God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Bible on Abortion – Overview

I’ve received a lot of feedback on my recent piece, “What Does the Bible Really Say about Abortion,” in which I make the claim that even though the Bible shouts the importance of knowing when life beings, it doesn’t offer much specific guidance, and, in particular, doesn’t tell us if a fetus is a human.

You can read the article here, and listen to a discussion on the same themes here:

(The full episode from which that clip is taken is here.)

I didn’t have room in the article for the kind of depth that many people want, so my next posts here go into more detail about some of the passages that commonly come up in the context of abortion and the Bible:

  • Exodus 21:22 — potentially about causing a woman to miscarry: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage…”
  • Luke 1:41 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”
  • Numbers 12:12 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “Do not let her be like one stillborn,…”
  • Psalm 139:13 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “…you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
  • Exodus 23:26 — potentially about miscarriages: “No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land.”
  • The Ten Commandments — potentially about abortion: “You shall not murder.”
  • Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:1 — potentially about abortion: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” and “You must not lacerate yourselves.”
  • 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 — potentially about abortion: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple … and that you are not your own.”

September 6, 2015 - Posted by | audio, biblical interpretation | , , , ,


  1. Dr. Hoffman,

    Your article is refreshing in that you strive (or so it seems to me) to be even handed and, of course, thorough approach to this divisive issue. However, I have three problems with your understanding of the Exodus passage (21:22-15).

    First, I think you make a mistake in thinking that the ancient Hebrews made a qualitative distinction between a ‘fetus’ and a newborn. I argue that the ancient Hebrews had no conception of a ‘fetus’ as being distinct from the human person (but, see next paragraph). In their view, an unborn baby is no different than a newborn. Yours, I think, is an example of imposing a modern view where it is unwarranted.

    A second problem with your explanation may lie in your reading of Exodus 21:22-25. In v. 22, the use of the word “miscarriage” is not appropriate. A miscarriage is understood by physicians (and most lay people) as the loss of a baby before 20 weeks of gestation. A straight forward reading of the Hebrew of vv 22-25 reveals a simple if/then clause: if the baby “comes out” alive, then a fine is imposed on the man who struck the mother. On the other hand, if the baby “comes out” harmed (dead?), then the law of retaliation is imposed on the same man. A miscarriage is clearly in view in the second clause, not the first.

    Finally and more generally, I would argue that the question of the morality of abortion lies not in the definition of WHEN a fetus becomes a human person, but rather when society decides that the nascent human being merits the same rights and protections as a newborn child. To that end, Exodus 21:22-25 suggests that, yes, an unborn baby deserves protection under the law – at least to some extent.


    P.S. While writing this your more detailed post arrived in my mail box. I will likewise have a more detailed response to that.

    Comment by Michael | September 6, 2015

    • Correction – 22-25, not 22-15

      Comment by Michael | September 6, 2015

  2. I am surprised Jeremiah 1:5 is not in the above list: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, And before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations.” (JPS 1917)

    I would think verses like these that portray God’s active role in (if not ownership of) forming wombs and setting them apart – making fetuses ‘kadosh’ and therefore not to be profaned by mankind?

    Forgive me, but I think that a semantic debate about “baby or fetus” is irrelevant. I would think the conversation from a biblical perspective should be about ‘Does God giving every human a destiny from the womb, or not?’ ‘Does he know us in the womb, or not?’

    Comment by Standing in the Eleventh Hour | September 6, 2015

  3. Great study! Also Genesis 3:7 tells us man (Adam) became a “living soul” only after God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. A fetus becomes a living soul, human independent if it’s mother, when it is born and takes its first breath.

    Comment by Mary Pollack | January 21, 2019

  4. I meant Genesis 2:7 not Genesis 3:7

    Comment by Mary Pollack | January 21, 2019

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