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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics What is This? Explores the relationship between the text of the Bible and the development and contexts of ethical frameworks.


There are no references to intentionally induced abortion in the Bible. The closest possible allusion is in Numbers 5:11–30, where drinking bitter water will make the womb of a woman guilty of adultery discharge (Magdalene, 2009, p. 140). Condemnation of sorcery through pharmakeia (Gal 5:20; Rev 9:21) could include its use for abortion but this is not conclusive (Hays, 1996, p. 448). In the light of such silence, to assess what might have been the attitudes of biblical writers to abortion entails consideration of indirect evidence. This includes biblical material of indirect relevance, comments by early Jewish and Christian authors, and principles and values of the time that are likely to have informed those attitudes.

Indirect Biblical References.

Job wishes he had been stillborn (3:11; cf. also Eccl 6:3) and Aaron pleads that Miriam not be “like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb” (Num 12:12). In rhetorical self-deprecation Paul uses the word ektrōma to depict himself as one to whom the risen Christ appeared (1 Cor 15:8), a term used of abortion, natural premature birth, or miscarriage, but here focused not on timing but on lowliness. The fullest reference comes in a section of the Holiness Code in Exodus that deals with damage to men’s property (21:21–25). It occurs in the context of rules of compensation and punishment in relation to acts of violence (manslaughter and murder: 21:12–14; against parents: 21:15; kidnapping: 21:16; cursing parents: 21:17; injuring another: 21:18–19; against slaves: 21:20–21 and 21:26–27; and damage to or by an ox: 21:28–36). “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (21:22–25). The Hebrew text is ambiguous. Instead of “so that there is a miscarriage” (lit., “and her children come out”) NIV renders: “and she gives birth prematurely.” In “and yet no further harm follows” (lit.: “and there is no harm”) Hebrew uses ʾāsôn, a word for serious harm, including fatal harm, such as Jacob fears for Benjamin if he goes down to Egypt on the basis of what he believed had happened to Joseph (Gen 42:4, 38). Thus “if any harm follows” most likely refers to a death. Accordingly, the ruling may envisage the two instances as: (1) causing a miscarriage where the mother does not die and causing a miscarriage where the mother dies (Köckert, 2004, pp. 53–55) or (2) causing a premature birth where the child survives and causing a premature birth where the child or the mother or both die (Jackson, 1975, pp. 94–99; Propp, 2006, pp. 221–225; Fisk, 1996). In favor of the first alternative is the fact that comparable laws (Sumerian, Middle Assyrian, Hammurabi, and Hittite; Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 175, 181, 184–185) deal similarly with such accidental injury causing miscarriage and differentiate between whether the mother survives or dies (Köckert, 2004, pp. 61–66; Dozeman, 2009, p. 534). The unusual plural “her children” may well be a way of referring to the fetus (Köckert) rather than multiple embryos. The distinction between the miscarriage and the harm as something separate would cohere with a focus on harm to the mother. The fine makes best sense if it is for loss of the fetus and so future offspring, rather than as compensation for the inconvenience of a premature birth, for which there is no comparable fine. If the text refers to miscarriage then the second instance must refer to a different element, namely the mother’s death. These grounds render the first alternative more likely, but the second, namely premature birth and a damaged or dead baby or/and mother, is not impossible. With either alternative, the second instance entailing death warrants the punishment of “life for life,” which may mean literally the death penalty (Propp, 2006, pp. 225–229), though to this point in the context that has been expressed directly (21:15, 16, 17). In Hammurabi’s Law it entails killing the perpetrator’s daughter. The so-called lex talionis (21:23B–25) appears to function as a guide to control levels of compensation in general (Köchert, 2004, pp. 57–58; Sarna, 2004, p. 94), rather than having direct application to what precedes (similarly in Lev 24:17–22 and Deut 19:18–19, 21). This law, like its parallels, assumes the importance of producing offspring, not least on economic grounds, and so appropriately belongs in the context of damage to a man’s property. Thus he determines the fine, not the woman. The aborted fetus in both instances is not given the status of a human person. If, following the second alternative, there is reference to the death of the baby, then one can argue that the premature child is being counted as another human being to whose death “life for life” applies (Fisk, 1996).

Jewish Writers.

In expounding the law in the context of early third century B.C.E. Alexandria, the Greek translation made changes to Exodus 21:22–23: the fight is now between only two men, “child” replaces “children” and most significantly “her children come out and there is no harm” becomes: “her child comes forth not fully formed.” Correspondingly in the second instance it reads: “but if it is fully formed.” This changes the focus from damage to the woman (assuming the first alternative above) or from premature birth or death of the baby at birth and/or the mother (assuming the second alternative) to the state of the dead fetus. In differentiating “not fully formed” from “fully formed,” it treats the latter as a “life” for which one must “give” (dōsei) life (Köckert, pp. 67–70). This change reflects knowledge of the stages of development of a fetus derived from contemporary discussion and perhaps even informed by the work of human dissection being pioneered in Alexandria. Aristotle had condemned abortion once the fetus reached the stage of being a life, which he set as after 40 days for a boy and 90 for a girl (Pol. 1335b, 24–25; Hist. an. 7.3). The Septuagint (LXX) version lacks such precision. In using the word “formed” (exeikonismenon) the translators may have intended an allusion to Genesis 1:26 and especially 9:6, which grounds the prohibition of killing by pointing to human beings as bearing God’s image (eikōn) (Lindemann, 2001, p. 137; Köckert, 2004, p. 69), but this cannot be proven.

The Epistle of Enoch (mid to late second century B.C.E.) describes people living in the time of God’s judgment as giving birth to children but then abandoning them and includes the statement that “those who are with child will [abort]” (1 En. 99:5), probably referring to induced abortion. Distress will drive people to such evil deeds. The Parables of Enoch (early first century C.E.) report that the watcher Kasdeya “showed the sons of men all the evil blows of spirits and demons, and the blows of the foetus in the womb, so that it aborts” (1 En. 69:12). The reference is to inducing abortions, possibly through physical blows or through spells and incantations. Pseudo-Phocylides (late first century B.C.E.), written in ancient Greek hexameters by a Jew using the persona of the seventh-century Miletian philosopher, affirms procreation (175–176) and condemns abortion: “A woman should not destroy an unborn babe in the womb, nor after bearing it should she cast it out as prey for dogs and vultures. Lay not a hand on your wife while she is pregnant” (184–186). It derives the warning against laying a hand on one’s wife from Exodus 21:22–23, but understood now as deliberate violence on the part of the husband.

Philo treats the Exodus law within his exposition of “You shall not kill,” similarly treating the blow as deliberate. Where “the result of the miscarriage is unshaped,” warranting a fine, he adds condemnation for “obstructing the artist Nature in her creative work.” He deems execution warranted “if the offspring is fully shaped” because it is to be treated as “a human being” (Spec. 3.108–109). He goes on to condemn exposure of infants (Spec. 3.110–16; similarly Virt. 131–133; Sib. Or. 3.765–766), again citing the death penalty for abortion. He refers to the view of “natural philosophers” and “physicians” of his day that “the child while still adhering to the womb below the belly is part of its future mother” but adds: “when the child has been brought to the birth it is separated from the organism with which it was identified…and therefore infanticide undoubtedly is murder” (Spec. 3.117–118). Like Paul, he also employs the image of aborted fetuses metaphorically to depict inadequacy (Migr. 33; Post. 73–74; Deus 14–15; Mut. 144; Migr. 33; Leg. 1.76). In Hypoth. he declares that a man “must not make abortive the generative power of men by gelding nor that of women by sterilizing drugs and other devices” (7.7). The latter appears to draw on tradition common also to Pseudo-Phocylides and Josephus, who states that the Law outlaws infanticide and abortion, because a woman doing so “destroys a soul and diminishes the race” (Ap. 2.202; cf. Ps.-Phoc. 184). There was wide condemnation of women inducing abortion of their offspring, gruesomely (symbolically) punished in Middle Assyrian Law by having them impaled on a stake (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 185). Josephus reflects the Hebrew text in explaining Exodus 21:22–23 as referring to miscarriage and the death of the woman (A.J. 4.278). He also notes that Essenes abstain from intercourse during pregnancy (B.J. 2.161; cf. Ap. 2.202), a concern apparently assumed in Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen/1Q20 2.9–10, 13b–14a) and in the Damascus Document (4QDe/4Q270 2 ii.15–16; 6QD/6Q15 5 2–3; and 4QDb/4Q267 9 vi.4–5) where the fear is apparently causing harm to the fetus.

The evidence suggests that Jews did oppose abortion, reflected also in early Christian approaches (Did. 2:2; Barn. 19:5). Both Hecataeus (Diod. Sic. 40.3.8) and Tacitus (Hist. 5.3) attest to it as a stance typical of Jews, using it to account for their population growth. Abortion was practiced in the Greco-Roman world (not widely: so Lindemann, 2001, p. 134) by herbal and mechanical means, though not without dissent, most notably in the Hippocratic oath, though perhaps referring only to one method (Lindemann, 2001, pp. 132–133; cf. also Soranus Gyn. 1.19.60–65), but also by philosophers such as Plutarch, who condemned women for doing so just to return to sexual pleasure (Tu. san. 134F) (Anderson, 2004, pp. 31–33).

Biblical Principles.

While poetic allusions celebrating God’s care from conception onward (Ps 51:5; 139:13–16; cf. also Jer 1:5; Isa 49:1, 5; Gal 1:15)—or, similarly, God’s election of the saints from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4)—cannot be read as scientific comments on prenatal existence, biblical writers clearly shared a common belief in creation and procreation as something favored by God; and they were aware of prenatal life and its development (recognizing pregnancy after three months: Gen 38:24; movement in the womb: Gen 25:22; Luke 1:39–45; formation: Wis 7:1–2; 4 Macc 13:20; as from milk to cheese Job 10:10). Beside the value put on offspring for economic reasons and concern about survival of the species, which Jews shared with cultures of their day, belief both in God’s involvement in creation and procreation and in hope as including abundance of offspring (Exod 23:26) indicates that any thwarting of that process would have met with disapproval, explaining why it never needed mention in the texts. This does not yet imply a particular understanding of the character of the fetus, though the LXX reflects differentiation between when it could be deemed human life and when not. Rabbinic tradition treats it as still part of the mother and not a human life until born (m. ʾOhal. 7:6; m. Nid. 5:3). Appropriations of biblical texts today in relation to abortion usually deal with the silence of the texts by weighing the indirect evidence, but then also by employing hermeneutical perspectives variously informed by broader biblically based principles such as compassion, response to human need, respect for human life, and commitment to conformity to biblical commands.




  • Anderson, Cheryl B. Women, Ideology, and Violence: Critical Theory and Construction of Gender in the Book of the Covenant and the Deuteronomic Law. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
  • Dozeman, Thomas B. Commentary on Exodus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009.
  • Fisk, Bruce N. “Abortion.” In Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1996. www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/ Abortion.html (accessed 27 May 2013).
  • Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.
  • Jackson, Bernard. “The Problem of Exodus 21:22–5 (Ius Talionis).” In Essays in Jewish and Comparative Legal History, pp. 74–107. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 10. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1975.
  • Köckert, Matthias, and Heidelore, Köckert. “Ungeborenes Leben in Exodus 21,22–25: Wandlungen im Verständnis eines Rechtssatzes.” In Lebenstechnologie und Selbstverständnis: Hintergründe einer aktuellen Debatte, edited by Ingolf Hübner, pp. 43–74. Münster, Germany: Lit-Verlag, 2004.
  • Lindemann, Andreas. “Schwangerschaftsabbruch als ethisches Problem im antiken Judentum und im frühen Christentum.” Wort und Dienst 26 (2001): 127–148.
  • Magdalene, F. Rachel. “Abortion: 1. Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.” In Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception I, edited by Hans-Josef Klauck et al., pp. 138–140. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.
  • Pritchard, James B., ed. The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Propp, William H. C. Exodus 19–40: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible Commentary. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation/Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.

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