Abortion in the Bible and the Church

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In the Bible
Only one place in the entire Judeo-Christian Bible is about any area related to abortion. No place in the Bible says anything directly about abortion, which is strange, since it was practiced in Greece, Rome, and other civilizations contemporary with developing Judaism. See Abortion in the Ancient World by Konstantinos Kapparis.

Exodus chapter 21 verses 22 through 25 is that one Scripture:
"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. (NRSV)"

Is this clearer: "When a fight breaks out between two individuals, and in the course of their struggle, one of them hits a pregnant woman and causes a miscarriage, but there is no further harm done, the offender will pay a fine set by the woman and her spouse, and agreed upon by the judges. But if there are injuries, the penalty is to be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, or a wound for a wound." (Inclusive by Priests for Equality)

Visualize the scene
People fight, the pregnant woman is hit, goes into labor, a dead fetus is born "yet no further harm follows." Causing a miscarriage is not murder. The one responsible is fined. But if the woman is harmed, that is serious; why? The woman is more important than the fetus. This part of the Torah Law is as close as the Bible comes to any teaching about abortion. This law is similar to the teachings in other civilizations and cultures of that time.

As a pastor who has worked with women and their husbands who had miscarriages, I think Exodus is insensitive. A miscarriage is a deep personal tragedy that ends anticipation, dreams, and hopes for a new life. But abortion is different; doubts, confusion, fears race through the woman's thoughts.

Most abortion decisions are a mix of tragedy, anger, hope. Conception may be the result of rape or incest—the most under-reported of crimes. Often she is a teen-ager who knows she is not ready to be responsible for a new baby and a new life, who received little accurate instruction about how conception happens, or medical information about birth control.

Other Poetic Scriptures
Anti-abortionists cite other Scripture passages that refer to life before birth, but these are all poetic ways of saying how God’s care extends from before creation until the ends of time. A hymn writer said the same: "The love of God is broader than the measure of our minds." Those Scriptures are poetic and not literal law like Exodus.

Traditional Judaism commands—not permits, commands—that if a fetus threatens the mother's life, the fetus be destroyed so that the mother can live. This law covers the whole pregnancy up to the moment when a newborn breathes on its own, report Arthur Waskow and Phyllis O. Berman

You may wonder why some are so passionately opposed to abortion when the Bible is not.

Abortion in the history of the early church
Abortion teaching in the history of the Church until recent times, like a basketball game, shifts between goals. For the first 600 years the Catholic church viewed abortion in the first few months as acceptable, just as Jewish tradition from long before Christ taught that life begins 100 days after conception. In the seventh century abortion required penance; for example, in England oral intercourse to prevent birth required 7 years to lifetime penance while abortion only 120 days.

A Pope teaches birth control
Dr. Michael Zimmerman in Huff Post Mar 22, 2013: Pedro Julião (c1215-1277) was a well-respected physician who served as Pope Gregory X's personal doctor. When Pedro Julião ascended to the papacy, he elected to be called John XXI. No other pope has had such medical expertise. While serving Gregory X, he wrote an extraordinarily popular work entitled Thesaurus Pauperum ("Treasure of the Poor"). The book was essentially a handbook of herbal remedies for people who could not afford formal medical attention.
Pedro Julião offered numerous recipes for both pre- and post-coital contraception. Yes, Pope John XXI promoted birth control that could be used by both women and men. For women he offered numerous recipes to induce menstruation, a euphemism for abortion.

A pro-choice saint
In the thirteenth century the Church taught that life began when the soul entered the body, called “ensoulment,” which was when the woman felt movement after which abortion was murder. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V threatened the death penalty for any abortionist, but his successor revoked it and said abortion in the first 116 days was not murder. Fifteenth century archbishop Antoninus approved abortions, and is now a saint. How many Catholics know of pro-choice St. Antoninus? In the seventeenth century the Greek dualistic idea gained support, saying that the soul enters the body at conception. Pope Pius IX in 1869 made that view church law. Is it fair to summarize that there is no consistency across this history?

Protestant churches change views
They viewed abortion as a sin until the nineteenth century. During the later nineteenth century Protestants learned modern medical knowledge and evolving birth control methods, and sensed the value of controlling the number of children,. The American birth rate dropped from 7.04 in 1800 to 3.56 in 1900. Protestant groups tolerated then accepted birth control and later abortion. In the early twenty-first century most mainline churches see abortion as the best choice for some women in some circumstances, while conservative and fundamentalist churches generally call all abortions a sin and try to outlaw them — even when it is the result of rape or incest. That fails to recognize the tragedy and trauma of sexual assault. No rape survivor dare be forced to continue a resulting pregnancy!

Copyright © 2006, 2013 John F. Yeaman