In many churches across the United States, and even perhaps here in Australia, Sunday worship would have been an opportunity to celebrate the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the protection afforded in the case of Roe v. Wade was introduced in 1973, to reverse. Twitter, one professor of theology responded to the news with “Well, praise the Lord!“, while another just a”Hallelujah”.
It is clear that the decision to reverse is seen as a victory for the Christian Right in the US and confirmation of their role in the election of President Trump.
The decision will be seen by many as a restoration of “biblical” values; a return to the Bible’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and the moral abhorrence of voluntary abortion.
So this is a good time to remind ourselves that the Bible does not say anything directly about abortion, the indirect evidence related to biblical perspectives on the sanctity of life is deeply contradictory, and that one of the two most important religious traditions looking at the Bible as an authoritative text clearly confirms the moral necessity of abortion in certain cases.
The Bible is silent about abortion
Discussions on, and laws regarding, the practice of voluntary abortion can be found in the literature of the Ancient Near East and Hellenistic worlds in which biblical texts were written.
This seems to be a concern in Assyrian society around 1500–1200 BC. There, if a woman is discovered to have “had a miscarriage by her own act,” she should be prosecuted and, if guilty, put on a pole (alive or dead).
Aristotle said abortion is appropriate as a way to control the size of a family, but should be performed early, “before sensation and life”.
But the Bible is simply silent on the question that the Supreme Court has now ruled on. Old Testament scholar John Collins is right to say “on this issue there is no divine revelation”.
What the Bible does contain are some verses that seem to refer to the status of the unborn fetus. The best known and most commonly quoted is Psalm 139: 13–16, a poem in which the Psalmist expresses the view that God created them in the womb.
In fact, the passage seems to suggest that God “saw” who the poet was before they were conceived, let alone born (see also Jeremiah 1: 5).
It is difficult to see that the section is directly related to the ethical / legal issues involved in the modern debate, such as the nature of personality, bodily autonomy or the negotiation of competing rights.
More specifically, Exodus 21: 22–25 depicts a scenario in which a pregnant woman is injured by her involvement (or perhaps her intervention) in a fight between two men. The Hebrew version of this passage is clear about priorities: if all that happens is that the fetus is lost by miscarriage, the man who injured the woman should only pay a fine. In the world of Exodus 21, this is tantamount to losing a cow or a donkey: the money is to make up for lost earnings and so the fetus is considered property.
But if the woman herself suffers damage, more direct restitution is needed, depending on the severity of the injury: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc.” The most important “person” in this scenario is clearly the woman. The Greek translation of this text, which perhaps reflects the ideas of Aristotle outlined above, modifies this latter command to make it clear that it refers to any harm done by any child who is born “perfect”.
Read more: Trump still enjoys strong support among evangelical voters – and it’s not just because of abortion
Jesus did not say anything about the unborn
When it comes to the New Testament, there is even less to go on.
Yes, John the Baptist “jumps” into Elizabeth’s lap. But any attempt to extrapolate from that particular statement to general ideas about the personality of the unborn is, in the words of New Testamentist Richard Hays, “ridiculous and tendentious exegesis.”
And we do find condemnation of those who practice pharmacy (magic or sorcery), which some suggest includes mixing drinks to cause abortion. But we have no way of saying what practices are referred to by that term.
It is not remembered that Jesus said anything about the unborn. Paul is silent on the issue.
Attempts to assert otherwise are ideologically informed cases of special plea.
Thus, the clear moral prohibition on abortion that we find in early Christian literature outside the New Testament needs some kind of explanation.
That prohibition appears in the late first or early second century in texts such as the Didachethe Letter from Barnabasand, with highly disturbing threats of the eternal torture of women, the Apocalypse of Peter.
It seems to have been a particular interpretation of the Old Testament commandments “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”, but then developed through cultural accommodation into the Greek / Platonic idea that the fetus a living being.
The Christian rejection of abortion seems to be based on assumptions that the fetus is a person. The woman, without whom the fetus would be nothing at all, disappears from sight. But Jesus and the early apostles say nothing about such questions.
Yet at about the same time, Jewish teachers clarified a position on abortion in which the woman carrying the fetus still plays a central role. The second-century discussion in the Mishnah section Oholoth makes it clear that if a woman is “in hard labor”, the fetus must be aborted “because her life takes precedence over the life of the child”. This requirement is waived only if the fetus has already been significantly born (defined as “the majority [of its head] came out “).
Although we also find nothing of the sort in the New Testament, Jesus is remembered as appealing to the same principle of the priority of saving lives, even if it means breaking the Sabbath laws. Jesus’ ethical beliefs were much more due to the traditions of Judaism than to the philosophical considerations of early Christian treatises.
The recent ruling of the Supreme Court is, in legal terms, seen as a victory for “originalism”: the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted according to some idea of its “original meaning”.
Applying the same standard to the biblical texts will help to explain that Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political standpoint. It has nothing to do with the Bible.