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The Catholic church, as well as many other Christians, believes that abortion is inherently immoral, based on the belief that life begins at conception.

What is the biblical basis for this position?

I'm interested in the perspective of those who are Biblical literalists, whether Protestant, Catholic, or others.

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The earliest explicit claim is not found in the Bible, but in a 2nd century Christian treatise called the Didache. Its second chapter has a list of commandments for Christians, including, "Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant." The full text can be found here. –  Bruce Alderman Apr 4 '12 at 20:51

4 Answers 4

up vote 61 down vote accepted

One of the most important passages regarding this is found in the Mosaic Law which God gave to Israel to be used in governance:

"When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. Exodus 21:22-25 ESV

So, if the child (and this is what it is called) is born but is unharmed, then the man is guilty of assault, which did not carry the death penalty. However, if the child IS harmed, then the man's punishment should be the same as that which was suffered by the child while still in the womb.

From a biblical perspective, then, the taking of the life of an unborn child was considered murder and would receive capital punishment, accordingly.

In addition to this, John the Baptist responded the presence of God Incarnate when Mary visited his mother Elizabeth while both of them were still in the womb:

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." Luke 1:39-45 ESV

Before this, the angel told Zechariah the his son John (the Baptist) would be filled with the Holy Spirit even while in the womb of Elizabeth.

for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. Luke 1:15 ESV

Psalm 139 also speaks of life in the womb:

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. Psalm 139:13 ESV

Not only does life exist in the womb, but God is active in the creation of that life.

Summary

So, God gave Israel instructions to punish anyone who killed or harmed an unborn child, and the Bible strongly supports the position that life begins at conception and is in the image of God at that point, with a body, soul, and spirit.

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That's a wonderful answer! Just pointing out an unborn baby is a human is hard work nowadays. –  Peter Turner Nov 15 '11 at 22:06
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Psalm 139 doesn't speak of life in the womb. It speaks of being formed. Which is "not done", "not finished". Which leaves the question of "when does life actually start" still open. Of course, I doubt many here will agree... –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 5 '11 at 15:33
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@JürgenA.Erhard I'm not sure how the phrase "you knitted me together in my mother's womb" does not refer to life in the womb. –  Narnian Jan 4 '12 at 16:48
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@JürgenA.Erhard I agree that a sweater is a sweater only when it is comple. However it is possible that it could be a short sleeve sweater first. But are we talking about sweaters or unborn children? With all due respect, this is one of the most absurd responses I have ever heard on this issue. The question from a biblical basis is well answered. You can reject the Bible if you wish. However, if one is seeking to follow God and believes the question is, in fact, still open, would it not be advisable to err on the side of caution rather than espouse something that God may deem immoral? –  Narnian Jan 9 '12 at 13:49
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@Narian +1 for pointing out that sweaters and babies are different. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_analogy –  Monika Michael Jul 6 '12 at 6:00

A wide variety of scripture can be cited in obvious support of abortion (as an act of murder) is inherently immoral:

Jeremiah 1:5

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.

Psalm 139:5

For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb.

Exodus 20:13

You shall not murder.

Ephesians 1:4

just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him

If God wove us in our mother's womb and knew us before the foundation of the world, and murder is a sin (ie is "immoral"), then abortion is murder and is immoral.

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I'd like to make a few secular/political contributions to this question. This answer probably should not qualify for the accepted answer, but I think it's worth adding here that there are some good scientific legal arguments against abortion, and it's not solely an issue of religion vs science.

Abortion is legal in the United States because of the 1973 Roe v Wade decision. The ruling in this case specifically declined to look at whether or not a fetus is a human life. The justices attempted to side-step that polarizing issue. They could not settle the question, and so dealt with the fetus as merely a "potential" human life. I believe they hoped this would assuage the religious side by still treating the unborn as something special, as well as the secular side by declining to rule that a fetus was fully human. Regardless of their intent, the court took that baseline and then weighed whether the mother's right to privacy can exceed a mere potential human's right to life and the interest of the state in protecting that potential life — thus giving in by default to the secular view — and finds, to a point, in favor of the mother. That point, which was originally very limited, has today been stretched to breaking.

If the court's view of a fetus is sound, then the current prevailing secular position on abortion absolutely makes sense. A women should, from a legal standpoint, be able to do with her own body as she pleases. However, if this is wrong — if a fetus is its own separate human life form, and more than just human in potentia — then the opposite view absolutely makes sense, and most abortions are nothing short of state-sanctioned murder. It's also worth noting that, ethics aside and based solely on the science of the time, the court's view of a fetus was not entirely without merit.

However, science has learned some things since 1973. I'm talking here, of course, about DNA. While DNA has been known since the 1800's, it wasn't until the 1950's that scientists really began to understand it.1 The forensic and legal worlds took a little longer to embrace this, and it wasn't until 1986 that DNA is first used in court to exonerate and 1987 for conviction2 — well after Roe v Wade.

Today, I think most would agree that no other physical property more than DNA absolutely and definitively distinguishes one individual from another. DNA is used in courts to distinguish and prove not only individuals, but also family relationships and, most significantly here, different species. If the situation were examined again today, a DNA sample from a fetus would undoubtedly show that fetal tissue is both distinct from the mother and also entirely human. While I have not, of course, had the opportunity to confirm this, it is my (admittedly limited) understanding of animal biology that a hypothetical DNA sample taken from a fetus would be a match for that of the adult, should the fetus continue to develop and ultimately reach that stage of life.

The significance here is that fetal tissue, having distinct human DNA, should probably no longer be considered as merely a part of the mother's body. Take religion out of the debate completely, and the science says that a fetus is both fully human and separate from the mother. A woman has the right to do with her own body what she wants... but now we have the rights of another individual involved as well. A woman has the right to do with her own body what she wants... but the scientific evidence shows that the fetus is more than just part of the mother's body.

Now we must take this new understanding of the scientific evidence into account, and use it to re-examine the current legal environment. Since an unborn fetus is a definitely a distinct human entity, as demonstrated by it's DNA, and more than a mere potential human as it was treated by Roe v Wade, we can say the current Supreme Court ruling is clearly inadequate. A new ruling must be established, and this can only be (re-)settled by the courts. But my opinion is that a much better legal interpretation of this new evidence would make use of same legal doctrine that allows the use of a murder victim's corpse for forensic purposes, even over the objections of next of kin. In this context, we can say that the unborn individual would likely want to live, and that the state has the power to compel the mother to allow this. Doubtless those in favor of legal abortions will come up with their own arguments, but as they have as yet largely declined to move beyond Roe v Wade, I haven't heard anything more compelling.

As a complete aside to the question, it boggles my mind that Pro-Life groups continue today to make religious arguments for their position against people who will only acknowledge arguments grounded in a framework of science, when there is a perfectly good scientific argument for the Pro-Life position ready and waiting. I agree with the religious argument as well, but as Levar Burton said, "You don't have to take my word for it.", when there is (to the Pro-Choice view) a more credible source at hand. I feel like pushing the DNA argument more strongly could change the conversation about the issue and tilt more opinions in the Pro-Life direction. I've heard it said by some on the Pro-Choice side that those who are Pro-Life hate women. Surely they understand that this argument reciprocates and, if true, by their own logic and arguments Pro-Choice groups hate children.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA#History_of_DNA_research
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA_profiling

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I'm not sure that your account of Roe v. Wade is accurate. My understanding has always been that it affirms (or perhaps even assumes) the reality of prenatal life but holds that the prenatal right to life must be balanced against the mother's right to privacy as implied in the 14th Amendment -- and that the balance between these two rights starts out in the mother's favor but tilts toward the child as a pregnancy progresses. I think it also relied on tenuous scholarship in order to ignore the full Western legal tradition on abortion -- so, I'd say it was "an entirely bad decision". –  Ben Dunlap Dec 28 '11 at 22:44
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A born child also has its own DNA, but that does not confer upon it a right to literally eat the flesh off of its mother's bones. Yet that is essentially what a fetus is doing. –  Steely Dan Jan 15 '12 at 0:12
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@Steely - you can try for that argument if you want, but that will firmly separate you from the main-stream "Pro-Choice" movement, which hangs it's position on a woman having complete authority over her own body, and disregards any possibility of recognizing the fetus as an individual. –  Joel Coehoorn Feb 14 '12 at 20:43
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Except I agree with that position as well. The argument I presented was merely "Well, if we do accept the notion that a fetus is a person, then it doesn't really change anything." –  Steely Dan Feb 16 '12 at 19:41
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@Steely: It sounds like you are advocating for execution without trial in this particular instance. If a fetus is a person it inherits, at least in the US, a series of rights defined by the constitution and the US Code. Abortion would be a clear violation of the fetus' 6th Amendment rights. –  Jon Ericson Feb 29 '12 at 18:39

This is always going to be a divisive issue, especially for things like the "morning after pill", where what is in discussion is barely a dot, but; so I present this merely as some things to consider:

Ex 21:22-23

22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[a] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

which clearly seems to demonstrate a difference of opinion to the unborn child vs a "regular person" (for want of a better phrase). Although, of course, much of this "life for life" also contradicts the various severe penalties for some other perceived crimes.

We might also look at the number of times God himself is eager to intervene to abort; Numbers 5:21, Hosea 9:14, Hosea 13:16, Numbers 31:17 (where one can interpret the "hath known man" as as a not too subtle "are at risk of carrying the enemy line")

(for the life of me, I can't figure out why those passages are so rarely covered in Sunday school...)

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I don't mind the downvotes, but some feedback on which part of this entirely scriptural answer you are objecting to would be nice. –  Marc Gravell May 4 '12 at 17:29
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I don't feel the need to downvote but here's what I feel about what you wrote. If the Jews were killing people born of a different race, that's wholly different than the blatant disregard for the humanity of the embryo. They're killing expectant mothers because they recognize the humanity of their children and see them as a threat. Today society doesn't usually consider just war theory when pondering the morality of abortion we say, "it's a private decision between a doctor and the mother" –  Peter Turner May 5 '12 at 14:01
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@Peter oh for sure; the point I am trying to make here is that scriptirally speaking, the Bible frequently treats unborn as disposable. Of course, equally it often treats people as disposable too... –  Marc Gravell May 5 '12 at 15:04
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Marc, you'd probably get better votes if you didn't feel compelled to include the sarcasm. Obviously someone who is anti-Christian is not going to get a lot of "helpful" votes on a Christian web site. But a thoughtful answer without the intentional antagonism will get votes, as your answer about atheism and the burden of proof did. –  Kyralessa Jan 31 '13 at 18:28
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@Kyralessa fair enough –  Marc Gravell Jan 31 '13 at 21:15

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