Despite the confusion circulating over the web for years, the Bible unambiguously upholds the sanctity of prenatal life.
First, let’s begin with a passage in a legal section of the Torah (first five books of the Bible) that does not cover abortion as such, but an unintentional injury or death of a preborn baby. Remarkably, pro-choicers (and even some pro-lifers) use it to lower the human status of the baby, even though the verses teach the opposite.
Exodus 21:22-23 says:
When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life ….
The English Standard Version, quoted here, is a literal rendering of “children” and not simply “miscarry,” as some translations have it. The plural probably means an indefinite number. “Children” excludes the claim that the child is a subhuman life-form (for a longer discussion of the Hebrew, go here).
One important note about the verses not quoted here (24-25). They go on to spell out the standard formula of eye for eye, tooth for tooth, foot for foot and hand for hand, and so on. This concept was never intended to be taken literally, but is merely a formula to indicate proportional compensation. One should not get rich quick off of a personal injury, nor should the injured party be denied fair compensation by an inadequate award. Also, the father / husband — one man — must get compensated equally for both his child and wife.
In any case, these verses offer at least three interpretations – the first two being off target, the last one expressing the clear purpose of the verses.
First, pro-choicers (and some pro-lifers) point out that the death sentence is not imposed on the brawler who kills the preborn infant, so the life in the womb is not of equal worth to an adult’s. But this misses the fact that in the category of homicide or killing, only intentional or willful murder gets the death penalty (Exod. 21:12-14), while this passage is about (possible) unintentional killing. Also, the plainest meaning of the text says the husband and father – one man – can get compensation for injury or death of either his wife or his child or children, implying that the preborn baby and mother are equals (see the last interpretation, below).
Second, undeterred, some interpreters raise this question: if the accidental death of the preborn baby does not earn the death penalty, what about the willful killing of him (an abortion)? It would be gruesome to impose the death penalty on the mother who aborted, which implies that the baby does not really have equal human status to the mother. However, we shouldn’t lower the preborn child’s human status to spare her of death, for the clear interpretation of Exod. 21:22-23 says the preborn is elevated (see the last interpretation, below). Instead, we recognize that the mother is broken and needs help (Rom. 5:10-11, 2 Cor. 5:17-21, Gal 3:10-14, 4:4-7, Eph. 2:1-10).
Would these interpreters execute her if she birthed the baby, put him in a trash bag, and left him in a dumpster so that he dies? If they would, then their clunky, mechanical interpretation of the Torah is extra-harsh. Indeed, who would argue for her execution even if she choked the child? The rest of us can clearly see she’s broken – shattered. Once again, she needs help, not death. But we shouldn’t lower the human status of the newborn baby just to spare her the death penalty. We instead focus on her and minister to her deep sickness.
Since Exod. 21:22-23 is about unintentional killing, we should not draw far-reaching laws or principles from it about intentional killing. Let’s lay aside these first two over-wrought interpretations and move on to the one that fits the plainest meaning of the verses.
Third, verse 23 says “harm.” These possibilities present themselves: either the mother or preborn child dies or is injured during the brawl; both the mother and preborn child die or are injured. Whatever the extent of the “harm,” the text clearly teaches that the man should be compensated for the death or injury to the preborn baby in the same way and to the same degree that he is compensated for the death or injury to his wife – a grownup. The preborn baby is as significant as an adult, contradicting the overworked interpretation in the second point, which denies the preborn baby’s equal human status.
Objection: Exod. 21:22-23 treats the child as property, since the father gets compensation for the child’s death or injury. Reply: it demonstrates, rather, that the ancient Hebrew household was ruled by the male. But even if, hypothetically, the baby is property, then the father / husband gets compensation for his grown wife and the baby. Equality again.
Exod. 21:22-23 is about unintentional loss of life and injury. The next passages reveal the importance of the preborn baby’s life, explaining why reasonable humans and God see the killing of the preborn infant as a profound loss.
In Genesis 25:22-23, one of several major narrative or story sections of the Torah, matriarch Rebecca is carrying two babies, later named Jacob and Esau. She feels them struggling in an extra-strong way. “Why is this happening to me?” Then she inquired of the Lord, who graciously answered her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided ….” So the babies are not merely preborn infants; they are two nations. Even in the womb, God proclaims them to be the progenitors of two numerous peoples. Talk about the ultimate potentiality argument!
Objection: Can you really reach such conclusions from stories or narratives? Reply: Yes. Truths are embedded everywhere. Also, in that passage God breaks in and speaks directly.
Psalm 139:13-14 talks about the formation process that David, future king of Israel, underwent in the womb, mysteriously directed by God.
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
Objection: The Psalms are poetry. Can you really get such truths about prenatal life from a poetic context? Reply: though poetry might use metaphors (see “knitted”), this does not hide the truth so much that we can’t see plain ones. The truth in those verses is clear enough. (See also Psalm 22:9-10.)
Jeremiah the prophet enjoyed the same special care from God as David did. God is speaking to him in this verse: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (1:5). God in his omniscience knew Jeremiah even before he was conceived. At the next stage, God placed a special calling on him, while the baby was being formed in the womb.
However, attempting to use reductio ad absurdum, an objector counters: “Are you claiming to protect even the preconceived? That’s absurd!” No, that’s not our claim, but God’s omniscience does teach us that his plans for babies all along the stages of life are sacred and special, and we abort babies at our own social and personal harm. (See also Isaiah 44:2 and 49:5.)
Finally, this passage in the Gospel of Luke 1:39-42 teaches us that babies can be blessed in the womb. Mary is pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth is the mother of John the Baptist.
[Mary] entered the house and greeted Elizabeth. At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed ….”
It would be a pity if you let John’s status as a saint in some church denominations exclude you and your baby from the same blessing (Matt. 11:11). God loves you and your baby just the same.
Thus, the Bible is unambiguous and consistent about preborn human life. The legal portion or the narrative or story portion of the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospel of Luke – along with the entire Bible – uphold the highest human status for the spiritual and moral and biological life in the womb. According to the Bible, God sees pre-born babies in the future, as adults fulfilling special callings he places on them. And God says they are blessed in the womb, just as grownup Elizabeth was blessed.
In God’s eyes, the prenatal baby is just as sacred and deserving of a right to live as the postnatal baby.
Note: I did not use the term “person” because it is a distraction from the simple and clear “human life.”
Also, this article does not argue against contraceptives just because God can foresee the future of conceived babies. A young couple should feel free to use contraceptives, if their consciences allow it.
This post updates the one at American Thinker on Nov. 8, 2016, titled by the editor as “Good Luck Using the Bible to Defend Abortion.”