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What does the Bible say about abortion?

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Senior man reading Bible, close-up of hands
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Question: What does the Bible say about abortion?
Answer: The abortion debate has heavy religious dimensions. If we take a purely secular view of human nature, then abortion during the first weeks of pregnancy is hardly a bioethical concern--there's no time for a brain, the seat of secular personhood, to develop.

But if we approach the question from more of a religious angle, then it becomes more problematic. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that the soul is implanted at the moment of conception. Other traditions teach that the soul enters the body during quickening, the point in pregnancy (usually around week 20) when the fetus begins to move. But what does the Bible itself have to say about the matter?

The Bible never specifically mentions abortion. This is significant, because herbal abortifacients--most notably pennyroyal and silphium--were in common use at the time that the New Testament was written. Jesus, Paul, and the other major figures of the New Testament were surrounded by cultures that practiced abortion, but no specific condemnation of the practice can be found in the Bible.

Likewise, Exodus 21 draws a clear demarcation between the killing of a person and the killing of a fetus. Exodus 21:12, for example, reads:
Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee.
But Exodus 21:22 reads:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.
In other words: Killing a person outside of the womb warrants the death penalty or exile, but killing a fetus is punishable only by a fine--and that's in a circumstance where the killing of a fetus takes place against the woman's will. Exodus describes no penalty of any kind for women who choose to terminate their own pregnancies, nor does any other passage in the Bible.

But the Bible certainly suggests that human life begins prior to birth. While Rebekah is pregnant with the twins Esau and Jacob, for example, Genesis 25:22 states that "the children struggled together within her." Likewise, when Elizabeth (pregnant with John the Baptist) meets the Virgin Mary, "the child leaped in her womb" (Luke 1:41). One of the most frequently cited passages in the abortion debate is Psalm 139:13, which addresses God with the statement that "you knit me together in my mother's womb."

So the Bible's position on abortion, like its position on so many other issues, can be described as extremely ambiguous. It treats the death of a fetus as a non-homicide and makes no attempt to punish women who have abortions, nor does it mention the widely-practiced abortion that was contemporaneous to the period during which the relevant texts were written. On the other hand, it does not suggest or imply that personhood begins at the moment of birth. This is why the Judeo-Christian tradition has long struggled with the question of abortion. A theological approach to abortion, if it is to be found at all, cannot explicitly be found in the text of the Bible.
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