Biblical Abortion: A Christian’s View

It's commonly claimed that it's a Christian duty to abolish abortion, in accordance with a Biblical teaching that abortion is a sin. However, one Christian's reading of the Bible poses challenges to that assumption, instead turning up some eye-opening Biblical views on terminating a pregnancy.

Judah and Tamar, from 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others

The American version of the War on Women has been going on for quite some time, and one of the most long-standing fronts in this war is abortion. It’s an unpleasant topic that’s fraught with complexities and complications, so it’s been a frequent tool in dividing us into Pro- and Anti- camps of social warfare (and in the cases of murders of doctors and bombings of clinics, actual violent warfare).

The War on Women has been especially effective in getting many to feel as though Christians need to march in lockstep against the idea of allowing abortions of any type to ever be legal, to the point of criminalizing miscarriage, itself. Those who try to conscript religious Christians into this war do so under the argument that the Bible itself demands such a prohibition.

Except that it doesn’t. The Bible never once specifically forbids abortions; it’s actually quite the contrary! Not only were methods of abortion well-known at the time, there’s times when the Bible states God commands that one take place. I’m going to walk through a few examples as illustrations.

Tamar: Killing an Undesirable Pregnancy

In Genesis 38, we have the story of Tamar, from whom king David descended. She was the widow of Judah’s oldest son, Er, who had died without fathering any children. In accordance with the law, it fell to his next-oldest brother Onan to give Tamar children who would belong posthumously to Er. Onan pretended to agree to avoid being disinherited and publicly humiliated, but then he “spilled his seed” so he didn’t have to father any sons that would belong to his dead brother, not him. This sin of selfishness was so great that Onan then was put to death. (We’ll get into this one another time when we talk about birth control, by the way.)

Even though the law then mandated that the third and final son was to fulfill husbandly duties to Tamar, Judah made an excuse that the son was too young, and postponed the marriage indefinitely. Tamar, on the other hand, still felt that it was her responsibility to produce heirs for Er, and that it was Judah’s responsibility to make that happen. This was one of the families of Israel, and it was at risk of dying out without any heirs to carry it onward; Tamar wasn’t going to let that happen on her watch. So during a major feast, she dressed up in a disguise of a Sacred Prostitute, from the local shrines where women invited men to join with them in honoring the Divine Feminine through an enactment of the Male-Female Sacred Union. (More on this when we talk about homosexuality.) Judah took this supposed roadside harlot up on this offer, even giving her the tokens she requested for the union.

When Tamar was found to have been pregnant from harlotry, well, there was only one thing for it! Judah proclaimed that she had to be put to death in accordance with the law, and the unborn child right along with her. Since she was the daughter of a priest (Melchizedek, I believe), rather than being stoned, she’d be granted burning, with molten metal being poured down her throat for a quicker death than being hit with rocks. Now remember that Judah knew that he’d been with a Sacred Prostitute even if he didn’t know it was Tamar, so just contemplate the level of hypocrisy at work here. It wasn’t until Tamar produced the tokens he’d given her that he realized the baby was his, and stayed the execution.

So in this story, I see the Bible saying that killing an unborn child is necessary when it’s not a child conceived in a way the mother’s society wants. Also, that the mother should die along with it, because of engaging in an act the sentencer himself had done.

Hosea: Progeny of the Rebellious Shall Not be Born

In the book of Hosea, we have the prophet relaying a message from God, saying what will happen to the Israelites who had rebelled as punishment for their transgressions. In Hosea 9:14, we are told God will cause the deaths of the unborn, as he will “give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.” In Hosea 13:16 it is proclaimed:

Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.”

In Isaiah 7:20 and 10:5, it is stated that the Assyrians will be used by God as the means of implementing these punishments. In 2 Kings it describes how they fulfilled this role:

  • 8:12 And Hazael (future king of Syria) said, Why weepeth my lord? And he (Elisha) answered, Because I know the evil that thou wilt do unto the children of Israel: their strong holds wilt thou set on fire, and their young men wilt thou slay with the sword, and wilt dash their children, and rip up their women with child.
  • 15:16 (Then Menahem smote Tiphsah, and all that were therein, and the coasts thereof from Tirzah: because they opened not to him, therefore he smote it; and all the women therein that were with child he ripped up.

So in this series of scripture, I read the Bible saying that violently ripping the unborn from the womb is a just and worthy retribution if their parents were considered to have rebelled against God.

Sotah: Abortion-Inducing Potion due to Husband’s Jealousy

In Numbers 5, we have instructions given by God to Moses regarding situations where a husband is fiercely jealous of his wife, and there aren’t witnesses to prove whether she did or did not have an affair. She is to be taken before the priest who will mix up a potion and have her swear an oath of cursing before drinking it. “And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.” Otherwise, in poetic terms, it is described that she will lose the baby, by judgment of God.

As an aside, one interesting thing about the ritual of the Sotah is that it’s believed the woman was put before the court with her hair loose and stripped bare to the waist, treated like the “harlot” she was accused to be even before the “bitter waters” proclaimed her guilt or innocence.

So in this ritual, I see the Bible saying that if a husband is seriously jealous, his wife should be made to take a drink that will cause an abortion if she slept with another man (regardless of whose child it is).

Causing a Miscarriage: Mere Property Loss

The latest push in the War on Women has been to declare that anyone who causes the loss of a pregnancy shall be guilty of murder. This has resulted in young women who have suffered a miscarriage to endure the further torment of being arrested and jailed for the tragedy. However, the Bible didn’t treat miscarriage as murder, regardless of intent. Rather, it was treated as a property loss by the father, punishable by whatever fine the judges felt was appropriate.

This is spelled out in Exodus 21:22-25: 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. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Now there are those who try to say that the fruit departing just means a premature birth and mischief is whether the child is lost or not, but the ambiguity is gone when you review more direct translations than the poetic euphemisms of the King James Version. For example, from the Complete Jewish Bible:

22 “If people are fighting with each other and happen to hurt a pregnant woman so badly that her unborn child dies, then, even if no other harm follows, he must be fined. He must pay the amount set by the woman’s husband and confirmed by judges. 23 But if any harm follows, then you are to give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound and bruise for bruise.

Note that Exodus 21 also deals with when a man beats his servants, saying he’ll be punished only if the servant dies within a couple days. If they linger on, clinging at death’s door before finally perishing from their wounds, the man is blameless. This whole chapter makes it clear to me that the ancient biblical law is hardly unwavering in a declaration that “all life is sacred and must be preserved”, as many claim. But then many of the same people who would prosecute a woman for a miscarriage are also proponents of War and using Execution as a punishment for those convicted of certain crimes. Just saying.

Summary: The Bible is Not Anti-Abortion

My conclusion as a Christian is that the Bible is not anti-abortion. Rather, there is a non-Biblically-based movement that pretends to use the Bible as its justification for attacking women who do not carry a pregnancy to term (even if it was an unintended loss).

Now, even though we just covered some cases where the Bible actively advocates and even commands the loss of the unborn, there will be those who want to overlook them and claim that the Bible still prohibits abortion. Their argument is that we are commanded Thou Shalt Not Kill (‘rasach’, which is extra-legal killing or murder), and that the Bible teaches us that Life Begins at Conception. We’ll deal with that in my next installment, but here’s a spoiler: as a devout reader of the Bible, I see it another way.