A Biblical-Ethical Argument Against Abortion

Background and Introduction

Last week, I wrote an article in response (see here) to an online article entitled “The biblical argument in favor of abortion“, written by Liana Henderson-Semel and published by The Dialectic. The content of her short piece was to demonstrate that the orthodox Christian position on abortion, that it is wrong, is not the only possible interpretation of Biblical scripture. In fact, she went on to give an argument, based on a few passages, in an attempt to demonstrate that the Bible does in fact support abortionor is at least permissive of it. Abortion is not a sin, in her view.

Her thesis, in her own words, was stated as “Upon close inspection of the Bible, it becomes clear that abortion is not only a sin-free procedure, but can actually be rationalized and justified using “god’s words” as a framework.”

Based on her article, to summarize her position, it seems clear to me that Henderson-Semel maintains that the following are true:

  1. The fetus is not a living human being (this is stated in her thesis). Therefore, there is nothing immoral about abortion.
  2. The pro-life message is a front against women’s rights and liberty (implicitly suggested by her “women’s health issue” comment).
  3. The Bible (“god’s words”) is often used by believing Christians as a weapon to harm, not a tool to help.

While I’m not sure I can fairly infer what she might believe about the rights of the pre-born (though, on the surface, it would seem obvious) considering that she did not frame the abortion issue in terms of rights, I do believe I can properly and fairly address each of these three points from a Biblical perspective without fear of misrepresenting her. (If I do, I sincerely apologize).

My previous response article was purely a rebuttal to Liana’s argument. It mostly served the purpose of pointing out holes in the logic without necessarily making a positive case for the pro-life position. Now, I want to give a positive Biblical argument against abortion, from a theological perspective, against what Henderson-Semel suggests is compatible with Biblical teaching. I want to show that the Bible is unambiguously anti-abortion. I will do this by examining relevant texts of scripture dealing with the pre-born; I will examine the historic Christian view to support my interpretation of these texts; I will deal with the issue of bodily rights and freedom from a scriptural basis; and finally, I will discuss how the Biblical pro-life message can be abused but, when examined independently of its representation, carries great hope for those in need.

1. The Nature of the Pre-Born and Human Value

The Biblical argument against the act of abortion may be summarized as follows:

P1. The God of the Bible endows all human beings with equal value.

P2. The Biblical authors identify the pre-born as human beings with personal value.

P3. It is evil to kill innocent human beings.

C. Therefore, it is evil to kill the pre-born.

If the three premises (P1, P2, and P3) can all be substantiated from the text of scripture, then the conclusion (C) will logically follow. I will give a brief defense for each of the above assertions.

Premise 1 (P1) is buttressed by a passage foundational to all Christian ethics:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

The creation narrative is laid out across the first and second chapters of the book of Genesis, with the third chapter detailing Man’s fall into sin and death. The significance of the “image of God” statement is that God designed mankind in a purposive and special way. He’s endowed the human race with unique value over other created things. It’s a statement repeated elsewhere in Genesis chapters 5 and 9. Practically speaking, it signifies an equality of value among human individuals. (The male-female distinction that follows the statement does not change this and no serious argument can be made to suggest that the Genesis writer is implying a value-hierarchy among the genders.)

This notion of common value and dignity unaltered by physical distinction, I believe, is echoed in the New Testament in Matthew 10:31 and Galatians 5:28, while both passages have a soteriological context. Christ’s redemptive gift of forgiveness and love–grace–isn’t for a single race or class, gender or age-group. It is a gospel unbound by physical characteristic. Therefore, I think it’s safe to conclude that when the Bible places value on the human being, it is high, intrinsic, and irrespective of any physical trait or condition.

Premise 2 (P2) also has compelling scriptural evidence, across both Testaments, that I think few are truly cogniscent of. The primary texts people often cite are,

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:5)

For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works and that my soul knows well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed, and in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. (Psalm 139:13-16)

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself…” (Isaiah 44:24)

These passages all identify the pre-born being using personal pronouns (“…I formed you…”, “was sinful…”, “… You covered me…”, “…who formed you…”). Another way of putting it is that the authors all describe the individual as having their personal origins not at birth but prior, most consistently and appropriately at conception. Moreover, the pre-born being is identified as having both a purpose and a sin-nature from conception, quite clearly, which are, together, not characteristics of lifeless, impersonal lumps of tissue (assuming biblical categories, sin is a human characteristic (animals aren’t sinful) and tragic only if there’s personal value given to that human being).

I think the best and most convincing Biblical argumentation though is the entirety of Luke 1. Any Christian will have to wrestle with the question that if the embryo or fetus aren’t living humans or humans with personal value, would Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother, have been justified in having an abortion? Was the pre-born organism inside of her the human form of Jesus Christ or was it a mere mass of tissue? She was young, not wealthy, and lived in a highly religious society that would have ostracized her for even the appearance of sexual impurity. Yet, what she carried inside of her was not a random cloud of cells but a human being, specifically, a Savior. And this was the fulfillment of a specific then-centuries-old prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). The very first chapter of Luke’s gospel explicitly dismantles any possibility of justifying an interpretation of scripture that would have it support the pro-choice doctrine that the pre-born are not living, not human, and not persons.

I won’t go into the whole chapter but instead I will zero-in on a couple of verses that will serve to drive home my conclusion. Luke 1, to summarize, details how both Mary and Elizabeth were informed by God and his servant-angel Gabriel that they will become pregnant (Elizabeth with John, Mary with Jesus).

Concerning Elizabeth, who was far too to old to naturally be capable of becoming pregnant, Gabriel approached her husband Zechariah and informed him, saying, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (v.13-15). Even while in the womb, before being born, the person of John the Baptist–recall “…he will be filled…”–was spiritually animated. A far cry from a lifeless, worthless, inanimate, parasitic, non-personal mass.

Further along in the chapter, the angel then meets Mary and says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (v.30-31). The humanity of Jesus and his sonship to Mary commenced at conception. It is no accident that it is repeatedly mentioned in this chapter that she/Elizabeth will conceive, bear and give birth to a son. There is an order, a sequence, but it is appropriate and most consistent to interpret these verses as indicating that the Son has full human existence along each checkpoint. 

What is said later in verse 35-36 confirms this conclusion. It goes, “And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” These verses confirm my suggestion, regarding v. 31, about the humanity of Christ existing from conception. The fact that John’s sonship is directly connected to conception (no mention of “bearing” or “birth”) I think quite clearly demonstrates this point.

Elizabeth’s elated meeting with Mary in verses 39-45 further ties together and brings into light all of these ideas.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Elizabeth, elated, not just at the reversal of her prior barrenness but at the miraculous providence of God, ties together what’s already been shown. It is the Gospel author’s understanding that what resides in the womb is a baby—human—and that the baby’s own, independent response to pregnant Mary’s proximity exhibits personality. Note, the baby’s response was independent of Elizabeth and towards Mary’s presence. Of course, it is for no arbitrary/random reason that the baby leaped joyfully. It was because what Mary carried with her was “fruit”, value-bearing, and the immediate, not soon-to-be, fulfillment of age-old prophecy (v.45).

If the fetus were not a human being and a person from conception in the mind of Luke–not only the Gospel writer, he was a Greek, practicing physician and probably had at least some knowledge of human development and even abortion, which isn’t a stretch to say considering the Hypocratic Oath, which denounces abortion, preceded Jesus’ time by centuries–then why would he so repeatedly describe the Incarnation of Christ, and John’s own stage entrance, from the stage of conception? If neither Jesus nor John existed as human or person until birth, why bring up conception at all? Why is conception and the bearing of the sons iterated and even emphasized by Luke, our trained physician-writer, and the angel, God’s directly-sent messenger? The most consistent conclusion is also the obvious one, that conception is not only one’s personal entry into this world but also the sacred Incarnation moment. (Clement of Alexandria (150-215) made this theological connection, concerning the ethics of abortion, in his Prophetic Eclogues.) [1]

Finally, Premise 3 (P3) is cemented in the sixth of the Ten Commandments given to Moses, “You shall not kill.” (Exodus 20). Some interpretations have “murder”. Some might argue that there are biblical exceptions (war and capital punishment, for example). However, the most consistent modifier I could see being placed on the command is “you shall not kill innocent people.” The only times in scripture where violence and lethal action commanded are against people who have in some shape or form rebelled against God. There’s usually if not always a retributive purpose for biblical violence. Therefore, I do not see a means of interpreting this command as having exceptions for abortion that is consistent with the rest of the teachings of the whole text.

Therefore, since P1, P2 and P3 have all been substantiated with Biblical evidence, it follows therefore that the Bible and Biblical moral principles leave no possibility for abortion to be a sinless act. Abortion is a violation of human dignity, the destruction of human life, and an affront to God’s design.

2. Bodily Rights and Biblical Freedom

Romans 12:1-2 states, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” 

Paul here is instructing the Christian community in Rome, a predominantly pagan area that is aggressively opposed to Christians (Roman society had a contrasting worldview that prized honor, power, and domination). Essentially, here, according to Paul, personal desire is and will always be superseded by God’s will which alone is completely autonomous. Christian lives are to be lived in submission and sacrifice, not in entitlement or freedom from responsibility (in terms of what’s done with one’s personal decisions and body). Paul is calling us to shape ourselves, our ideals, our passions, around the heart of Christ and the will of the Father.

When it comes to the issue of abortion, I don’t believe there’s any rightness to utilizing bodily rights to exercise power over human beings who are otherwise defenseless, vulnerable, dependent and voiceless. (Similar to how it isn’t right to use freedom of speech to spew verbal racism or misogyny). But it should be asked how the Bible itself constructs the notion of rights, if it does at all.

Human Rights could be defined as the duties owed by one to another. For example, the right to life means that the human has a duty not to kill another–you shall not kill. The right to possessions means that the human has a duty not to take another person’s possessions–you shall not steal. And so, in some way, the Decologue of Exodus can provide a framework for the concept of rights. But one has to note that the first of the commandments lay the groundwork for those to follow. You shall have no other gods but Yahweh (Ex. 20:3); you shall not worship idols (v.4); you shall not misuse the name of the Lord (v.7). The rights of the created person logically follow from the understanding of God as sole creator and sovereign.

Therefore, a life of submission to God is a life of true, Biblical freedom. Any concept of freedom and rights that omits God as the one who gives us our fundamental value (imago Dei), who designed our universe, who has ownership over it, ultimately breaks down into a sort of Self-worship.

So, bodily rights and autonomous rights must somehow have a logical sequence from the initial premise that the Triune God is our moral referent, our law-giver, our redeemer.

What Romans 12:1-2 signifies, in my mind, is that no personal decision, however personal and inward, is free from spiritual and moral consequence–God’s law and will together guide and are binding upon even the most personal and inward of choices. Bodily Rights, on a horizontal plane, might mean that no human has a right to violate another in a physical, verbal or sexual manner. There’s certainly a basis for this. But if by Bodily Rights we mean that any choice that doesn’t directly touch others is necessarily a moral good, then certainly Paul here would disagree.

Biblically speaking, God is the only being whose nature makes his autonomous decisions necessarily good–He is God and his are rights supreme to all others’. The concept of a totally autonomous human will, choice unbounded and free from accountability to anyone, personal decision uninterrupted by Christ-chasing moral reasoning, is a Man-centered, idolatrous one.

Of course, if the pre-born being is in fact a human entity with personal value–this has been thoroughly demonstrated to be the true Biblical understanding–then this conception of Bodily Rights immediately is voided of any scriptural substance and, as an argument for abortion, completely self-defeating. And for the following reasons, in addition to what’s already been said, it is Biblically untenable to justify abortion on the basis of one’s own personal liberty:

  • The love of God precedes the love of one’s neighbor as oneself. (John 13:34, Mark 12:30-31)
  • The love of one’s neighbor means sacrifice. (John 15:13)
  • The truest expression of Christian love is the selfless defense of the unprotected and the vulnerable. (James 1:27, Isaiah 1:17)
  • Christian liberty follows the discovery of the love and mercy of Christ and leads to our love and mercy towards others. (Galatians 5:13-14, 1 John 3-4)
  • The child is inherently a blessing and not a curse. (Psalm 127:3)
  • The life of another is intrinsically valuable making it unquestionably wrong to harm and kill another, regardless of difficult circumstances. (See Part 1.a.)
  • We are not our own master but the workmanship of God. (Isaiah 64:8).

All of this is to say that there are definite bounds to what we can rightly do with our body. The Bible’s promise is that a life lived in submission, heeding God’s commands, lived for something and someone higher than oneself, is a life finding peace and joy. Spiritually, the truest freedom is only in living according to the purpose for which we are made. Practically, the commands in scripture aren’t arbitrary but are designed specifically to safeguard and protect.

3. The Hope of the Gospel for the Hurting

3.a. To love is to suffer

The Christian ethic is one that attempts to mirror the life of Christ in our actions: obedience, humility, sacrifice, resurrection (life from death, good from chaos). What we do for the mother and the child must emulate Christ’s love–sacrificial, sweat-laden, outward resonating, generous, selfless.

The Christian ethic is a necessary outworking and exercise of Grace, the outstretched hand of God to the lonely, the blind, the undeserving, the dead, the weak, and the lost through the imperfect instrument of the human heart, the human body. And it is by the power of the Spirit that this hand may be grasped.

What this means, I think, is that a truly satisfactory, Christ-exalting pro-life stance on abortion must have an action plan, not merely an argument, with an intention to bring the love of Christ and the good news of redemption to those who hurt, wherever they may be found.

But is the Gospel truly good news to everyone?

In conversations, I’ve occasionally come across questions similar to these: “How can God make it so that doing what’s right leads to suffering?” “How can God demand me to suffer in order to “do the right thing”?” “If God is truly loving, wouldn’t he give me the choice?”

The suffering endured by mothers in the world is real and I don’t pretend to understand what exactly it means to bear a life inside of you for nine months. I don’t pretend to know how mothers feel.

When God invites one into a life in pursuit of holiness, with suffering necessarily in the mix, it is not to no end. It will be for a greater good, a greater purpose, one that we might not be able to perceive yet (Romans 8:28). Jesus came to earth very specifically to be perfectly holy and righteous and to suffer in many, many ways. Physically. Emotionally. Psychologically. But he did it for the purpose of rescuing his beloved, his bride, from an eternal existence apart from him. It was sacrificial. It was laden with blood and sweat. It was outward oriented. It was love. It was love that compelled Jesus, the prophesied Messiah, to be perfectly obedient to the law and to suffer tremendously for the sake of others, defenseless and totally reliant.

What God demands of us, to lay aside ourselves for the sake of others, he accomplished himself. This isn’t God, sadistic and domineering from his arm-chair in heaven, laying down an ultimatum empty of interest in our souls, our emotions, our lives. It is precisely the opposite. God desires us to be holy, to do what is right, to not be conformed to the world, precisely because he wants us to have the joy only possible when we pursue our Maker, to be like Him, to be with Him, to have His presence known to us all the time, in everything, in every triumphant and painful circumstance.

To love sacrificially, like Jesus, is to suffer in part. To the one who casts off the superficial things of this world, the expectations of our culture, and instead chases the eternally meaningful, there will be peace and joy surpassing understanding. To the mother who chooses life, setting aside for the moment personal gains and even security, knowing the love and provision of the Father, there will be certain reward.

And the Gospel, achieved by Christ’s own suffering, death, and resurrection, means forgiveness and love for the one who has had an abortion. The Lord is forgiving to those who confess and repent of their wrongdoings, and no Christian ever has the right to condemn. Abortion is wrong. But the Grace of God is greater in its record-erasing power than any wrong any person could possibly commit.

3.b. The Gospel of hope may also be tainted (don’t judge a book by its abuse)

What I’ve found whenever the Christian faith enters into the conversation on abortion is, usually, I get responses like these: “Not everyone ascribes to your misogynistic religion.” “Stop using the Bible to shame women.” “If you really were a Christian/Pro-Life, you would do more for the woman.” “Why is it that you Christians/God love the fetus more than the woman?”

So, there are definitely barriers between the Christian and the pro-choice community based on what I can only assume to be past abuses of scripture. So, let me first admit that there are definitely ways to abuse scripture, Christian freedom, and taint the pro-life message and the Christian message.

It isn’t random that Paul writes in Galatians 5:13, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Paul was aware that some in the Church were probably taking the message of freedom from the penalty of sin, due to the cross and empty tomb, and using it as permission to be immoral. Paul’s plea is that we respond appropriately to the mercy God has shown us by spreading that love around us, for a truly redeemed heart will echo the love and service of God as the Spirit of God resides in them, sanctifying them, renewing them.

Some professing Christians have taken the pro-life message, skewered it, and chosen to opportunistically slur and insult women on the other side of the conversation. Others in the pro-life camp, Christian and not, have chosen more militaristic and heinous approaches (can they rightfully call themselves “pro-life”, one asks?). The good thing about scripture is that it stands on its own two feet. It’s to be judged by its own words. It is self-referencing, self-supporting, self-defining, and the writers were so often weary about the sins, mishandlings, and abuses of professing believers. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:20, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds much more”.

The Christian duty is to serve, not to bring down, taunt, and belittle.

And so may we support those who serve sacrificially and give of their time at the pregnancy centers, crisis centers, and work hard to make provisions for women who are truly in dire need, by donation of clothes, diapers, medical tests and scans, and counseling. They are the ones with a plan of action, an intent to heal and love. They have more than argument. They champion the Christian ethic through and through.

A multitude of celebrity faces and money-making voices (John Oliver, for example) have chosen to criticize, mock and discredit what these facilities are doing because it runs counter to the maxim that any personal decision is valid so long as it doesn’t affect others, which is vacuous and self-defeating at best (I repeat myself).

Know this, that (1) women are every bit intellectually capable to decide for themselves what care they need, (2) to stifle the efforts of women-serving thinkers is in every sense a contradiction to the tired accusation that pro-lifers just don’t care about women, (3) these sorts of criticisms against the people (usually women) that are honestly attempting to aid mothers demonstrates clearly the lack of honesty and desire to provide any real solutions to women in need by that specific corner of the pro-choice community, (4) people making these criticisms contradict their own maxim, and (5) efforts to belittle and mock in this way can only be born from fear.

Conclusion

Henderson-Semel’s article, now a few weeks old, I felt was motivation enough for me to write and show that scripture is actually pretty clear about its convictions, in its self-defining. I showed from a plethora of sample texts in both the Old and New Testaments that the Bible values all humans equally regardless of physical distinction, that the pre-born is viewed as a human entity with personal value, and therefore the sixth commandment of the Decalogue applies in the case of abortion. The Bible holds that attempts to snuff out God’s human creation, even one so small as a pre-born child, is sinful. Moreover, I’ve made an honest attempt to reevaluate the notion of bodily rights, given a scriptural basis for Christian ethics, and see how this poses problems in light of Christ’s commands to love sacrificially and Paul’s urging us to give up our lives in a holistic act of worship. While the Church has many faults and many individuals are to blame for tainting the Gospel of Jesus, it is this Gospel that presents the most reliable and joy-producing solution to any difficult life circumstance. The love of Jesus liberates the heart from the bounds of guilt. The Spirit of God strengthens us in our time of suffering. And suffering, no matter how small or how great, the Father has destined to be worked into a bigger plan and a brighter eternal future.

 

Sources:

[1] Gorman, Michael J. “Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World.” InterVarsity Press. 1982. Print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s