By: Francis J. Beckwith

Many Christian pro-life activists rightly assume that the Bible condemns abortion, but they don’t know which verses support their view. Therefore, they rarely challenge the Christians who defend abortion by appealing to the Scriptures.

Pro-abortion Christians argue that the Bible does not specifically condemn abortion, but actually supports the pro-choice position.

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Ph.D., professor of English Literature at Paterson State College in New Jersey, is an “evangelical feminist,” lesbian activist, lecturer and author. She claims that “nowhere does the Bible prohibit abortion.” This claim is simply untrue when one recognizes that the Bible’s statements on other matters infer a pro-life position.

It is clearly taught in the Bible that murder–the unjustified killing of a human being–is wrong (Exodus 20:13). The Bible also clearly teaches the full humanity of the pre-born. In view of these biblical teachings, it is morally wrong to kill the pre-born. The question, then, is whether the Bible teaches that the pre-born are fully human, not whether the Bible mentions or directly prohibits abortion.

A number of passages in the Bible apply personal language to the pre-born from conception. Genesis 4:1 reads, “Now the man had relations with his wife, Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain.” Commenting on this passage, John Jefferson Davis, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Seminary near Boston, has observed that “the writer’s interest in Cain extends back beyond his birth, to his conception. That is when his personal history begins. The individual conceived and the individual born are one and the same, namely, Cain.” Therefore, Cain’s “conception, birth, and post-natal life form a natural continuum, with the God of the covenant involved at every stage.”

Job said, “Let the day perish on which I was to be born, and the night which said, ‘A boy is conceived'” (Job 3:3). This passage connects the individual born with the individual conceived. “Job traces his personal history back beyond his birth to the night of conception. The process of conception is described by the biblical writer in personal terms. There is no abstract language of the ‘product of conception,’ but the concrete language of humanity.” It is interesting that the, Hebrew word is translated as “boy” and specifically applied to the pre-born, although it is usually used to describe postnatal humans and is usually translated “male,” “man,” or “husband” (see Psalms 34:8; 52:7; 94:12; Proverbs 6:34).

Psalm 51:5, states, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” This verse too indicates that humanity begins with conception.

The Bible refers to the pre-born in the same way it refers to infants and young children. In Luke 1:41 and 44, the word “baby” is applied to the pre-born: “And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit . . . ‘For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.”‘ Compare this with Luke 2:12 and 16 where the infant Jesus is described with the same word after His birth: “‘And this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.’. . . And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.”

A number of other biblical passages are clear on the humanity of the pre-born.

* Psalm 139:13-16: “For thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Thy works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from Thee, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth. Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Thy book they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”

* Isaiah 49:1: “Listen to Me, 0 islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called Me from the womb; from the body of My mother He named Me.”

* Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

* Judges 13:3, 6-7 (italics added): “Then the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman, and said to her, ‘Behold now, you are barren and have borne no children, but shall conceive and give birth to a son.’ . . . . and now you shall not drink wine or strong drink nor eat any unclean thing, for the boy shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death.'”


Robert Wennberg, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and is another author who has argued that many of these passages fail to establish the full humanity of the pre-born.” He tries to rob the right-to-lifer’s biblical case of its strength by a hermeneutical sleight-of-hand. First, concerning the personal language which describes the pre-born, Wennberg writes that “such references designate individuals not only before birth but before conception . . . and so they are not really to the point.” But, of course, the point is not whether the omniscient God knows all things regardless of sequential time, but that the Bible speaks repeatedly of personal existence beginning at conception (e.g., Genesis 4:1 and Job 3:3). These passages do not claim that the persons existed before their conception, but rather, that God knew them or had plans for them before conception. This is quite in keeping with an eternal God who knows all things simultaneously and is not bound by time or space, since He is the Creator of time and space. It is impossible for Him not to know every person before he or she is conceived.

Wennberg puts forth a second argument:

Extending our examination, it would be a mistake to argue that since it was David who was being formed (or “brought forth” in NASB) in his mother’s womb (Psalm 51:5) it must therefore have been David the person who was in his mother’s womb. That would be to confuse “formation/creation” of a thing with the completion/existence” of that thing. The fact is that an entity can be on the way to becoming a particular thing without it being that thing. It is quite natural for us to refer to what is in the process of becoming (the zygote or fetus in a Semite woman’s womb) in terms of what it will eventually become (a King David), but we are not then speaking with technical accuracy. If a butterfly is being formed in a cocoon, it does not follow that there is a butterfly there (rather a caterpillar or something betwixt or between).

Wennberg’s distinction between person and human being is an invention of some contemporary philosophers who argue that a human being becomes a person at some stage in his or her development.

Wennberg is correct in saying that “if a butterfly is being formed in a cocoon, it does not follow that there is a butterfly there (rather a caterpillar or something betwixt or between).” But the insect that is becoming the butterfly is still the same insect that was once a caterpillar and will be a butterfly. In the same way, the being at conception is the same person who will become the infant, the child, the adolescent, the adult. It is clear that passages such as Psalm 51:5 describe a person who is in the process of development, not something unhuman that is in the process of becoming a person.

The Bible does not specifically forbid the murder of people over the age of 75, and it does not specifically forbid abortion. But we know that murdering elderly persons is wrong because the Bible forbids murder in general. The Bible teaches that abortion is wrong because Scripture refers to pre-born human beings as persons, and the murder of persons in general is forbidden. If one were to accept the principle that whatever the Bible does not specifically forbid is permissible, one would be in the horrible position of sanctioning everything from slavery to nuclear warfare. The question is not whether the Bible specifically forbids abortion, but whether the pre-born are persons. If they are, then abortion is wrong.

Moral License

Mollenkott argues that, because God created mankind as free moral agents, to use public policy to make abortion illegal would be to rob the pregnant woman of the opportunity to be a responsible moral agent. Mollenkott’s argument can be statedas follows:

1. God created humans as free moral agents.
2. Any public policy that limits free moral agency is against God’s will.
3. Public policy forbidding abortion would limit the free moral agency of the pregnant woman.
4. Therefore, forbidding abortion is against God’s will.

The problem with this argument lies with the second point, which excludes every moral constraint. For example, laws against drunk driving, murdering, smoking crack, robbing, and child-molesting are all intended to limit free moral agency.

Hypocritically, Mollenkott herself advocates a public policy that limits the free moral agency of those who oppose the use of their tax dollars to help pay for abortions.

The Worth of the Pre-born?

Some biblical scholars use a theological argument that can be outlined as follows:

1. In Exodus 21:22-25 a person who accidentally kills a pregnant woman is given the death penalty.
2. A person who accidentally kills a pre-born human is only fined for the crime.
3. Therefore, Exodus 21 :22-25 teaches both that the pregnant woman is of greater value than the pre-born human she carries, and that the pre-born human does not have the status of a person.
4. Therefore abortion is justified.

The premise for this argument is that the pre-born are worth something. In stark contrast, pro-choicers say the pre-born are only worth whatever value their mothers place on them. Exodus 21:22-25 does not teach that the woman can willfully kill her pre-born child. It says there is a lesser penalty for accidentally killing the child than for accidentally killing the mother. Stating that the pre-
born are not worth as much as the born does not justify abortion-on-demand.

John Warwick Montgomery, attorney and theologian, distinguished professor of law and theology at Faith Lutheran Seminary in Tacoma, Wash., asks, “Should a passage such as Exodus 21 outweigh the analogy of the Incarnation itself, in which God became man at the moment when ‘conception by the Holy Ghost’ occurred–not at a later time as the universally condemned and heretical adoptionists alleged?”

Montgomery’s point is that even if the pro-choicers were correct in their interpretation of this passage, they would still have to deal with other scriptures which treat the pre-born as persons.

Gleason Archer, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill., points out that a miscarriage does not necessarily mean the death of the pre-born. A premature infant can survive early expulsion from the mother’s womb. Exodus 21:22-25 says that if the incident results in a premature birth, the perpetrator should be fined. However, if “harm
follows” (i.e., if either the mother or the child is injured or killed), the same should be inflicted on the perpetrator.

In summary, because the Bible teaches that the pre-born are persons, the pro-choice people have no basis for arguing that abortion is biblical.

(The above material appeared in the March 16, 1992 issue of the Focus on the Family Citizen.)

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