The Biblical Pro-Choice Position

by Jay Johansen

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Is the Bible pro-life or pro-choice?

In the debate over abortion, religious groups have tended to take the pro-life side. But in recent years, we have seen a number of religious groups coming forward with a pro-choice position. These include such groups as Catholics for Choice, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, etc.

What does the Bible really have to say about abortion?1

As my source for the Christian pro-choice view, I took two articles available on the Internet:2 Is the Fetus a Person, by Dr Roy Bowen Ward of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and Abortion is Not a Sin, by Poppy Dixon of Adult Christianity.

The Biblical pro-choice argument -- in summary

The general argument of these two articles (and of course many other similar ones) is essentially this:

Nowhere does the Bible specifically prohibit or condemn abortion. Furthermore, the Bible connects life with breath. As a fetus does not breathe, therefore it is not truly alive, and so it is meaningless to talk of killing it.

They go on to rebut several arguments that pro-lifers make to demonstrate that the Bible talks about unborn babies as people. They claim that in each case, the Biblical passage is better understood as referring to the unborn simply as potential people.

Finally, Poppy goes on to argue that the pro-life position is blasphemous. God gives life, she claims, when he causes the newborn baby to begin breathing. To claim that life is given through the union of sperm and egg is to claim that human beings are giving life rather than God.

Let's examine these arguments in more detail.

The blasphemy charge

Poppy's blasphemy charge probably should not be taken too seriously. There is, of course, some validity to accusing someone of blasphemy for claiming that humans had done something which was really done by God. But to make this charge stick here, we have to accept that a baby's first breath is something done entirely by God while a baby's conception is brought about by human effort. But doctors routinely take specific action to initiate a baby's first breath: In the old days the doctor would spank the baby to get him breathing; today they usually rely on massage. It is difficult to imagine how any serious observer could say that there are not cases where prompt action by the doctor to get a baby started breathing was essential. Did the doctor create life in such cases? Or was it all an illusion, and he is guilty of blasphemy in presuming that something he did in any way assisted the baby in beginning to breathe?

On the other hand, conception is hardly a process totally directed by human will. No one can insure or prevent conception by their own will. No one can control exactly which sperm fertilizes the egg.

It would be far easier to suppose that conception is a mysterious, perhaps miraculous process, than to say that beginning breathing is. If there is any value to this blasphemy argument at all, it is surely on the pro-life side. But it is so weak that I would not encourage any pro-lifer to use it.

In any case, I rather suspect that this argument was just thrown in so that the writer could not only level the scales, but also reverse the imbalance. Perhaps she feared that even if she convinced people that the Bible does not condemn abortion, they might still be a little uneasy and decide to play it safe. By saying that it is, in fact, a sin to be pro-life, she gives people a real reason to switch sides. Or perhaps I'm over-psychoanalyzing here. Let's move on to the more serious arguments.

The "breath" argument

The "breath" argument is really the key point. The position of the Biblical pro-choicers is that the Bible equates life with breath, and as a person does not begin breathing until they are born, therefore they are not a living person, or not a person in some "Bibical sense", until they are born.

They quote several Biblical passages where life is connected with breath, such as:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

-- Genesis 2:7 (KJV)

The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.

-- Job 33:4 (KJV)
[Poppy mis-cites this as "Job 33:44"]

Or in Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones, when the bones come to life:

... and the breath came into them, and they lived ...

-- Ezekiel 37:10 (KJV)

But are such verses using breath as a criterion or definition of life? Or simply as a symbol or metaphor for life?

It is certainly interesting that, for example, God gave life to Adam by "breath[ing] into his nostrils the breath of life". But if we are to understand this as a literal, physical event and not simply as a metaphor, we must first ask, exactly what does it mean? When I read those words it brings to my mind a mental picture of God kneeling beside a lifeless Adam giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But clearly this is a naive picture: God does not have a human-like body to perform such a procedure. Presumably we would have to understand this to mean that he caused the man to begin breathing. But once we say that, we realize that God must surely have done many other things for Adam to come to life -- he would have had to start the heart pumping, the kidneys purging, brain waves going, DNA replicating, etc, etc. (Unless we are to take it that the act of breathing somehow caused all these other life processes to begin also, without any further action on God's part.)

The obvious alternative understanding of this verse is that the Bible is using the word "breath" here simply as a symbol or an example of life processes. The point of the selection is that God caused the man to begin living. A full explanation of all the life processes this involved would have been long and tedious3 and beside the point.

The "breath argument" makes much of the fact that there are several places in the Bible where God brought someone to life or brought them back to life in a miraculous way, and it is described in terms of God "breathing into them" or "giving them breath". But this glosses over the fact that there are also a number of places in the Bible where God gives someone life and it is described in different terms. Surely the best known miraculous life-giving in the Bible is the resurrection of Lazarus:

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."

-- John 11:43-44 (NIV)

Note that there is no mention here of Jesus or God breathing into Lazarus -- Jesus simply spoke.

Or to take an Old Testament example:

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.

-- II Kings 13:21 (NIV)

Again, no mention of anyone breathing into this unnamed man. He touches the bones of Elisha, and he comes back to life.

Indeed there is not even a mention here of either of these men beginning to breath when they revive. Rather, we are told that they "came out" or "stood up on his feet", that is, they got up and started walking around.

Breath is certainly an obvious sign of life, and so it should come as no surprise that the Bible sometimes points out that someone was breathing as a sign that he is alive. But to say that this proves that the Bible equates breath with life, and that therefore life begins when a baby draws his first breath, is totally unjustified. I could list many passages like the above that point out that someone is moving as a sign that he is alive. Does this mean that the Bible equates movement with life, and that therefore life begins when the unborn child first moves?

While there are many places where the Bible speaks of life and breath together, I cannot find even one where it states that "life is breath" or any such thing. On the other hand, there are a few verses where the Bible does equate life with something else. Most of these are clearly intended to be symbolic or poetic, such as the numerous quotes in Proverbs that "wisdom is life" or Jesus' statements that "my words are life". Ignoring these, the only thing I can find explicitly equated with life in the Bible is ... blood. For example:

For the life of a creature is in the blood.

-- Leviticus 17:11 (NIV)

Does this mean that the unborn child acquires a soul with his first drop of blood? That happens within the first couple of weeks of pregnancy, well before most women even know they are pregnant.

Breath and "nephesh"

The Religious Coalition article goes on to a slightly more technical point. The Hebrew word for soul is "nephesh" or "NEH-fesh". This probably comes from the word "naphash" or "naw-FASH", meaning "to breathe". (Interestingly, in their footnotes they concede that some scholars say it actually comes from a word meaning "throat", which would rather shoot down their own argument. But as no less an authority than Strong's Hebrew Lexicon says it comes from "breathe", I'll concede the point.)

Again, this is an interesting fact, and we could certainly speculate on the significance, if any, to this etymology. But it is quite a leap to say that because the word for "soul" is derived from the word for "breath" that therefore the defining characteristic of life is the process of breathing.

I recall being amused many years ago to learn that the Latin word for money -- "pecunia" -- comes from the word for cow -- "pecus", presumably because at some point in their history cows were seen as the primary measure of wealth, perhaps were even used for money. But would this linguistic fact justify me in saying that therefore all money should be based on cows, that the government should empty the gold from Fort Knox and replace it with a herd of cattle? The idea is so absurd that just to say it sounds like a joke.

Curiously, the Religious Coalition article seems to be trying to imply that "nephesh" means "person". They make some vague statements that "nephesh" is "the usual term for man's total nature", or that it is "a living being, a living person, a living individual". Nowhere do they mention that it means, not "person" or "life", but "soul". To the best of my knowledge, every English translation of the Bible has routinely translated "nephesh" as "soul". But the article never gives this translation. Perhaps the reason for this curious glossing over of the definition is that if they had admitted that it means "soul", a reader might well be struck by the incongruity of the argument. For surely one of the most basic things we understand about the soul is that it's existence is not dependant on the ability to breathe. The whole reason why people are fascinated by the concept of the soul is because it is understood to mean a part of a person which continues to exist after all life functions -- including breathing -- stop. If the word for "soul" really does come from the word for "breath", it is surely more plausible to speculate that this is not because only someone who is breathing has a soul, but because the soul, like breath or wind, is very real, yet strangely intangible.

Technical points

We could also raise what seems to me some pretty obvious technical objections:

One, if breath is synonymous with life, so that a person is not "Biblically alive" until they draw their first breath, then does this mean that someone who stops breathing is "Biblically dead"? Someone who has something lodged in his throat and is choking, for example? Remember that the whole point of this argument is to say that there is nothing morally wrong with "terminating" an unborn child, because he is not breathing. So by the same reasoning, there would be nothing wrong with "terminating" a choking person. Until he catches his breath, he is no longer a "person in the Bibical sense" and so no longer has human rights. Indeed, we need not even be so dramatic as someone choking: what about someone who is holding his breath, perhaps while swimming?

Two, exactly what is the definition of "breath"? The unborn child consumes oxygen, and his lungs work. He cannot breathe air, of course, because he is surround by amniotic fluid. But is air a fundamental requirement of "breathing", or is it possible to "breath fluid" in this "Biblical sense"? I honestly don't know the answer, but I don't see how someone could take it for granted that the answer is no.

Executive summary

The key to the Biblical pro-choice argument is the claim that the Bible equates "life" with "breath". Therefore, they say, the unborn child is not truly a living person until he begins breathing, which does not happen until after birth.

But this argument is sustained by selecting Bible verses that link life and breath, while ignoring Bible verses that link life with something other than breath. They make much of Genesis 2:7, which describes God breathing life into Adam, but simply ignore verses like John 11:43-44, which describe Jesus speaking life into Lazarus.

The most likely explanation of the verses they cite, given the full context with other verses, is simply that in these the Bible is using breath as an example or a sign or sometimes a metaphor for life, using one life process to represent them all. In other verses other examples or metaphors are used, such as movement or blood. Such a usage should come as no surprise. Suppose you were present when someone who was near death was revived. How might you describe it? You might point out that you could suddenly see him taking breaths, that he moved, or spoke. You might mention seeing the light return to his eyes, or the color return to his face. If it happened in a hospital with fancy equipment hooked up you might note that his brain waves had restarted or the monitor showed heartbeat. Et cetera. The fact that a doctor might say, "Look, he's breathing, he's alive" would hardly be reason to conclude that medical science has proven that breath is the single, identifying characteristic of life.

The Bible uses many metaphors for life. It is not clear that any one of them is more significant than the others, or is to be taken more literally than the others. The Biblical pro-choice argument is based entirely on taking a few verses that use one of these metaphors -- breath --simply not mentioning the others, and then claiming that this proves that "Biblical life" is synonymous with breath.


So where does all this leave us?

Anyone who was hoping for an explicit Biblical statement on abortion will be disappointed. The Bible just does not spell it out in so many words.

If we look for a Biblical statement defining life or soul in measurable terms, the only statements that could plausibly be taken as a direct connection are the verses connecting life with blood. Perhaps this means that life begins when the unborn child first has blood. (At the latest we would have to say it is when the heart begins to beat, which comes about 5 weeks into pregnancy.) This is interesting, perhaps, but I would be reluctant to use it in a debate; I think it is just too weak.

Barring some startling new observation, it seems that the Bible is not going to clearly tell us when human life begins. And so we must turn to other sources for an answer. The obvious source is science. And medical science has clearly said that by every criterion they can apply, human life begins at conception. But this is another subject, and another article.

Some Rebuttals

Another component of the Biblical pro-choice argument is to rebut two standard Biblical pro-life arguments. These are less significant, but let's take some time to examine them.

Called from the womb

Pro-lifers often point to Bible verses that talk about God knowing someone or choosing someone while he was still in the womb. For example:
... The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.

-- Isaiah 49:1

Pro-choicers reply that this proves nothing. God might know or choose someone before he existed. They will point to verses such as:

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, [and] I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

-- Jeremiah 1:5

They point out that here God says that he knew Jeremiah even before he formed him in the womb.

On this point, I think we should concede the pro-choicers the benefit of the doubt. It is possible that God meant that he knew Jeremiah when he was still a zygote, before his body had been formed, but still after he as a unique human being existed. But it is also possible that he means that he knew Jeremiah before he was even conceived, before he existed in any sense of the word. Perhaps God in his divine knowledge knew that Jeremiah would be born and what he would do, or perhaps he simply made plans that he intended to do specific work in the life of a particular person.

And if we concede that God might "know" someone before he was conceived, than statements that God knew someone while he was still in the womb prove nothing about when life begins. It may be that God is saying he knew someone in the womb in the same sense that we say we know a born person, or he might have meant that he knew someone in the womb in a prophetic sense, he knew the "person" that this "fetus" was to become.

Other arguments along this line could be made, but I think in fairness pro-lifers should probably concede that they are inconclusive.

Injuring a pregnant woman

There is one law in the Old Testament that comes close to talking about abortion:

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. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

-- Exodus 21:22-24 (NIV)

Unfortunately, this is frustratingly ambiguous. When it talks about, "if there is serious injury", does this mean injury to the mother? Or to the baby? Pro-choicers interpret this law to mean that if someone causes a pregnant woman to miscarry but causes no permanent harm to the woman herself, he must pay a fine, but if he injures the woman, he faces more serious penalties. In other words, the unborn child's life and health are not valued as much as the mother's. Pro-lifers interpret it to mean that if he causes premature delivery but both mother and baby are okay, then there is a fine, but if either is harmed, the more serious penalties apply.

The Religious Coalition article quotes a 1963 article that supports their interpretation, noting that 1963 is "long before the abortion issue clouded the scene". But the 1599 edition of the Geneva Bible -- need I point out that 1599 is well before 1963? -- contains this interesting footnote on the word "injury"4 in these verses:

Or, "death": of the mother or child in the event she miscarries. Also the death of the unborn infant.
Jews in ancient times were just as split on interpretation of this verse as Christians are today. The Alexandrian Jews tended to follow the "harm to the mother" interpretation, while the Palestinian Jews tended to follow the "harm to either" interpretation.

Which is it? I'm afraid that I cannot give a conclusive argument either way. But one point is worth noting. Why is this law included in the Bible at all? That is, why is there a law that specifically spells out penalties for assaulting a pregnant woman? If the purpose was to protect born people from violence, there would be no point in limiting it to pregnant women. If the life of an unborn child means nothing, then there is no difference between assaulting a pregnant woman and assaulting a non-pregnant woman, or a man for that matter. So why have a specific law on the subject? The most logical conclusion is that this law is included precisely because the life of the unborn child is worth something in God's eyes.

A side note on the speakers

When I first came across the Adult Christianity web site, which appears to be connected to something called the "Post Fundamentalist Press", I assumed they were a group advocating a liberal form of Christianity. But as I reviewed more of their material, I realized that I couldn't find anything advocating any form of Christianity, liberal or otherwise. Rather, the site consists almost entirely of attacks on the Bible, on the idea of salvation, and even on the existence of God. It may be that "Adult Christianity" simply takes a harsh tone and so ends up spending more time attacking forms of Christianity they dislike than affirmatively putting forward their own, but I rather suspect they are agnostics or secularists who dislike all forms of Christianity. Considering how their own material routinely ridicules the Bible, it is difficult to believe that they seriously care what the Bible has to say about this particular issue.

As the Religious Coalition site concentrates entirely on the abortion issue, it is not possible to compare their position here to positions on other issues.

It is amusing, though, to reflect: Typically conservative Christians call for a literal interpretation of scripture, while liberals say that Biblical statements should be understood metaphorically. But in the "breath" argument, suddenly it is the conservatives who are saying that this is metaphorical language and the liberals who are insisting that it is to be taken strictly literally.

The reversal is not entirely symmetrical. Considering the liberals' regular reference to Genesis 2:7 in this regard, I would like to ask them: Do you believe that the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 is to be taken literally? For of course the typical liberal answer is no, people evolved, and so the creation story is an allegory. It is reasonable for the conservative to say that God really did literally create the first man, but that some details of this account are symbolic or over-simplified. But it is hard to understand how the liberal could believe that God did not really create Adam at all, and then talk about details of how he did it.


1. As most "religious" discussion in America today is centered on the Bible, and as most of the vocal groups on each side call themselves "Christian", we limit ourselves for the present discussion to Biblically-based religious views. Discussing the proper Hindu view or the proper Wiccan view would be an entirely different article.

2. Thus making it easier for the reader to verify that I am not mis-representing them.

3. A truly complete explanation would surely have been larger than our entire present Bible, for surely the sum total of all the information in all the medical textbooks in the world is far larger than the Bible. And plenty of the material would have been beyond the comprehension not just of the first readers of Genesis, but of the most learned doctor today, for even today no one could seriously claim that he fully understands all there is to know about the human body.

4. In the Geneva Bible they use the word "mischief" instead of "injury".

Posted 4 Sep 2000.

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