In the days after the United States Supreme Court quashed Roe v. Wadewhich had enshrined the constitutional right to abortion, some Christians quoted the Bible explain why this decision should be celebrated or lamented. But here’s the problem: This 2,000-year-old text says nothing about abortion.
As a university professor of biblical studies, I know the religious arguments that Christians use to support their opinions on abortion, whether they are for or against. Many people seem to assume that the Bible addresses the subject head-on, which it does not.
Abortions were known and practiced in biblical times, although the methods differed considerably from modern methods. The second century Greek doctor Soranusfor example, recommended fasting, bloodletting, vigorous jumping, and heavy lifting as means of terminating a pregnancy.
Soranus’ treatise on gynecology recognized different schools of thought on the subject. Some doctors have prohibited the use of any abortion method. Others allowed them, but not in cases where they were intended to conceal an adulterous affair or simply to preserve the beauty of the mother.
In other words, the Bible was written in a world where abortion was practiced and viewed with nuance. Yet the Hebrew and Greek equivalents of the word “abortion” do not appear in either the Old or New Testaments of the Bible. That is, the topic is simply not directly mentioned.
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What the Bible Says
The absence of an explicit reference to abortion, however, has not stopped its opponents or supporters from turning to the Bible to support their positions.
Opponents of abortion turn to several biblical texts which, taken together, seem to suggest that human life has value before birth. For example, the Bible opens by describing the creation of humans”in the image of God: a way of explaining the value of human life, presumably even before people were born. Likewise, the Bible describes several important people, including the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah and the Christian apostle Paulas having been called to their sacred duties from their time in the womb. Psalm 139 affirms that God “knits me together in my mother’s womb.”
However, opponents of abortion aren’t the only ones who can turn to the Bible for support. Proponents can point to other biblical texts that would seem to count as evidence in their favor.
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Exodus 21, for example, suggests that the life of a pregnant woman is more valuable than that of the fetus. This text describes a scenario in which fighting men hit a pregnant woman and cause her to have an abortion. A monetary fine is imposed if the woman suffers no harm other than the miscarriage. However, if the wife suffers further harm, the perpetrator’s punishment is to suffer reciprocal harm, up to life.
There are other biblical texts that seem to celebrate the choices women make for their bodies, even in contexts where such choices would have been socially rejected. The fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, for example, describes a woman with a gynecological disease that caused her to bleed continuously at great risk: She reaches out to touch Jesus’ mantle in the hope that he will heal her, even if the touch of a menstruating woman was believed to cause ritual contamination. However, Jesus salutes her choice and praises her faith.
Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ disciple, Mary apparently wastes resources by pouring an entire container of expensive ointment on his feet and using his own hair to wipe them off – but he defends his decision to break the social taboo around touching an unrelated man so intimately.
Beyond the Bible
In response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Christians on both sides of the partisan divide appealed to a certain number of texts to assert that their particular type of politics is supported by the Bible. However, if they claim that the Bible specifically condemns or endorses abortion, they twist the textual evidence to fit their position.
Of course, Christians can develop their own faith-based arguments on modern political issues, whether or not the Bible speaks to them directly. But it is important to recognize that although the Bible was written at a time when abortion was practiced, it never directly addresses the issue.