Is there a term out there that means “re-ignited something that was already raging”? Due to the recent passage of HB8 in Texas, the Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice debate has taken off… again. To be honest, neither side is making any new points – the bill just became yet another reason to fight… or fight… more? I’m just not sure how to describe something that was already an intense battle feeling like it has exploded again. But that is where we are now.
At the core of the fight is the statement or belief that “abortion is murder.” Those on the Pro-Life side believe this as an Unchallenge-able Truth that has stood for all eternity as part of their Evangelical/Protestant faith.
Except that, to be historically accurate… the Protestant arm of the “Pro-Life movement” is technically a recent creation of several politically-motivated leaders within the past few decades.
In a 2014 Politico article “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Randall Balmer looks at the true roots of the modern Pro-Life movement. Balmer examines historical documents that show how everyone from the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Church denomination in America) to W. A. Criswell, (“one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century” Balmer claims) took an indifferent approach to abortion. They made statements that sound pretty much Pro-Choice in relation to what they saw as a “Catholic issue” at the time:
“I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” – W. A. Criswell
Except for a little bit of “mild criticism” from Christianity Today, most Evangelicals were silent or even approving of Roe v. Wade. According to Balmer (and many historical documents he quotes), the real creation of the Religious Right (and the modern day Pro-Life and Evangelical movements along with it) was really in 1979 – as an effort to deny Jimmy Carter a second term so they could protect segregated schools. Abortion is just an easier sell to Churches than racism.
However, I know that people will read Balmer’s Politico article and still stick with the belief that Abortion is murder. And I get that – no matter how politicians have tried to use Religion to cover racism and other evils, if the Religious Book you follow says something is murder, you should still believe it is.
However, another problematic reality is that abortion is a bit more complicated in the Bible.
The Bible contains no direct statement that a fetus is considered a murder-able human in the womb. I know that there are two scriptures that come to mind immediately when I say this, but let’s look at what they really say without any preconceived notions about them:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5
This, of course, is one of the most famous scriptures often connected to abortion… and one of the most misunderstood. You see, it is really a quote of God speaking to Jeremiah about how God set Jeremiah apart as a prophet. There is little proof that this applies to anyone outside of Jeremiah, especially since the Old Testament views of “prophet” were different that New Testament ones.
But, let’s say that you overcome the contextual evidence that this is only for Jeremiah. That would create a belief that the general idea here is that an omnipotent and omnipresent God knew someone before they were formed. This is because this view of God sees God as both inside and outside of time – meaning that God knew all of us before there were any people. “Before I knew you in the womb” just personalizes this fact. So technically, any form of contraception is bad if you view this verse that way.
Therefore, the bigger picture would be (assuming you take this belief) that you can’t just focus on the time in the womb, but also the time before… and after. If abortion is murder in the womb no matter what the reason, then killing someone after they are born for any reason stands as well. This means capital punishment, self-defense, and any other reasons Pro-Life Evangelicals have for justifying certain killings after birth (including denying access to healthcare and safe living conditions) are all on the same level as abortion.
If Jeremiah 1:5 applies to all humans as a declaration that abortion is murder in the womb, then the fact that it refers to “before” the womb would create a standard of outside the womb which also applies to after the womb due to the nature of God. Therefore, you can’t apply Jeremiah 1:5 to be about abortion unless you also are anti-gun, anti-self defense, and anti police action (and military as well).
Of course, the response usually is: “but I would only kill someone in self-defense if my life or property” was in danger. But again, if Jeremiah 1:5 applies to all humans, then it still applies to that person breaking into your home. If a woman can’t have an abortion to save her life or because she doesn’t have the ability to support a child (which would be connected to… you guessed it.. her property), then you can’t kill another human to save your life or property. Unless you want to argue that God’s ability to “know you” ends at birth?
Moving on – this verse in Jeremiah is related to Psalm 139:13, which also runs into similar problems:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Psalm 139:13
This verse is David writing about himself… so again if we want to take this to apply to all humans and not just David, we have to apply it after birth as well as in and before the womb.
However, if you also honestly look at both verses – neither one directly says that you are alive in the womb and that it counts as murder to terminate the pregnancy there. They just say God creates you in the womb. Any artist or builder will tell you that the thing they are creating does not really become that thing – a song, a painting, a building, a car, you name it – until it is finished. An unfinished thing is called “unfinished” because it is still not that thing.
There fore, lacking any direct statement in the Bible that you are committing murder by ending a pregnancy, we have to look at other verses to see what they say on the topic.
There are really two main scriptures left to look at now. The first is in Numbers 5:
“The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her…. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry.” Numbers 5:23-24, 27
Now, there are multiple problems with this verse and how it advocates for abuse against women. But for the purpose of this post, the point in quoting it is to show that there is no mention of the miscarriage caused by the bitter waters being a murder. A child that was conceived by adultery would be aborted just because it was an embarrassment to the community – and the Bible says nothing about it being a murder?
In fact, you generally don’t see the Bible treating the baby in the womb as a full person. Exodus 21:22-25 is the starkest example of this:
“If people are fighting with each other and happen to hurt a pregnant woman so badly that her unborn child dies, then, even if no other harm follows, he must be fined. He must pay the amount set by the woman’s husband and confirmed by judges. But if any harm follows, then you are to give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound and bruise for bruise.” Exodus 21:22-25
The basic point of this verse is that if someone hurts a pregnant woman and she miscarries the baby, then there will just be a fine. If there is any damage to the woman, then you will return what ever damage was caused to the woman – up to taking a life.
But – you might not have heard that verse that way, due to the NIV and other versions translating it incorrectly. These versions refer to miscarriage as “premature birth” in an obvious political move. But the general consensus is that the underlying word means “miscarriage.”
At this point, a Pro-Life person will usually bring up what they believe to be their “gottcha” scripture:
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Luke 1:41
This verse, and other verses that describe babies doing things in the womb (like Jacob and Esau struggling with each other), are said to be proof that the Bible views the baby in the womb as a fully alive human. Now, sometimes people take this verse too far to say that the baby was able to hear and recognize Mary. This is not really that clear – the verse seems to indicate that it was Elizabeth that conveyed emotions and recognition to the baby. But the part about verses like these where babies “leap” and “struggle” in the womb is proof to some that the Bible says that a fetus is a fully alive human before birth.
Of course, deeper Bible knowledge would inform one that the Bible ascribes many human attributes to things that are not alive – rivers clapping hands (Psalm 98:8), mountains singing (Psalm 98:8) and skipping (Psalm 114:6), blood crying out (Genesis 4:10), moon and sun being ashamed (Isaiah 24:23), etc. So ascribing human traits to something does not guarantee that the Bible sees it as “alive.” Not to mention that we see animals leaping, striving, crying out, etc and we will still kill them for food.
Of course, the problem with what I just wrote is the context of the scripture. We know by the context that the authors are using literary devices and not saying that rivers, mountains, the sun, and the moon are alive. Context is important!
Exactly. And context is important for Jeremiah 1:5 and all of the other scriptures examined here. There are no scriptures in the Bible that have a context of abortion. No where does the Bible ask or answer the question of abortion, and therefore there is no scripture in context that is meant to address the belief that abortion is murder – directly or indirectly. In fact, there are hardly any scriptures that have the context of addressing when life begins, either – except for one. Kind of. That is Genesis 2:7:
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7
Some will claim this shows that life begins at first breath, others will claim it is metaphor that shows God forms human beings from conception. Its technically a verse about the unique way that God formed the first human – so applying it to our lives now is probably not a good comparison at all. Unless you know that God formed you from a literal ball of dust outside a womb of any kind. If that is the case – I would love to hear your story.
But again, even if this is proof that abortion is murder because “God forms us from the beginning,” then it still runs into the logical problems that Jeremiah 1:5 does.
In the end, you have to decide for yourself when life begins. The Bible is pretty obscure on the topic if you are looking at any given verse for what it is actually saying, and the historical stance of the Protestant Church is not as Pro-Life as you would think. I have my beliefs, and I am sure you will keep yours. But if you are Pro-Life, I hope you would at least take seriously the way your stance has been manipulated through the years. I would also hope that you would understand the lack of Biblical backing you have as well. Really, neither the Pro-Life nor the Pro-Choice side has any Biblical backing. Neither does typing up this blog post for that matter – the Bible can guide principals that we use to inform modern issues, but it doesn’t speak directly to some of the ones that we face in this world. In such an undefined space, I think it is important that Evangelicals should consider allowing people to come to different conclusions about the things that don’t really impact them personally.