Prior to 1973, abortion was legal in some of the 50 states of the U.S., usually with restrictions. In 1973, the United States Supreme Court, in its Roe v. Wade decision, ruled that a woman has a right to an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. However, the states are still allowed to regulate abortion during the second trimester and prohibit it during the third trimester. Since that time, abortion has become one of the most controversial and divisive issues within society.
Pro-life activists represent one extreme of opinion. They believe life begins at the instant of conception. Therefore, abortion is murder and is prohibited by the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13). They strongly support laws banning all or almost all abortions.
Abortion is never mentioned in the Bible, despite the fact that it has been practiced since ancient times by a variety of means. However, a number of Bible passages have been cited as evidence that a fetus is truly a living human being and deserves the same protection. They may well state some general principles that are relevant, but none of them were originally intended as statements about abortion.
The following three passages and others are sometimes cited as evidence that abortion is wrong. However, when read in context, it seems clear that was not the intended message.
Luke Chapter 1 tells about God's intervention in the miraculous births of Jesus and John the Baptist.
(NIV, Luke 1:39-44) At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
Jeremiah Chapter 1 is about Jeremiah's call as a prophet.
(NAS, Jeremiah 1:4-5) Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Job Chapter 10 is Job's plea to God to relieve his unfair suffering.
(NIV, Job 10:2, 8-9) I will say to God: ... "Your hands shaped me and made me. Will you now turn and destroy me? Remember that you molded me like clay. Will you now turn me to dust again?
The passage below from Genesis Chapter seems to suggest that a person is not living until he or she takes a first breath after birth. Life is equated with breath throughout the Bible.
(NIV, Genesis 2:7) The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
However, Genesis Chapter 2 is actually about God's creation of mankind as special and spiritually-aware beings.
The passage below seems to say that causing death to a fetus is not as serious a crime as causing death to a person, but it is actually just part of a long section specifying the punishments for various crimes.
And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. "But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, (NAS, Exodus 21:22-24)
However, the belief that life begins at conception does not have clear support from medical science, the Bible, religious tradition or legal tradition.
Abortion, infanticide and child abandonment were permitted under Roman law at the time of Jesus.
Some early Church fathers (e.g., Tertullian) wrote against abortion, and it has been considered sinful throughout Church history. However, early Christians apparently did not view abortion as murder until well beyond conception. In the thirteenth century, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that a soul enters the body at 40 days after conception for males and 80 days for females. That became church doctrine for many centuries, and abortion before that time of ensoulment was not considered a mortal sin. The belief that life begins at conception apparently has its origins in an 1869 decree by Pope Pius IX that abortion at any point in pregnancy was cause for excommunication.
English common law apparently tolerated abortion until "quickening," the first detectable fetal movements, around the fifth month. Similarly, abortion was largely unregulated in the U.S. until the mid 1800s. Laws against abortion were passed around 1900, but the primary reasons had to do with the injuries and deaths resulting from unskilled abortions and a struggle between opposing factions for control of medical practice.
Polls typically show that about 28% of people in the U.S. say abortion should be legal in all circumstances. Another 17% say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. A majority, 54%, favor legal abortion in some circumstances. The Roman Catholic Church is strongly associated with the movement to outlaw abortion, but the polls actually show that the views of Catholics on this issue do not differ from the rest of the population.
Many people have deep and serious doubts about the morality of abortion. At the same time, they believe abortion may be the lesser of evils in some cases. Situations thought to justify abortion include, with varying degrees of acceptance, danger to the mother's life, defective fetus, rape, incest, teen pregnancy, risk to the mother's physical or emotional health, unstable family situations, mental retardation of the mother, etc.
Before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion throughout the U.S., many women living in areas where abortion was not allowed simply traveled to states or countries where abortion was legal to terminate their pregnancies. Those who could not afford that option often sought out someone to perform the procedure illegally. Some sympathetic doctors were willing to help. But many illegal abortions were performed by unqualified practitioners, and many women suffered exploitation, sexual abuse, injury, infection, sterility and even death at the hands of these "back alley" practitioners. Despite some claims to the contrary, the mainstream of medical opinion is that legal abortions are very safe, with less risk to a woman's physical and mental health than continuing a pregnancy.
Some politicians exploit the abortion issue for political gain by inflaming people's passions and fears. A very small number of activists have harassed and deceived women seeking abortions, illegally blockaded clinics, harassed doctors and committed acts of violence, including murder. Such actions are clearly against Bible teachings and are not condoned by mainstream Christian denominations. However, the actions of a few have created an unfavorable view of the pro-life movement in the minds of many.
There is no general agreement among Christians, Christian theologians or Christian churches about what situations could make terminating a pregnancy the right and moral choice. However, most would agree that it is not a step to be taken if satisfactory alternatives are available. A woman or couple faced with the choice is left with medical counseling, pastoral counseling, advice of family and friends, and prayer to help with the decision.
The strong emotions surrounding the abortion issue may lead those on both sides of the issue into the sin of self-righteousness. But Jesus and other New Testament leaders taught by word and example not to condemn or shun or discriminate against those we consider to be "sinners" (Matthew 7:1-2, 9:10-13, Luke 7:36-48, 18:9-14, John 8:1-11).
A number of churches, including United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Presbyterian (USA) and United Methodist, do not approve of abortion as a means of birth control. However, they support the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, if she deems that is the best choice in her circumstances, and they favor keeping abortion legal. Other churches, including Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist, oppose all abortions and favor making abortion illegal.
The Roman Catholic says:
2270. Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.
2271. Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law. ... From Catechism of the Catholic Church, (c) 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc., http://www.nccbuscc.org/catechism/text/index.htm
Southern Baptist: Procreation is a gift from God, a precious trust reserved for marriage. At the moment of conception, a new being enters the universe, a human being, a being created in God's image. This human being deserves our protection, whatever the circumstances of conception.
From Position Statements, Copyright (c) 1999 - 2001, Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, http://sbc.net/default.asp?url=position-statements.html
United Methodist: The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection. We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.