THE ABORTION DILEMMA
Michael A. Grisanti
Associate Professor of Old Testament
In recent years Supreme-Court actions legalizing abortion have
crystalized two ethical positions: pro-choice and pro-life. A series of cases resulted in decisions granting women the right to choose whether or not to have
abortions. As a consequence, several methods of aborting unborn children have
come into prominence: suction aspiration, dilation and curettage, dilation and
evacuation, saline injection, hysterotomy, prostaglandin chemical, RU-486, and
partial-birth abortion. Viewpoints on abortion break down into four categories.
Some say abortion is always right, others say sometimes, still others rarely, and
some say never. The Bible gives several reasons why abortion is wrong because it
does not distinguish between a person's state before and after birth, because it
indicates God "knew" certain ones before birth, because it indicates King David
was a sinner from conception, and because John the Baptist reacted while still in
his mother's womb. Both sides in the debate have used Exodus 21:22-25 to prove
their cases, but the passage has a number of exegetical difficulties that keep it
from being a strong argument. Though several Ancient Near Eastern law codes
are similar to the Exodus passage, the biblical law is distinguishable from these in
several ways. Questionable situations when some would use the mother's health,
pregnancies caused by rape or incest, and pregnancies facing fetal handicaps do
not furnish sufficient grounds for abortion.
The Supreme Court's decision in 1973 to legalize abortion at almost any
time in a woman's pregnancy and for a wide variety of reasons thrust the issue
onto the platform of heated national debate. Discussion and debate over the
abortion issue occurs within families, in and among churches, in communities, in
legislatures on the state and federal level, throughout the court system, and in the
Executive Branch of each state and in the federal government. Proponents on both
sides of the issue feel great passion for their position and expend great energy
defending the legitimacy of their perspective on the issue. Organizations,
publications, billboards, and websites that advocate a certain position concerning
abortion abound. As with a number of ethical issues, believers are on both sides of
the fence. Though some Christians fiercely oppose abortion in any circumstance,
others just as fervently defend the right of a woman to have access to an abortion.
170 The Master's Seminary Journal
What does the Bible have to say about the practice of abortion? How
should that belief affect Christian conduct in a world given over to paganism? In
other words, how does a believer flesh out his belief about abortion in his life and
By definition, an abortion involves the "expulsion of the human fetus ...
before it is capable of surviving outside the womb."1 The two general categories of
abortion are the spontaneous and the induced. A spontaneous abortion is one that
takes place naturally, with no external intervention. It represents a situation over
which the mother has no control. In a number of cases, a fertilized egg never
implants in the mother's womb and passes out of her body during her monthly
period. Another kind of a spontaneous abortion involves a miscarriage. In this
instance, the mother's body expels the developing fetus before the baby is able to
live outside the womb.2 The second category of abortion involves an induced
abortion, i.e., one brought about by medical means (discussed at length below).
Statistically speaking, since the Supreme Court's decision of 1973 (Roe v.
Wade), the annual number of abortions has risen from 744,600 to a peak of 1.6
million (approximately 1.6 million abortions were performed annually from 1980-
1992). After 1992 the number of abortions performed annually slowly dropped to
1.4 million in 1.996.3 From 1973 through :1996, an estimated 34.4 million unborn
have died in hospitals and abortion clinics throughout
4 years, abortions terminated between one-quarter and one-third of all pregnancies
younger than 25.4 Over half of unintended pregnancies worldwide end with
induced abortion.5 It has become the second most common surgical procedure in
our country, circumcision being the first.6
The basic question in this debate is "Are you in favor of abortion (pro-
abortion) or opposed to it (anti-abortion)?" Or to put it another way, "Are you pro-
choice or pro-life?" The foundation for this decision is this: Does a woman have
the right to do whatever she wishes with her body (choice), or is the human
1 Charles C. Ryrie, Biblical Answers to Contemporary Issues (Chicago: Moody, 1991) 85.
2 John S. Feinberg and Paul D.
Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (
Crossway, 1993) 50.
3 These statistics are available on numerous web sites dealing with the issue of abortion. For
two examples, see the home page for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research center
(www.agi-usa.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html) and the Ohio Right to Life home page
4 Women aged 20-24 obtain 32% of all abortions while teenagers obtain 20% (www.agi-
5 According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, this involves 46 million pregnancies (and abortions) worldwide (www.agi-usa.org/pubs/ib_0599.html).
6 According to J. Kerby Anderson (Moral Dilemmas: Biblical Perspectives on Contemporary
The Abortion Dilemma 171
ity to preserve life at all times (life)?
Neither set of proponents finds total agreement with the titles given them.
The pro-abortionist does not regard herself/himself as anti-life even though he or
she does not view the fetus as a person. A number of women regard themselves as
pro-choice but not pro-abortion. Nor is the anti-abortionist really anti-choice. A
woman does have the responsibility to take care of her body. However, the issue
of abortion touches two lives, those of the mother and of the unborn child. Those
who oppose abortion contend that the mother's preferences should not have
preeminence over the unborn child's life. Consequently, the debate over abortion
is normally categorized by two basic positions: pro-choice and pro-life.7
THE LEGAL BACKGROUND OF ABORTION
Various sources document the legal history of the abortion debate. As part
of their discussion of the larger issue, numerous volumes that focused on the issue
of abortion or ethics in general provide a helpful overview of this legal history.8
More recently, various websites offer the full text of the various legal decisions as
well as links to other related websites.9 One has only to type the word "abortion"
in one of the major web search engines to find hundreds of places to find informa-
tion of this kind.
Roe v. Wade (1973)10
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that an unborn child is the
property of the mother. It concluded that she might dispose of it for any reason
during the first six months of pregnancy, and at any other time (last trimester) if,
in the opinion of a single licensed physician, it is necessary to preserve her life and
health. During the first three months of pregnancy, abortion may not be regulated.
During the second trimester, it may be regulated only with reference to the
protection of the "mother's" health.
7 The complaint of this writer about media coverage of this issue is the frequent use of unequal
terms for the two sides. Those in favor of abortion are said to be pro-choice (not pro-abortion or
anti-life). But those opposed to abortion are referred to as anti-abortion or anti-choice (not pro-
8 Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics 48-50; Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics
Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 118-22; Curt Young, The Least of These (
9 Abortion Law Homepage (http://members.aol.com/abtrbng/index.htm); cf.
172 The Master's Seminary Journal
In a companion case decided on the same day as Roe v. Wade, the Supreme
struck down a
attempts to place limits on a woman's right to an abortion had to conform to "a
compelling state interest." It is important to note that the Supreme Court justices
interpreted the mother's health to include her psychological and emotional health
in addition to her physical health.
Planned Parenthood v. Danforth (1977)12
This case removed some of the limits that had been placed on abortion by
Roe v. Wade (e.g., spousal consent, parental consent for a minor child). The
woman and her physician were the only ones legally involved in the decision-
Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989)13
This case represented one of the first significant limits on an individual's
right to an abortion. Reversing certain lower court decisions, the Supreme Court
for "non-therapeutic" abortions. Building on the Hyde Amendment that dealt with
the use of federal funds for abortions, this case concerned the right of states to
limit or prohibit the use of tax funds to pay for abortions.
Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)14
Pro-choice proponents brought this case to the Supreme Court to protest
placed on abortion in the state of
governor of the state). The state law in question required that a woman seeking an
abortion give informed consent after receiving certain relevant information 24
hours before the procedure (explanation of procedure, risks of abortion, probable
gestational age of fetus), informed parental consent for a minor child, and
evidence of spousal notification. Pro-life advocates regarded this case as the best
opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade and pro-choice proponents hoped that the
Supreme Court would strike down all the limitations. Neither side was totally
satisfied with the outcome. The Supreme Court did not overturn Roe v. Wade but
retained all the
The Abortion Dilemma 173
limitations except the spousal notification feature.
Although it does not belong to the legal/court history of the abortion battle,
one should remember President Clinton's contribution to this debate. On January
20, 1993, while the annual protest against Roe v. Wade was going on outside the
White House, President Clinton reversed more than a decade of executive support
for the unborn with one stroke of the pen.15 He signed an executive order that did
He lifted the "gag rule" that had prohibited workers in federally funded
health clinics from mentioning abortion as an alternative to dealing
with an unwanted pregnancy.
He lifted the federal prohibition against performing abortions on military
bases and in military hospitals.
He ended the moratorium on federal funding for research that utilizes fetal
tissue procured from induced abortions.
Stenberg v. Carhart (2000)16
At least 30 states have passed a ban on partial-birth abortions. Shortly after
abortions, Leroy Carhart, filed a complaint challenging the constitutionality of the
In September of 1999, the 8th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals declared
2000, the Supreme Court agreed to hear its first partial-birth abortion case,
Stenberg v. Carhart. Attorneys for both sides presented oral arguments for the
case on April 25, 2000, and the court rendered a decision on June 28, 2000,
justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority,
affirmed that the
law results in an "undue burden upon a womans right to make an abortion
THE METHODS OF ABORTION
"Abortion" describes the act of bringing forth young prematurely. A
spontaneous abortion is one that takes place naturally, a situation over which the
15 Rae, Moral Choices 117.
16 99-830. For a brief summary of this case and the perspective of Planned Parenthood, see
17 For the full text of this case presented at the state level to the U.S. District Court, see
18 "Http://abenews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/scotus_partialbirthruling 000628.html.
174 The Master's Seminary Journal
mother has no control. An induced abortion is one that is brought about by
medical means. The various methods of induced abortion receive brief attention in
the following paragraphs.19
This procedure is used in 80 percent of the abortions up to the 12th week
of the pregnancy (1st trimester). The mouth of the mother's cervix is dilated. A
hollow tube with a knifelike edged tip is inserted into the womb. A suction force
28 times stronger than a vacuum cleaner literally tears the developing baby to pieces and sucks the remains into a container.
Dilation and Curettage (D & C)
The cervix is dilated with a series of instruments to allow the insertion of
a curette--a loop-shaped knife--into the womb. The instrument is used to scrape
the placenta from the uterus and then cut the baby apart. The pieces are then drawn
through the cervix. An attending nurse must then reassemble the tiny body to
make sure no parts remain in the womb to cause infection.
Dilation and Evacuation (D & E)
This procedure occurs at 12-20 weeks. Since by week 12 the baby's bones
are hardening and can no longer be sucked apart, abortion is achieved by dismem-
berment. After dilating the cervix, forceps with sharp metal teeth tear the baby
apart. The head is usually too large to be removed whole and must be crushed and
drained before it is removed from the womb. As with the above procedure, an
attending nurse inventories the body parts to avoid infection in the womb from
parts left behind.
This procedure is also called "salt-poisoning" or hyper-natremic abortion
and is generally used after 13 weeks of pregnancy (2nd trimester). A long needle
is inserted through the mother's abdomen to remove some of the amniotic fluid
surrounding the baby and to replace it with a toxic, saline solution. The baby then
breathes and swallows this solution. In most cases, the unborn child dies in one or
two hours from salt poisoning, dehydration, and hemorrhaging. The mother goes
into labor about 24 hours later and delivers a dead (or in a few cases, dying) baby.
19 Numerous sources provide an overview of these techniques. For two examples, see Feinberg
and Feinberg, Ethics 51-53, and Young, Least of These 83-99.
The Abortion Dilemma 175
During the last three months of the pregnancy (3rd trimester) this
procedure is used. The womb is opened surgically and the baby is removed, as in
a cesarean section. However, the purpose of this procedure is to end the infant's
life. Instead of being cared for, the baby is wrapped in a blanket, set aside, and
allowed to die.
Prostaglandin Chemical Abortion
This procedure involves the use of chemicals recently developed by the
Upjohn Phaimaceutical Company. Prostaglandin hormones, injected into the
womb or released in a vaginal suppository, cause the uterus to contract and deliver
the child prematurely--too young to survive. A saline solution is sometimes
injected first, killing the baby before birth. A self-administered tampon has been
going through clinical testing. The procedure has several side effects and live
births have been common (when saline solution is not used). This procedure is
RU-486 (The Abortion Pill)20
After receiving approval for
the People's Republic of
abortionists around the world. After RU-486 became a viable alternative as an
abortion technique, numerous countries considered allowing distribution within
their borders. In 1994, a research organization (The Population Council) began
conducting the first nationwide study of the French abortion pill (RU-486) in a
of different clinics throughout the
gave RU-486 tentative approve for distribution in the
amazingly short 6-month approval process). Final approval depended on FDA's
of the company chosen to manufacture the drug in the
Danco Laboratories LLC have agreed to serve as the distributors for the RU-486
drug, but have not named their manufacturing source.
Although proponents of the RU-486 drug expected final approval in late
spring or early summer, the FDA made an important decision in June 2000. In a
letter to The Population Council, the FDA set September 30, 2000 as a tentative
20 Supporters and opponents of RU-486 have debated the potential complications of the drug.
For a recent study that highlights some of those negative side-effects (written by advocates of the drug), see a recent article written in the following well-known medical journal: Irving M. Spitz,
C. Wayne Bardin, Lauri Benton, and Ann Robbins, "Early Pregnancy Termination with
Mifepristone and Misoprostol in the
(April 30, 1998):1241-47. The following website provides an abstract of the article and gives
careful attention to those potential medical complications: www.lifeissues.org/ru486/ru98-
176 The Master's Seminary Journal
deadline for approving the drug. To the dismay of the drug's proponents, the FDA
placed three key restrictions on the distribution of the RU-486 drug.
Only health professionals trained in surgical abortion, medical abortion,
and sonography can distribute the drug.
Any physician who administers this drug must have admitting privileges at
a hospital within one hour of their office in case something goes
An accredited agency must verify that all doctors who intend to administer
this drug meet the training requirements stated above.21
In the summer of 1999 the RU-486 drug received approval in eight other
the drug. A Canadian doctor in
clinical trial of the RU-486 drug.
A woman first takes RU-486, which blocks the action of progesterone, a
hormone that prepares the lining of the uterus for pregnancy and is essential to
maintain a pregnancy. Two days later she then takes two tablets of a
prostaglandin, which causes the uterus to contract. In most cases, the embryo is
expelled in four hours. RU-486 is normally taken no later than 63 days after
pregnancy and is supposedly successful in about 96% of the cases. Complications
increase after 49 days of pregnancy.
In a partial-birth abortion the person performing the abortion partially
delivers (legs, arms, and torso only) a living unborn child before killing the unborn
child and completing the delivery. Before the delivery is completed, the person
performing the abortion punctures the back of the skull with scissors or another
instrument, inserts a suction curette into the skull, and suctions the contents of the
skull so as to collapse it.
IS ABORTION EVER RIGHT?: A SPECTRUM OF VIEWS
A survey of the voluminous pages written about this debate from all
perspectives demonstrates that people answer the question, "Is Abortion Ever
Right?," in four ways: always, sometimes (tinder certain circumstances), rarely,
21 Shari Roan, "The Abortion
Pill: Finally at Hand?,"
The Abortion Dilemma 177
Always ("abortion on demand")
In the original Roe v. Wade decision (1973) the Supreme Court ruled that
an unborn child is not entitled to legal protection of his or her life and can be
aborted at anytime up until the moment of birth. Though several pro-abortionists
limit abortion to the first two trimesters of pregnancy, some abortion clinics will
perform an abortion at any time before birth.
Various factors contribute to a woman's decision to have an abortion.
Some of these are very complicated and make the issue of abortion even more
difficult. Here are some of the reasons proposed by those who advocate abortions:
Therapeutic - the life of a mother may be at risk should she carry a child to term.
Eugenic - the baby is retarded, deformed, or handicapped in some way.
Psychiatric - the mother's mental health.
Socio-economic - to ease economic pressures on an individual/family.
Violation - in cases where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
On demand - for any reason important to the mother.
Sometimes (under certain circumstances)
Within the anti-abortion movement, there is disagreement whether abortion
might be legitimate in certain cases. For the most part, pregnancies that threaten
the mother's health and those caused by rape or incest are the ones debated and
discussed within the pro-life movement as possible instances where an abortion
may have legitimacy.
This reason applies only when the mother's life is actually at stake,
primarily in the case of ectopic or tubal pregnancies. With an ectopic or tubal
pregnancy the fertilized egg implants in the fallopian tube rather than the mother's
uterus. The doctor has only two options. On the one hand, he can intervene and
take the baby's life by surgically removing the fetus from the fallopian tube and
save the mother's life. His other option is to do nothing and let both mother and
baby die. There is abundant medical information available that no ectopic/tubal
pregnancy ever resulted in childbirth.
This is an issue to which pastors and potential parents must give careful
attention. Over the last twenty years the number of ectopic pregnancies has
increased fourfold. It now accounts for about eleven percent of maternal deaths.
Sexually transmitted diseases (that damage the fallopian tube), a retained IUD,22 a
22 IUD stands for "intra-uterine device," a formerly popular birth control device.
178 The Master's Seminary Journal
tubal ligation, and tuboplasty23 appear to be causes for this significant increase in
the occurrence of ectopic pregnancies.
With regard to the "Sometimes" and "Rarely" positions, the concerns for
the mother's health are normally limited to genuine medical health risks. This
could involve the discovery of an aggressive form of cancer, a serious heart
condition, or some other serious disease. In all of these cases, the attending
physician has a legitimate desire to safeguard the life and health of the mother. In
each of these instances the husband and wife must wrestle with the doctor's
evaluation of the probable course of the ailment and the life of their baby. Since
these circumstances have life and death in the balance, they require decisions that
are far from easy. This writer seeks to limit a legitimate use of abortion to the case
of an ectopic pregnancy. This kind of circumstance appears to be clear. In the
other cases, this writer would do everything possible to preserve both the mother's
and child's life. In the end, unless it was clear that both mother and child would
die, he would not end the life of the child for the sake of the mother's health.
According to the proponents of this perspective, no extenuating circum-
stances legitimize an abortion. Those who take this position would even exclude
an ectopic pregnancy as a legitimate cause for agreeing to an abortive procedure.
THE FOUNDATIONAL ISSUE: WHEN DOES LIFE BEGIN?
(WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?)
No Difference Whether before or after Birth
The Bible recognizes no essential difference between the being in the
womb and the being after birth. From the point of conception and forward, the
individual is a person. According to Genesis 4:1, "Now Adam knew Eve his wife,
and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, I have acquired a man from the
LORD.24 The passage views Cain's life as a continuity, and his history extends
back to his conception. Eve makes no distinction between his conception, birth,
and life. Eve regards conception and life as part of the work of God. Job affirms,
"May the day perish on which I was born, And the night in which it was said, A
male child is conceived"' (Job 3:3). Job's life has become an intolerable burden to
him. As Job laments his existence, he connects his birth and his conception as
parallel items in a poetic unit. Both his conception in his mother's womb and his
birth from his mother's womb form an integral part of his existence.
23 Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics 414 n. 18.
24 Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.
The Abortion Dilemma 179
God "Knew" Certain Persons before Birth
The Bible speaks of God "knowing" certain persons before their birth,
indicating that God regarded them as persons that early. The psalmist writes,
For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother's womb. I
will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are
Your works, And that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden
from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest
parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, beig yet unformed. And in
Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, when as yet
there were none of them (139:13-16).
David rejoices over Yahweh's careful watchcare over him even in his mother's
womb. Verse 13 points to God's personal regard for the psalmist that began when
he was yet in his mother's womb. Verses 14-15 highlight that David was the
product of God's creative work in his mother's womb. Ronald Allen writes:
The Bible never speaks of fetal life as mere chemical activity, cellular
growth, or vague force. Rather, the fetus in the mother's womb is described
by the psalmist in vivid pictorial language as being shaped, fashioned,
molded, and woven together by the personal activity of God. That is, as
God formed Adam from the dust of the ground, so He is actively involved
in fashioning the fetus in the womb.25
God affirmed to the prophet Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew
you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations" (Jer 1:5). God "knew" Jeremiah even before he was conceived. God
"sanctified" Jeremiah and "ordained" him a prophet before he came from the
womb. Also, God Himself is the One who forms the fetus and orchestrates the
natural processes that bring about the miracle of life (cf. Job 31:15; Ps 119:73;
Eccl 11:5, which suggest that God's providence rules throughout the gestation
period of a fetus). King David Was a Sinner from Conception King David himself
acknowledged that he was a sinner from the moment of his conception. In Psalm
51:5 (NIV) he affirms, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my
mother conceived me." In reflecting on the sin in his heart, David recognizes that
the sin of his heart is not something recent but goes back to the point of his
conception in the womb of his mother. Such a moral state could be ascribed only
to a person. It is also important to note that the psalmist links his birth with his
25 Ronald B. Allen, In Celebrating Love of Life (
Seminary, 1977) 6.
180 The Master's Seminary Journal
John the Baptist Reacted Personally While
John, the Baptist is said to have reacted personally when he was yet in the
my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy." When Mary entered the room to
see her cousin Elizabeth, her cousin exclaimed that her unborn child leaped for joy
in her womb.
Exodus 21:22-25: Accidental Miscarriage or Premature Birth?
Proponents of a pro-choice as well as a pro-life perspective have used this
verse to support their interpretations of the Bible's contribution to this issue. Since
it is a difficult. passage and it finds a place in the argumentation of both sides of
the issue, it deserves careful attention. The NIV and the NASB translations
provide a good comparison of the two primary interpretations of these verses.
NIV: "(22) If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth
prematurely (hAyd,lAy; Uxc;yA, yase'u yeladeha), but there is no serious injury)
( NOsxA, 'ason), the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands
and the court allows. (23) But if there is serious injury (NOsxA, 'ason), 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."
NASB: "(22) And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child
so that she has a miscarriage (hAyd,lAy; Uxc;yA, yase'u yeladeha), yet there is no
further injury (NOsxA, ason), he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may
demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. (23) But if there is any
further injury (NOsxA, 'ason;), then you shall appoint as a penalty 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."
Pro--abortion/pro-choice interpreters customarily contend that these verses
present the occurrence of an accidental miscarriage, while anti-abortion/pro-life
interpreters suggest that the passage depicts a safe, premature birth.
Accidental Miscarriage (Normal Pro-Abortion Interpretation). According to
this interpretation,26 verse 22 depicts an accidental miscarriage for which only
26 Some proponents of this interpretation are Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, OTL
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974) 471-72; R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary, TOT (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1973) 169; Robert N. Congdon, "Exodus
21:22-25 and the Abortion Debate," Bibliotheca Sacra 146/582 (April-June 1989):132-47;
Dolores E. Dunnett,
The Abortion Dilemma 181
a fine is levied. Verse 23 refers to a mortal injury inflicted on the mother and the
fetus for which an "eye for an eye" punishment is required (see NASB translation).
Since the punishment for accidentally killing an unborn child is less severe than
the punishment for killing an adult, some proponents of this interpretation
conclude that the unborn baby must be considered less than human (that is, of less
value than an actual person). According to this view, the "harm" does not happen
or happens to the mother, not the premature child.
Premature Birth (
view,27 verse 22 presents a safe premature birth for which a fine is levied. The next verse describes some kind of harm brought upon the mother and/or child for which
the judges require an "eye for an eye" punishment (see NIV translation).
According to this perspective, when harm of any kind comes to the mother or
"Evangelicals and Abortion," JETS 33 (1990):217-18; Russell Fuller, "Exodus 22:22-23: The Miscarriage Interpretation and the Personhood of the Fetus," JETS 37 (1994):169-84; J. Philip
Exodus, NCB (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 233-34;
The Law of Exodus 21:22-23 Revisited," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990):40-45; Dale
Patrick, Old Testament Law (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) 76-77; Shalom Paul, Studies in the Book
of the Covenant in the Light of Cuneiform and Biblical Law (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970) 70-77;
Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, JPS Torah (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991) 125-26; Joe M. Sprinkle, "The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (Lex Talionis) and Abortion," WTJ 55
(1993):233-53; Bruce K. Waltke, "Old Testament Texts Bearing on the Problem of the Control of
Human Reproduction," in Birth Control and the Christian. A Protestant Symposium on the
Control of Human
eds. W. O. Spitzer and Carlyle Saylor (
House, 1969) 10-13; R. Westbrook, "Lex Talionis and Exodus 21:22-25," Revue Biblique 93
27 Some proponents of this view
Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) 247-49; Francis J. Beckwith,
"Abortion and Public Policy: A Response to Some Arguments," JETS 32 (1989):512-15; Walter
Brueggemann, "The Book of Exodus," in the New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck et al.
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1990) 1:864; Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus
Magnes, 1983) 275-77; Jack W. Cottrell,
"Abortion and the Mosaic Law," Christianity
Today 17/13 (March 16, 1973):6-9; John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of
the Fetus in Mosaic Law," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 1 (1990):5-21; John 1.
Premature Birth?," Bible Translator 37/3 (July 1986):334-37; Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics 63-
Paul B. Fowler, Abortion: Toward an
Evangelical Consensus (
1987) 149; Victor P. Hamilton, in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology
and Exegesis, ed. W. VanGemeren (
Hoffmeier, "Abortion and the Old Testament Law," in Abortion: A Christian Understanding and
Response, ed. James K. Hoffmeier (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987) 57-62; H. Wayne House,
"Miscarriage or Premature Birth: Additional Thoughts on Exodus 21:22-25," WTJ
41 (1978):108-23; 'Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old' Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983) 102-4, 168-72; C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, 3 vols, translated
James Martin, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (reprint;
2:135; Rae, Moral Choices 124-25;
Ronald F. Youngblood, Exodus, EC (
1983) 105. Meredith G. Kline ("Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus," JETS 20 :197-98) and
J. Davis (Abortion and the Christian:
What Every Believer Should Know [
Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984], 51-52) propose a variation of this position by relating verse 22
to the mother alone and verse 23 to the infant.
182 The Master's Seminary Journal
payment of a fine is not a severe enough penalty. A penalty appropriate to the
"harm" is required. Notice that the "harm" does not happen or happens to the
premature child and/or the mother.
Primary Issues Involved in Interpreting This Text
Since this passage is used as support for both sides of the debate, an
overview of some key issues related to this text is in order: the term "child," the
verb "to go out," the term "mischief/harm," the lex talionis principle, and the
medical feasibility of an infant in biblical times surviving a premature birth caused
The term "child" (dl,y,, yeled), Customary lexical sources point out that
dl,y, (yeled) refers to living people. It often occurs in a manner similar to Nbe (ben,
"son"), though with less emphasis on relationship to parents.28 It occurs with
regard to family relationships, political administration, prophetic ministry, and
(Exod 1:17, 18; 3:6-9), to children who have been weaned (Gen 21:8), to teenagers
(Gen 21:14-16), to youths (2 Kgs 2:24), to young men old enough to serve in
foreign courts (Dan 1:4, 10, 15, 17), and to descendants (Isa 29:23).30
The noun yeled never refers elsewhere to a child unrecognizable as human
or incapable of existence outside the womb. In fact, two Hebrew terms might have
been used if Moses had a miscarriage in mind: Ml,go (golem, "embryo" or "fetus," Ps 139:16) or lp,ne) (nepel, "stillborn child," "miscarriage," Job 3:16; Ps 58:9
[English 58:8]; Eccl 6:3).
A final issue that deserves some attention is the plural form of the noun
yeled. Of the 89 occurrences of this noun, 47 instances are plural. The noun occurs
with a pronominal suffix 17 times and appears exactly as it occurs in Exodus
21:22 in four other verses (Gen 33:2, 7; Exod 21:4; Ruth 1:5). Outside of Exodus
21, yeled refers to the children of woman (Leah, a slave woman, Naomi). The
reason for a plural form of yeled has mystified many interpreters.
The passage depicts a single pregnant woman who seeks to break up a fight
between men. In the midst of the chaos of the conflict, the men strike her, causing
her to go into labor prematurely. The Hebrew text reads, "and her children go out."
What is the significance of this plural form in this context? Scholars have
suggested five interpretive alternatives.
In the first place, some scholars conclude that this form of the noun is a
28 J. Kuhlewein, dly, in the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, edited by E. Jenni and
C. Westermann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997) 2:545.
29 Victor P.
and Exegesis, ed.
The Abortion Dilemma 183
plural of abstraction "with the sense the product of her womb, an apt term for an
inadequately developed baby."31 Sprinkle adds that the plural of abstraction "is
used proleptically in anticipation of, or foreshadowing, the fatal outcome."32
Secondly, the plural could allow for several children and either sex.33 Thirdly,
some regard it as a generic plural used with a view to including both contingencies
(vv. 22-23).34 Fourthly, it might refer to a woman's capacity for childbearing.35 If
this is the case, the verse is not relevant to the issue of abortion. Finally, it could
indicate "natural products in an unnatural condition."36 None of the above options
has abundant examples outside of this passage that would serve to provide
support. For contextual reasons, the present writer prefers the second or third
The verb xcAyA (yasa'). The term "depart" (xcAyA, yasa') means literally to
"go out" and is ordinarily used to describe normal human births (Gen 25:26;
38:28-30; Job 3:11; 10:18; Jer 1:5; 20:18). This verb does occur for a miscarriage
in Num 12:12 and possibly Deut 28:57. However, in Num 12:12 "the dead one"
precedes the verb, making clear that a live birth is not in view. In fact, Num 12:12
refers to a stillborn birth rather than a miscarriage. The Deuteronomy passage does
not clarify whether a live birth or miscarriage is in view. This verbal root does
appear one time in the OT with the idea of a miscarriage with reference to oxen (a
fem. sing. participle, Ps 144:14).
The normal Hebrew verb for miscarriage, both in animals and humans, is
lkw (skl, Exod 23:26; Hos 9:14; Gen 31:38; Job 2:10). The verb also refers to,
God's punishment of His people by allowing an invading force to take away their
children by violent means (Deut 32:25; 1 Sam 15:33; Lam 1:20) or by wild
animals (Lev 26:22; Ezek 5:17).37
The term NOsxA ('ason). The term "mischief " (NOsxA., 'ason) means "harm"
in a general sense. It is interesting to note that in cognate languages (e.g., Akkadian
31 Sprinkle, "Interpretation of Exodus" 249; cf. L. Schwienhorst-Schonberger, Dad Bundesbuch
(Ex 20,22-23,33) BZAW 188 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990) 81-83. ''Sprinkle, "Interpretation
of Exodus" 250. Sprinkle points out that this interpretation does not necessarily imply that a live,
unaborted fetus is subhuman. It simply implies that a corpse is subhuman.
33 Cassuto, Book of Exodus 275; Ellington, "Miscarriage or Premature Birth?" 336; Kaiser,
Toward Old Testament Ethics 103; Keil and Delitzsch, Pentateuch 2:135; John M. Frame,
Principles, Persons, and Problems, (
Reformed, 1988) 99.
34 Kline, "Lex Talionis" 198-99.
35 A. Schenker, "Drei Mosaiksteinchen: Konigreich von Priestern', 'Und ihre Kinder gehen
weg', `Wir tun and wir horen' (Exod 19,6; 21,22; 24,7)" in Studies in the Book of Exodus, ed. M.
Vervenne (Louvain: Leuven University, 1996) 367-80.
36 House, "Miscarriage or Premature Birth" 114.
37 Victor P.
and Exegesis 4:106.
184 The Master's Seminary Journal
and post-biblical Hebrew) this term connotes healing or refers to a physician. Its
five occurrences (Gen 42:4, 38; 44:29; Exod 21:22, 23) in the OT appear to be
euphemistic references to serious or even fatal injury.38 In other words, it highlights circumstances in which medical attention is required.39
Proponents of the premature birth position contend that since no
preposition and nominal suffix ("to her") is included, the harm cannot be restricted
to the mother. Unlike the ANE law codes, where the mother receives the focus of
the attention and no "child" is mentioned, Exodus 21:22 refers to the pregnant
woman and the "child" that prematurely leaves the womb. A natural reading of the
passage would suggest that the "no harm" or "harm" applies either to the child or
the mother. Also, it is difficult to understand how Moses could describe a violently
induced miscarriage as "no harm.40
Lex Talionis. This Latin phrase literally means "the law for retaliation."
It sought to establish a standard of justice and to limit retaliation to the exact
extent of the injury inflicted.41 It countered the tendency of unlimited revenge.42
This concept of retaliation ensured quality of treatment for the less privileged
members of Israelite society.
The legal principle of lex talionis advocated, first, the principle of equal
justice for all and, second, the penalty must be commensurate with the crime,
nothing more or less.43 The statement of the lex talionis principle in Exodus 21
permits no misunderstanding as it lists eight illustrative equivalences.
Several proponents of the view that a miscarriage takes place in both
instances (verses 22 and 23) argue that the lex talionis principle was not
necessarily understood literally. In many instances, the demanded punishment
(whether execution or damage to a certain part of the body) was often replaced by
a punitive fine or "ransom."44 Building on that conclusion, Sprinkle contends that
the fine demanded in the wake of the death of the fetus in verse 22 and the lex
talionis verdict in the verse are both monetary in nature.45 Although a difference
39 Sprinkle, "Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25" 246.
40 Proponents of the miscarriage view contend that since the ANE law codes (see below) only refer to the mother and not the fetus/infant, there is no reason to expect Moses to refer to anyone
other than the mother (e.g., Fuller, "Exodus 22:22-23" 183).
41 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics 72-73, 299-301.
42 Robin Wakely, hvk,in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and
44 Sprinkle, "Interpretation of Exodus" 237-43.
45 Ibid., 243.
The Abortion Dilemma 185
is present, this law demands no distinction in the quality or kind of punishment.
Medical Feasibility. A number of proponents of the miscarriage position
contend that in the medically primitive time of the OT, it is unlikely that any
infants survived a premature birth under severe duress caused by blunt force
trauma.46 Although this observation has validity, it does not pose an
insurmountable obstacle to the premature birth view. By giving this law, Moses is
not implying that many infants born prematurely as the result of blunt force
trauma will live. However, he could be establishing a law that stands distinct from
the ANE law codes of his day. Not only is there severe punishment in the wake of
unintentional mortal injury to a mother or a fetus, but even forcing an early
delivery of an infant through violence, in the event that the infant lives, faces a
What about the Input/Example of Other ANE Law Codes?47
A number of Ancient Near Eastern law codes contain scenarios similar to
that found in Exodus 21. An overview of the data found in those law codes and a
brief evaluation of its impact on the issue at hand follows below. For the sake of
brevity, the law codes are presented in chart form.
The Code of Hammurabi (ANET, 175, laws 209-14).
An injury causing a gentleman's daughter to miscarry 10 shekels
An injury causing a gentleman's daughter to miscarry and die life for life
An injury causing a commoner's daughter to miscarry 5 shekels
An injury causing a commoner's daughter to miscarry and die 30 shekels
An injury causing a gentleman's slavewoman to miscarry 2 shekels
An injury causing a gentleman's slavewoman to miscarry and die 20 shekels
The Hittite Laws (ANET, 190, laws 17-18).
An injury causing a slave woman to miscarry (in the 10th month) 5 shekels
An injury causing a free woman to miscarry (in the 5`h month) 5 shekels
An injury causing a free woman to miscarry (in the I0th month) 10 shekels
The Middle Assyrian Laws (ANET, 181, 184-85, laws 21, 50-53).
An injury causing a daughter to miscarry a punitive fine, public flog-
ging, and royal service
An injury causing a free wife to miscarry life for life
An injury causing a prostitute to miscarry life for life
46 Robert N. Condon, "Exodus 21:22-25 and the Abortion Debate," BSac 146 (1989):140-431-
Sprinkle, "Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 " 249.
47 For a more complete explanation of this issue (from an accidental miscarriage view), see Fuller, "Exodus 22:22-23" 171-74.
186 The Master's Seminary Journal
An injury causing a wife to miscarry48 a punitive fine
A self-induced miscarriage life for life
Numerous scholars argue that since these and other significant ANE law
codes address the occurrence of miscarriages and not premature births in their
legislation and since the OT legal stipulations frequently are quite similar to ANE
legal statements, one can assume that Moses is dealing with miscarriage and not
premature birth. If Moses was introducing a new, unique law, he would have
avoided any misunderstanding by utilizing precise terminology to distinguish his
legislation from that of other ANE law codes.
In response, it is essential to observe that although numerous scholars
contend that the Exodus passage must be interpreted in light of the various ANE
law codes (where miscarriage appears to be in view),49 the biblical law dealing
with this issue is different in some key areas. For example, Exodus 21
Makes no distinction concerning the age of the fetus
Makes no distinction with regard to the social status of the injured woman
Introduces a different fate depending on whether or not "harm" took place
Specifies that a child (yeled) "comes out" from a pregnant mother's womb.
Most of the ANE law codes refer to a case where someone causes a woman "to
drop that of her womb" (ANET, 175 n. 137) in a very generic fashion.
In summary, the Mosaic Law demanded that the unborn child be protected
as a person and that the same penalties be assessed when the child was injured as
when an adult person was injured. In the first instance, the men guilty of hitting the woman must render monetary compensation for the trauma of premature birth
and any discomfort caused the mother. In the second place, the legal principle of
lex talionis is invoked for the men guilty of striking a mortal blow, leading to the
death of the child and/or the mother.
Key Observations on Exodus 21:22-25
Opponents of abortion should not view this passage as one of their
strongest biblical arguments against abortion (in light of the interpretive
Although these verses do not provide an absolute prohibition of abortion,
they clearly do not teach that an unborn child is less than human.
Even if verse 22 presents the accidental miscarriage of an unborn child, this
48 The phrase can be rendered "a wife with a history of miscarrying." For this interpretation of the ANET translation, "who does not rear her children," see G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The
Assyrian Laws (Oxford: Clarendon, 1935) 114-15.
49 E.g., Fuller, "Exodus 22:22-23 " 171-74; Sprinkle, "Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 " 250, et al.
The Abortion Dilemma 187
conclusion in no way legitimizes the intentional aborting of an unborn child.
Even according to the accidental miscarriage view, since a fine is levied against
the guilty parties for causing this tragedy, the death of an unborn child is
If an accidental miscarriage results in a fine levied against the guilty party, how
much more serious would be the intentional killing of an unborn child? It is
totally inappropriate to use this passage to sanction abortion, an intentional
killing of a child.
The different penalties levied, a fine in one case and lex talionis in the other
case, does not necessarily indicate anything about personhood and worth.
As a rule, Moses did not impose a mandatory death penalty in cases of
accidental killing (Exod 21:13, 20-21).
The relatively "light" sentence in verse 22 in no way indicates that the
fetus/infant is less important or less than a person. In the immediately
preceding passage (21:20-21) a slave owner who kills his slave
unintentionally escapes with no penalty at all. Does Mosaic law regard
slaves as less than human persons? Legal status rather than personhood are
in view in both instances.
This writer agrees with Youngblood who writes, "The complexities
involved in attempting to interpret verse 22 make it unwise to press it into service
in the abortion controversy, pro or con.50 McQuilkin affirms that "Such an unclear and hotly disputed passage could hardly be used to establish the status of
the unborn with unassailable biblical authority."51
WHAT ABOUT THOSE QUESTIONABLE CASES
(e.g., mother's health, rape, incest)?
Between the polar positions that suggest that abortion is always or never
permissible, a number of people wrestle with the possibility that in some cases
abortion might represent a potential consideration. The most common position
among those who are generally against abortion is that abortion can serve as an
acceptable option in the case of a pregnancy causing risk to the mother's health, or
when the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.52 Narrower still, there
are people who would limit abortions to ectopic pregnancies (see above for
explanation). The following paragraphs survey those possibilities.
The Mother's Health (Therapeutic Abortion)
At the outset, it is important to note that the present writer intentionally
limits this discussion to the mother's physical well-being. Many individuals include
50 Youngblood, Exodus 105.
51 Robertson McQuilkin, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1989) 320.
52 Most politicians who oppose abortion fall into this camp.
188 The Master's Seminary Journal
her psychological, social, and economic situation as part of the mother's health.53
D. Gareth Jones rejects abortion on demand but contends that "unresolvable
dilemmas" in which the fetus places the mother's life in great jeopardy provide an
acceptable ground for abortion.54 Most proponents of this position contend that
the actual person (the mother) is of greater intrinsic value than the potential person
(the fetus) she is carrying.55
First of all, statistically, this "dilemma" of facing the potential loss of a
mother's life is a rarity, and when it occurs, the decision is not one of choosing
whose life to take and whose life to save. Instead, it is a choice between losing
both patients or saving the mother. In the rare case where a pregnancy must be
abbreviated to protect the life of the mother, the proper procedure would be to give
the child extraordinary care with the hopes of bringing it to maturity. C. Everett
former Surgeon General of the
stated, "In my thirty-six years in pediatric surgery I have never known of one
instance where the child had to be aborted to save the mother's life."56
Pregnancies Caused by Rape/Incest
No doubt victims of these horrible crimes experience humiliation, fear, and
anger. The unborn child is a tangible reminder of the abusive act that traumatized
the woman. According to those who would allow abortions in the wake of this
abuse, it is "unfair" that a woman who has endured rape or incest should have to
carry the evidence of her tragedy through nine months of pregnancy and
subsequent childbirth. Another complicating factor is that victims of incest are
normally fairly young and are later along in their pregnancy before it is diagnosed.
Because of their relative youth, their pregnancies may be more difficult and the
childbirth more strenuous. Nevertheless, while it is "unfair" that the victim of
rape/incest goes through the demands of pregnancy and childbirth, would it not be
a greater injustice to kill the unborn child?
Pregnancies Facing Fetal Handicaps
Some examples of fetal handicaps that serve as justifiable circumstances
53 The 1973 Supreme Court case of
psychological health with her physical health as elements to be considered as part of the woman's
health (as it relates to justification for having an abortion).
54 D. Gareth Jones, Brave New People: Ethical Issues at the Commencement of Life (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) 76-77.
55 Ibid., 177; Norman L. Geisler, Ethics:
Alternatives and Issues (
Koop is apparently referring to instances of aborting a fetus that has attached itself to the mother's
womb. From the perspective of the current writer, an ectopic pregnancy provides the only clear
and legitimate occasion for a therapeutic abortion. If a physician does not remove the fetus from
the mother's fallopian tube, as a result both mother and infant will without question die.
The Abortion Dilemma 189
for abortion are anencephaly (part or all of the brain is missing), Tay-Sachs
(severe enzyme deficiency causing blindness and paralysis), spina bifida, and
Down's Syndrome. For example, D. Gareth Jones regards anencephaly as
legitimate ground for abortion but rejects Down's syndrome as a viable occasion
for abortion. He comes to this conclusion because anencephaly, where the major
brain centers are lacking, signifies that "there is no prospect of anything remotely
resembling human life."57 He contends that Down's syndrome does not rob the
fetus of the potential of having many personhood qualities.58 The debate revolving
around this "hard case" focuses on the following alternatives: Quality of life vs.
Sanctity/Value of life.
Quality of life. Fundamental to this emphasis is the idea that human life
is not possessed of any inherent worth, and thus the individual human being must
achieve a serious right to life. Though some scholars suggest objective criteria to
guide one's decisions when facing situations of this kind, for the most part the
decision-making process has little objectivity. The projected "quality" of life for
the fetus is the basis for the decision to abort or not.
Because of the untold suffering that might be experienced by the fetus as
well as the agony, pressure, and financial strain that would come upon the parents,
pro-abortionists will recommend abortion in certain instances.
Sanctity/Value of life. Those who give emphasis to life's sanctity regard
human life as distinct from all other life, possessing an inherent dignity which
renders it worthy of protection and preservation simply because it is human life.
According to Genesis 1:26-27, man is created in the image of God (Gen
1:26-27). At the very least that indicates two things. In the first place, God's image
in man renders man distinct from all other created beings on this earth. Secondly,
God's image in man renders man worthy of protection; to shed innocent blood is
reprehensible because "in the image of God He made man" (Gen 9:6). This
majesty or dignity is not acquired or achieved, nor is it affected by the individual's
personal worth to society, but God endows it. It is part and parcel of our
humanness. Throughout Scripture, God invites man to enter into a personal
relationship with Himself through His Son Jesus Christ. Since life has sanctity and
value given by God Himself, we cannot judge its quality by our mortal standards.
Although life's realities are complex at times, from the perspective of this
writer, very few situations provide an occasion to consider abortion as a legitimate
option. An ectopic/tubal pregnancy provides the only clear justification for
abortion in the life of a believer. The instances of pregnancy caused by rape or
incest or the potential of a fetus afflicted with a serious handicap place undue
attention on the
57 Jones, Brave New People 180.
58 Ibid., 181. Whether or not Tay-Sachs disease would warrant an abortion depends on the potential impact of the child on the rest of the family unit (ibid., 181-82).
190 The Master's Seminary Journal
potential quality of life for the fetus or place an improper focus on the abuse
experienced by the unwilling mother. The human "injustice" of those scenarios
must be subordinated to God's definition of justice.
Since the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, almost 40 million
pregnancies have ended in abortion. Pro-abortion proponents enthusiastically
lobby for the continued legality of abortion-on-demand. Those opposed to
abortion fall into three general camps: abortion is acceptable sometimes (risk to
life of the mother, in the wake of rape or incest), rarely (ectopic pregnancies), or
The Bible affirms the personhood of the fetus in a number of ways.
Exodus 21:22-25 (which receives the bulk of this article's attention) should not be
used as a compelling "proof-text" for either the pro- or anti-abortion camps One
can draw certain important conclusions from this important passage. An unborn
child is not less than human. Even if Exodus 21:22 depicts an accidental miscar-
riage (for which only a fine is levied), this conclusion in no way legitimizes the
intentional aborting of an unborn child.
After "The Abortion Dilemma" had gone through the editorial process for
this issue of The Master's Seminary Journal, the FDA announced their approval of
the early abortion pill known as RU-486. Instead of implementing the potential
restrictions mentioned above in this article (176), the FDA has granted almost
unlimited approval. Any physician will be able to prescribe the drug if he/she has
a backup who can provide surgical intervention in cases of complications.
Consequently, this drug will find its way into family-practice clinics as well as
into abortion clinics.
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