Abortion is one of the most emotive topics of debate in modern society, igniting strong feelings and opinions on both sides of the argument. For many religious individuals, the attitude towards abortion is not only a personal one, but an opinion that is shaped by an interpretation of the Bible. The question of whether abortion is addressed in the Bible, and if so how and why, is both complex and nuanced. In this article, we will explore the Bible’s teachings on abortion, looking at different interpretations from a range of experts and providing important background information and relevant data.
Exploring The Bible for Abortion References
Accessing the Bible for insight on abortion is not a straightforward task, as there is no specific reference to the topic in the scriptures. Alison Kafer, a feminist disability studies and theology professor, has observed that abortion is a “limited cultural issue” in the Bible; it is discussed in only a few verses and in limited contexts, and these references appear to be tangential and only fleetingly connected to stories of other teachings. Kafer goes on to note that the Bible does not “expressly and unambiguously condemn abortion”, yet conversely, it does not condone abortion; in fact, it remains “largely silent”.
Furthermore, the passages that may be interpreted as touching on abortion have been subject to countless interpretations with no consensus found. While religious leaders and organizations often cite the Bible as definitive condemnation of abortion and the practice of terminating a pregnancy, the majority of theologians, biblical scholars and ethicists believe that the Bible does not speak with a unified voice on this complex ethical question.
The Bible and Ancient Abortion Practices
The Bible does, however, reveal some evidence as to how abortion was viewed in ancient cultures and religions. Terri Neal, a historian at Vanderbilt Divinity Library, remarks that in ancient Israelite cultures, abortion was a practice that was sometimes used to end pregnancies that were considered to be a source of shame or disability. Furthermore, a variety of abortifacients were available in antiquity, and the Bible records numerous passages that describe the use of these potions.
While there are no concomitant laws forbidding the use of abortifacients in the Bible—neither are there any that expressly permit it—it was widely agreed upon in ancient times that abortion was preferred over infanticide. Deuteronomy, for example, prescribes the punishment of stoning for any instance of infanticide, stressing the great value of the life of an infant in accordance with the Old Testament.
Interpreting Biblical Passages about Abortion
The clear connection made in the Bible between the value of human life and its use to demonstrate Old Testament morality is one factor that every interpretation of the Bible’s passages that touch upon abortion must take into account. Additionally, biblical scholars note that there is a discrepancy between the legal portions of the Bible and narrative accounts. While the legal passages dictate a fairly conservative attitude towards the unborn, the story of Phineas’s atonement for a murder in Numbers 5:27 may be interpreted as endorsing the termination of pregnancy in cases of adultery.
Other passages that are often cited as mentions of abortion include Exodus 21:22-25 and Leviticus 24:17-18. The translation of these verses is also critical when considering their potential meanings. For example, scholars have explored the phrase “she has grieved a soul” in Exodus 21:22, which may be translated from Hebrew as “she has aborted a soul”, representing a powerful condemnation of abortion practices in ancient times.
In modern times, there is still no blanket prohibition against or acceptance of abortion on the basis of the Bible. Maybe Puchta, a New York-based theologian, has noted that religious groups have been slow in drawing up ethical guidelines on the issue, further noting that some interpretations of the Bible are more progressive than others. When interpreting these passages, Puchta shares that he has been influenced by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) theories, which are based on the idea that wellbeing is more important than integrity in terms of conceptualizing morality.
Expressing his stance, Puchta states that abortion can be framed as an issue of compassionate morality and part of a nuanced debate about the responsibilities of modern society, based on the understanding that “sometimes the burden of care can be unbearable”. He asserts that the continued silence of ethical organizations and religious individuals on abortion allows a predominantly capitalistic and patriarchal structure to maintain control over what is considered morally correct when it comes to abortion.
Restrictive Legislation Around the World
Despite the lack of established ethical consensus on abortion, the practice has been heavily legislated against in many countries around the world. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) has noted that 98% of countries have restrictive laws on abortion, with a range of laws covering issues such as abortion availability in cases of rape or incest, up to laws which completely prohibit abortion. Some of the most extreme cases considered in the IPPF report include countries such Malta, which have adopted a total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or serious fetal anomalies.
Women in these countries have been disproportionately affected by this legislation, with even women with the means to access abortion more rarely able to do so in comparison to women in countries with less restrictive abortion laws. This indicates that we must consider the effects of abortion laws not only from a religious or ethical perspective, but also as a condition of human rights, as effected women will often not only be denied a legal option, but also healthcare that is often explicitly protected by international human rights legislation.
Psychological Implications of Abortion
Equally important when considering the notion of abortion and its relation to the Bible is to assess the range of mental health implications for those who may have one. Studies from the American Psychological Association (APA) have identified a correlation between abortion and depression, anxiety, substance abuse and thoughts of suicide. These effects seemed to be the result of societal stigma and lack of support, indicating a multi-faceted approach to providing those who have had an abortion with optimum mental health care.
Groups such as the APA have sought to provide a more balanced approach to supporting women’s mental health, providing emotional responses that are not coloured by any particular moral or religious persuasion. Their research also notes that not all women suffer psychological strain after an abortion, further demonstrating the need for a holistic assessment of the complex psychological battleground of an abortion.
Links between Persecution and Lack of Access
The Bible’s lack of clarity on abortion can be seen to both fuel and be fed by the ongoing persecution of those who have had an abortion. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, violence and stigma can have serious consequences for women’s health, with cases in which women from both developing and developed countries face criminal charges, jail sentences and, in some cases, even death. In these instances, the bible has been selectively used as an instrument for oppressive and controlling behavior towards those seeking access to abortion.
Campaigns such as Madre’s #NoBibleBan demonstrate the realities of persecution in countries with restrictive abortion laws, noting how women living in poverty in countries such as El Salvador and Poland are disproportionally affected. The campaign aims to reveal the true multitude of experiences of those seeking access to abortion, and it highlights the bravery of those who face the social, economic and political pressures that block women’s access to healthcare.
Abortion and Biblical Recourse
All of these factors combine to form a complex and multi-layered approach to interpreting the Lord’s teachings on abortion. Therein lies the challenge for religious individuals to balance beliefs anchored in centuries-old scripture with their fundamental values of mercy, compassion and equity in their interpretations. Rabbi Medwin from the University of Florida discusses the Jewish perspective on abortion and his interpretation of the Hebrew bible. He notes that “life is a precious gift”, but that getting “caught up in extraordinary cases” is too specific a focus for translation of the original scriptures.
For Medwin, therein lies the challenge between religious reverence for scripture, and the application of it in practical, moral circumstances. He explains that the bible is written in a heavily symbolic way, requiring interpretation to take into account the speaker or written, the context and the audience. In other words, Medwin explains, the bible’s teachings represent guiding points on the journey to understanding the contemporary ethical issues of our day; they are not to be interpreted as absolute legal guidelines.
Considering Gender and Power Imbalances
When interpreting a scripture such as the Bible and its teachings in relation to abortion, perhaps it is also important to consider the context of the environment and power dynamics at play. Mary Hunt, a feminist theologian, has noted that many statements about women in the Bible have become ingrained in society’s cultural narrative, and have become out-dated and oppressive. Hunt advocates for the “continuous re-examination” of biblical teachings on the grounds of justice, with the aim of providing more equitable approaches for all women – especially those in minority groups including racial minorities, disabled women and transgender.
Consistent with this approach, Hunt argues that the patriarchal influences that often shape the interpretation of religious texts should be broken down to avoid receiving wrong results from Bible-based research. This calls for a re-centering of the importance of diversity in approaches to religion and understanding developments such as those surrounding Biblical guidance on abortion.
Unifying Dialogue and Compassion
It may be concluded that the Bible provides neither a definitive answer nor ethical conclusion to the debate surrounding abortion. While some passages may be interpreted as condemning or endorsing the practice, the Bible remains a nuanced document of historical and religious heritage, and should be re-considered in the modern context. Engaging in dialogue over this divisive issue is key, so that while morality and religious values remain vitally important, the discussion focuses on understanding, compassion and respect for the experiences of those impacted.
Relating to Abortion Personally
Finally, when considering the role of the Bible when it comes to abortion, we must consider the importance of personal experience in our interpretations and opinions. The opinions of religious analysts and theologians are influential and should be respected, but so too must the experiences of those who have had an abortion and their personal interpretations of the Bible be included in the discourse.
For example, The Seam Initiative, is a group that brings together post-abortion individuals from Catholic, Protestant, Mormon and Jewish backgrounds who seek to share their experiences with religious guidance relating to their abortion. By reflecting upon their own narratives, The Seam Initiative seeks to foster understanding and compassion among religious individuals when considering the issue of abortion.