Is the Bible Pro-Choice?

By Julie Roys
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Though conservative Christians may try to convince you otherwise, the Bible is decidedly pro-choice. At least, that’s what some pro-choice advocates want you to believe.

In an article for Jezebel.com, feminist writer Erin Gloria Ryan says, “(T)he Bible specifically says that a woman is much, much, much, much, much more important than a fetus.”

In other words, the Bible says a woman is a person with all the rights afforded to people. But a fetus is a non-person and has no independent rights, as was asserted in the recent Illinois abortion rights bill.

As evidence, Ryan cites a passage in Exodus 21:22-24, which seems to say that if an assailant causes a pregnant woman to miscarry, but the woman is unharmed, the assailant merely owes the woman’s husband a fine. However, if the woman who miscarries is harmed, then the punishment is more severe—an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, etc . . .

This is the lynchpin passage for pro-choice Christians. As apologist Nancy Pearcey discussed on The Roys Report on June 29, pro-choice advocates base their position on something called personhood theory. This is the belief that something can be human—as a fetus undoubtedly is—but yet not be a person. To become a person with all the rights afforded persons, one has to acquire some other quality like self-awareness or a certain level of cognitive functioning.  

Pro-choice advocates base their position on something called personhood theory. This is the belief that something can be human—as a fetus undoubtedly is—but yet not be a person.

So essentially, what pro-choice Christians are saying is that God subscribes to personhood theory, and the proof is Exodus 21:22-24.

I have to admit, the first time I read Ryan’s article, I was stumped. Here’s the passage as quoted in Ryan’s article:

When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Additionally, Ryan cites Bruce Waltke of Dallas Seminary, who once wrote in Christianity Today:

God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: “If a man kills any human life he will be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense… Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.

However, Waltke wrote that regrettable opinion in 1968. As I explain in an article on Christians and contraception, there was a brief period of time in the late 60s and early 70s when evangelicals argued in favor abortion. This was primarily driven by fears of overpopulation. But as I recently discovered, it was also based on a mistranslation of Exodus 21:22-24.

The translation of Exodus 21:22-24 that Ryan quotes in her article is the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which was published in 1952. However, the English Standard Version (ESV), which is a 2001 translation based on the RSV, says:

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.

According to this translation, the premature birth of a child is not presumed to be a miscarriage. It may be a live birth in which neither the baby nor mother are harmed. In this case, the assailant would simply pay a fine for causing the premature birth. However, if either the baby or the mother is harmed, then the assailant would have to be punished eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc . . .

If this translation is correct, then Scripture views both the baby and the mother to be of equal value—and both have an equal right to life.

So which translation is correct?

In preparation for the program on the 29th, I asked Pearcey specifically about Exodus 21:22-24. (Because my pro-choice guest, Livi Burke, never raised the issue, I didn’t play the clip during The Roys Report.)

According to Pearcey, Bible scholars used to translate “yasa” as miscarry, but this was based on a mistaken understanding of the word’s meaning. The Hebrew word for miscarry is another word: “shachal.” But “yasa” literally means “the child comes forth.” And Pearcey said earlier translators weren’t quite sure how to translate “yasa.” However, now translators recognize that “yasa” means a live birth, not a miscarriage.

Bible scholars used to translate “yasa” as miscarry, but this was based on a mistaken understanding of the word’s meaning. . . . now translators recognize that “yasa” means a live birth, not a miscarriage.

Similarly, author and pastor, John Piper, writes that “yasa” never refers to a miscarriage or abortion. When “yasa” refers to a birth, Piper says it refers to live children “going forth” from the womb. For example, in Genesis 25:25, Scripture uses a form of “yasa” to refer to Esau being the first to come out of Rebekah.

So despite pro-choice assertions to the contrary, the Bible actually is decidedly pro-life, not pro-choice. This isn’t just based on Exodus 21:22-24, but a plethora of other verses, as well. The most famous is probably Psalm 139:13-14: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

But my personal favorite is Luke 1:41-45, where John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. Verse 44 says, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

Interestingly, Elizabeth doesn’t call her unborn child a fetus. She calls him a baby—a person, John the Baptist, who’s delighted to see Mary because inside Mary’s womb is another person: Jesus Christ.

Nowhere in Scripture does it support the idea that unborn babies aren’t persons. Instead, Scripture treats the unborn the same as the born. In fact, the word used for Elizabeth’s pre-born baby in Luke 1:44 is “brephos”—the same word used in Luke 18:15 for “babies” that are brought to Jesus and blessed.

So Christians have no basis for supporting the killing of unborn children. Personhood theory is an evil, secular philosophy. And it is found nowhere in the Bible.


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7 thoughts on “Is the Bible Pro-Choice?”

  1. Jessica Hockett

    Lucid explanation, Julie. Thank you.

    Do you know what the Christian pro-choice stance is regarding the personhood of Jesus Christ? Do they believe he was fully God and fully man at (immaculate) conception?

  2. Michael Wechsler

    In the Bible Intro class that I’ve been teaching for 20 years now at Moody I give a class assignment on this passage to illustrate the way in which Hebrew works as well as to highlight the importance of word study and not relying on a single translation. The ESV is unquestionably the correct translation. The passage is referring to a premature birth … the verb “yatsa” is a commonly-occurring verb and it’s meaning has always been well known. The mistranslation “miscarriage” is due translator error and less-than-careful translation work, not lack of understanding of the verb. “Yatsa” alone simply means “to come out”–whether it’s a miscarriage or not depends on the surrounding verbs and context. If it’s a child that comes out it’s a premature birth, if it’s a “nefel” (dead baby) then it’s a miscarriage. “Nefel”, which occurs 3 times in the Hebrew Bible, is the proper word for miscarriage (see Psalm 58:8 [58:9 in Hebrew]; Ecclesiastes 6:3; and Job 3:16). Exod 21 is in fact perfectly-formulated (of course!) case law, according to which every possible situation is covered–including the rare instance in which a premature birth under the conditions described results in no actual injury. If it does result in injury to either the baby or the mother, the penalty is, practically-speaking, even GREATER than that normally applied. In any other case of accidentally-caused murder, the murderer is allowed the mercy of fleeing to a city of refuge. Not in this case. The point being that the life of the unborn child and his mother are to be held in practically greater value–and treated with even greater care–than that of anyone else. Those who intentionally take the life of either will therefore experience a far greater punishment when they stand before the Throne of Glory on the final day … a more-than-sobering thought, to be sure. I can send you the assignment packet over this verse that I hand out in class, if you’re interested.

  3. Thank you Dr. Wechsler. That’s really helpful. I hadn’t heard anyone point out that eye for eye is actually a greater punishment for accidental harm. I shudder to think how God views intentionally killing an unborn child. I’d love to see the assignment packet. Can you leave your email or contact me through the “contact” tab above?

  4. Perhaps some interesting history from “back in the day”:

    This text was used back in the early 1970s (even before Roe) by Dr. Bruce Waltke (then of Dallas Theological Seminary) to justify some abortions. Bruce’s position influenced Dr. N. Geisler to state in his “Ethics Alternatives and Issues”(1971) that “complete person is more valuable then potential person” (which included the fetus). Their views were then used by the Christian Medical Society in their book “Birth Control and the Christian” to justify abortion and many Evangelical doctors based a support of abortion on that book.

    Several of us objected strongly in print that the verse was being misunderstood. I wrote in the “Presbyterian Journal” and “Personal Christianity.” Another response (I think the authors name was Jack Cartrell) was published in the “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.” Dr. Waltke subsequently became convinced by his reading of Psalm 139 that the fetus was completely human. I recall that he published a retraction of his position, though in it he did not specifically say that he had been wrong about Ex. 21. Then Norm subsequently changed his view as well and dropped his “greater than” statements in later editions of “Ethics.” Unfortunately, not all the Evangelical doctors, who read the earlier positions of Bruce and Norm in “Birth Control,” read the retractions or changed their minds.

    The unamended Hebrew in Exodus 21 teaches that the fetus is just as deserving of legal defense as the mother. It does not speak of “miscarriage” but of an inconvenient (premature) “birth.” When “injury” is mentioned it includes both mother or child, and the penalty is for a ‘life for a life.”

    There are nearly a dozen Biblical passages that support a pro-life position, some of them reaching back to conception.

  5. Even if the RSV translation is correct, it certainly does not support abortion. From a legal basis, there would be no legal reason to assume that the injury caused the miscarriage. The issue is not personhood, but legal liability. The issue then is: Could it proved before a judge that the miscarriage was caused by the altercation?

  6. Convenient selection of what verses and versions to use to support pre-determined positions.

    Perhaps then, following their pattern we back up two verses to claim the bible supports both slavery and abuse of slaves. Exodus 21:20-21

    “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.”
    “If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”

    So we now can own another person as property and as long as our abuse of our property does not end their life, we are free of any consequences of vengeance.

    Thankful for the other comments on the question clarifying the wrong interpretation.

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