Abortion, the Bible, and Us: Beginnings

I wrote a piece of satire that was published today, and I felt it was worth writing some serious thoughts on it as well. Abortion is an issue of critical importance to a lot of people I know and care about, and it’s not a topic I take lightly. My beliefs and positions have changed substantially over years of thought, reading, and discussion, and I’m going to start sharing that process and where I’ve ended up.

Though the McSweeney’s piece is satire, I stand behind the serious point that it makes. Essentially, I find that Christian pro-life arguments often assume three things that cannot all be true at the same time.

1. God is a good communicator

2. God inspired the Bible to communicate (among other things) deep and enduring ethical concerns

3. God cares deeply about abortion and opposes it entirely

In other words, if God is a good communicator who wanted to convey the sanctity of fetal life and the absolute impermissibility of abortion, then God would have had to create a text quite different from the Bible.

On the flip side, if God wrote (or inspired) the Bible as we have it to express (again, among other things) prohibition of abortion, then God is not a very good communicator. So the silly thought that inspired this piece was “how would a God who wrote this Bible to express opposition to abortion justify those writing decisions?”

This disconnection between anti-abortion ethics and the text of the Bible may come as a surprise; it was certainly a surprise to my students this year. Anti-abortion organizations claim that the Bible is crystal clear on the topic of abortion so often and so forcefully that it is generally believed to be true. That is certainly the understanding I grew up with and operated under before I became a Bible scholar and looked into it systematically.

After the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade leaked this Spring, the students in my  “Bible, Politics, and the Internet” course insisted that I expand our one class session on abortion into a week. I’m glad I did, because we all got a lot out of the experience.

For the first session, I gathered every biblical text that I could find quoted or cited on either side of the abortion debate. There were quite a few but not an absurd number, so I asked them to read through them all before class. I had also assigned articles on contraception and abortion in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so they knew that both were known and commonly practiced throughout the societies from which the Bible emerged.

In class, the students broke up into small groups and answered two questions: which of these texts pertain to abortion directly? Which of them pertain to other ethical issues that influence the debate over abortion?

In the general discussion that followed, most students agreed that none of the verses or passages we read had anything at all to do with abortion. Some were indirectly relevant (the accidental miscarriage laws in Exodus 21:22–25, for example), but most were either shoehorned into the debate in a wholly inappropriate way (creation verses in Genesis 1:26–28 and 2:7) or were only relevant if you had already made your mind up that abortion was murder in advance (Exodus 20:13, Proverbs 24:11 and 31:8).

Their reaction echoes the position of many biblical scholars, such as John J. Collins. I take a slightly different stance, since I understand the ritual in Numbers 5:11–31 to describe the induction of an abortion for failing a divinely abetted paternity test. However, even if this one text literally prescribes an abortion, it does so in a way that helps neither side of the contemporary debate (as Rhiannon Graybill has helpfully explained. 

My students, to a person, were shocked. All of them had assumed it was in there somewhere—a clear and unambiguous prohibition of abortion. How could it not be, when abortion took up so much space in political discourse, especially among Bible-believing communities?

The fact is, the clarity of the Bible on abortion is largely an invention. More sophisticated anti-abortion advocates know this and so focus on natural law and Christian tradition over biblical precedent, but the broad assumption that the Bible prohibits abortion continues to be widespread and common.

So, what does it mean that the Bible does not present a clear position on abortion? What does it mean that the Bible does not seem to care about abortion enough to mention it almost at all, especially considering the prevalence of contraceptive and abortifacient practices throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean? It’s a complicated question, since no religion has ever derived all of its doctrine and ritual from the Bible, and all types of Christianity have added, adapted, and sidelined biblical texts liberally for all manner of culturally and historically contingent reasons. It’s complicated further still by the Bible’s nature as a composite anthology with numerous different (and often disagreeing voices) represented within its pages. It is not a single text, with a single meaning and a single way of reading it. Rather, I see biblical texts as a generative base from which all manner of interpretations grow. It is certainly possible (as simple observation makes abundantly clear) to hold the Bible sacred and arrive at a pro-life, anti-abortion ethic, It is also possible to hold the Bible sacred and hold fast also to choice and reproductive justice. Neither derives necessarily from any Bible and no Bible alone can definitively adjudicate between the two for us.

As a historical Bible scholar, though, I also try to work out how these texts emerged and fit into the world in which they were written and spread. So in posts that follow this one, I’m going to discuss the place of abortion in antiquity, how the Bible’s various texts fit into it, the relevance of Bibles and biblical texts to the current debate over abortion policy, as well as my own thoughts and positions as they have developed over the past few decades. Maybe take it with a grain of salt since I’m not capable of getting pregnant, but I hope you’ll stick around and join in the conversation!

4 thoughts on “Abortion, the Bible, and Us: Beginnings

  1. That sounds like an absolutely fascinating class! I enjoyed and learned from reading this and look forward to your next posts!

  2. Excellent satire, and excellent serious discussion. On the final point about the Bible not being a single text with a single meaning, I found two recent books to be insightful and useful, both written by scholars who are clearly in love with biblical literature but who cannot abide the abuse it receives at the hands of fundamentalists and inerrantists: Timothy Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (HarperOne, 2012) and Kristin Swenson, A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford Univ. Press, 2021). Finally, I do not see how biblical inerrantists can escape commitment to the following three propositions, any two of which imply the falsity of the third (a neat exercise for those in elementary logic): (1) The autographs of the biblical Scriptures are inerrant; (2) No translation of the autographs of biblical Scriptures are inerrant; (3) Some autographs are (or were ) translations of autographs (as in the citations of the Old Testament in the New Testament that were lifted from the Septuagint). I take the first two propositions from the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy; the third statement is a well-known fact about the New Testament.

    1. Thanks and agreed. I haven’t read Swenson’s book yet, but I like Beal’s a great deal and actually assigned a section of it in the class I mentioned in the post. If you’re interested in some deeper academic dives, I recommend John Barton, A History of the Brennan Breed, Nomadic Texts, and Eva Mroczek, The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity.

      1. These recommendations for deeper academic dives are much appreciated. I fear that for too many, including some academics, the belief in a single “Bible icon” with a single inerrant message is close to a nonnegotiable belief. It’s a shell game where the pea keeps moving as new and ingenious rationalizations are used to explain away what seems to many of us to be the obvious plurality of views on . . . you name it . . . God, morality, the universe, human destiny. But I’m not prepared to leave the argument, especially if folks can remain civil. I’ve not seen a convincing answer to the argument I give against biblical inerrancy, but perhaps I’ve missed something.

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