Biblical and Pastoral Reflections on the Abortion Debate
Although it is never far from the spotlight, recent weeks have thrust the topic of abortion high up the agenda on news bulletins, social media, and workplace conversation. Christians face a difficult task in such circumstances—we must speak the truth in love, be both salt and light, walk-in wisdom, and form words with grace. This can be difficult, but it is not impossible. Biblical and pastoral reflection can help us be faithful and winsome.
The Bible is not a medical textbook. To acknowledge such may at first appear blatantly obvious. But it is an imperative first step for the Christian wrestling with their response to abortion, particularly those promoting or availing of abortion. Nevertheless, Scripture contains truth enough to guide Christians in all matters of faith and practice. While Scripture is not exhaustive on the issue, it is most certainly sufficient.
In at least four ways, Scripture bears witness to the reality that the entity in the womb is a distinct human being.
First, Scripture’s testimony is that humans are sinners from conception. In his famous psalm of confession, David acknowledges: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Here, David is making a statement about original sin. He is confessing—and teaching—that every human suffers the same disease: sin. The telling detail of the abortion debate is the moment at which this disease takes hold is conception. The implication is that a distinct, new life begins at conception.
Second, Scripture teaches that the entity in the womb is alive. The Law testifies to this truth by including stipulations regarding harm caused to the child in the womb (Exod. 21:22–25). In their darkest hours, Jeremiah and Job lamented that they were not killed in the womb (Jer. 20:17) or at birth (Job 3:11). Do not miss the logic in these dreadful desires: to die, one must first be alive. They both understood themselves to be alive in the womb (Ps. 139:13–16; Eccl. 11:5).
Third, Scripture records several individuals being called to God’s service from the womb. Some will argue that all kinds of things are alive: bacteria, dogs, trees, etc. To be called to the task of serving God, however, suggests that the life in the womb is a distinct human. Samson was called from the womb to be a Nazarite who would deliver Israel (Judg. 13:5). The mysterious Servant in Isaiah 40–55 is likewise called from the womb to serve as a prophet (Isa. 49:1). The prophet Jeremiah relates his calling from the womb at the beginning of his book (Jer. 1:5). God calls humans, not a collection of cells, to the task of deliverance or preaching.
Fourth, Scripture affirms that some children need not be outside the womb to begin ministry. The most famous example of this is undoubtedly John the Baptist. In Luke 1:15, we read of the promise that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb, and in verses 44–45, we read of John confirming the angel’s promise while still in his mother’s womb.
Piecing these four elements together, we cannot help but conclude that Scripture understands the entity in the womb to be a distinct human being: suffering sin, evidently alive and capable of being called and ministering from the womb. John Frame (Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons, and Problems, 1988, p. 13) concludes: “There is nothing in Scripture that even remotely suggests that the unborn child is anything less than a human person from the moment of conception.”
How do we respond to others who disagree with Scripture’s assessment of the situation? Please permit me to offer three pastoral reflections in answer to that question.
First, value the parents. It is much too easy, and sadly common, for Christians to vilify all individuals involved in advocating abortion. We are often too quick to attribute sinister motives to all involved, and in doing so, we overlook the parents to think only of the unborn child. As human beings, parents of the unwanted unborn are also image-bearers of God. There is no honor in protesting for the unborn child if we are not going to value the parents who are likewise living image-bearers. I remember listening to one anti-abortion campaigner assert that if you win the parent, there is a very high chance that you will save the child. We could go further and suggest that if you win the parent, you might save the family. Consider Christ’s example, he did not condone sin, but he had compassion for the sinner.
Second, demonstrate compassion. Not all, but some of those seeking an abortion are doing so because of drastic circumstances—perhaps the life they carry in the womb is the result of rape, incest, or abuse. Surely, we can understand why they might seek an abortion in those circumstances. The fear of seeing the face of your rapist staring back at you in the face of the child you have just birthed must be traumatic. Even lesser reasons such as financial pressures or responsibilities to aging parents or disabled family members must weigh heavy and cause anxiety for many. Stating this is not an attempt to legitimize these reasons for seeking an abortion; it is simply to highlight that individuals in these circumstances might respond better to compassion than criticism. Indeed, compassionate engagement may even provide the opportunity to educate individuals about viable options other than abortion, such as adoption. It might open an avenue to enter someone’s life in an intimate and eternally significant way. Remaining faithful to Scripture does not necessitate shouting down advocates of abortion. Our theological convictions concerning abortion must not change, but I suggest the tone of our conversation should. I recently heard of an antagonistic unbeliever being disarmed by the simple question: “Are you ok?” She wasn’t, and that is why she was behaving as she was.
Third, offer the gospel. There is forgiveness available both for thoughts and actions. Abortion is not an unforgivable sin. It is possible to repent of grievous sin and experience the full grace of God. In the end, the good news of great joy in Jesus Christ is the only hope. Protests, petitions, and social action against abortion are helpful in various ways. Only the gospel will bring about true change, however. Our ultimate aim is not winning over public opinion, securing legislation, or even proving we are right—as Christians, we aim to make much of Jesus Christ. Only when Jesus is truly worshipped as Lord and Savior by an ever-increasing number of people will abortion cease to prevail. Our aim should not be to shout louder than our “opponents” but to proclaim a better hope: Jesus. May the Lord and his people have mercy!
Davy Ellison is married to Tracy. Having served in a variety of youth, pastoral and teaching roles in the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland, he now serves as the Director of Training for the Irish Baptist College and as an elder in Antrim Baptist Church. In 2021 he graduated with a Ph.D. in OT Biblical Studies from Queen’s University, Belfast. Davy is the author of a short overview of Isaiah entitled The Holy One of Israel: Exploring Isaiah, a primer on Reformation Theology entitled Five: The Solas of the Reformation, and forthcoming books on meekness and resurrection in the Old Testament. He has also written for historicaltheology.org, Evangelicals Now, The Gospel Coalition, and For The Church. Some of his academic work has been published in Themelio and Semănătorul. You can connect with Davy on Twitter: @DavyEllison.