Does the Bible Condone Abortion?

by Tim Chaffey

     It never ceases to amaze me how far the critics and skeptics will go in their attacks on the Bible.  Most of the time it is easy to blame them for their false and/or misleading claims; however, sometimes the blame lies with the translators of a particular Bible version or translation.

     I was doing my monthly perusal of a local message board when I came across a post alleging that the Bible condoned abortion.  I could not recall any portion of Scripture supporting abortion so I was intrigued to see what this critic had to say.  To support his claim, he quoted Exodus 21: 22 which states, “22 If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (NKJV)

     How does this passage support abortion?  It doesn’t unless you read the same passage in the New Revised Standard Version, which states, “22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life….”  When one reads from this translation it makes it seem like it is no big deal if someone causes a woman to miscarry.  Therefore, since the unborn child's life is of minimal or no importance then abortion must not be a big deal.  If a skeptic or critic only had this translation available then he/she may be justified in their complaint.  However, this particular translation of Exodus 21: 22 – 23 goes against everything else the Bible has to say about this topic and it also contradicts the most popular Bible versions. 

     Let’s take a look at some of the other translations to see what they have to say (New King James was quoted first). 

(King James)
22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life" ("fruit" refers to the child and the "mischief" is clearly referring to harm to the child)

(New International Version)
22 “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life," (again it is very clear that it is referring to the child)

(New American Standard)
22 “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide.
23 “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life," (once again, the penalty is based on what becomes of the child)

(English Standard Version)
22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life," (again, it is referring to the child)

     The 1890 Darby Bible implies the same thing and so does the American Standard Bible, the New Century Version, the New Living Translation, and Young's Literal Translation.  Consider what Walter Elwell wrote about this particular difficulty:

         "...the Hebrew of 21:22 literally reads “and hit a pregnant woman so that her child(ren) come forth, and no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined.”  Here the King James and New International translations are helpful.  The Hebrew word for miscarriage is not used here.  Our text portrays a woman being struck and then delivering prematurely. 

         The very passage used by some to support abortion, in fact, goes in the opposite direction. In this case the woman is accidentally struck, but if she or the child dies as a result, then the guilty party could be sentenced to death.  This is the only instance in the Torah where involuntary manslaughter calls for the death penalty.  Generally, the guilty party was to receive refuge from “the avenger of blood” and was not to be put to death (Deut. 19:4–10). Injury to the unborn is the only exception.  The reason seems clear enough: God places high value on the unborn.  The law always expresses concern for those least able to defend themselves."[1]

     There are numerous Bible passages argue against the NRSV's interpretation here.  So does the original Hebrew language.  The critic’s argument completely backfires because it is based on a poor Bible translation.  Instead of presenting a contradiction, it completely affirms the Bible's stance against abortion and orders the death penalty for it.  Instead of minimizing the unborn child's importance this passage places maximum value on it.

     Let’s close by looking at a few pertinent biblical texts:

Psalm 139: 13 – 14 “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb.  I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…”

Luke 1: 41 "And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit."

Luke 2: 4 - 5 "Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child."

     The psalmist beautifully expressed God's caring and loving creative work inside the womb.  John the Baptist is called a babe while still in his Elizabeth's womb. Jesus was called a child while still in Mary's womb. The Bible consistently places immense value on the life of the unborn. 

     The critics should be a little more careful before pronouncing a contradiction.  Christians should be careful to check the quote, the context, the translation, and the original language, if possible.  Also, be sure to let clear passages dictate the interpretation of a difficult passage.  These simple steps will clear up most of the confusion.  There are no contradictions in the Bible.[2]

[1] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House 1995) Exodus 21: 22 – 23.

[2] The Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts.  The doctrine of inerrancy does not state that every translation we have today is free from error.



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