A Matter of Life and Death
The issue of abortion is one of the most divisive in modern political discourse. The option for a woman to end a pregnancy has been proclaimed by some to be a basic right, while others have decried it as the murder of a fellow human being. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for so-called "pro-life" and "pro-choice" advocates to engage positively on this issue, not only because it involves a great deal of emotion, but also due to the vastly different foundational assumptions held by each side. In this article, I will explore some differences between the foundational assumptions typically held by secular society and those that appear in the Bible.
The Origin of the Human Species
Modern secular society follows the work of Charles Darwin and others, holding that life on earth arose from a very basic set of elements which came together to create carbon-based beings. From single-celled organisms, more complex versions of life arose through genetic mutations. The principle of natural selection ensured that those organisms best suited to thrive in their environments were the ones who passed on their genes, gradually leading to higher levels of physical and cognitive functioning. Human beings are one of many results of this natural process of mutation.
Scripture says that human life came about through a special divine creation in which God placed His image on man and woman. As the Book of Genesis states, "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being," (2:7) clearly referencing the creative agency of God in humanity's origins. It also records God saying, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness," (1:26) and later narrates, "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (v. 27)
To be created in God's image means not only that one bears His likeness, (Genesis 5:1, James 3:9) but also that one belongs to God as creature to Creator. That is why when God spoke to Noah about the punishment for murder, He appealed to a sense of personal ownership.
"Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man.
Whoever sheds man's blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man." (Genesis 9:5-6)
Another passage which clearly speaks to the biblical concept of imaging comes in one of Christ's discourses with the Pharisees when they asked Him if they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. He instructed them to hold up a coin.
"And He said to them, 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?' They said to Him, 'Caesar's.' Then He said to them, 'Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's.'" (Matthew 22:20-21)
The clear implication of Christ's statement is that since human beings bear God's likeness, their lives must be rendered to Him. From a scriptural perspective, there is no question that the human species was specially created by God, bears His image, and therefore belongs to Him. Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, God even stated that human souls belong to Him as well as bodies. "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine." (Ezekiel 18:4)
The Creation of Individual Human Beings
Our secular society thinks of human reproduction in terms of the physical process involved. Sperm from a male unites with the egg of a female. This then forms a blastocyst which rapidly develops into an embryo, and from there the human fetus grows over the course of approximately 40 weeks. All these things result from sexual intercourse, a process that involves the decisive action of two human beings. Alternatively, a sperm and egg may be combined in a laboratory setting and the resulting embryo implanted into a woman's uterus. At all stages, the decisions of human beings result in natural, physical processes taking place.
While the Bible by no means denies the physical realities involved in the creation of human life and the decisions made by human beings, it also teaches that all things proceed according to the ordination of God and are subject to His will. For the biblical authors, God's agency over individual occurrences of human reproduction is not only taken for granted, but specifically emphasized to demonstrate His lordship and protection. Consider the following verses.
- "Did not He who made me in the womb make him, / And the same one fashion us in the womb?" (Job 31:15)
- "By You I have been sustained from my birth; You are He who took me from my mother's womb; My praise is continually of You." (Psalm 71:6)
- "For You formed my inward parts; / You wove me in my mother's womb." (Psalm 139:13)
- "Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, / 'I, the Lord, am the maker of all things..." (Isaiah 44:24)
- "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you..." (Jeremiah 1:5)
In addition to these verses, there are also references to the Lord opening or closing a woman's womb--that is, allowing her to conceive or preventing it. (e.g., Genesis 20:18, 29:31, 30:22; 1 Samuel 1:5) Then there are passages that speak of the reliance of every living thing on God for its being. As the Apostle John wrote, "All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being," (John 1:3) and the Apostle Paul said in his famous sermon on Mars Hill that "He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things" and "in Him we live and move and exist." (Acts 17:25, 28)
Therefore, Scripture clearly testifies that God did not simply create the human race and leave the rest up to physical processes and human agency. While God did set in place those physical realities and grant the power of decision to human beings, He is nevertheless active and involved in the creation of every human life through His sovereignty over all living things. That is why the Psalmist could say that "in Your book were all written / The days that were ordained for me, / When as yet there was not one of them." (Psalm 139:16) It is the will of God that ultimately allows human beings to come into existence, and He determines the length of their days.
"My body, my choice." So preaches secular society, which views the human body as the sole property of the individual. While such thinking provides their chief rationale against abuses like slavery and rape, it has also led some to support gender reassignment surgery, elective abortion, and physician-assisted suicide. In all cases, the absolute right of the individual to do whatever they wish with their own body is assumed. In the case of abortion, the autonomy of a woman over her own body is typically emphasized over and against the right of any man or governmental authority.
Scripture declares that a person's body is sacred and should be treated as such, because it ultimately belongs to God. Some of the clearest admonitions to this effect come in the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:
"Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
The argument could be made that this passage addresses Christians specifically, who have been joined to Christ body and soul. However, when Paul speaks of the "immoral man" who "sins against his own body", he seems to also have in mind those who are not Christians. Moreover, Christ Himself said, "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28) This demonstrates a clear authority of God over body and soul that is greater than that of any human being.
Scripture also gives a few examples of cases where one human being may have some degree of right to the body of another. In line with the words of God to Noah in Genesis 9, Paul asserts that the government has a right to impose justice upon the body of one who commits heinous crimes. "But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil" (Romans 13:4). Writing to the Corinthians, he also emphasizes how the one-flesh relationship of marriage impacts our understanding of the body and sexual relations:
"The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).
While our secular culture would surely object to the idea of a husband having authority over the body of his wife, notice that this is not a one-way situation. The wife also has authority over the body of her husband, and in context this means that neither spouse should continually refuse to participate in normal sexual relations within marriage. By no means did Paul grant permission for marital rape; it is clear that he was encouraging those who were tempted to sexual relations outside marriage to instead seek out godly sexual relations within marriage, not for one partner to abuse another. The two-way authority he describes ensures the respect of each party for the other's body.
To sum up the scriptural view, the human body ultimately belongs to God, but within human relationships various levels of autonomy are described. It is not simply "my body, my choice." What is done in the body affects one's spiritual state and other people.
The Definition of Personhood
The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution stipulates that no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The key word for the abortion debate is person. No person may be denied their life unless it is forfeited through legal action, as when a convicted murderer is subjected to the death penalty. It is therefore essential to determine who or what qualifies as a person. Secular society has not come to universal agreement on what constitutes personhood, but factors that are often considered include one's level of cognitive functioning and the ability to exist independently. Some hold that a fetus becomes a person at a certain point during pregnancy, while others insist it only occurs after birth. Interestingly, this type of reasoning has also led to some great apes being labeled as persons.
The Bible does not use the word personhood or explicitly define what a person is, but it is possible to determine its equivalent. If being a person means that you have the right to life (as stated in the 14th Amendment), we may therefore consider what Scripture has to say about that right. This will help us arrive at a biblical notion of personhood that is useful for this discussion.
Once again, the key concept here is the image of God. The possession of this divine likeness is what separates human beings from every animal in the biblical creation account of Genesis 1. It is also the reason that God condemns and imposes the penalty of death upon those who kill a human being (Genesis 9:5-6). By implication then, any being that bears God's image has a right to life, and every human being bears that image. Scripture never makes exceptions to this rule, but rather goes out of its way to emphasize that all humans belong to God, and should be loved accordingly (Mark 12:31). When the Lord told the people of Israel, "You shall not murder," (Exodus 20:13), He offered no qualifications.
God is involved in the development of humans even in the womb, and He ordains every one of their days. In proclaiming this, Scripture does not seem to leave any room for the possibility that the image of God is only attained part way through a pregnancy. As far as the biblical authors are concerned, to be human is to bear the image of God, and if anyone bears God's image, their life is in His hands to do with as He pleases. When one kills another human being without a just cause, it is a form of stealing from God and an attempt to appropriate His authority.
Scripture records the prayer of Hannah, a godly woman who longed for a child through many years until the Lord finally allowed her to conceive. In it, she boldly states, "The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up" (1 Samuel 2:6). The Bible is clear: It is a grave sin when this divine prerogative is usurped by human beings, one which brings the offender under God's wrath.
When following the logical course of secular society's presuppositions, one arrives at the conclusion that a human fetus is merely a part of a woman's body, over which she has complete autonomy until a certain point in its development when the fetus becomes a person in its own right. Alternatively, the reasoning of Scripture leads us to the conclusion that a fetus is always a person, and not simply a part of the mother's body. Not only that, but his or her life belongs to God, and may only be taken by another human being with proper moral justification (as outlined in Scripture).
Perhaps no passage captures this contrast Ezekiel 16, when God speaks about how He chose Israel to be His people.
"As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing; you were not rubbed with salt or even wrapped in cloths. No eye looked with pity on you to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you. Rather you were thrown out into the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born. When I passed by you and saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you while you were in your blood, 'Live!' Yes, I said to you while you were in your blood, 'Live!'" (Ezekiel 16:4-6)
Even as the Lord breathed life into Adam, so He gives life to every developing human being. "Live!" he proclaims. It is He who determines the length of our days. But even in that same passage, the sinful turn of Israel is revealed, in which they forgot who gave them life and sought to play the role of God in chasing after idols:
"You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols by causing them to pass through the fire. Besides all your abominations and harlotries you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare and squirming in your blood." (Ezekiel 16:21-22)
By denying God as Creator and the possession of His image by every human being, secular society has entered a brave new world, a world of moral ambiguity in which the value of each human is subjectively determined by the cultural norms of the hour. To them, that famous declaration in the Heidelberg Catechism--"I am not my own"--is not a source of comfort, but an attempt at oppression. The world clings to its chief value of individual autonomy, and is happy to sacrifice anything else upon that altar.
Where will this lead us as a society? Where has it already led us? To deny the equal personhood and value of another human being is, if history teaches us anything, to place them on the path to justified elimination. But as the world does the dance of death, God speaks a word over us: "Live!"
The choice we face as human beings is whether to acknowledge a Creator who gives life, or to put ourselves on a path that leads to death. Few issues reveal this more starkly than the question of elective abortion.
Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.
Classic Koop: Life, Bioethics, Christianity by C. Everett Koop
"How the Evangelical Church Awoke to the Abortion Issue" by Matthew Miller
What is Man? by Craig Troxel
"Gender and the Image of God" by David Garner [ Audio Disc | Download ]