The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion. That was the determination of a majority of the Supreme Court justices in their June 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
This ruling handed the issue of regulating abortions back to individual states, where a number have enacted, or are in process of enacting, highly restrictive laws. In doing so, the Court has stirred up the proverbial hornets’ nest.
Despite the Supreme Court’s stance, a recent Pew Research Group survey shows that 61% of the American public overwhelmingly believes that abortion should be legal, although there is disagreement about what, if any, limitations there should be.
That survey also shows that white evangelicals are the most likely group to claim that religion informs their beliefs. They are also the most likely group to oppose legal abortion in all circumstances.
But they do not speak for the entire tradition. Legalized abortion within reasonable limits is compatible with the Christian tradition.
In arriving at that claim, I do what Christian theological and ethical reflection has always done (whether it admits it or not): put into dialogue Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. This column considers Scripture, with part 2 of this series looking at tradition and part 3 reflecting on reason and experience.
Turning to Scripture, it is hard to make a case either way because the Bible does not explicitly address the topic of purposefully ending a pregnancy. Nevertheless, it can suggest some parameters for thinking faithfully about the topic.
The text that seems most closely relevant to the topic of abortion is Exodus 21:22. That verse sets up a scenario in which two men are fighting, a pregnant woman is caught up in the fray and she miscarries.
The man who caused the miscarriage is to be fined, unless there is further harm to the woman. The death of the fetus is not considered murder, otherwise the person responsible should be killed (see Exodus 21:12 or Genesis 9:3-5).
Instead, the punishment for the miscarriage is turned into a financial transaction. This stance implies that the fetus is property for which restitution should be paid.
Even though that logic seems foreign to us today, it does imply that the fetus has some value, just not as much as an already born person.
Other texts may indirectly inform us as well. In Exodus 22:20-22 and 23:9, the Israelites are forbidden, under any circumstance, from oppressing or abusing strangers, resident aliens, widows and orphans.
These groups were the most vulnerable to being exploited by those in power. God’s people should not exploit others because they know what it was like to be exploited.
Jesus reinforces this commitment to caring for the vulnerable in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). He specifically names people who lack basic needs for life (those who are hungry, thirsty and naked), people who “are not like us” (strangers), and people who are typically abandoned (the sick and imprisoned).
These texts require us to ask, “Who are the vulnerable in our society today?”
On the one hand, fetal life is extremely vulnerable to threat, but in the current legal climate so, too, are women who may need to end a pregnancy — or even need to access basic reproductive health care.
This necessitates further reflection regarding what justification, after reading Exodus 21:12 closely, there is for prioritizing the fetus over the pregnant person.
Think, too, of what Jesus says in Mark 2:27 regarding a controversy with the Pharisees. The law (in this case, the Sabbath) is supposed to promote human flourishing rather than constrain us.
Are supporters of abortion bans playing the role of the Pharisees in the story? It would seem so.
Finally, consider the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. Whatever else they might teach, they tell us that we are creatures, not God. By implication, life is a gift. The implication is that it should be treated with gratitude and care.
And yet, biblical texts suggest that life is not an absolute good. Consider the various admonitions to self-sacrifice, such as John 15:13.
In sum, there is no direct guidance to be found in the Bible for promoting or condemning abortion. Still, we can glean these insights from biblical texts:
- Fetal life has some value/dignity, even if not that of full-blown personhood.
- Vulnerable populations need to be protected from exploitation.
- Laws are meant to foster well-being.
- Life is to be treasured as a gift, but not to be held onto at all costs.
Taken together, these insights would seem to be compatible with support of abortion in life-threatening situations.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible (Nurturing Faith Books, 2017) and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.