Thursday, February 9, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 3: Scripture – Old Testament

The Outline of the Faith, or Catechism, in the Book of Common Prayer affirms that the Christian Scriptures are “the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” (p. 853). So, that is where Christians begin when discerning answers to moral questions.

It must be admitted, though, that the Bible has nothing to say explicitly about deliberate abortion. Even theologians who firmly oppose abortion concede this. In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote,

The texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it.[1]

Though he affirms a pro-life position, New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hayes, admits,

The Bible contains no text about abortion. This simple fact – often ignored by those who would make opposition to abortion a virtual litmus test of true Christian faith – places the issue of abortion in a very different category . . .[2]

That the Old Testament says nothing directly about abortion is curious, given that it contains extensive and explicit regulations about sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and even menstruation, but there are no regulations about abortion. This is notable because some, though not all, ancient societies did have laws explicitly forbidding abortion. This is true of ancient Assyrian, Greek, and Roman law codes. Even then, it is uncertain if these laws were intended for the sake of the life in the womb. Such laws might have been meant to protect the pregnant woman given that most methods of abortion were as likely to end in her death as in a successful termination of the pregnancy. More likely, given that these ancient societies were exceedingly patriarchal, laws against abortion were as much as anything to protect the rights of the father who legally had the right to kill the baby after birth if he chose.

One place the Old Testament might come close to addressing something like abortion is Exodus 21:22–23 which reads:

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.

There is a basic lack of clarity in the passage. To whom does “no further harm” refer? Is it the miscarried baby or the woman, or either one? From the earliest Jewish interpreters in the Talmud to most contemporary scholars the consensus interpretation is that financial compensation is due the father if the fetus is lost while more severe penalties are exacted if “further harm” comes to the woman. That interpretation is in line with the law codes of many of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Not every scholar agrees with that consensus, but it is the majority view held by Old Testament scholars.[3]

In any event, the lack of clarity means it is not a passage we can rely on to settle the question as to the moral value of the fetus or the morality of elective abortion. It also raises the question in a less patriarchal age, why the fine for the reckless causing of a miscarriage is determined by the father rather than the mother.

Another passage in the Old Testament that possibly refers to something like abortion is Numbers 5:11–31. Like the one above, this passage is hard to translate and hard to interpret. Here, a woman suspected of adultery is given a concoction by a priest in order to determine her guilt and inflict a penalty. It is a passage notoriously hard to understand or even translate. Some translations, e.g., the New Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, and English Standard Version, seem to suggest that the penalty is essentially an induced miscarriage or abortion. Other translations suggest the penalty is some physical affliction on the woman. So, this is another passage that is too uncertain to have much bearing on the subject. Either way, one might wonder why the man with whom the woman had the affair is unpunished by the potion.

These are the only two places in the Old Testament that address anything like abortion. The sacredness of life, human and otherwise, is a general theme of the Old Testament and there is of course the commandment against killing. The question is, “Does that prohibition include the life in the womb or, if so, to what extent?” Abortion is never explicitly equated with murder in the Old Testament. That does not necessarily mean that abortion is simply morally neutral. Indeed, there are passages that point to the value of fetal life (Job 10:9-11, Psalm 139:12). But that abortion is simply or always murder is more than can be proved reading the Old Testament alone. This more complicated position on the moral weight of abortion has been the Jewish understanding as we will see more in the next installment.

There are other passages from the Old Testament that have some bearing on the question such as Job 10:9-11, Psalm 139:12, and Jeremiah 1:5. We will look at those later. But, next, we'll look at the New Testament.

[2] Hays, Richard B., The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 446. See also, Meilander, Gilbert, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, p. 29

[3] See for example The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, ‘The Meaning of Texts’ (


Part 4: Scripture – New Testament 


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 2: Context

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate and am learning from the tone and content of this reflection. BjA