There was recently some discussion surrounding the topic of whether the Bible teaches abortion is permissible. I wish to provide a basic case for what the Bible states about the personhood of infants in the womb.
1. The Law:
22 “If two men are fighting and they strike a pregnant woman and her children are born prematurely, but there is no harm, he is certainly to be fined as the husband of the woman demands of him, and he will pay as the court decides. 23 If there is harm, then you are to require life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise.
There are several interpretations of this passage and I wish to summarize them as accurately as I know-how. The first being the most common interpretation, which is the idea that this refers to a pregnant woman being hit and caused to have a premature birth. The ambiguity in the text that causes this discussion is around the “children are born prematurely” in the Hebrew is states “her children come out”. The plural is also an interesting debate around the text. Some think it is just in case we have more than one child others for the idea that the children are different genders. Another take is the plural of abstraction which refers to the “fruit of her womb”. This also brings us to the discussion of why “harm” is indefinite and it doesn’t specify who has been harmed. Let’s assumes the first interpretation is correct:
It is natural on this interpretation to take “no harm” to refer to either mother, baby, or both. This is the first case, which entails the punishment only be a monetary fine decided by the Father and judges.
If the mother, baby, or both is found to be harmed then the stiffer punishment is enacted in the second case.
The import of the passage would be significant because it would imply that women and infants have special protections and the accidental harm or killing of them requires the strictest of penalties. In fact, abortion would deserve death all the more, given the facts would imply the intentional killing of infants would deserve the strictest penalty. Abortion just is the intentional killing of the unborn.
Let’s now move on to the other interpretation:
The other interpretation that abortionist use is that the passage is referring to a miscarriage. So, if it is talking about miscarriage in the first case, then the harm obviously isn’t referring to the child. The child is dead, and the harm has been done. So, it would be speaking about the mother. So, the death of an infant(caused miscarriage) warrants a financial penalty, but the harm of the mother warrants death. The man would only have a financial fee, unless the mother is harmed or killed in the process. If those are the case, then he receives retributive justice(Lex Talonis). The idea is that the penalty is different because the moral status of the victim is different. That a woman is a person and the infant(or at least unborn children) is not.
The problem is that even this is not good for the case for the abortionist. It means that both women and unborn infants have special legal protections. Secondly, the penalty doesn’t imply that the infant isn’t actually a person. In verse 32 of the same chapter, a monetary penalty is placed on the killing of a slave. That hardly implies that slaves are not persons. So, I would say, there are no pro-choice interpretations of this passage. Rather there are only pro-life interpretations of the chapter. The last thing I wish to mention, is that even if the infants in the womb are sub-human(or sub-persons) then this passage still fails to show that the destruction of an infant in the womb is morally justifiable. So, it hardly justifies the abortionist positions that have been created in recent times.
There are good reasons to prefer the first reading over the latter:
The possibility of such a usage here, as the interpretation in question requires, is still further reduced by the fact that if the writer had wanted to speak of an undeveloped embryo or fetus there may have been other terminology available to him. There was the term golem (Psm. 139:16) which means “embryo, fetus.” But in cases of the death of an unborn child, Scripture regularly designates him, not by yeled, not even by golem, but by nefel (Job 3:16; Psm. 58:8; Eccl. 6:3), “one untimely born.” The use of yeled in verse 22, therefore, indicates that the child in view is not the product of a miscarriage, as the interpretation in question supposes; at least this is the most natural interpretation in the absence of decisive considerations to the contrary. (The reason for the plural form is difficult to assess on any interpretation. If, as some have suggested, it refers to the woman’s capacity for bearing, then the passage becomes quite irrelevant to the matter of abortion. If, as is more likely, it is a plural of indefiniteness, allowing for the possibility of more than one child in the mother’s body, then the plurality of the term would fit as easily into our interpretation as into the interpretation under criticism.)
Further: the verb yatza’ in verse 22 (“go out,” translated “depart” in KJV) does not in itself suggest the death of the child in question, and is ordinarily used to describe normal births (Gen. 25:26, 38:28–30; Job 3:11, 10:18; Jer. 1:5, 20:18). With the possible exception of Num. 12:12, which almost certainly refers to a stillbirth, it never refers to a miscarriage. The Old Testament term normally used for miscarriage and spontaneous abortion, both in humans and in animals, is not yatza’ but shakol (Ex. 23:26; Hos. 9:14; Gen. 31:38; Job 2:10; cf. II Kings 2:19, 21; Mal. 3:11). The most natural interpretation of the phrase weyatze’u yeladheyha, therefore, will find in it not an induced miscarriage, not the death of an unborn child, but an induced premature birth, wherein the child is born alive, but ahead of the anticipated time.
We should also note that the term ason (“harm”), found in both verse 22 and verse 23 is indefinite in its reference. The expression “lah” (“to her”), which would restrict the harm to the woman in distinction from the child, is missing. Thus the most natural interpretation would regard the “harm” as pertaining either to the woman or to the child. Verse 22 therefore describes a situation where neither mother or child is “harmed”—i.e. where the mother is uninjured and the child is born alive. Verse 23 describes a situation where some harm is done—either to mother or child or both.
In fact, it isn’t entirely accurate of me to say that it has merely premature birth and not miscarriage. Many scholars think the passage is purposely left ambiguous so the law can have multiple applications. So, it may be erecting a false dichotomy. The Casuistic laws are written as case laws. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that the ambiguous nature of the words in the passage is meant to cover both the mother and children:
Even if that [“serious damage”] is the best English equivalent, do we understand the verses to refer to life-threatening or life-ending damage (1) to the fetus or (2) to the pregnant woman? If it is view 2, then v22 refers to some nonserious, nonfatal injury to the pregnant woman, while v23 refers to some serious, fatal blow to her that either severely harms her or ends her life. If it is view 1, then v22 refers to premature parturition, while v23 refers to miscarriage. Is the text deliberately vague so as to be multi-interpretational at this point? Can it be “both…and” rather than “either…or”? V. Hamilton, Exodus (Baker 2011), 387.
Probably there is deliberate ambiguity in the text about the nature of the delivery and of any death that might follow in order to allow juries latitude in dealing with the varieties of cases that might arise. D. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus (Kregel 2014), 501.
Furthermore, there is a legal precedent for the idea that infants are protected by the law. In Hittite law, gives a financial penalty for the death of an infant in certain periods of time:
Hittite Law § 17, which states, “If anyone causes a free woman to
miscarry-if (it is) the 10th month, he shall give ten shekels of silver, if (it is) the 5th month, he shall give five shekels of silver and pledge his estate as security.”
Another popular argument around this debate is that it would be an unfamiliar and rare circumstance in which they would have experienced a successful premature birth(given death to infancy rates and the lack of modern technology). We have already discussed that the verb יצא, “come/go out,” commonly is used for a multitude of different birth situations (Gen 25:25, 26; 38:28, 29, 30; Exod 21:22; Num 12:12; Deut 28:57; Jer 1:5; 20:18; Job 1:21; 3:11; 10:18; 38:8, 29; Eccl 5:14). This is common language regarding nativity. Furthermore, it is often used for a successful and healthy birth. This gives more credence to the position that maintains it can refer more than merely a miscarriage. Furthermore, it seems the situations through the book of Genesis may also be paradigmatic in such exegetical concerns regarding this discussion. Moses seems to draw upon language he has used elsewhere and that should factor into this debate. The issue is while it is unlikely that infants would have survived, we have a case were such occurs or is referenced as happening(1 Sam 4:19–20). That may fall outside the Pentateuch, but it shows such happened even in Ancient times and within this group of people. We have the same phenomenon with multiple twins and other births(where the complications didn’t result in post-natal harm).
2. The Scripture of Pre-natal Life:
13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
5 “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.”
In Psalm 139, we see the close personal relationship David has had with God. That God made “me” doesn’t merely seem to be the fetus I was at a prior time that at some arbitrary point became “me”. Furthermore, the word for “inward parts” is kilyah. It refers to the innermost parts of a person. Their deepest thoughts and emotions.
In Psalm 51, David is confessing his sins out to God. Namely, his sins in regards to murdering Uriah the Hittite and his adultery with Bathsheba. In verse 5 he states that he was conceived in iniquity. This either refers to David’s mother having sinned in conceiving David, or to general human sinfulness we know that came from Adam. I favor the latter interpretation:
Up to this point in the psalm, David is not talking about his mother’s sin in any of the preceding four verses, but is talking about the depth of his own sinfulness as a human being. Therefore, he must be talking about himself, not about his mother, in this verse as well. He is saying that from the moment of his conception he has had a sinful nature. This means that he thinks of himself as having been a distinct human being, a distinct person, from the moment of his conception. He was not merely part of his mother’s body, but was distinct in his personhood from the time when he was conceived.
Wayne Grudem. Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning (Kindle Locations 14220-14224). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Either way, David is identified with his prenatal life on both interpretations. Do impersonal fetuses have sins or do persons? The distinction that abortionists invoke that at a certain point one’s person develops and they gain moral status remains foreign to the Bible. The authors never use the distinction and only use to the contrary, personal language of infants in the womb. Whether it is Jeremiah being set apart to be a prophet, Samson’s mother having to abstain from certain activities so that she does not defile Samson(Judges 13:3-5), Job identifies him and everyone with their prenatal life(Job 31:25), that Jacob and Esau(Gen. 25:22-26), Tamar’s twins Perez and Zerah(Gen. 38:27-30), the Psalmist identifies himself with his prenatal and postnatal self(Psalm 22:9-11).
3. The Virgin Conception:
30 Then the angel told her, “Stop being afraid, Mary, because you have found favor with God. 31 Listen! You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus.
35 The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will surround you. Therefore, the child will be holy and will be called the Son of God. 36 And listen! Elizabeth, your relative, has herself conceived a son in her old age, this woman who was rumored to be barren is in her sixth month.
This testifies to the fact that personhood of an individual is in the prenatal state because Christ is identified with his prenatal state. The incarnation didn’t occur at his birth, but at his conception. Even further, Elizebeth conceived John the Baptist which shows that infants are persons because he shows emotions in the whom when discovering that Mary possesses the Messiah in her womb(Luke 1:41).
“Behold! The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” (which means, “God with us”).
14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Watch! The virgin is conceiving a child, and will give birth to a son, and his name will be called Immanuel.
Matthew applies Isa. 7:14 to Christ. In Isaiah, the woman conceives a child(not an impersonal tissue), but if the abortionist were correct, then all these passages are misleading. Personal language merely gives the appearance of such pro-life implications but the reality is different. Some may suppose that the incarnation is a special case, it has no import for other humans. The problem is that in terms of being human, Christ is no different than anyone in his humanity except in terms that he doesn’t take on a sinful nature. But in his incarnation, he is as human as anyone else(Rom. 8, Heb. 2, Col 2, etc). Secondly, that doesn’t negate anything I’ve stated about John the Baptist.
4. The Image of God:
In Genesis 9:6, God grounds the prohibition of capital punishment in the image of God.
4 Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.
6 “Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man.
7 “As for you, be fruitful and multiply;
Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”
This has import for the debate if it can be argued that infants also possesses the image of God. It seems to follow since man has his image then it is wrong to murder them. If infants possessed the image, then it would be wrong to intentionally kill them. I think the image is passed via procreation. This is an argument from a prior article:
In Genesis 5:1-2 we see this similar theme about mankind being made in God’s image:
This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created.
This same image is spread via procreation to Adam’s progeny. So, there is no apparent reason to think it is merely spread to just the male descendants.
This is significant because it demonstrates that the image of God is transmitted through procreation. If we didn’t have this statement, along with Gen 9:6, the reader might be left to wonder if the image of God was unique to Adam and Eve. But this shows the reader that the image of God is shared by all of Adam’s posterity.