An abortion was permitted only to save the life of the mother:
If a woman was in hard travail [life-threatening labor], the child must be cut up while it is in the womb and brought out member by member, since the life of the mother has priority over the life of the child; but if the great part of it was already born, it may not be touched, since the claim of one life cannot override the claim of another life (Oholoth 7:6).
The Jews in the Old and New Testaments did not need to address the issue of abortion, since no one considered it a moral option. In a similar vein, I have never preached a sermon against cigarette smoking or plagiarism. The Bible does not specifically speak to these subjects, and they are legal within certain limits, but no one in our congregation would consider them to be moral or healthy choices.
When the Christian church moved out of its Jewish context, it encountered a culture which accepted the practice of abortion. And so, after the New Testament, Christians began speaking specifically to the subject.
For instance, the Didache (the earliest theological treatise after the Bible) states: “thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide.” And the Epistle of Barnabas (early second century) adds, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thy own life. Thou shalt not procure abortion, thou shalt not commit infanticide.” These books were widely read and accepted in the first centuries of the Christian church.
Important biblical passages
While the Bible does not use the word “abortion,” it contains a number of texts which relate directly to the beginning of life and the value of all persons. Let’s look briefly at the most pertinent passages.
“Pro-choice” scholars usually begin the discussion with this statement in Exodus:
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. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Ex. 21:22-25).
The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus commented on this text:
He that kicks a woman with child, so that the woman miscarry, let him pay a fine in money, as the judges shall determine, as having diminished the multitude by the destruction of what was in her womb; and let money also be given to the woman’s husband by him that kicked her; but if she die of the stroke, let him also be put to death, the law judging it equitable that life should go for life.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4:8:33).
But notice the translator’s note: “The law seems rather to mean, that if the infant be killed, though the mother escape, the offender must be put to death; and not only when the mother is killed, as Josephus understood it.” And note this later statement by Josephus:
The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have done so, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing human kind.
If this text does indeed teach that a person causing a miscarriage is only to be fined, while one causing “harm” is to receive severe punishment, we would have an important indication that the fetus is not as valuable as its mother. Is this what the text clearly teaches?
The New Revised Standard renders the text, “so that there is a miscarriage.” The New American Standard follows suit, as does the New Jerusalem Bible. But the New International Version translates the text, “she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury.” The New Living Translation similarly states, “they hurt a pregnant woman so that her child is born prematurely. If no further harm results . . .” The English Standard Version renders the phrase, “so that her children come out, but there is no harm.” Why this crucial difference in translation?
The Hebrew phrase is literally rendered, “And they come forth children of her.” “Children” is the plural of yeled, the usual Hebrew word for child or offspring (the Hebrew language has no separate word for “fetus” or the pre-born). “Come forth” translates yatsa, a word which does not specify whether the child is alive or dead, only that it leaves the womb. And so the Hebrew of Exodus 21:22 does not indicate whether the woman suffered a miscarriage (NRSV, NASB, NJB) or experienced a premature healthy birth (NIV, NLT, ESV). But it does refer to the fetus as a “child.” And it is important to note that the text does not use shachol, the Hebrew word for “miscarriage” (this word is found in Exodus 23:26 and Hosea 9:14 among other occurrences).
Verse 23 settles the issue for me: “But if there is serious injury…” (NIV), implying that no serious injury occurred in verse 22. In other words, both the mother and her child survived the attack and were healthy. And so this passage does not devalue the pre-born life or speak specifically to the issue of abortion.
The Bible describes man’s creation in this way:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up–for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Gen 2:4-7).