Everything the Bible *actually* says about abortion
Right-wingers who claim the Bible's on their side should have to work for it.
People change. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes slowly. But people change. Want evidence?
I grew up deep within Evangelical indoctrination. Around age six, I chanted in “pro-life” marches. Many inherited beliefs fell away with relative ease, but even after leaving the church at 19, abortion propaganda remained lodged in my brain. By 24, I was a “pro-life” agnostic, still straining to comprehend how eliminating a pre-baby could be ok.
Now I support anyone’s right to an abortion, period. I wrote this because I bet another kid’s out there questioning their assigned opinions, wondering whether so-called divine mandates are just recent power-grab inventions. They’re wondering this because people change.
Here’s every Bible verse regularly cited by anti-abortion activists, plus other stuff. Mostly from the NRSV, academia’s most common translation. We’ve also recorded a podcast episode about these notes, on our Patreon feed.
Genesis 1:27: “God created humankind in his image.”
The Bible often says people are special creations. Wonderful! It doesn’t say everyone must consider fetuses fully human.
Note this verse’s context. “Humankind” governs nature, reproduces, and eats plants, things fetuses don’t do.
Genesis 2:7: “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
Humanity’s origin begins with breath. That happens after birth, though fetuses begin doing somewhat breathing-like things months after conception. The Bible frequently equates life with breathing (Job 33:4: “The breath of the Almighty gives me life”), not brain waves.
Instead of “breath,” many people think of bodies being animated by “souls.” The Bible never says fetuses gain either. Jews mostly believe ensoulment happens at birth or even later. Some Jews consider the question irrelevant.
Still, Christians have argued for centuries about when Aristotle’s discoveries called “souls” reach the womb. Augustine and Aquinas believed abortion wasn’t murder until 40 (or 80) days after conception.1
Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”
Many verses forbid the murder of living beings. “Thou shalt not kill,” etc. Seven chapters earlier, Adam only became a living being once he breathed.
Exodus 21:22-25: “When people […] injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined […]. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life.”
Killing a fetus results in a monetary fine.
Killing a pregnant person results in execution.2
“The Hebrew text at verse 22 literally reads ‘and there is no harm,’” writes Rabbi Drorah O’Donnell Setel, “implying that contrary to current sensibilities, the miscarriage itself was not considered serious injury.”
“The fact that capital punishment is not stipulated suggests that the fetus lost in the incident was not considered a vital human,” writes scholar Carol Meyers.
Torah authors considered a fetus similar to livestock. Leviticus 24:21: “One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.”
“When a woman has difficulty in giving birth, one may dismember the child in her womb, either with drugs or by surgery, because it is like a pursuer seeking to kill her. Once its head has emerged, it may not be touched.”
Later rabbis concluded “difficulty” includes “emotional pain.” Most Jews, even political conservatives, believe abortion should be legal.
Still, globally and in America, more Catholics are pro-choice than not. That might also go for American Orthodox Christians. Most Black Protestants and mainline Protestants are pro-choice. And until white Evangelicalism emerged to oppose desegregation, even Southern Baptists were pro-choice.
As for the third major religion that considers the Bible divinely inspired:
Back to the Bible! It frequently forbids child sacrifice to Canaanite gods.
Despite conflation attempts, these child-sacrifice descriptions don’t refer to fetuses. Examples:
Genesis’ binding of Isaac demonstrated child sacrifice was forbidden in Israel. Isaac wasn’t a fetus.
In Kings, a villainous Moabite sacrificed his non-fetus son.
In Judges, some idiot sacrificed his non-fetus daughter.
In Chronicles, living children are sacrificed in fire. That is not how abortions work.
Ancient Canaanites might’ve sacrificed six-year-olds. The nearby (usually) Phoenicians might’ve sacrificed children “a few weeks old.” The Bible authors’ frame of reference for child sacrifice had little/nothing to do with abortion.
Leviticus 17:14: “The life of every creature is its blood.”
This passage is about not eating bloody meat. Genesis establishes living creatures are things that have breathed.
Leviticus 27:3-7 lists monetary values for the lifelong labor potential of various age and gender groups.
“No value whatsoever was given to a child under the age of one month,” writes Rabbi Setel. “There is no indication that a fetus had any status.”
Numbers 5:24-27: “[The priest] shall make the [allegedly adulterous] woman drink. […] If she has […] been unfaithful to her husband, […] her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop.”
Is this forced miscarriage? Is the woman rendered infertile? Translations vary. Ignoring the surreal witch-trial vibes, here are three truths:
The authors considered some pregnancies illegitimate.
No “pro-life” Israelites bomb this priest’s clinic or ban this procedure in red states.
Neither the author, priest, woman, paranoid husband, alleged paramour, Moses, nor God is recorded worrying about a fetus.
Deuteronomy 28:53: “[God will punish you so hard], you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters.”
“ThE bIbLe Is UnEqUiVoCaLlY pRo-LiFe.”
Deuteronomy 30:19: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
The most LIVELAUGHLOVE’d anti-abortion verse …
… isn’t about abortion.
Deuteronomy’s 2.0 version of Moses had just listed “curses” that’d happen if the Israelites broke Deuteronomy’s monotheism contract. So in chapter 30, he listed potential “blessings” for Israel.
Since Deuteronomy says nada about abortion, 30:19’s usage by “pro-lifers” is hollow branding.
In context, 30:19 enforces rules like this: “When you reap your harvest and forget a sheaf, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the immigrant.” Wealth redistribution! Choose life!
In Kings, evil armies “rip open pregnant women.” Prophets Amos and Hosea also reference this.
Sounds like men controlling whether women remain pregnant.
Isaiah 44:2: “Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb …”
Isaiah 49:1: “While I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”
“You” explicitly refers to the kingdom of Israel, not fetuses. The prophet addresses these chapters to “[God’s] servant, Israel,” plus its synonyms “Jacob” and “Jeshurun.”
Back in Genesis 25, God told Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb,” referring to twins who’d be named Esau and Jacob/Israel. Poetically, Isaiah and Genesis treated Jacob/Israel’s development as a nation’s beginning.
Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
This instance of the womb-form phrase refers to Jeremiah himself, not a nation. But if the entire Bible reveals God’s airtight agenda, how can Jeremiah’s God give destinies to a fetus while Exodus’ God considers fetuses basically livestock, Numbers’ God condones forced miscarriage, and Genesis’ God begins life with breath?
This verse’s context is Jeremiah’s youthful insecurity. So God’s words refer to Jeremiah’s age. You’re not too young! You’ve been a prophet-in-waiting since you were negative years old!
Ancient rabbi Rashi taught this verse is about prophetic lineage. Jeremiah was destined to be his generation’s Moses, the next link in a chain of special people. Was only Jeremiah set aside as a special fetus, while the rest of us were lumps waiting to breathe?
Jeremiah 20:14-17: “Cursed be the day on which I was born! […] Cursed be the man who […] did not kill me in the womb.”
The guy who wrote the most popular “anti-abortion” verse also wished he’d been aborted, #ChooseLife. This might be the best example of the Bible refusing to unilaterally endorse anyone’s politics.
Psalm 8:4-5: “What are humans that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
Right-wingers argue any verse about God loving people also means God thinks fetuses are fully people. But this psalm’s only reference to youngsters is: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark.” Do fetuses found bulwarks?
Psalm 22:9-10: “It was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.”
Psalm 71:6: “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.”
The interaction between God and these psalmists began at birth, not conception.
Psalm 51:5: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
“Sinfulness is a spiritual quality, so David must have had a spirit, a soul, from conception,” argues Catholic Answers.
Poems aren’t necessarily literal. Another psalm says, “I am a worm.” It wasn’t written by a worm.
This psalm dramatizes David’s shame with imagery like: “Wash me whiter than snow.” Was David literally complaining about his ruddy complexion? No? Then why assume his birth imagery literally referred to reproductive science?5
Psalm 127:3-4: “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.”
“Fruit” refers to the womb’s product, not its work-in-progress. Eight of these translations, plus Robert Alter’s, note these boys/kids were born during this metaphorical warrior’s youth, not just conceived. This psalm’s about a resilient dynasty, not reproductive science.
Psalm 137:9: “Happy shall they be who take your children and dash them against the rock!”
If we play the conservative ignore-context game, 137:9 sucks! (Context: Thirst for revenge against Babylon. This verse proves the Bible isn’t a list of universal commandments.)
Psalm 139:13: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
Anti-choicers think this verse conclusively describes God giving personhood to fetuses. But look at the rest.
“My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”
I was made in a womb and also in dirt? If this psalm describes my birth and Adam’s, does it refer to humanity, rather than individuals? Does this, as scholar Lawrence Toombs wrote, reference the Egyptian god who formed people from clay before they entered wombs? Evangelicals and Catholics, why are you citing polytheist stuff?
From the same passage:
“If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. […] Even the darkness is not dark to you.”
Psalm 139 isn’t about God guaranteeing citizenship rights before birth! It’s about cosmic awe, using the ancient imagination’s limits to describe God ruling time beyond the author’s birth/death, heights beyond the observable universe, depths beyond the grave, and sights beyond darkness!
If 139’s verse about “my mother’s womb” means fetuses are legal citizens, 139’s verse about God communing with Sheol’s dead bodies means all of earth’s corpses are also legal citizens. Dig ‘em up! Choose life!
Proverbs 6:16-19: “[Seven things are abominations]: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord.”
The Bible’s loaded with examples of God not #ChoosingLife as innocent adults and children die. God sheds the innocent blood of Egyptian children, plus tons of innocents in Genesis and Revelation. The Bible argues with itself!
“A lying tongue” is someone claiming the Bible is unequivocally anti-abortion.
“One who sows discord” is a man harassing women for their choices about their own bodies.
“Haughty eyes” judge people for how they got pregnant.
“A lying witness” is a politician denying abortion math while speaking before Congress.
“Feet that hurry to evil” and “hearts that devise wicked plans” are lawmakers competing to file aggressive anti-choice bills, with no regard for marginalized people forced to keep dangerous pregnancies minus social safety nets.
Job 3:16: “Why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light?”
Job’s use of “infant” (or “baby” or “newborn”) matches how we usually refer to stillbirths. Having left the womb, the stillborn baby’s no longer a fetus.
Job 31:15: “Did not he who made me in the womb make them?”
In context, Job’s asking, Didn’t God create all of us, regardless of whether people freed or enslaved us? And before citing Job 31, conservatives should read it:
“If I have withheld anything that the poor desired or […] eaten my morsel alone and the orphan has not eaten from it [...], if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing or a poor person without covering [...], then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder. […]
“If I have rejoiced because my wealth was great [...], this also would be an iniquity. [...]
“If my land has cried out against me [...], if I have eaten its yield without payment and caused the death of its owners, let thorns grow instead of wheat.”
Let rich people’s arms fall off! Choose life! Just as with Leviticus (which consistently calls for work stoppages, welfare, reparations, and environmentalism), when conservatives pluck one verse, they won’t like its context.
Ecclesiastes 11:5: “Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God.”
That’s the NLT’s version, since the NRSV’s is one of the few that combines the wind mystery and the baby mystery. But even in those versions, humans can’t understand these mysteries. I don’t like laws that try to govern unknowable things.
Matthew 18:14: “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
Jesus was warning against leading children into sinning. The disciples had asked him who’ll be the Kingdom’s greatest, and he’d said greatness means becoming humble “like this little child.”
It’s easy to imagine Jesus pointing at “this child” standing beside him. It’s hard to imagine him pointing at a pregnant belly and praising its contents for actively exuding humility.
Many translations render “be lost” as “perish.” None render “little ones” as “fetuses.”6
Matthew 24:19: “Woe to those who are pregnant!”
Jesus was describing everyone running for the hills during the end of days. Note he didn’t express bonus empathy for fetuses inside those who are pregnant.
Luke 1:41: “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.”
Someone who wants to give birth often describes their body as nurturing a baby. Adorable! That doesn’t mean someone who declines to stay pregnant must use identical terms.
But if we’re basing laws on Luke’s first chapter, hand the mic to Jesus’ mom:
“[God] has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Rob billionaires! Choose life!
Luke 17:2: “It would be better for you if […] you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
In context, “stumble” means “cause to sin.” Abortion doesn’t cause a fetus to sin.
Galatians 1:15-16: “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me.”
In the previous verse, Paul called himself “advanced in Judaism.” Also in this chapter, he wrote, “The gospel proclaimed by me is not of human origin,” arguing he’d personally received divine wisdom.
With this “set apart” claim, was this Judaism scholar using Isaiah’s Jacob imagery and declaring himself part of Jeremiah’s prophetic chain?
Or was Paul pausing urgent revelations to randomly ponder fetal gestation?
James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans.”
Anti-abortion people cite verses about protecting the weak, because fetuses are weak.
Great! Evangelicals should read James! According to him, declaring belief in Jesus doesn’t do any real-world good, so start physically defending the marginalized! Choose life! If you wanna argue biblical authors meant “fetuses” when they wrote “orphans,” you need evidence.
Revelation 21:4: “Death will be no more.”
The Bible often notes death is, uh, bad. Some commentators imply the Bible’s authors intended those usages of the word “death” to include abortion. If true, the authors would’ve mentioned abortion in any of the 30,000+ verses before this one.
Anti-choice Catholics dismiss Augustine/Aquinas on abortion because of “the defective science” of those eras. Yet anti-choice Catholics cite the science of psalms written 2,000 years before Aquinas.
For millennia, rabbis argued against capital punishment. Execution laws have rarely, if ever, been applied. “Eye for an eye” refers to monetary restitution, not gouging eyeballs.
Anyone pushing anti-abortion laws is siding with the Bible’s villainous Assyrians, not Jesus or Moses.
This doesn’t establish original sin as definitely biblical. If it tried, it’d be countered by Ezekiel 18:20: “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent.”
Given Jesus’ studies, he was aware of those Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers verses, perhaps plus Jewish arguments that personhood begins at birth.