God’s first commandment to humankind is “Be fruitful and multiply.” Right away it is taught that this particular creation-humans-were unlike the rest of God’s creation, these humans were made in the image of their Creator. From the very beginning of this faith children were considered a gift and blessing from the Creator. In Genesis 17, God tells Abraham he will bless Sarah with a son.” This belief was so strong that if a woman was unable to bear a man a child it was seen as a curse. In essence if God’s command was for humans to go and make more humans, he had cursed those who were incapable of this creating. (However the blame always fell on the woman.) In Leviticus being barren is even a punishment for infidelity. (Lev. 20:21-22) This is found in Genesis when Abraham lies about his wife Sarah and Abimilek has “taken her” to be his. Because of Abraham’s lie, Abimilek’s wife and female slaves are temporarily made barren until Sarah is returned to Abraham. (Gen. 20-17-18). God was in control of fertility.
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
The Old Testament scriptures speak time and time again of the blessings of bearing children. (Especially male children.)
So when we discuss a process where this blessing is stopped from coming into fruition, well then obviously the believers of these teachings will make painstaking efforts to save this process from being meddled with.
But this is where things get fuzzy in a biblical argument.
The Bible never directly addresses abortion as we know it. However the rabbinical law commentaries that can be found in the Talmud base a legal argument of abortion around a passage found in Exodus (21:22-25) where we find a dialogue about an accidental abortion.
“When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other misfortune ensues, the one responsible shall be fined as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on judges’ reckoning. But if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”
The scripture implies that if an unborn child is terminated the compensation is to be money. But if a woman is killed or injured severely, the penalty is to be equal to the crime.
“Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death.”-Exodus 21:12
The argument that is expounded from this passage is this: If the punishment of killing the unborn is not the same as the punishment for killing someone who is born, than the unborn is not considered a person.
Medieval Rabbis (look up Maimonides and Karo) argued that these scriptures proved that legally an unborn fetus was not a person. According to the Old Testament law they discerned that legally no murder has taken place if the unborn was accidentally terminated in this ruffle.
In further Jewish legal documents (oral traditions of law) the Mishnah Ohalot (which basically deals with taking care of the dead) 7:6 also teaches: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth [and her life is in danger], one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another,” which is understood to mean that a woman whose life is endangered by a pregnancy is permitted to end the pregnancy.
Let’s take a moment and acknowledge the Old Testament obviously is written before the advent of modern sciences that help us understand the full process of bringing a child to full term (and we will discuss this further in part 2). Many of the scriptures surrounding a fetus before birth or barren women were written long before we put a tiny camera in the human body or could show that men too contributed to infertility (Which research seemingly began in the late 1800’s but don’t quote me on it).
The point found in numerous Old Testament scriptures and Midrash is that life does not begin until the child has begun to exit the womb.
That roughly life begins when a child takes it’s first breath. As argued in Genesis 2:
7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Man did not become a life until the divine breath was breathed. And likewise man does not die until he takes his last breath and returns to the dust of the earth.
“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.”
If one’s interpretation of the bible begins with the human rather than the divine perhaps we can look away from verses like the lament in Ecclesiastes 6 which reads :
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. 5 Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man— 6 even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?
Or in other words it’s better for a child to never be born than to live an unhappy life. Because do not all go to the same place?
The basic argument is that like the creation of Adam, The LORD has formed and weaved each child in the mothers womb. Yet life has not come to a child until this child has entered the world and breathed their first breath of the divine life. Theology and law is greatly placed around the words “the breath of life.”
Now many Christians may not much care about anything the Jews decided about the scriptures (even though they wrote them). So when shifting towards the New Testament ideas of the divine and human (still written by Jews) we can find if this understanding developed or aligned more with the modern Christian understanding of life before birth. Did Jesus change anything here? Obviously Jesus calls us to non-violence in ways that seem to transcend the former ways. We turn the other cheek. We love our enemies and do to them as we would have done to ourselves. Jesus came that we may have life.
So how do we handle this question under the image of Christ? With Christian language there’s a little bit more on the line.
Especially when we entertain ideas about what is and isn’t murder. Heaven and Hell. Salvation. The meaning of our existence. What happens when children don’t make it to full term? These are all theological questions that (like the Jewish Midrash) require great interpretation and commentary of our Christian scriptures. Commentary that evolves and develops as we come to know more and more about creation and our selves and therefore the divine. (this will be discussed in greater length in the fourth part of this series.)
Let’s pull out a few verses.
You have the chosenness of both Mary’s womb and Elizabeth’s womb in giving birth to Jesus and John and each of their miraculous births. However a critic may argue that these two lives were unique in their chosenness as they were born to change the world and set about the reconciliation of all things.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” -Luke 1:41
This has been used to imply that the Bible acknowledges that babies have a sense of consciousness even in the womb. (The baby was aware of Mary’s greeting.)
“The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”-Matthew 26:24
Jesus here plays to ideas similar to Ecclesiastes 6 that for some individuals it is better to not be born than to live their lives of sadness or evil.
Some of the New Testament letters bring these ideas further when they write: If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. -2 Peter
It’s an argument that implies when it comes to salvation -the way of righteousness-, people are better off not knowing the truth than turning from it or rejecting it. Which leads to ideas like, well what about children who die before ever hearing the truth? Is that a good thing? Because all men will have to give an account of their lives to the Lord. But at what age could a person give an appropriate account of their lives and be held responsible for their sins? (Isaiah 7:15,16) Which led to ideas like the tradition known as the age of accountability where up until a certain age of “ability to know right from wrong”, we are fine. Which led to people baptizing infants so that they were marked as saved to their Creator should something disastrous happen prior to the age where the child had an awareness to baptize themselves. A sort of insurance.
I’ve heard more than one strong believer of “original sin.” who suffered the trial of a miscarriage say that they can’t wait to meet their unborn child in heaven.
Which if these things were true, if children get out guilt free before reaching such an age and get to go and be with God in heaven as many people believe,
Wouldn’t abortion be the best thing you could do to a child?
Isn’t heaven the goal? Why not fast-track it?
We believe that we are born for a reason. In fact many declare that God’s sovereignty means that everything happens according to his reasons. Even miscarriages.
If a life is stopped or a miscarriage happens has that reason been redacted? Or does the life begin with that first breath? And from there-forth we are called to love and protect this life at all cost? Is the chance of having life something to be protected at all costs? Even the fetus that may not be considered a life yet?
The early church actually had much to say about abortion:
Many of the early Christian scholars (similar to those who crafted the Jewish law) developed stances on the protecting of the fetus:
“Some women take medicines to destroy the germ of future life in their own bodies. They commit infanticide before they have given birth to the infant“–Minicius Felix
“we are not permitted, since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy …the fetus in the womb. It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth.“- Tertullian
One early non-canonical christian letter (written somewhere round 70-130 A.D.) “The Epistle of Barnabas” reads: “You shall not kill either the fetus by abortion or the new born“.
St. Augustine (354-430 CE) reversed centuries of Christian teaching in Western Europe, by returning to the Aristotelian Pagan concept of “delayed ensoulment.” He wrote on the Exodus passage that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body. Thus, early in pregnancy, an abortion is not murder because no soul is destroyed.Augstine wrote that original sin was passed on to a fetus through the intercourse of the parents. Only abortion of a more fully developed “fetus animatus” (animated fetus) was punished as murder.
Various Saints would debate where in the process of formation it was “unlawful” or “punishable” to terminate, not so much the life, but the soul. The argument was never when did life begin, but when did ones soul take hold.
For the first 1,500 years the church had no firm stance on abortion. Most stances around the end of those 1,500 years settled that an abortion of an “animated fetus” was murder but other abortions were permissable.
It wasn’t until the late 17th century roughly 300-400 years ago that the church put strength in the idea that life begins at conception.
In sum, for an issue that many people are very passionate about, the views held by many people of faith today, aren’t exactly ones that were determined by the scriptures. Rather traditions and debates and new information formed a more substantial care for the fetus sometime around the the Age of Enlightenment.
What ultimately happened over this long span of history is SCIENCE in a weird turn of events, actually informed Christians in a way that transcended biblical understandings of when life began. So in our next part, let’s talk about Science.