Thursday, February 23, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 4: Scripture – New Testament

As we saw in the last post, there is little if anything in the Old Testament that directly addresses abortion. There is even less in the New Testament. Jesus says nothing about it. Paul writes nothing about it[1]. This is curious because abortion was not at all unheard of 2,000 years ago. Roman and Greek philosophers of the time had a range of things to say on the subject.

It is significant that the Jewish understanding at the time of Jesus was that while the life in the womb had value and was in some sense sacred as a potential human being, it was not a fully human person before birth. According to Jewish commentary from around the time and place of Jesus if it came to it, the mother’s life must take precedence.[2]

This has remained more or less the teaching of Judaism since. Joseph Schenker, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, summarized the attitude toward abortion in the classic sources of Jewish law:

1. That the only indication considered for abortion is a hazard to the mother’s life.

2. That, otherwise, the destruction of an unborn child is a grave offence, although not murder.

3. That it can be viewed that the fetus is granted some recognition of human life, but it does not equal that of the mother’s, and can be sacrificed if her life is in danger.[3]

Something like Dr. Schenker’s summary would have been the common Jewish teaching at the time of the New Testament. That Jesus and the rest of the New Testament say nothing to directly contradict this understanding does not necessarily mean agreement with it. Arguments from silence cannot take us very far. Still, it does seem significant, given Jesus’ willingness to take issue with the understanding of his contemporaries on other issues.

It is also true that, grounded though Christianity is in Judaism, it is not the same. We do not share all the same scriptures and those that we do share, we interpret differently. We have different traditions beyond the scriptures. Both traditions have wrestled with questions around the issue of abortion. In both traditions, the answers to those questions have been complex. For more on the Jewish understanding, see this footnote.[4]

While there is nothing in the New Testament that explicitly and clearly addresses abortion, that does not mean it has nothing relevant to say on the topic. There are other themes and passages that could have bearing on how we might think about abortion, the life in the womb, and the agency of the woman bearing that life. There is Jesus’s uncommon respect for women and their personal integrity. There is also his even more uncommon valuing of children. There is the general commitment to care for the vulnerable and the “least of these.” There is the Visitation in which John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary appears bearing Jesus in hers (Luke 1:39–56). We will look at some of these later. Next, I want to look at another authority that Christians look to in order to make sense of things, the Church’s tradition.

[1] A possible exception is the reference to pharmekeia in Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 9:21; and 18:23. This can mean any kind of medicine or drugs (“pharmacy” comes from this Greek root).  It can also mean potions, particularly magic potions – something that was common in the ancient world. Hence it is commonly translated as witchcraft or sorcery. But in some early Christian texts, e.g., the Didache, it is listed alongside abortion which seems to suggest the possible meaning of drugs meant to induce abortions. But it is not clear that that is the meaning when it is used in the New Testament.

[2] Mishna 7.6 : “If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and bring it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the child].” (

[3] Schenker, Joseph G., ‘The Beginning of Human Life: Status of embryo. Perspectives in Halakha (Jewish Religious Law)’, Springer Science, Business Media, LLC, Published online: 13 June 2008


[4] Meacham, Tirzah and Lipinsky, Yoelit, ‘Abortion: Halakhic Perspectives’, Jewish Women’s Archive, July 27, 2022 (

Fischer, Elli, ‘What You’re Getting Wrong About Abortion And Judaism’, The Forward, August 1, 2022 (


Part 5: Tradition


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

Part 2: Context

Part 3: Old Testament

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