Using the Bible to Argue for Abortion Rights
With a number of American states recently enacting stringent anti-abortion laws, the debate over so-called abortion “rights” in the United States is heating up. Secularists are among the strongest voices opposing these laws. This is to be expected. Strangely enough, however, there are some who are attempting to use scripture to justify the practice of killing babies within the womb of their mothers.
A few years ago I came across an article entitled 5 Verses that Prove the Bible Supports Abortion Rights by Curtis Fiers. In this article, Fiers wrote that pro-life individuals, when arguing from the Bible that abortion is murder are, “simply taking verses and twisting them to imply that abortion equals killing a human.” The misapplication of scriptures in which Fiers engaged demonstrates not only what twisting scripture actually looks like but also a general ignorance of biblical history and culture. Examining his arguments can help Christians be ready to make a biblical defense for life as pro-death advocates continue to make some of his same assertions.
Exodus 21 and the Unborn
The first passage that Fiers cited to make his case is Exodus 21:22-25. According to Fiers this verse “lays out the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry and it’s just a fine.” Fiers quoted the scripture as follows:
There is a conspicuous absence of the specific English translation of the Bible which Fiers cited. I googled the phrases “when men have a fight and hurt a pregnant woman” and “so that she suffers a miscarriage” and I could not find the exact wording that Fiers provided. The closest match I could find to Fiers’ wording was that of the NABRE translation. This translation uses the English term miscarry to translate the Hebrew term yatsa. More popular translations such as the ESV, NASB, KJV, HCSB, and NKJV do not translate the Hebrew term thusly. This Hebrew term, according to Strong’s Concordance, means “to go or come out.” It does not necessarily denote what modern English people would understand as a miscarriage. As John Piper noted in his own analysis of this verse, there is a Hebrew verb, shakal, that is properly understood to mean miscarry. This very term is used in the twenty-third chapter of Exodus to communicate the concept of miscarriage. It is not used in the verse cited above, without translation reference, by Fiers. A more in-depth treatment of the proper translation of Exodus 21 can be found at Chrisitan Apologist Greg Koukl’s website.
Students of bible translations and church demographics know that most evangelical Christians, the type of people most likely to deny that abortion rights exist, do not use Bible translations that translate the Hebrew term yasta as miscarry. Some of those who Fiers accuses of “twisting scripture” are likely unaware of translations that use the English term miscarry to translate yatsa. Such translations are in the minority of the body of biblical translations. One such translation is the NRSV. This translation is popular among mainline Christians, who are more likely than their evangelical counterparts to take a pro-choice position on legalized abortion. Mainliners are also more likely to deny the inerrancy of scripture. Those who accept the inerrancy of scripture (i.e. who actually believe the Bible is true) use translations such as the ESV, NASB, and NIV.
Evangelical Christians are much more likely to be familiar with Exodus 21 wording such as this (from the latest edition of the NASB):
“If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
This wording indicates that a woman’s stress can cause her to go into premature labor but not cause injury to her or her child. If such is this case, the offender may be fined by her husband for the hardship caused. The baby, in this situation survives. If there is injury, either to child or mother, the offender’s life is forfeited. This verse is often cited by Christians to give biblical support that preborn life is valued by God. It’s easy see why.
Even if one grants that Fiers’ minority translation of miscarry is the correct one, Exodus 21 does not “prove” that the Bible supports abortion rights. Quite the opposite is the case. The situation in question is not an elective abortion but an accidental miscarriage caused by a fight. The father, not the mother, has the right to demand a fine from the offender. In the modern American context, pro-choice people support a woman’s right to choose. In the biblical context, as Fiers cites it, a mother doesn’t even have the right to demand a fine for the accidental loss of her unborn baby. Her husband does. Furthermore, there is no right to abort the child. The one who caused the miscarriage is fined. If one has a right to do something, then the government has no right to fine him for it. Even if yatsa is understood to mean “miscarry” it indicates that there is some value, though less than that of an adult, to unborn life. Even in modern legal systems human life is valued differently. The wrongful death of a thirty year old attorney will command a greater civil legal penalty than the wrongful death of a ninety year old retired janitor with advanced Alzheimer’s. The young lawyer’s family will be owed more compensation by the one who committed the tort because their loved one had a greater potential to provide income for his family than did the retired janitor. Both wrongly killed people are human. Both are alive. Both had their property rights violated by an offender. The penalty for doing so, however, is different. So, too, would be the case in Exodus 21. A husband would have invested heavily in supporting his adult wife. He would have invested little in supporting his unborn child. Thus, the civil penalty for killing each one is different. Consider the nature of civil torts; negligence is a factor in the severity of the penalty for a tort. Consider criminal infractions, involuntary manslaughter carries a tougher penalty than first degree murder. Such factors come into play in the Old Testament law.
In using an inaccurate translation to argue that Exodus 21 supports abortion rights, Fiers errs. It’s one thing to use a wrong translation and arrive at a wrong conclusion. It’s another to fail to exercise proper logic and legal reasoning altogether. Fiers does both. Exodus 21 does not support abortion rights under any circumstances.
Ecclesiastes 6 and Life not Worth Living
The second passage Fiers cites to make his case is in Ecclesiastes 6. However, in the case of this verse Fiers cites the KJV.
It’s worth noting that the KJV renders Exodus 21:22 as follows:
“If men fight and hit a pregnant woman and her child is born prematurely, but there is no serious injury, he will surely be punished in accordance with what the woman’s husband demands of him, and he will pay what the court decides.”
The KJV does not support the rendering of the Hebrew term yasta as miscarry. It indicates premature birth. It appears that Fiers used whatever Bible translation best suited his purposes. The NABRE, which Fiers previously cited renders the Ecclesiastes text born dead rather than untimely birth. In any case, this passage is not talking about an elective abortion but a deeply tragic occurrence, a still birth. In reference to this verse, Fiers makes two claims, “the Bible literally says it’s better to die in the womb than live an unhappy life. This flies directly into the face of all anti-choice believers.”
The first claim is true. The bible does literally say that. However, it does not literally mean that. The translation Fiers chose to present this verse is ultimately irrelevant because he failed to first understand the genre of the biblical book itself. Ecclesiastes, like Job, Psalms, and Proverbs, is ancient Near Eastern literature. It’s of a poetic genre. It’s not always mean to be taken literally. For example, Psalm 50:10 says that’s God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills.” Psalm 50:10 verse does not literally mean that are exactly one thousands hills upon which are cows owned by God. It means that God owns lots and lots of cows, all of them in the whole world in fact. In its entirety, Psalm 50:10 (NASB) says:
“For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills.”
Ancient Near Eastern poetry will often compare or contrast two things. This verse compares wild animals with domestic animals. It does not indicate that God owns all the wild animals but only one thousand domestic cows. It means, that God owns all of the animals in the entire world (Psalm 24 says the same thing in a more direct way).
Ecclesiastes 6 poetically makes use of hyperbole. In the ancient Israelite world the birth of a child was an occasion for great joy. The still birth of a child was an occasion for great sorrow. (For those in the modern world who don’t murder their babies in the womb, this still holds true.) In the ancient world, one who had many children was understood to be protected in his old age. In the days before social security and 401(k)s one depended upon one’s children for support when he got old and infirm. Fathering “a hundred children” would be seen a great blessing. It should also be seen as great hyperbole. Almost no one who has ever read this piece of poetry has literally fathered one hundred children. This piece of poetry compares a superlatively happy thing (having lots of children and living many years) with a superlatively sad thing (dying at birth). It uses hyperbole to make its primary point; that a life lived without a satisfied soul is a tragic one. Material blessing pales in comparison to spiritual blessing; this is the over arching message of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes does not fly directly in the face of pro-life people. It does quite the opposite. It supports the worldview that new life is precious and is to be celebrated. This is the worldview presupposed by writers of the biblical text. Furthermore, even if Fiers was correct and this text literally meant that it was better to die at birth than live an unhappy life, it would still not support elective abortion rights. No one aborting a 12-week-old unborn baby knows with any certainly that the child will live a good or a bad life. History provides examples of poor children who went on to lead productive and happy lives. It also provides examples of rich children who went on to lead morose lives. Only God knows how any given life will turn out. Furthermore, people subjectively define happiness. Some people are fine with being poor and having little. Some people are more materialistic. No one can predict the value system of a 12-week-old unborn child. No one, then, can electively abort a child for her own good. It’s impossible to ask a dead child if he would have liked to live. There is only one God and the abortionist is not Him.
Numbers 3 and the Beginning of Life
The third verse cited by Fiers to make his case is from Numbers 3. Fiers didn’t so much disregard genre in his application of this verse. He disregarded context, theology, and culture.
According to Fiers, since the Lord did not order Moses to count males who were under one month old, those children might not “hold a human value”. This would contradict the pro-life position that human life begins at conception. However, there could be other reasons that Moses was not required to count Levites boys less than a month old.
The Jews went by a lunar calendar and a lunar month is 29.5 days. In ancient Israelite culture, a woman was ceremonially unclean for forty days after giving birth to a male child. She was unclean even longer if she bore a female child. It wouldn’t be proper for a census taker to approach an unclean woman to count her infant and check the baby’s gender. Furthermore, infant mortality rates were much higher in the ancient Middle Eastern wilderness than they are today. Today, babies born in hospitals who have trouble latching to their mother’s breast can be fed with synthetic formula and given modern medical care. Such babies died three thousand years ago. It may not have been reasonable to count babies for a census until after the odds of their continued viability increased. This doesn’t’ mean that babies under one month old didn’t hold a human value. Fiers apparently didn’t take these conditions into consideration. Nor, did he take into consideration the reason for the census. This is not the only census in the Bible nor is it the only one in the book of Numbers. In Numbers 26 a census of all males over twenty years old (fighting age) is ordered. Would Fiers argue that those under twenty years old don’t hold human value? Taking this census out of context, as he does the census of Numbers 3, he could. Additionally, would Fiers take this passage to mean that females don’t hold human value? Females aren’t counted at all.
Genesis 2 and Breath
Fiers ultimately did not buy his own argument from Numbers 3. However, he rejects it only because of a misapplication of Genesis 2.
Referencing this verse, Fiers asked, “If Adam, the first human to ever exist, had to take a breath before being considered a living soul, why is the same not true for unborn fetuses?” Fiers misses the point of this passage entirely. In the greater context of Genesis, many living things are created (animals, birds, fish, etc…). In contrast to all other living things, mankind is presented as a special creation of God. Mankind is made in God’s own image. This text is translated “And the Lord formed man” and not “And the Lord formed Adam” for a reason. The Hebrew term for man is adam. When the text is translated Adam, it is because it refers specifically to the first individual man God created. When the text is translated man, it is because it refers to mankind in general. So, not only does Genesis 2:7 refer to the creation of the specific man, Adam, it also refers to the creation of mankind as a whole. Unlike other animals, man became a living soul because God breathed life into him. The concept of special creation holds significance in this verse. This verse does not refer to any kind of formula that requires one to take a breath of oxygen through his lungs in order to be considered a human soul. Genesis is not a medical textbook; it is a theological account of history. It should be read and understood thusly.
Adam was inanimate dust. He was made human by the breath of God. He then fathered children with his wife. These children were not formed from the dust of the ground but from the coming together of Adam and Eve. They, like all humans who are born of their parents, are human because they come from humans. Dogs make dogs. Cats make cats. Humans make humans.
Numbers 5 and the Test of Fidelity
The last passage Fiers cited to make a pro-abortion case from scripture is Numbers 5:27. Fiers cites this passage as his Coup de grâce against pro-life Christians. This passage describes what is known as “the trial of jealousy”.
Analyzing this scripture, Fiers writes, “If the woman has cheated and is carrying another man’s child…the mystical dirt water…will cause her to immediately miscarry…So even if pro-lifers can dodge all these other verses, they can’t deny that this one essentially says, ‘Abortion is okay as long as it’s forced upon a woman, against her will, for cheating on her husband.’”
I can and I do.
Again, Fiers is off base. Even in a hypothetical world where his case is true, this verse doesn’t indicate that women have the right to have an elective abortion. This verse would indicate that if a husband thinks he has been cheated on and if his wife truly has conceived a child by doing so, then he can choose to bring her before a priest to drink a certain concoction prepared by the priest. If and only if the wife has been unfaithful will she miscarry. The child dies, not by the election of a man, but by the supernatural action of God. There is no abortion clinic, back alley or hospital on earth with a Jewish priest who is empowered by God to concoct the drink required for the trial of jealously and then perform that right. If Fiers thinks this is way to obtain a moral abortion, I encourage him to have at it. Of course, neither he nor anyone else will be able to under the New Covenant.
Still, Fiers’ case is wrong. He once again played the translation switching game. This time, Fiers has chosen to cite the NIV. This in itself is interesting in that he previously cited literal translations where as the NIV translation committee strove to render textual meaning without a word-for-word translation. It is not a popular version for scholarly study in any denomination, liberal or protestant. It is likely that Fiers cited the NIV because it is one of the rare translations that uses the English term miscarry into this passage. Most translations do not. For example, the NASB renders this passage:
“When he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness, and her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become a curse among her people.”
This language does not indicate a miscarriage but bareness. (Again, the Hebrew term for miscarriage, shakal, is not used.) Because children we so valued, bareness was seen as a curse among the ancients. This passage does not indicate the miscarriage of a baby but the destruction of a woman’s ability to reproduce at all. It also demonstrates the lengths that the Old Testament law went to protect women. Regarding the trail of jealously, Old Testament scholar Paul Copan wrote:
“Let’s summarize the theme of this text. If a man suspected his wife of adultery, he could bring her before the priest to accuse her. In this case, two or three witnesses weren’t available (Deut. 17:6–7); the only “witness” was the husband’s suspicion that his wife had been cheating on him. Critics charge that this would have been a terrifying ordeal: a cheating wife’s abdomen would swell and her thigh would shrivel after drinking “the water of bitterness.” Critics raise the question, “Why couldn’t a woman bring her husband before the priest if she suspected that he was guilty of adultery?” As it turns out, critics have chosen a poor text to illustrate oppression of women. For one thing, consider the context, which gives us every reason to think that this law applied to men as well. Before and after this passage, the legislation concerns both men and women: “Israelites” (Num. 5:2 NIV), “a man or woman” (Num. 5:6), “a man or a woman” (Num. 6:2). It wasn’t just the husband’s prerogative to call for this special trial; the wife could as well. Second, this priestly court was actually arranged for the protection and defense of women, not to humiliate them before proud husbands or prejudiced mobs. This law protected women from a husband’s violent rage or arbitrary threat of divorce to get rid of his wife cheaply.4 And if the woman happened to be guilty, then she’d rightly be terrified by a supernatural sign affecting her body. In fact, as with the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in the early church (Acts 5), the Israelites would have a sobering warning regarding God’s attitude toward adultery.” (Copan, Paul (2011-01-01). Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (pp. 104-105). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
I have my doubts that Fiers consulted the writings of Old Testament Scholars like Copan in making his “undeniable” case for abortion rights.
Taking the Butcher’s Word
There is an aphorism that says one can get a good look at a steak by sticking his head up a cow’s behind but it is better to take the butcher’s word for it. I’ve written this piece to give you the butcher’s word for it. Fiers is wrong, very wrong. As one who has formally studied scriptures, I was able to identify the fallacies and misapplication in Fiers’ arguments before I drove 5 miles in my car (I read the story on my phone as I was leaving work). Fiers’ article is truly one of the worse treatments of the biblical text that I’ve ever read. I’d call it bush league, but that would insult the bush league. It seems to me that Fiers’ article is either the result of remarkable ignorance or purposeful deception. Given the political controversy of the abortion issue and Fiers’ selective use of scripture translations, deception seems to be the most likely conclusion.
One doesn’t have to be a Bible scholar to use basic Google skills to look up the context of these verses. The John Piper and Greg Koulke articles I cited can be found with minimal effort (and they are better Bible scholars than am I). If Fiers did any research to understand the other side of his argument, he almost certainly didn’t expect his readership to do so. In this time of internet sound bytes and intellectual laziness, Fiers seems to have taken the opportunity to push his agenda on those who are too lazy to question it. I think most Christians will reject his writing outright (as some have done in the comment section of his article). I write this as one who truly believes that the Bible is true. I want to accurately present what it teaches no matter what the outcome. I don’t think that is Fiers’ motive. I don’t think he believes the Bible to be true at all, at least not all of it.
I do and I urge you to study it and understand it. In it are the words of life.
*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.