostle Paul liked this image and relayed that he was also called “before I was born” (Gal 1:5) to be an apostle.

When one refers to being called, the point is destiny. Both Jeremiah and Paul mean that it was not human beings who appointed them; it was divine irresistible destiny that accounted for the offices they held. These passages are not about their mothers being pregnant.

Whenever we ask a question like what the Bible says about abortion, we need to ensure that the answer is not something we want the Bible to say. We can’t, in other words, turn a saying like Jeremiah’s into something it never meant. Rather, the answer needs to emerge from the context of the biblical world and needs to be a question biblical people could have asked (not something only modern people ask). The Bible’s writers are not capable of asking modern questions and are not capable of giving modern answers. It is unfair to the Bible, and disrespectful, to interpret its writers without any thought of their context.

Abortion has been part of human history since the beginning. There has never been a time in humanity’s shared history that abortions were not performed, one way or another and for whatever reason (as the reading from Numbers shows). Since the 1970s, 1 the concern of most Western nations has been to provide legal and safe abortions, not to outlaw abortions. Secondly, the modern sense of the subject also introduces individual rights into the equation, which is not the way ancient people thought about rights. In antiquity, and for most of history, abortions were usually performed by women for women. The ability to perform safe abortions was practically non-existent; women’s lives were at risk whenever abortions were performed. Since the 1970s women have been able to have abortions safely in sanitary environments with the proper equipment and medically trained persons. The idea that abortions can be legislated out of existence is nonsense because it ignores the fact that this is impossible and because it creates unsafe and risky conditions for women. Legislation outlawing abortions will not prevent them from occurring; instead women’s lives will again be at risk.

When we ask what the Bible has to say about abortion, our interest arises from our modern context. The Bible does not share our concern about choice or about rights. Rather, biblical writers will think about their community and its members, like your wife, sister, daughter, or neighbor, and will say that these other lives, because they are part of your community, are the same as your own life. From the biblical perspective, the command is to do what you must to ensure the safety of members, male, female, and even slaves, in your community. The verse to point to is not from Jeremiah but from Leviticus. “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (19:18). What is radical in Israel’s history is that the sojourner (stranger) is to be welcomed as a community member and loved in the same way (“Love the sojourner, for you were once sojourners in Egypt,” Deut 10:19). When it comes to abortion and the Bible, if we want to be “biblical,” we have to approach the question from the communal point of view.

Approaching a question biblically from the communal point of view means admitting that in the Bible there is no concept of liberal rights. Liberal (or individual) rights are new, relatively speaking, in the history of human cultures, so there is nothing in the Bible that says an individual woman has a right to choose when it come to an abortion. On the same scale, there is nothing that says a woman may not choose, either. Like the question of homosexuality, there are no concepts either in ancient Hebrew or Greek (the two languages of the Christian Bible) to contemplate the question in this modern way. Neither the idea of individual rights nor of sexual orientation is in the Bible.

Since the liberal sense of individual rights is absent in the Bible, the only avenue to follow is the “spirit” of the Bible (what Harry Emerson Fosdick called the arc of the Bible’s narrative). What is consistent with a biblical attitude toward social questions? The answer is justice. In the Bible, justice is the principle of community life. To love God, in the Bible, is to do justice. That relationship is pervasive, and many powerful individuals in the Bible (like Israel’s Jeroboam) were not warm to this insistent, prophetic, principle.

If justice is the biblical imperative, then the question of abortion and other social issues, if one wishes to hold a biblical perspective, is approached communally with the justice imperative at the forefront. When the question of abortion is raised, it is a question of justice. We know that when women are denied safe access to legal abortions, injustice is the result. It is not difficult to demonstrate this. The poorest women of our society will suffer the most; the wealthiest women will travel to where safe abortions are available. Among the poor, either very unsafe abortions will occur, or many unwanted children will be born. A state that makes abortion illegal is responsible for the children who end up homeless, abandoned, or grow up on the street. It is certain that in states where legal and safe abortions are denied, there will also be (or already is) a decline in or cutbacks of social services and education. 2 Consequently, the rate of crime will increase because there is an increase in desperate circumstances. The rate of illicit and unsafe abortions will rise, especially among the poorest and most vulnerable women, creating more instances of orphaned children due to impossible circumstances.

The example of such a perfect storm was Romania under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu (1967–1989). For decades in Romania abortion was illegal. Thousands of women lost their lives seeking unsafe abortions, thousands of women who helped other women with abortions were arrested, and hundreds of thousands of unwanted children were left abandoned in Romania’s orphanage system. Those of us who are old enough probably remember the “Ceausescu children” when the dictatorship ended. The lesson here should be that if one does not wish to support a women’s right to choose, then at least support increases in taxation to provide for the social needs of thousands of children who will be vulnerable to violence, starvation, and in desperate living circumstances consequentially.

My point is, biblically speaking, the rights of a woman to choose to practice her sexuality and to make decisions about her own body is consistent with the spirit of the Bible. While I support the modern sense of individual rights, the biblical emphasis is not individual but communal. It is best for the community to practice justice, and in the Bible, this means impartial justice. The writer of Deuteronomy, at 10:17, links the very nature of God as the God of gods to impartiality. From this foundation, it seems clear that a modern answer to the question about abortion, given in the spirit of the Bible, means access to safe and legal abortions, access to sex education, access to planned parenthood services, and access to supportive social services so that our children will have the best opportunities in life we can collectively provide. A good life for an individual is a good thing for the community.

Photo of David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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Notes:

  1. In the United Kingdom, the Abortion Act was passed in 1967. In Canada, abortion was legalized in 1969; in the United States, Roe versus Wade was 1973; Denmark legalized abortion in 1973, Austria in 1974, and France in 1975. This sampling could be extended (Italy, 1978; the Netherlands, 1980), but the point here is that Western countries shifted from criminalizing abortion in the early twentieth century to legalizing it and providing safe access. Through the nineteen eighties and beyond, restrictions continued to lessen with the recognition of a woman’s right to choose. The legalization of abortion (or in some cases simply removing abortion from a criminal code and having no law about it) stirred the anti-abortion movement. It is interesting to note that abortion laws were differently reasoned in the nineteenth century. For example, in nineteenth-century England, a woman could have an abortion up until the time movement in the womb was detected.
  2. Missouri ceased funding Planned Parenthood in 2016. The 2020 budget for Alabama presently lacks the 35 million needed for the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program directed at low income families. In 2018, the National Center for Children in Poverty reported that 49% of children in Alabama lived in poverty. After a Trump crackdown in 2018, The Hill (thehill.com) reported that Georgia had removed approximately 8,000 people a month, from April to October, from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).