Is the Bible Pro-Choice?

Does the Bible imply that you can kill this child?
Does the Bible imply that you can kill this child? (photo: Register Files)

Recently I've been encountering claims that the Bible is "pro-choice," meaning pro-abortion.

I've been asked more than once how to respond to this claim.

Here's how . . .


Jezebel Speaks

The best way to respond to a claim will depend on the specific form the claim takes and the arguments used in favor of it, but we need to start somewhere, so let's use this article from the blog Jezebel.

In case you're not familiar with Jezebel (I wasn't), according to Wikipedia,

Jezebel is a blog aimed at women's interests, under the tagline "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion. Without Airbrushing." It is one of several blogs owned by Gawker Media.

In a piece titled "Conservative Christians Conveniently Ignore All the Pro-Choice Passages in the Bible," blogger Erin Gloria Ryan writes:

Nowadays, you can't swing an IUD around without it smacking a pro-life evangelical Christian right in the bloody fetus protest sign. But did you know that all of these eternal Biblical truths religious conservatives trot out in making their argument that life begins at conception are actually at odds with much more reasonable, pro choice stuff in the Bible? And did you know that until until about 30 years ago, many prominent American evangelicals believed that life didn't begin until birth?

I mean, we've kind of been over this — there are a lot more passages in the Bible that imply (or insist) that the big man upstairs doesn't consider a zygote to be the same sort of being with the same value as, say, a mailman or a trapeze artist than there are passages that mention abortion. Probably because there are zero Bible passages that mention abortion, as in "don't do it."


Zero Bible Passages?

Ryan is correct that there are no passages in Scripture that explicitly say "don't commit abortion."

One reason is that in ancient Israel children were so highly prized that the crime of abortion was basically unthinkable.

As we've mentioned before, children were viewed as a gift from God. They were also an economic asset rather than an economic burden in Israel's ancient, agrarian society. Between these two facts, there was a strong disincentive to want to kill them in the womb.

As a result, it was not until the Christian era, when the Church began to spread in urban, Greco-Roman circles, that the question of abortion arose in a serious way. When it did, the reaction was immediate and consistent.

One of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament--which itself appears to date from the apostolic age--conveys the constant Christian perspective:

Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.

Of course, this rests on principles that are firmly biblical (e.g., "Thou shalt not kill" and the recognition that a woman who is "with child" is, you know, with child).

So while Ryan is correct that there are no biblical passages that explicitly say "Do not commit abortion," the Bible does contain the principles needed to derive this moral truth.


Zero Passages = Zero Passages

It's worth noting, as Ryan acknowledges, that there are zero passages mentioning abortion at all--at least in the modern sense of a direct, procured abortion. (There are, of course, passages referring to miscarriages or "spontaneous abortions"--to use the term in another, older, less common sense.)

That means that her case also rests on inference, so she could hardly object to Evangelicals or other Christians using inference in their case.

Whether one is pro-life or pro-abortion, one has to use inference.

So what, in the Bible, does she think supports her position?


"When Men Strive Together"

Ryan says that there are "a lot more passages" that support her position, but in her piece she names only one. She also provides a link, and I may critique what she links in a future post, but to keep this one short, I'm going to stick with what she cites. Presumably, that's what she thinks is the strongest passage for her position. She writes:

In fact, in Exodus, God talks about how if an assailant harms a pregnant woman and her pregnancy is ended as a result, the assailant only owes the woman's husband a fine. But if he hurts the woman beyond the miscarriage? Ruh-roh.


"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."

So, wait — the Bible specifically says that a woman is much, much, much, much, much more important than a fetus? What sort of crazy talk is this?


Understanding Ryan's Argument

The fact she cites this passage (Exodus 21:22-25) may strike many pro-lifers as odd, because they are used to citing exactly the same passage against abortion.

What's up here? How could two groups with opposite viewpoints appeal to the same verses?

Let's take a moment to see how Ryan (and others) are parsing the passage.

They are taking it like this: If two men are fighting and they hurt a pregnant woman so that she miscarries then her child is dead. This passage does not demand the death penalty for the life of the child, so abortion must not be murder. Instead, the one who hurt the woman must pay what her husband demands as compensation for the loss of the child.

On the other hand, "if any harm follows"--i.e., if the woman herself is hurt--then the law of retaliation applies, and the one who hurt her must be subjected to commensurate harm.

But that's not the only way to take this passage . . .


A Pro-Life Interpretation

Pro-lifers commonly parse the passage differently.

They often do it like this: If two men fight and they hurt a pregnant woman so that she miscarries that does not mean that her child is dead. It means that her child comes out of her body, but it does not tell us what happens to the child. The child may live, the child may die, or the child may live but be wounded somehow.

On this view the one causing the miscarriage has to pay a fine set by the woman's husband for the trauma of the event (physical and emotional, including convalescent time and medical expenses, according to the Jewish Publication Society's Torah Commentary: Exodus), but as long as there is no permanent damage to the woman or the child then the law of retaliation is not applied.

On the other hand, if there is permanent harm to the woman or the child then the law of retaliation applies and the offending party must be given commensurate harm.


Which View is Right?

Different scholars take this passage in different ways, making it difficult to settle the matter simply by appealing to scholarly opinion.

Both pro-lifers and pro-abortion individuals can cite people who take the passage the way that they would want to take it.

That can lead to an impasse.

One way of solving the impasse would be to analyze the original Hebrew and see how much it can be clarified.

That's more of a time investment than most people are up for, particularly in the world of modern, soundbite political discussions, so let me make the following observations . . .


Just What Bible Version Is This?

I have been unable to determine what Bible version Ryan is quoting from.

My Logos Bible Software--which has dozens of translations--does not have the quote the way Ryan gives it.

Various online Bible sites that I checked don't have it.

Googling did not turn up any Bibles giving this translation of the passage.

So I suspect that the passage has been altered to slant it in the direction Ryan wants.

It uses archaic language like "strive together" but it also uses more modern language like "miscarriage."

That doesn't mean that Ryan was the one who altered it. In all likelihood, she simply copied and pasted it from some other source, which had itself been copied and pasted several times, and whoever did the alteration is unknowable.

But it's not from a standard Bible translation that I've been able to identify.

That's significant, because it muddies an important point . . .


"And Her Children Go Out"

There have been a number of translations that used the word "miscarriage" in this verse, but none of them are rendering the Hebrew literally.

What the Hebrew says is vyats'u yladeyah, which means "and her children go out."

In older Bible translations, this is more clear. For example, in the King James Version the passage reads:

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.



"Fruit" is itself not a literal translation. The word in Hebrew is clearly "children." But the King James is closer to the original.

I can understand a more recent Bible translator, in the days before abortion was a political issue, trying to render the Hebrew text in idiomatic, colloquial English by using the (now) familiar term "miscarriage"--without really thinking about whether that meant the death of the child.

That's how the term "miscarriage" got into some English translations to begin with.

Technically speaking, "miscarriage" does not imply the death of the child, but that is how it is commonly perceived since that is its frequent outcome.

But once abortion became a political hot potato, a closer study--and a more accurate rendering of the text--needs to be employed.

Thus the New International Version (a popular version among Evangelicals) has this for the passage:

If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.

That kind of casts the passage in a different light, doesn't it?


What's the Upshot?

I noted that Ryan likely quotes this passage because she thinks that it's the one which best supports her position.

If so, she's on very shaky ground indeed.

This is not the kind of passage one wants to (snarkily) throw at your pro-life interlocutors:

1) They're accustomed to taking it to mean precisely the opposite of what you want it to.

2) They have experts they can cite in their favor.

3) The passage--in fact--refers to "her children" coming out.

That last not only fails to imply that the children are dead, it also states (not just implies) that they are children.

So is Ryan in favor of killing children?

Whatever else one may draw from this passage, the idea that it is okay to kill children is not one of them.


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