When you think of the debate over abortion you often imagine pro-life Christians debating pro-choice secularists, and that’s often true, but there are exceptions. There are secular pro-lifers who have no religious creed but are pro-life because they believe our earthly life is the only life we get and it’s wrong to deprive anyone of theirs, and there are Christians who believe God doesn’t have a problem with abortion.
When asked about abortion in a recent interview, Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg defended his pro-choice position: “there’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath,” implying that life begins after a baby takes its first breath outside the womb. You can even find self-described Catholics and other Christians arguing for “reproductive justice” from religious principles, but here’s why their arguments don’t hold us.
There are three scriptural passages that Christian pro-choice advocates typically use to defend legal abortion. The first is Genesis 2:7, which says, “[T]hen the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” To those who want abortion to be legal, this means that until a baby breathes outside of the womb, he or she is not a person and can be aborted.
First, it proves too much, because many babies do not breathe immediately after birth and some can take up to a minute to breathe on their own outside the womb. This argument would justify infanticide as well as abortion. Secondly, the unborn do breathe before birth, but through an umbilical cord rather than their mouths. Before they develop the umbilical cord, they absorb oxygen through the lining of their cells in a process called “respiration.” Not only that, some injured born humans must breathe through a tube in their throat. May we kill these humans because they don’t breathe the “breath of life” through their nostrils like Adam did?
Finally, God had to infuse a human soul directly into Adam (or breathe the “breath of life” into him) because Adam was the first human being. Since all other human beings come into existence from other human beings, the requirement that God must “breathe” life into them the way he did for Adam is unsupported.
Another passage used to support abortion is Numbers 5:11–31, in which Mosaic Law requires a wife suspected of adultery by her husband to drink water mixed with dust from the tabernacle floor, which will allegedly cause a miscarriage if she has been unfaithful. One pro-choice author says this proves that “a planned abortion is part of God’s law given to Moses.”
But even on such a shallow reading, these verses would prove only that it is up to God if a child conceived in adultery is to live or die. It doesn’t come close to justifying legal abortion for any reason at any stage of pregnancy. Plus, God’s killing of a child conceived in adultery would no more disprove that child’s humanity than God’s act of killing David’s or Pharaoh’s firstborn sons would disprove those children’s humanity. God is allowed to end human life; we are not. Finally, as Francis Beckwith notes, the passage does not seem to refer to the water causing a miscarriage but to causing the woman no longer to be fertile as a punishment for her adultery.
Perhaps the most commonly cited passage from religious pro-choice advocates is Exodus 21:22–23, which describes what the punishment should be for accidentally harming an unborn child:
When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a 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.
Critics use this passage to argue that if the unborn were a full person, the punishment would not be a fine but the death penalty. One rabbi says,
from our earliest commentary on Hebrew scripture, it is interpreted to mean that if a woman who is pregnant is struck, her life is what is valued, and the fetus is of lesser value. We treat that fetus with a great amount of respect, but until it exits outside its mother or the person who is carrying it, it is not a life.
How does it follow that because someone is fined for killing an unborn child God would approve the intentional killing of an unborn child through abortion? After all, there is a punishment, so the child has some value and is not equivalent to disposable medical waste as he is in our legal system. In the preceding verses a man who accidentally kills his slave is not punished, but in the next verse the intentional killing of a slave is treated as grounds for serious punishment, possibly even the death penalty (c.f. Exod. 21:20-21).
There simply is no biblical directive about how to punish someone if he intentionally kills an unborn child, which is what happens in modern abortions. Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that the Bible allows intentional abortion because of the punishment prescribed for accidental miscarriage in these verses.
It is also not clear exactly what the word “injury” in these verses means. It could mean an injury that occurs to the pregnant woman, the unborn child, or both. One way to interpret the passage is that if the woman is caused to have an early delivery, then the penalty is a fine, but any further injury to the child is covered under the lex talionis law of “an eye for an eye.” Indeed, the text refers to a “child” coming forth, and this is a difficult fact for pro-choice commentators to evade.
One minister defends abortion by appealing to our free-will, “we’re not puppets controlled by God. Because of the image of God in us, we have freedom. That’s what’s really clear to me, is freedom.”
But the fact that God gave human beings free will does not mean he condones everything we choose to do. Is God pro-choice when it comes to humans who choose to murder, rape, drive drunk, steal, or commit any other immoral act? Even pro-choice advocates believe there is a limit to actions we may perform with the free will God has given us.
It’s true God gave us free will, and pro-life advocates believe women should exercise that free will. Outlawing abortion does nothing to inhibit free will, because people are free to break the law. It is simply the right thing to do when unborn children are being threatened by abortion.
Other pro-choice advocates claim that if embryos are human beings, the high number of miscarriages (some say as high as 50 percent of all pregnancies) means that God is the greatest abortionist in history. But that makes as much sense as saying that the high number of born people who die of natural or accidental causes makes God the greatest serial killer of all time. God has the right to take human life as well as to judge people in the afterlife. These are rights human beings do not possess, and so human beings may not take innocent human life.
Some writers claim these embryos are not human beings precisely because God would never allow such a high mortality rate. According to professors Thomas Shannon and Allan Wolter, saying these embryos are fully human is almost “sacrilegious” due to the “bungling” it implies on the part of an all-wise Creator. But would Shannon and Walter deny that infants are human beings even though there have been times in history when the infant mortality rate was as high as fifty percent?
Finally, if you’re going to make a pro-life argument from Scripture, try using a simple one that relies on ironclad logic: God forbids the killing of human beings (Exod. 20:13, Prov. 6:16–17), because human beings are made in his image (Gen. 1:26–27). Since we know from science and philosophy that the unborn are human beings, it follows that abortion is wrong. No special argument or appeal is needed to show that abortion is wrong, just as no argument or appeal to Scripture is needed to show that infanticide or rape is wrong. Pope St. 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. But they show such great respect for the human being in the mother’s womb that they require as a logical consequence that God’s commandment “You shall not kill” be extended to the unborn child as well (Evangellium Vitae, 61).