What does Christianity really say about abortion?
Jews across the internet, from a wide variety of organizations ranging the ideological spectrum, are releasing statements and tweets asserting that the Supreme Court is imposing extremist Christian beliefs on the U.S. after the court rescinded Roe v. Wade. (The court also raised questions about related cases including a right to contraception, to same-sex marriage and to same-sex sex.)
The court did not use Christianity as a justification for the decision. And not all Christians or churches oppose abortion. But many members of the court are devout Christians, and right wing Christian groups have long been advocating against abortion, contraception and LGBTQ rights based on a conservative moral framework taken from their understanding of their faith’s dogma.
This is, of course, a Jewish publication. But it now seems relevant for Jews to understand what, exactly, Christian leaders and Christian texts say about abortion.
It’s hard to draw an exact consensus about anything in Christianity — there are sects that differ enormously from each other in practice and textual adherence, not to mention differing power and leadership structures that pass on their own teachings from outside the text. Some sects of Evangelicalism, for example, place a high emphasis on feeling the spirit of God and draw their morality from that, while many Catholics base their stances on abortion on papal bulls issued centuries ago; in many cases, these extratextual teachings are the strongest influences.
But of course, Christians also cite the Bible about abortion — though the Bible has little to say directly on the topic. The glut of articles and blog posts arguing against abortion from a Christian perspective cite nearly every line in the Bible that mentions wombs, miscarriages, children or fertility, seeing any time that miscarriage is framed as a negative, or children as a positive, as religious proof that abortion is immoral.
It’s also notable that the bulk of the texts cited by Christians on abortion come from the Hebrew Bible, not the New Testament. The Christian and Jewish texts on miscarriage, life and birth are largely the same; the difference lies in the interpretation.
Here are some of the most oft-cited biblical passages, and the prevailing interpretations:
What’s the value of the unborn?
What the Bible says: “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
– Exodus 21:22-23
How it’s interpreted: Centuries of Talmudic interpretation have taken this passage to show that a fetus’s life is less valuable than the mother’s, justifying saving the mother’s life over the child’s in all circumstances.
But the word in the original Hebrew that centuries of Talmudic analysis have taken to mean a miscarriage comes from a root meaning “to leave” or “to exit.” And, some Christian Bibles translate the word to mean premature — and living — birth.
That translation choice leads to the interpretation that the “life for a life” punishment is in response to the fetus being hurt or killed in the fight, instead of simply born prematurely. This interpretation implies that abortion is tantamount to murder.
The Jewish interpretation understands the “life for a life” punishment to only apply in the case of death of the mother, leading to the opposite conclusion: The mother’s life is more valuable than the fetus’s because killing the fetus is not murder, while killing the mother is.
Wombs on wombs on wombs
What the Bible says: “The LORD appointed me before I was born, and named me while I was in my mother’s womb.”
– Isaiah 49:1.
“Before I created you in the womb, I selected you. Before you were born, I consecrated you.”
– Jeremiah 1:5
How it’s interpreted: These are just a few examples of the numerous passages throughout the Bible — the Gospel of Luke, Galatians, Psalms, Proverbs and more — that mention wombs. Often, the use is poetic; the speaker, whoever it is, is illustrating how far back their connection with God goes.
These passages, which gesture toward existence, consciousness or connection with God before birth are used repeatedly in Christian anti-abortion blogs and essays to argue fetuses are people in the eyes of God.
The dominant Jewish interpretations of these lines, meanwhile, have far more to do with history and God’s promises to the people of Israel. Rashi, one of the most widely read and respected rabbinical commentators, interprets the verse in Jeremiah, for example, to refer to the fact that God promised prophets to each generation, and thus Jeremiah’s coming was predestined. Notably absent is the idea that, as a fetus, Jeremiah was communing with God.
Children are a blessing from God, made in God’s image
What the Bible says: “Sons are the provision of the LORD; the fruit of the womb, God’s reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are sons born to a man in his youth. Happy is the man who fills his quiver with them.”
– Psalms 127:3-5
“And God created humanity in His own image, in the image of God He created them.”
– Genesis 1:27
How it’s interpreted: In Genesis, God commands humanity to be fertile and have children. And numerous other verses and stories paint children as highly desired, a reward given by God to the faithful.
As a piece published in the Catholic News Agency’s resource section for abortion argues, “Because this whole process is under God’s dominion, it is sinful to interrupt it.”
Similarly, anti-abortion arguments often lean on passages specifying that humanity is created in God’s image, by God’s hand. If humanity is created in God’s image, the argument goes, that sets us aside from other creatures, meaning humans must be treated differently from animals or plants. And if humanity was created by God’s own hands — a teaching numerous other passages throughout the Bible also reference — then it would be against God’s will to alter that act of creation.
Stand up for the innocent
What the Bible says: “Speak up for the dumb, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”
– Proverbs 31:8-9
“Don’t forget the lowly.”
– Psalm 10:12
“Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: they shall each be put to death only for their own crime.”
– Deuteronomy 24:16
How it’s interpreted: Numerous passages in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament exhort followers to help the weak and innocent. These verses are used to show that fetuses are especially deserving of protection, even more so than other people — that Christians should go out of their way to protect the unborn because they are so innocent and in need of help.
Innocence is also key to religious arguments against abortion in the case of rape or incest. The Deuteronomy passage is used to characterize the fetus as an innocent, living person who is being unfairly prosecuted for someone else’s crimes.
(Rashi points out in his commentary that the clause uses the Hebrew word for adult; youthfulness is never referenced. This, he argues, is the will of God; sometimes, he wrote, “little children sometimes die at the hands of Heaven because of their parents’ sins.”)
“Thou shalt not kill”
What the Bible says: “You shall not murder.” – Exodus 20:13
How it’s interpreted: Everyone knows it, and it’s the simplest and yet most complicated verse. The 10 Commandments state clearly that murder is against the will of God. It just depends if abortion is murder — and that’s the crux of the entire debate.