Abortion: Examining the Torah’s Commandment Regarding the Unborn

Reposted from the Kineti blog and authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.

Abortion is a hot topic again in the public sphere, spurred by the US President’s appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice, Judge Kavanaugh, who appears to be pro-life.

This has spilled over into pop culture as well.

Comedian Michelle Wolf used her Netflix show last week to dress up in a patriotic costume and shout, “God bless abortions, and God bless America.”

Seeing this last week, conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro noted the left’s evolving view of abortion: from unfortunate necessity to cause célèbre.

Back in 2005, I wrote that the Democratic “safe, legal and rare” formulation regarding abortion was logically and morally untenable…[but] They’re now “shouting” their abortions, proclaiming them from the rooftops, suggesting that there is a moral good achieved by abortion.

This led to a spat between Jewish public figures about whether Judaism itself is really pro-life.

Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew himself, tweeted,

This sparked off a public dispute between Shapiro and Jewish author Quinn Cummings.

From there, it exploded further. Rabbi Josh Yuter chimed in, saying the Torah is neither pro-choice nor pro-life. He claimed that trying to shoehorn contemporary terminology – like pro-life or pro-choice – into an ancient document distorts it.

Haaretz, a leftist Israeli publication, published an opinion piece from Rabbi Avraham Bronstein, Why Does Ben Shapiro Sound Like a Christian Evangelical on Abortion? In it, Bronstein argues Judaism’s view on abortion is decided on a case-by-case basis, and is not decidedly pro-life:

Abortion has been a trickier issue to navigate for the Orthodox Jewish community, which tends to identify with socially conservative and pro-Israel Republican values but lines up in religious thought and practice somewhere between the ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ camps.

Shapiro fired back with Yes, Judaism is Pro-Life, in which he shows abortion is generally forbidden, and only permitted in certain extreme circumstances:

The Orthodox community lines up heavily in the Republican camp, and certainly not in the pro-choice camp, for a series of simple reasons. First…the baseline halacha – with exceptions, of course – is that abortion is forbidden unless the mother’s life is in danger. The clear consensus of the rishonim (medieval authorities) is that abortion is a Biblical prohibition, the only question being about which scriptural prohibition is implicated.

This is the position of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (who considered abortion murder) to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (who agreed) to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (who also agreed, stating in 1975, “to me it is something vulgar, this clamor of the liberals that abortion be permitted”) to Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef (who said that abortion is Biblically prohibited past three months and at least rabbinically prohibited before then).

Nearly all these commentators are pointing out what Judaism-the-religion practices. Judaism’s base text, the Torah, does speak to the life of the unborn in a single passage.

Thousands of years later, Judaism’s sages made contemporary rulings based on that Torah passage and cultural norms. For Orthodox Jews, their view is informed by thousands of years of developed halacha built atop the Torah.

But for Messianic Jews and Hebrew Roots Christians, our view is informed primarily by Torah and the Gospels. Jewish halacha is a point of reference, but not a binding authority.

With that reality in mind, what does the Torah say about abortion? And given that foundation, how should serious disciples of Yeshua view abortion?

I spend the rest of this post answering those two questions in earnest.

Does abortion fall under “Thou Shalt Not Murder”?

The Torah is a legal document, a kind of constitutional blue print for ancient civilization. I happen to believe it is still useful to guide modern civilization. As Jewish luminary Dennis Prager puts it, the 10 Commandments are still the best moral code humanity has seen.

The 20th century saw many attempts at creating moral codes and civilizations apart from Judeo-Christian values – notably Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, both atheists – and they failed in spectacular ways.

Given the premise that the Torah is a document that helps shape good morality on a civilizational scale, humans should look at it as a primary source of moral instruction.

Many fundamentalist Christians, including folks in my area of religious influence, take a hardline stance: abortion is murder. The Torah clearly prohibits murder, as we’re all familiar with the 10 commandments, one of which is:

You shall not commit murder.

-Exodus 20

The reasoning goes like this:

  1. God says murder is immoral.
  2. Murder is the deliberate taking of human life.
  3. Abortion is the deliberate taking of unborn human life.
  4. Therefore, abortion is murder.

The only wrinkle in all this is #3, unborn human life. Does the Torah say unborn children are full humans?

This isn’t a question I had really considered deeply, always assuming the answer is yes. The question itself is a slippery slope; it’s not difficult to imagine a few centuries ago people asking, “Does the Bible consider blacks to be fully human?” (In fact, in researching this post, I found an old Christian commentary on Exodus likening blacks to lower class non-Jewish slaves in ancient Israel.) I don’t like the question, “Is human group X less than human because Y”, as it tends to justify atrocities.

Maybe a better question is, does the Torah give us any reason to believe unborn children are not fully human?

The answer is a matter of dispute.

Here is the Torah commandment in question:

If men fight, and hit a pregnant woman so that her child is born early, yet no harm follows, the one who hit her is to be strictly fined, according to what the woman’s husband demands of him. He must pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you are to penalize life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, blow for blow.

-Exodus 21:22

This commandment tells us that if an unborn child is born early due to inadvertent injury to the mother, the violent actor pays a court-ordered fine to the woman.

This has led some, e.g. Reform Judaism, to say the ‘born early’ means miscarriage. Indeed, some English translations use the term ‘miscarriage’ here.

Pro-choice Christians and Jews argue, “Well, if the injury resulted in a miscarriage, and only a fine was imposed, that means the Torah values unborn children less than full humans.”

The crux issue here is what “born early” means.

Does it mean miscarriage and death of the fetus?

Or does it mean premature but live birth?”

If the former, the Torah might value the fetus as less-than-human. Then the pro-choice crowd has an argument.

If the latter, the Torah values the fetus as human; life for life.

The Hebrew text reads,

וְכִי-יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים, וְנָגְפוּ אִשָּׁה הָרָה וְיָצְאוּ יְלָדֶיהָ, וְלֹא יִהְיֶה, אָסוֹן–עָנוֹשׁ יֵעָנֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָשִׁית עָלָיו בַּעַל הָאִשָּׁה, וְנָתַן, בִּפְלִלִים

Notice ְיָצְאוּ יְלָדֶיהָ – yatzu yeladeha – literally, “the child comes out.” Does that imply miscarriage? If so, it would mean the Torah values an unborn human being less than children or adults.

The answer is uncertain, but quite positive for pro-life folks. The Hebrew word יצאו or its Hebrew root word is used 1,061 times in the Tenakh, and only once is it used to describe a dead child. (And in the one time it describes death, it is describing a still birth, not a miscarriage.)

If the Torah isn’t actually describing a miscarriage, but a premature live birth, then it’s bad news for pro-choice folks. It means the Torah values unborn children at the same level as children and adults.

There’s two other problems for the pro-choice here:

  1. This verse is describing an accidental death, not a deliberate murder.
  2. Even if the verse reads as the pro-choice folks wish it, it doesn’t permit abortion-for-any-reason.

Accidental death is not abortion

Notice how this verse begins: “If men fight, and hit a pregnant woman…”

This suggests that the woman was not deliberately hit, but received collateral damage. For example, if a wife was trying to break up a fight between her husband and another man, and was inadvertently injured. This accidental nature of the injury isn’t disputed.

The Torah doesn’t prescribe the same punishment for deliberate murder and inadvertent killing. (Our modern law codes likewise follow; we call the former murder, the latter manslaughter.)

And even if we are once again generous in saying the woman was deliberately hit, it’s clear that the unborn child wasn’t the target of the violence.

Abortion, on the other hand, is entirely deliberate. A woman chooses to kill her unborn infant.

If this verse read as charitably towards the pro-choice crowd as possible, the best it could read is,

“If you accidentally induce a miscarriage, you must pay a fine. But if the mother’s life is lost, it’s the death penalty for you.”

-Pro-choice interpretation of Exodus 21:22

Even this best-case interpretation for pro-choicers is hardly a ringing endorsement for modern abortion!

But that charitable reading is unlikely. A likely more faithful reading is,

“If you accidentally hit a woman and induce early birth, you must pay a fine. But if the any life is lost, it’s the death penalty for you.”

-A more accurate interpretation of Exodus 21:22

Christian theologian and preacher John Piper makes the same argument: this verse almost certainly refers to premature live birth, not a miscarriage. And if that’s true, there’s no reason to believe the Torah values unborn children less than children or adults.

This isn’t abortion for any reason

Suppose again the pro-choice folks are correct, and this verse is actually describing a miscarriage. The verse would then mean: “if men fight and accidentally injure a pregnant woman, causing the death of her unborn child, he must pay a fine.”

Even if we were to grant such a reading, this still is a far stretch from abortion-for-any-reason. And this is indeed what the political left is pushing for: abortions for any reason. Or, as Michelle Wolf stated on her Netflix show last week,

If you need an abortion, get one! [throws confetti]

If you want an abortion, get one! [throws confetti]

If you’re not pregnant but want to order a future abortion, get one! [throws confetti]

No faithful Jew or Christian could make the argument that the Torah permits what Michelle Wolf and other leftists are pushing for, and have already legalized: abortion for any reason.

Summary of the Torah and Gospels on life

The Torah gives us one commandment about the injury and potential death of unborn children. It simply cannot be used to justify abortion-on-demand and abortion-for-any-reason.

Even in the best-case interpretation for pro-choice religious people, it could only be read as an accidental miscarriage carrying a lesser weight than murder. If we read it in that way – even though it’s probably an incorrect interpretation of the original meaning – even then the Torah prescribes a monetary penalty for those who accidentally harm the fetus.

One wonders, what would the Torah prescribe for those who deliberately harm or kill and infant? I’m not sure religious leftists have an answer for this; I haven’t seen one.

Finally, now that we’ve dealt with the actual text of the Torah, note that both Jews and Christians have historically made exceptions for abortion on a case-by-case basis. If the mother’s is in mortal danger due to a birth problem, abortion has sometimes been permitted; the Jewish sages value the life of the mother over the life of the unborn.

Should disciples of Yeshua do that?

Yeshua lived out the Torah in a way that favored life over ritual. For example, he concurred it was permissible to save the life of a donkey even if shabbat laws forbade working on the 7th day. The gospels also record Yeshua ruling that it’s better for a man to take care of his parents in old age than to dedicate all his resources to the Temple.

If Messiah favored life over ritual, how much more would he favor life over convenience? If a mother simply doesn’t want a child due to inconvenience, what Scriptural grounds could we give her to validate her choosing abortion?

From either the Tenakh or the New Testament, I can’t think of even one.