By Charles L. Rulon
Today, tens of millions of American Christians are pro-choice. For the last several decades, dozens of different Christian and Jewish groups have supported excellent contraception, emergency contraceptive pills and a woman’s right to choose. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) represents over 40 different denominations and faith groups in this country. They argue that since major religious sects in the U.S. strongly disagree among themselves on the abortion issue, this issue obviously cannot be a “struggle between the God-fearing and the Godless”, as often portrayed by the anti-choice activists. RCRC surveys have found that widespread support exists among Christian and Jewish organizations for reproductive choice, including safe, early abortions.[i]
There is also a Catholic organization, Catholics For Free Choice. They emphasize that Catholics who are convinced that their conscience is correct, must follow their conscience rather than the dictates of the Church.[ii] In both France and Italy, countries which are 80-90% Catholic, abortion is legal and paid for by the state during the first trimester. Most European Catholics do not believe that an embryo or young fetus has the same sacred value or inalienable right to life as does a newborn.
For pro-Christians, the Christian God is pro-choice. They refer to a number of relevant biblical passages to support their position. And since the Bible is vague about the time of ensoulment, some believe that souls can only thrive in wanted pregnancies, others that the soul can only enter fetuses after the brain and body have become sufficiently developed to receive a soul. For still others, it’s when breathing becomes potentially possible.
These pro-choice Christians believe that women are morally equal to men and capable of making their own tough ethical decisions regarding abortion. They believe that God would not want us to try to force the eighty million women on our planet who have unplanned pregnancies each year to stay pregnant against their will. By supporting choice they believe they’re doing God’s work by helping to end massive debilitating infections and excruciating deaths from illegal abortions for millions of desperate women. To quote Reverend Ann Fowler, Episcopal priest, “To talk theologically about women’s rights to choose is to talk about justice, equality, health and wholeness, and respect for the full humanity and autonomy of every woman.”
Bible passages used to support abortion choice
Just as anti-choice Christians have interpreted selected biblical passages to support their position, so have pro-choice supporters found passages to support their position. Here are a few:
a. Given the hundreds of laws, moral edicts and commandments in the Bible, mostly telling followers what they cannot do, the fact that the Bible (including all the pronouncements by both Jesus and the Apostle Paul) is completely silent regarding both elective abortions and the time of ensoulment speaks volumes.
b. Exodus 21:22 refers to an involuntary miscarriage as a result of a woman being caught in the middle of a fight. Of significance here is that the woman’s life is held to be much more valuable than that of the aborted fetus.
c. In Numbers 5: 11-31, God tells Moses (according to one interpretation) to have a priest mix a potion that might produce an abortion if a man’s wife has become pregnant by another man.
d. The Bible is clear that a person does not begin at conception, but with breathing. In Genesis 2:7, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (in some translations, “a living soul.”) The Hebrew word for a human being or living soul is nephesh, the word for “breath”. “Nephesh” occurs over 700 times in the Bible as the identifying factor in human life. Thus, if the fetus is not breathing (or if its lungs have not yet formed, making breathing impossible – before the 24th week) it is not yet a person in God’s eyes.
e. In Genesis 38 Judah mistakes Tamar as a prostitute and orders her to be burned to death despite the fact that she is pregnant. Yet, if her twin fetuses had been considered persons, the law would have delayed her execution until the twins were born.
f. The Incarnation, or the “Word made Flesh” (John 1:14) was celebrated at Jesus’ birth, not at the speculative time of Mary’s conception. This biblical tradition is followed today, since we count age from the date of birth rather than from conception. The state issues no conception certificates, only birth certificates. It issues no death certificates for fertilized eggs that do not implant or for miscarriages.
g. In Numbers 3:15, only male babies older than one month were to be counted as persons.
h. Jesus said of Judas: “It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24). In effect, Jesus is saying that it would have been better if Judas’ mother had had a miscarriage or an abortion. And by extension, couldn’t one argue that all mothers whose children will likely grow up to denounce Jesus should have abortions?
i. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that “To every thing there is a season… a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which has been planted…” Is this just referring to agricultural advice, or does it, instead, refer to abortion. The Japanese refer to abortions as “thinning seedlings.” Both the Japanese and the ancient Hebrews were close to the soil; it was natural for them to discuss human affairs in agricultural terms. The good farmer plucks up those seedlings that have been planted too close to others. Likewise, the good wife and mother aborts those “seedlings” that come too close together in time to permit good mothering or survival of all.
Thou shalt not murder
Christians who oppose choice respond by quoting the 6th Commandment, “Thou shalt not murder (Exodus 20). But by so doing they conveniently ignore all those God-sanctioned killings that were “exceptions” to this Commandment—killings that would be considered barbaric in modern humane societies. For example, the Old Testament god instructs his followers to kill those who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15; 35:2), to kill children who curse their parents (Exodus 21:17; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18-21) and to stone to death brides found not to be virgins on their wedding night (Deut. 22:13-21). A husband even had this god’s authority to kill his wife and children if they pressured him to change his religion (Deut. 13:6-10).
Virgin girls also could be righteously offered to angry mobs to protect male guests from harm. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:6-8), Lot refuses to turn over his two male guests (angels in disguise) to the angry mob and, instead, offers his two virgin daughters. Yet the two angels still viewed Lot as a good man and his family the only family worth saving in the entire town. A similar story occurred in Judges 19. The woman was offered to the mob to protect a male guest. She was raped all night, dying a horrible death! But again, there was no mention of outrage or even moral disapproval at her having been turned over to the mob in the first place.
This tribal god also had no intention of protecting the elderly, the crippled, the women and the children in enemy villages. They were all slaughtered with no mercy as he ordered (Deut. 2:34, 3:3-7, 7:1-6, 20:16-18). In the Book of Joshua, his followers killed tens of thousands; they “utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded (Joshua 6:21-24; 10:40).” After the second city fell (with Joshua and his men killing 12,000 men, women and children), Joshua wrote upon stones a copy of the Ten Commandments, including “Thou shalt not kill” (Joshua 8:24-25, 30-32). The slaughter continued in the books of Judges and Kings with “utterly monstrous bloodbaths”. Over 400 cities were demolished by the Israelites. The campaign lasted some 170 years.
Of course, when those powerful male leaders opposed to abortion righteously quote the 6th Commandment they conveniently ignore all of these “God-given exceptions”. They also ignore the fact that nowhere in the Bible does it say that God cares about fetuses at all. He certainly didn’t seem to place much value on them (or babies) when he drowned them all (Genesis 6-7). And when the Samarians rebelled against this god, he had their pregnant women “ripped open” and their “little ones dashed to the ground” (Hosea 13:16). Nor did the biblical god seem to care about the innocent fetuses in enemy villages since, as just mentioned, he ordered all the pregnant women to be slaughtered.
Charles L. Rulon is an emeritus professor of Life and Health Sciences at Long Beach City College, California.