By Marik Von Rennenkampff
No issue more vividly embodies the deep political, social, and cultural divisions in the United States than abortion. Millions of Americans make crucial political decisions every four years based on this singularly divisive topic. Passions, understandably (and rightly), run high among Americans who identify as “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”
Given the sensitivities associated with the topic, the goal of this article is not to convince readers of a particular position. Instead, in an era of extreme polarization, it is intended to demonstrate that devout Christians can disagree on abortion while maintaining fidelity to scripture. Moreover, given the lack of direct biblical references to abortion, rational disagreement among Christians on this issue is not only reasonable, it should be expected.
Considering the Mosaic commandment not to murder, the central question for Christians regarding abortion revolves around the beginning of life. While the Bible is strikingly silent on abortion, the scriptures do provide some illuminating insights into when and how life begins.
The Book of Genesis, for example, holds that “man became a living being” only after God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The Book of Job relates that “the Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Similarly, the Book of Revelation details how the dead arise after inhaling “the breath of life from God.” Moreover, God told Ezekiel, “I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.”
Particularly relevant to the topic of abortion, Ezekiel goes on to write that a pile of bones, tendons, flesh and skin – with “no breath in them” – only “came to life” after “breath entered them.” In short, the Bible states that “the breath of the Almighty” imparts “life.”
Millions of Christians hold that life begins at conception. That is undoubtedly a genuinely-held and morally defensible position that must be respected. Two biblical passages frequently cited by Christians opposed to abortion, however, do not weigh in on the all-important question of when life actually begins. Therefore, an alternative – and objectively biblical – interpretation holds that “life” begins when a fetus’ lungs are sufficiently developed to inhale “the breath of the Almighty.”
Moreover, a Mosaic law (found in the same book as the Ten Commandments) holds that if a pregnant woman miscarries during an altercation between two men, the man who caused the miscarriage must pay only a monetary fine. While there is some disagreement about the word “miscarriage” in the passage, no less than 20 Biblical translations refer specifically to miscarriage.
Given the Israelite origins of the Old Testament, it is particularly important to note that Jewish law holds that the verse in question does, in fact, refer to miscarriage. An unborn fetus, therefore, is not treated as a person in Jewish law. Of particular note, leading American evangelicals made the same argument only a few decades ago. Furthermore, under Mosaic Law, God would cause the abortion of any fetus conceived through an extramarital affair, or thereafter.
These biblical passages undoubtedly complicate Christian perspectives on abortion. Indeed, uncertainty and ambiguity on the issue date to the very beginnings of Christianity. While many of the first Christian leaders opposed abortion, various Christian communities disagreed on the subject.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, a particularly influential early Christian theologian, grappled with abortion and Mosaic Law. While personally against the practice, Augustine held a nuanced view, writing that “the law does not provide that the act of abortion pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation.” Similarly, Thomas Aquinas, an early Catholic theologian, held that “the intellective soul is created by God at the completion of man’s coming into being.”
In some cases, early church opposition to abortion was based on the premise that it erased evidence of prohibited sexual activity. Perhaps more importantly, the earliest Christians debated whether abortion of an “unformed” embryo was morally wrong.
Notably, American evangelicals (and many Republican politicians) were largely ambivalent to abortion prior to the 1980s. In a hallmark of how rapidly perceptions have changed since the late 1970s, leading evangelicals argued that the Catholic belief that life begins at conception was unbiblical. In the ensuing decades, political considerations, in conjunction with evangelicals’ embrace of emerging medical research, led to a stark reversal in opinion on abortion.
Evolving Christian perspectives on abortion should hardly be surprising. While the Old Testament outlines, in punctilious detail, a code of personal conduct and punishments for an array of transgressions, its silence on abortion is particularly striking. Similarly, the New Testament imparts clear instructions to, among other things, pay taxes without complaint and to obey the governing authorities. However, the New Testament is just as silent on abortion as the Old Testament. As such, Christians are right to hold nuanced – and differing – views on this particularly sensitive issue.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense.