Amid all the comments my Christian brothers and sisters posted on Facebook in their reactions to the latest changes to abortion laws in our land, specifically New York’s Reproductive Health Act, there was one comment that particularly struck me, and not in a good way. It was a quote attributed to a popular Christian preacher and theologian, and it says, “If you’re a Christian, you cannot vote for a person or party that slays babies in the womb.”
Initially, in the Christian world to which I belong, most would agree with the above statement. I would have even agreed in time past. But is it true?
Today, I would say, no, it is not. Mainly because when you reread that statement, the litmus test of one’s Christianity is no longer focused on the biblical Gospel, which is defined by one’s faith in Jesus Christ, the test of one’s faith is determined by where one stands on a political issue, and, by default in our day and age, with a political party.
This struck such a nerve in me I decided to go a little bit further in my understanding of a pro-choice Christian ethic. I was surprised by not only what I discovered, but also by how my views on this issue became more nuanced.
While my enquiry took me to various writers and researchers on this topic, I will examine two theological discussions in the abortion debate I found the most compelling. These come from Kira Schlesinger’s well-argued and even-handed 2017 book, “Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice.”
Theology of Personhood
From a pro-life perspective, the theology of personhood is probably the plumb-line from which all beliefs about abortion rest. Schlesinger agrees when she writes, “For Christians, the culture war battles around abortion and contraceptive rights are driven in large part by the theology of personhood” (pg. 5).
So, how do pro-choice Christians understand personhood differently than pro-life Christians who advocate that the fetus’ personhood begins at conception or when the egg is fertilized by the sperm? In her book, Schlesinger explains how by relaying the arc of history on how theologians over time viewed this issue and, then, summarizing that most agreed personhood starts when a woman feels the first movement of a child in her womb. This was known as “quickening,” which happens around the mid-point of pregnancy, and was believed to be the moment a fetus became a person separate from the mother.
She then carefully shares the various theological viewpoints on this issue by early church fathers, who believed abortion to be murder, but who also believed in the idea of delayed ensoulment in the womb. For example, Augustine (354-430 AD) did not think miscarried fetuses would be included in the resurrection of the dead, thereby meaning there was at least a point in a baby’s growth in the womb when he or she did not have a soul that would go to Heaven.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) promoted the idea that the ensoulment of the baby occurs at 40 days after conception for boys or 80 days for girls, which was the Catholic Church’s understanding about the status of an embryo and fetus until their official position was canonized in 1869 when Pope Pius IX declared there was a penalty of excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy. This 150-year-old teaching on abortion is believed to be the logical extension of Pope Pious IX’s 1854 pronouncement of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which teaches that she was free of original sin at her conception.
So, going back to this idea of quickening, Schlesinger shows that interestingly through our modern medical capabilities, this quickening time coincides today to when a baby is viable outside of the womb. On page 51, Schlesinger writes, “Once a death sentence, babies born before 26 weeks’ gestation now frequently survive. … While babies born as early as twenty-two weeks can survive with good outcomes, most do not, or survive with permanent health problems and disabilities” (emphasis the author’s).
While all this historical background was very insightful to me, I know for most Christians, especially of the Evangelical variety, arguments from the church fathers have less bearing on them than arguments that depend on Sola Scriptura. So, that’s the next question.
What Does the Bible Say about Personhood?
One very popular section of the Bible used in this debate about when life begins by pro-life Christians is Psalm 139:13-16, especially verse 13 and the first half of 14, which says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (NIV). This is a very heartfelt and meaningful passage for Christians. It shows us just how intimately the God of Heaven, our Creator loves us and knows us.
Pro-life Christians take this verse literally to show that because the Bible speaks of God knitting us and knowing us in our mothers’ wombs, that we are a valued and known human being—body, soul, and spirit—the very moment we are created. I lean toward this interpretation.
However, Schlesinger brings up an excellent argument in her book against that interpretation. She says taking these verses literally out of their immediate context “rather than reading or praying them as the hymnbook and prayer book of ancient Israel does a great disservice to the psalms themselves and how we interpret Scripture” (pg. 57).
She adds there is also a legitimate question of original intent that should be made when reading this verse. In other words, we need to ask ourselves if the author of this Psalm meant to define a fetus’ personhood at conception in this Scripture. I had to answer within myself, no, I don’t think they did.
The most persuasive part of her apologetic around this verse was to ask readers, are we to take Psalm 137:9 literally? It says, “Happy is the one who seizes your (the Edomites’) infants and dashes them against the rocks.” The whole Psalm was a lamentation about the destruction of Jerusalem caused by the Edomites. In verse 9, these were words of judgment for this nation’s crimes against Israel. She asks should Christians, then, take a verse specific to Israel in the Old Testament and apply it today toward our enemies and promote infanticide? No, definitely not! That would be tantamount to taking this verse out of context to apply to today’s society.
However, while I think she produces a reasonable argument here, I still think a fair case can be made of using Psalm 139:13-16 for a pro-life view that advocates life, in all its stages, begins at conception. I do appreciate Schlesinger adding, though, if someone believes that personhood begins at conception, “abortion should be considered murder, and murder is prohibited” (pg. 59).
But not all Christians do see abortion as murder at all stages of the baby’s growth in the womb. The most compelling argument for a pro-choice Christian ethic, but by no means a pro-abortion one, was in how one interprets Exodus 21:22. I had never heard this verse used in the abortion debate until I began my research into this matter. Schlesinger believes this verse is “the closest a biblical reference comes to addressing the status of a child in the womb” (pg. 60). Ironically, it is used by both pro-choice and pro-life advocates.
This confusing verse reads, “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [or miscarries in some translations] but there is no serious injury [to the mother only or to the mother and the baby is unclear], the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.” The next verse in the law then explains that if harm follows (possibly to the mother only or to the baby as well), then the law of retribution is to be used, “life for life, eye for eye,” etc. Schlesinger writes, “In other words, a miscarriage [of a dead baby] caused by an individual is only worthy of a fine, while injury to the mother is deserving of equal injury in kind” (pg. 60).
Wanting to understand what various commentaries said about who the injured parties were in that verse, I went to my favorite Bible study website, www.Biblehub.com. Along with the verse, this resource shows several different Bible translations of it including its words in the original language. It also provides commentary from sources favorable to the Evangelical views of the Christian faith. I discovered that the commentaries there gave the same interpretation Schlesinger wrote, which was if the harm was a miscarried and dead child, only a fine was to be paid, but if harm came to the woman, the law of retribution followed, including death if the woman died.
From Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: “A personal injury peculiar to women—a hurt producing miscarriage—is here considered. The miscarriage might cost the woman her life, in which case the man who caused it was to suffer death (Exodus 21:23); or it might have no further ill result than the loss of the child. In this latter case the penalty was to be a fine, assessed by the husband with the consent of the judge (Exodus 21:22). The death penalty, where the woman died, is clearly excessive, and probably belongs to the pre-Mosaic legislation, which required ‘life for life’ in every case” (emphasis mine).
From the Pulpit Commentary: “A chance hurt is clearly intended, not one done on purpose. So that her fruit depart from her. So that she be prematurely delivered of a dead child. And no mischief follow. ‘Mischief’ here means ‘death,’ as in Genesis 42:4, 38; Genesis 44:29” (emphasis mine).
In other words, these commentaries show that in Old Testament Law, there was a different punishment for an accidental premature birth/miscarriage of a dead baby than for the accidental death of the woman carrying it. This surprised me. If human life was human life, no matter the stage of its development, as a pro-life Christian ethic advocates, then would not the punishment have been the same for the accidentally aborted baby as it would have been for the dead mother? It’s a fair question to ask.
In researching further, I went back to the web to find arguments from Evangelicals against this conclusion. I discovered that John Piper, with his excellent biblical agility, made a strong case why the premature delivery in this passage means that the child born was born prematurely, but alive, which would then take us back to how one can use this passage for a strong pro-life case.
Ultimately, I found Schlesinger’s case around the Exodus passage of Scripture the most convincing that there is at least a possibility that God may see and treat a fetus in the womb differently than a baby born. While pro-life and pro-choice Christians will probably never agree as to their core beliefs about abortion, questions about whether one is a true Christian based on how they view the abortion issue should not be part of the discussion. Instead, Christians on all sides of the abortion debate can and should take time to listen to one another and wrestle together over these issues, treating one another with the same dignity and respect we want to treat those affected by abortion.