Friday, May 15, 2009

Abortion: A Stronger Argument than Life

In this post I am going to demonstrate that, Scripturally, a fetus is not a "life" until it is born.
Let me say at the outset that I am not "for" abortion, nor am I "pro-choice." At the same time, those who care about the authority of the Scriptures need to be honest about what they really say.
I will conclude by making a case against abortion that I feel is much stronger than the fight over when life begins, and the attitude I feel we should have concerning public policy.


Psalm 139:13-16
13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb
14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully [and] wonderfully made: marvellous [are] thy works; and [that] my soul knoweth right well.
15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, [and] curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all [my members] were written, [which] in continuance were fashioned, when [as yet there was] none of them.

The anti-abortion argument hinges on verse 16, where God has planned out the members of the body even before they are formed. This incorrect interpretation is a result of the added italicized words in the KJV. Here is v.16 again, without the added words:

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all were written, in continuance were fashioned, when none of them.

The antecedent of "all" must also be the antecedent of "them." Obviously we are referring to a group- a group of what? "Substance" is not a group. The KJV translators added "my members" which seems logical but has no textual support.
Assuming it is referring to members of the body, we are told they were fashioned over time, when there were none of them. How can there be no members if the members are being fashioned? Only if they are they are not considered to exist until they are fully formed. But this interpretation obviously damages the "pro-life" argument, and I don't think it is adequate or accurate.

The key is to understand the antecedent as "in continuance," or "days." Fortunately, we have other versions that can clear this up. See the NASB here:

16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.

Or the NKJV:

16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.

To paraphrase:

16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed, and in Your book my days are written down, before any of them came to pass.

"My substance" obviously indicates the biological entity that was to become King David. Yet his "time" was yet to come- "when as yet there were none of them." The days in his mother's womb are not accounted as days of his life.
However, there is no warrant to infer anything more from this passage one way or the other. The poetry of Psalm 19:13-16 is moving, but it contributes nothing to either side of the abortion debate.

Psalm 51:5
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

First, this is clearly referring to sinful flesh, the genesis of the flesh in the womb being the creation of another fallen man, the forming of another vessel of corruption (I Cor 15). The point of this verse is not to say that sin was imputed to David from the point of conception, but that the flesh he was given was corrupt and given to iniquity and sin from the moment it came into being.
Secondly, the typical "pro-life" interpretation of this verse destroys any concept of an "age of accountability" and misstates the doctrine of original sin. Original sin will become imputed by drawing the flesh to sin, but strictly speaking, it is not imputed sin, it is the natural corruption in man's flesh by way of the fall as a result of Adam's sin- thus death came unto all men. This is also forms the theological basis for an "age of accountability" whereby there is no imputed sin until such as time as a child learns right from wrong- this also parallels the Eden account as concerns the tree of knowledge.
This is yet another verse that can't be used to argue either way.

Exodus 21:22-25
22 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].
23 And if [any] mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Obviously the "pro-life" interpretation is that if the premature birth results in death, then the attacker will be punished for murder. But why does the word "mischief" (or "harm," see modern versions) have to mean death? Verses 23b-25 indicate a wide variety of harms and punishments.
Also, to whom is the "mischief" inflicted- the mother or infant? There are several solid reasons why mischief is best understood to refer to the woman.
1. This passage isn't about a man directly attacking a pregnant woman. It is about two men in a fight accidentally injuring a nearby pregnant woman to the point where she gives birth prematurely. "Mischief" then would be understood of the injurer deciding to continue hurting the woman deliberately.
2. The list of possible harms and punishments in vs. 23-25 find their full application in injuries sustained by fully developed individuals (i.e. infants don't have teeth).
3. In ancient Israel, any premature birth would result in certain death for the infant unless the mother was at the very tail end of the pregnancy. We forget this in today's world of fully-staffed delivery wards and NICUs.
4. Most impressively, the ancient Jewish rabbinical commentators take the view that "mischief" refers to harm done to the woman. From John Gill's commentary:

"then thou shalt give life for life; if death to the woman, so Jarchi and Aben Ezra interpret it; to which agrees the Targum of Jonathan,
'but if there is death in her, then ye shall judge or condemn the life of the murderer for the life of the woman;'"

"the canons of the Jews, according to Maimonides {b}, run thus;
'he that strikes a woman, and she miscarries and dies, although it is done ignorantly; lo, such an one is free from payment, and he does not pay anything, as it is said, 'if there is no mischief, &c.' the Scripture does not distinguish between what is done ignorantly and presumptuously, in a thing in which there is not death by the sanhedrim, to free him from payment; in what things? when he intends the woman; but if he intends his neighbour and strikes the woman, though she dies, since her death is, without intention, lo, this is a thing in which there is not death by the sanhedrim, and he pays the price of the birth:'"

This explanation given by Maimonides provides us with a clear interpretation: a man in a fight, having struck a woman so as to cause not only the death of the child but the death of the woman, went off free, and merely paid a sum of money for the child lost prematurely. The man ONLY suffered further punishment if, after the accidental injury, he carries out further intentional harm- on the woman. The premature birth is assumed to be a death sentence.

However, this verse does not address intentional harm to unborn children, only the intent to harm the woman, and as such can't be used by either side in the abortion debate.

Genesis 4:1, 17
1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.
17 And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

The contention here is that because the formula "conceived and bore [NAME]" is used, that individual existed in personal totality at the point of conception. Throughout the Scriptures, names were not given until birth except in instances where God chose the name. Such as that may be, however, it is too far to jump from that to saying that the child was not yet a person until birth. These verses provide no real benefit to either side.

Psalm 22:9-10
9 But thou [art] he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope [when I was] upon my mother's breasts.
10 I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou [art] my God from my mother's belly.

Verse 9 refers to birth, and verse 10 also refers to birth. David's point was that the Lord has been his hope ever since he was born. See also the NASB at v.10:

10 Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother's womb.

Consider the following verse:

Mark 12:27
He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.

If God is God of the living but wasn't David's God until birth, then David wasn't one of "the living" until he was born. The reply that God was his God before birth but only David's personal God after birth ignores the fact that David wouldn't have the presence of mind to make that decision while he was still upon his "mother's breasts."
It is highly unlikely that the last half of v.10 refers to his time actually in the womb. The KJV is ambiguous here. "Since my mother bore me" is found in the ASV("bare"), RSV, and NRSV at this point, and the NET has "from the time I came out of my mother’s womb."

Mark 12:27 & Psalm 22:10 argue against "pro-life."

Galatians 1:15
But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called [me] by his grace,

The KJV is ambiguous here to the modern reader, but again, "from my mother's womb" is idiomatic of birth. The RSV, NRSV, and NLT have "before I was born" as the ESV:

15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,

However, the Greek does not support this wording. (See the ESV and NET footnotes.)

Psalm 106:37-38 & II Kings 17:17-18
37 Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils,
38 And shed innocent blood, [even] the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood.

17 And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.
18 Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only.

These would have been birthed children.

Leviticus 17:11
For the life of the flesh [is] in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it [is] the blood [that] maketh an atonement for the soul.

The context of this passage is ceremonial sacrifice, not the definition of life. What is being said is that the shedding of blood takes life, not that blood constitutes life. There is much more to life than blood; even today doctors distinguish between cardiac death and brain death.


From the Babylonian Talmud:

From Book 8, Ch. 9:

"The same questioned again the same: At what time does the soul come into the body--at the moment of conception, or at the time the embryo is already formed? And the answer was: When it is already formed. Said Antoninus to him: Is it possible that a piece of flesh shall keep three days or more without being salted, and it shall not become stinking? And therefore it must be said: At conception. Said Rabbi: This teaching I accepted from Antoninus, and a support to him is to be found in [Job, x. 12]: 'And thy providence watched over my spirit.'

"Antoninus questioned Rabbi again: At what time does the evil spirit reach man? At the time the embryo is formed, when it comes out from the womb? And he was answered: At the time it is formed. Rejoined Antoninus: If so, the embryo would kick the entrails of the mother and go out; therefore it must be from the time it comes out. And Rabbi said: This teaching I received from Antoninus, and he is supported by Gen. iv. 7: 'Sin lieth at the door.'"

The story here is of the Rabbi Gbiah b. Psisa standing before Alexander the Great. Here we have two questions posed to him 1) when does man receive a soul and 2) when does the evil spirit reach man? The Rabbi (Gbiah b. Psisa) answers that man receives a soul when he has been formed, and that the evil spirit reaches him at the same time. Alexander (Antoninus) answers that man receives a soul at conception and the evil spirit reaches him at birth. The Rabbi gives Alexander credit by referencing Job 10:12 and Genesis 4:7, however, examination of the context of these verses does not warrant the use of them in support of Alexander's answers.

From Book 8, Ch. 7

"In the name of R. Ishmael it was said: He is put to death even for killing an embryo. Whence is this deduced? Said R. Jehudah: From [Gen. ix. 5]: "Your blood, however, on which your lives depend, will I require," meaning even by one judge. "At the hand of every beast" means even without warning; "at the hand of man" means even with one witness; "at the hand of every man" means of a man but not of a woman; "brother" means even when the witness was a relative. And the reason of R. Ishmael is [ibid. 6]: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood in man, 2 his blood shall be shed." What is meant by "a man in man," if not an embryo, which is in the entrails of his mother? And the first Tana, who holds that a descendant of Noah is not guilty for an embryo, is in accordance with the school of Manasheh, which maintains that every death which is mentioned regarding the descendants of Noah is choking; and he explains the above-cited verse "in man shall his blood be shed," that it means choking, from which death occurs inside of the body as illustrated above."

The consensus is that Genesis 9:6 is not speaking to the death of an embryo.

From the Mishnah:

Nashim, Yevamot 69b

"For if she is not found pregnant she never was pregnant; and if she is found pregnant, the semen, until the fortieth day, is only a mere fluid. Said Abaye to him: If so, read the final clause: If the embryo in her womb can be distinguished she is considered to have committed an offence retrospectively! — The meaning is that she is considered to have committed an offence retrospectively to the fortieth day."

A woman is not even considered pregnant until day 40.

"If she becomes pregnant she may no longer eat terumah. If the embryo was cut in her womb she may eat."
Footnote in the text- "Immediately. And the same law applies where the embryo was born dead."

The woman being referred to here is the wife of a priest. As such, she might share in the "terumah," or portion of the offering given for the priests to eat, but there were rules as to when she was deemed not fit to eat of it. If the woman may eat immediately after the embryo was cut, how would this matter unless the embryo was cut at a specific time? This is clearly referring to abortion. The matter of fact way this text deals with the matter is striking.

The Septuagint- Exodus 21:22-25

22 And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty: as the woman’s husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation.
23 But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life,
24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

The LXX, in contradiction to the commentators mentioned by Gill, identify the "mischief" as relating to the child. However, in agreement with Rabbi Gbiah b. Psisa, it seems to identify the beginning of life at formation.


If we restrict ourselves to current Biblical sources based on the Masoretic Text, life does not begin until birth. If we allow for the authority of parts of the Talmud and the Septuagint, life begins at formation. The baby's body parts are all distinctly formed by the end week 12- the end of the first trimester. This is the earliest point at which a premature birth would produce a fetus with all parts visually distinct.


Still, admitting that life does not begin until birth (or at the end of the first trimester) doesn't automatically mean abortion before that point is right for any reason. One recalls the question on divorce posed to Christ in Matthew 19:3- "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?"
Christ immediately appealed to God's ordinance of marriage as stated in Scripture- because God set Adam and Eve together in marriage, so then a man shall leave home and marry. God has set us a model in the beginning, a creation order, that we are to follow.
We see in v.6 that "God hath joined together." Even though it is obvious a choice was made between two consenting adults to marry, it was God who joined them. God has done a work, and He has done the work because these two have chosen to follow God's model.
Likewise, our incessant back and forth over when life actually begins is the wrong argument to take. The issue is not murder, the issue is commitment and supporting God's own purpose. God's creation order for procreation is for married couples to multiply and fill the earth. Once the conception has occurred, like the marriage vows, God has done a work, for the simple reason that the parents-to-be have followed God's model.
Even in the case where a child will have a disability, God can be seen to have performed a work. Such children are given to us as a reminder of our fallen condition but also, a testimony to God's provision and grace. We see His salvation as He gives inward strength to these weak ones. No, the world does not understand this, but Christians who know the power of Christ should understand!
Any negative biological phenomena that mar a perfect conception, development, and delivery are products of the Fall. God does not call us to reverse the Fall or hide from it but to allow His grace to be sufficient- even in these cases.
Abortion then, is only permissible in cases of rape and where the pregnancy would result in the mother losing her life. In the case of rape, the woman forced to conceive against her will; in the other, that which is already a life (the mother) is more important than that which is to be (the child). Even in incest, if it is consensual, it is not right to end the pregnancy.

What would the Lord say? In v.6 He allowed for divorce on grounds of adultery; however, He does not command it to be so. As a matter of fact, the decision to divorce on this ground, or any grounds, is an issue of unforgiveness ("hardness of heart" v.8). It is better to forgive and show mercy.

So even in cases of rape, the woman should seek to forgive, show mercy, and keep the child, but she is under no obligation to do so. In the case of danger to the mother, the woman should also be free to choose to give her life for that of the child.


The unregenerate man, the non-Christian, ought also to obey the natural creation order that God has set in place, as he is also God's creation. Nonetheless, it is a given that he violates this order, as he does not regard the Scriptures, Jehovah God, or His Son Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, man cannot truly respect and obey God's order until he yields himself to Jesus Christ.
Since a fetus is not a life until birth, we need to drop the screams of "murder" and "blood." Abortion remains unnatural, but so is adultery, and we don't expect the government to pass a law against that. Let man sin until he comes to Christ, because his righteousness won't save him. Abortion, though unnatural, should be regulated by government, not outlawed. Typing this is difficult; however, God never called us to institute His commands on others by pressing the government to legislate them. Unless you are a reconstructionist.
Public policy should seek to provide alternatives to abortion, as well as supportive services for those mothers who would keep their child if they felt they could. Good government should leave a mother considering abortion no excuses to avoid it.
Christian activism on the issue should be focus in the positive direction of providing alternatives and support, not the negative direction it mostly takes today.

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