by Joyce Arthur
published in "Humanist in Canada," No. 90 (Vol. 22, #3) Autumn, 1989.
Revised and expanded August 2001.
Most anti-choicers claim obedience to the divinely inspired word of God, so let's review their performance by taking a look at what the Bible has to say about abortion. Extremely little, actually, but what it does say appears to be in direct contradiction to the anti-choice stance.
First, let's look at the Bible passages that anti-choicers generally cite to prop up their position. Incredibly, they rely mainly on just three that have nothing to do with abortion. Apparently, anti-choicers believe these vague passages say something significant about the status of the fetus, although it's impossible for any reasonable person to discern exactly what. The first such passage is found in Psalms 139:13-16:
"For Thou didst form my inward parts; thou didst weave me together in my mother's womb. I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works! Thou knowest me right well; my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth. Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them."
All this passage states is that God is directly involved in the creation of a fetus and knows its future. This is useless for the anti-choice position, since God creates all living things, including trees and bugs. Plus, just because God is supposedly omniscient doesn't give fetuses any special status—it simply means God already knows whether they will live or die. It is dishonest to conclude from this verse that a fetus is a human being deserving of more protection than women. The passage is poetic prose that anti-choicers have twisted and trivialized by giving it a literal, objective meaning where there is none.
The second passage used by anti-choicers is similar:
"Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you'..." (Jeremiah 1:4-5)
Unfortunately, anti-choicers usually stop right there, and forget the rest of Verse 5, which negates their preferred meaning:
"...'and I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'"
This passage is specific to one, very special person—Jeremiah the prophet, whom God has called to provide miraculous powers and authority to the world. Since we are not all destined to be divine prophets, this verse cannot be construed as applying to any fetus except the unborn Jeremiah. Again, anti-choicers are being dishonest by pulling this verse totally out of its context.
The third passage quoted by anti-choicers tells the story of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary the mother of Jesus, while both were pregnant:
"In those days, Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." (Luke 1:39-41)
This passage simply records a fetus kicking in the womb. We can only wonder in befuddlement why anti-choicers think this would help them. Besides, John the Baptist is yet another divine fetal prophet ordained by God. Since very few of us are chosen by God before birth to herald the arrival of the Messiah on earth, we cannot claim that this passage venerates all fetuses.
Let's turn now to the several Biblical passages that actually mention abortion or miscarriage. Ironically, in spite of God giving divine status to the prophet Jeremiah while he was in the womb, Jeremiah emphatically rejects this for himself. Later in his book, he wishes he had been aborted! The following passage is a lamentation by Jeremiah:
"Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, 'A son is born to you', making him very glad. Let that man be like the cities which the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb for ever great." (Jeremiah 20:14-17)
In verse 18, he concludes with the anguished cry:
"Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?"
Three other Biblical passages question the value of an unhappy, painful, or "wicked" life. They aver that it is better to suffer an "untimely birth" (i.e, be miscarried) than live a miserable existence, or worse, live as an evil unbeliever:
Far from bolstering the arguments of anti-choicers, these verses prove the Bible is pro-choice. The contention that quality of life is a more worthwhile pursuit than simply life for the sake of life is a basic pro-choice stance.
One of the few biblical passages that approaches the status of the fetus is Exodus 21:22-25, which reads:
"When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay 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."
This passage allows only for the punishment of a man who injures a woman causing her to miscarry. However, a careful scrutiny of these verses uncovers a startling revelation. A miscarriage is punishable only by a fine, yet if there is any further harm, such as the death of the woman, the penalty is life for life! The implication of this passage is clear—the life of the unborn child is not accorded anywhere near the same status as the life of the woman. To put it another way, the man who causes a woman to miscarry is guilty not of murder, but a misdemeanor.
Since these verses do not support anti-choicers' position, we must look elsewhere. Indeed, we find another passage that touches on miscarriage. It is a curse that the prophet Hosea entreats the Lord to inflict upon the Caananite tribe of Ephraim. It reads:
"Ephraim's glory shall fly away like a bird—no birth, no pregnancy, no conception! Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them! Ephraim's sons, as I have seen, are destined for a prey; Ephraim must lead forth his sons to slaughter. Give them, O Lord—what wilt thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts." (Hosea 9:11-14).
It is evident this is of little use for the anti-choice cause. In fact, we see that it is not considered out of line to ask God to burden our enemies with spontaneous, God-given abortions.
Even more shocking, we find that God actually mandates abortion when the fetus is a product of adultery (Numbers 5). A jealous and suspicious husband should bring his wife to the local priest, who forces the woman to drink a poisonous "water of bitterness" to bring on God's "curse". If she experiences "bitter pain," if her "belly swells" and her "thigh rots," she fails the test and becomes an outcast. Virtually all Biblical scholars agree that this voodoo ritual and its cloaked euphemisms refer to an induced (not to mention unsafe) abortion. The word "thigh" in the Old Testament usually means genitals, but in this case, it refers to the uterus and its contents. One alternate Bible translation reads, "She will have barrenness and a miscarrying womb." (New International Version)
Such Biblical support for abortion forces us to speculate that perhaps what anti-choicers mean by God's law is that unequivocal Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13), since they condemn abortion as murder. That there is no Biblical justification for this belief, we have already seen. Whatever the arguments are for the full humanity of the fetus, it is clear they do not originate from the "Holy Scriptures." Be that as it may, let's indulge anti-choicers' claims for a moment and probe into the nature of the Sixth Commandment and its implications for the abortion battle.
One would think that although fallible human beings may or may not abide by this commandment, certainly God himself, as the creator of this law, and as the omnipotent, wise, and perfect being that he is thought to be, should be setting a shining example for us by acting as the quintessential role model.
What do we find when we examine the Scriptures? Regrettably, even a casual search uncovers the most shocking, barbaric, and revolting atrocities, all directly committed, ordered, or condoned by God himself. However, let's put most of these aside for now and confine ourselves solely to the passages that deal with God's murder of children. Unfortunately, there are many. Let's begin with this little gem, a popular story some of us first learned in Sunday school:
"And Moses said, 'Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go forth in the midst of Egypt and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die; from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maidservant who is behind the mill; and all the first-born of the cattle.'" (Exodus 11:4-5)
In Exodus 12:29, God carries out the dastardly deed.
Moses, the great liberator of Israel and God's right hand man, so to speak, had this to say to his victorious soldiers fresh from battle with all their "booty:"
"Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." (Numbers 31:17-18)
In war of course, children are not exempt from being victims. Numerous verses and passages document that entire populations, including children, were killed off at the command of God. For example, God orders one of his faithful servants to:
"...go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." (I Samuel 15:3. See also Deuteronomy 2:34 and 3:6; Joshua 10:28-40, 11:10-12, 14, 15, 20 and 21; and Judges 21:10-12.)
A passage of joyful prose from the book of Psalms praises the destruction of even the smallest of enemies:
"O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Psalms 137:8)
All this would seem to contradict the idea of a higher, more noble God's law as anti-choicers would have it. Not only is there no specific law against abortion, but a miscarriage caused during a fight is punished by a slap on the wrist, God himself intervenes to abort the products of adultery, and he thinks nothing of murdering countless babies and children. Granted, most of these young victims were, in God's eyes, wicked sinners and evil unbelievers, or at least the offspring of same, so they deserved to die. If this is the case, since we can assume that some women seeking abortions are not particularly religious, anti-choicers would be following God's example by encouraging these women to abort their heathen fetuses.
Let's turn to the anti-choice claim that life begins at conception, and that fetuses and embryos are persons—full and separate human beings with rights. For religious anti-choicers, this usually means a belief that fertilized eggs are infused with souls. But the Bible clearly states that life and personhood begins with "breath". With the creation of "man" in Genesis 2:7, God:
"...breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being."
The Hebrew word for human being or living soul is nephesh, which is also the word for "breathing." Nephesh occurs over 700 times in the Bible as the identifying factor in human life. Obviously, fetuses do not breath and therefore cannot be considered as human beings according to the Bible. Here is another verse that reinforces this conclusion. God says:
"Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live." (Ezekiel 37:5)
No-one can know when life really begins, including Bible-believing anti-choicers, as this verse makes clear:
"As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
In fact, it is the height of arrogance for anti-choicers to think they know and understand God's ways and will, especially since the Bible can be, and is, interpreted in many different ways by other believers.
However, one verse may shed some intriguing light on precisely when fetuses—or rather, infants—become persons, and which ones aren't even worth counting, according to God himself. When Moses conducts a census, God instructs him to count:
"...all the first-born males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward..." (Numbers 3:40)
God also tells Moses how to calculate the value of persons being offered to God:
"If the person is from a month old up to five years old, your valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver." (Leviticus 27:6)
Mercifully, we've learned not to put price tags on peoples' heads anymore—no thanks to God. But the fact that God assigns no value whatsoever to newborn infants or fetuses means that "God-fearing" anti-choicers are openly defying their God!
There is another anti-abortion assumption that rests in part on the faulty premise of fertilized eggs having souls. This is the idea that human life is sacred, including life in the womb. One could certainly argue that human life has great value without bringing religion into it at all, but the word "sacred" in the religious sense seems to connote something beyond mere value. It implies a special relationship with God. Indeed, Webster's dictionary defines sacred as "dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of deity," or "worthy of religious veneration; holy." What precisely then do anti-choicers mean when they claim that a single-celled fertilized egg is holy? Are we supposed to worship it? Or is it supposed to worship God?
Despite the obvious high regard anti-choicers place on the life of the fetus, they would likely be offended if we accused them of worshipping it. But it's difficult to avoid the impression that the fetus has taken on the reverent and obsessive qualities of a religious fetish. Think for a moment about anti-abortion groups that protest on streets and in front of clinics with graphic signs displaying aborted fetuses, and consider the uncanny parallels one could draw between them and a cult of fetish worshippers. The point becomes especially telling when we see their disrespect for the well-being of born children.
What about the suggestion that the function of the sacred fetus is to worship God? No doubt anti-choicers, as Christians, contend that we're all here to worship God, and seen in this light, it would be quite presumptuous for us to deny God any potential worshippers. The obvious corollary to this is that some of these fetuses will not grow up to worship God at all! The implications are horrifying. Anti-choicers insist on bringing into this world children, who not only may be unwanted and may suffer because of that, but who also may be destined to spend an eternity burning in hell!
An investigation of the Bible indeed indicates that anti-choicers are in direct conflict with their Scriptures when they insist that all must conform to their "life-is-sacred" abortion policy. For one thing, nowhere does the Bible state that human life is inherently sacred. What the Bible does say, emphatically, over and over and over again, is that only "believers," that is, the chosen people, the elect, and the righteous, are holy in the sight of God. Everyone else is dirt. The very existence of an unbeliever is an insult to God, and both sinners and unbelievers merit the most painful of punishments, culminating in a one-way ticket to everlasting hell. Literally hundreds of Biblical passages throughout the Old and New Testaments convey the essence of these pronouncements.
Humanity's special and sacred relationship with God rests also upon the very manner of our creation. In the beginning, God suggests (apparently to his fellow gods):
" 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Genesis 1:26-27)
There we have it. People were created in the very image and likeness of God himself. With humankind given such an exalted, almost divine status, how can we dare to even contemplate destroying potential images of God? Apart from the extreme egocentrism of this doctrine, there is at least one glaring problem here which the Bible itself helpfully points out to us. According to the New Testament, only half the human race was created in the image of God—the male half. In I Corinthians 11:7, we are told the following:
"For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man."
Several other passages explain how the weakness and shamefulness of woman's nature make her unfit for sacred duties and privileges; how the husband's obligation to his wife is to sanctify her (he is automatically sanctified being a man) and how her only hope of salvation lies in childbearing (1 Corinthians 14:34, Ephesians 5:21-27, 1 Timothy 2:9-15).
If this is all true (and we have it straight from God's own word), then half the human race isn't sacred at all! This means that we need not outlaw abortion of female fetuses on religious grounds. Luckily, with the handy tool of amniocentesis, we can quickly identify these "sex offenders" and eliminate them so they'll never have the chance to tempt man into sin again.
So ends our little foray into anti-choicers' own territory, the Bible. Perhaps, if they truly feel inspired to follow God's higher law, they would do well to embark on a careful study of the Bible to find out exactly what God supposedly said before rushing out to defend his word. That which they hold sacred they have twisted or ignored to suit their own personal agenda.
"Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know that they are doing evil." (Ecclesiastes 5:1).
(Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version.)
 Some conservative Biblical scholars have disputed the translation of the word "miscarriage" in the Exodus 21:22-25 passage, claiming it means "premature birth." This is indefensible, however. First, the original Hebrew word is "yatsa" which literally means to "lose her offspring". Second, premature births in the ancient world resulted in almost certain death for the fetus/infant, since only modern medicine can save premature babies. Third, other scholars have shown that the passage was derived directly from more ancient pagan laws, which clearly referred to miscarriage. The Code of Hammurabi (209, 210) reads: "If a seignior struck a[notherl seignior's daughter and has caused her to have a miscarriage [literally, caused her to drop that of her womb], he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus. If that woman had died, they shall put his daughter to death." Hittite Laws (1.17) read: "If anyone causes a free woman to miscarry [literally, drives out the embryo], if (it is) the 10th month, he shall give 10 shekels of silver, if (it is) the 5th month, he shall give 5 shekels of silver..." (Bowen Ward, 1987)
Bowen Ward, Roy. 1987. Is the Fetus a Person? - The Bible's View. www.rcrc.org/religion/es2/comp.html (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice)
Gaylor, Annie Laurie. What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? www.ffrf.org/nontracts/abortion.html (Freedom From Religion Foundation)
McKinley, Brian Elroy. Why Abortion is Biblical. http://elroy.net/ehr/abortion.html
Robinson, B.A.. What the Bible Says About Abortion. www.religioustolerance.org/abo_bibl.htm (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance)
Simmons, Paul D. 1990. Personhood, the Bible, and the Abortion Debate. www.rcrc.org/religion/es3/es3.html (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice)
Swomley, John. 1992. Abortion: A Christian Ethical Perspective. www.rcrc.org/religion/es8/comp.html (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice)