There is one passage in the entire Bible dedicated to abortion. Because of its euphemistic language, it is easy to miss. These facts alone stand in direct contrast to the amount of attention dedicated to the issue by contemporary ideologues. Amazingly, its substance also contradicts every argument against abortion based on biblical principles.
In Numbers, God gives Moses a test for adultery: a pregnant woman whose husband suspects infidelity is to go before a priest who will administer her a “water of bitterness that brings a curse.” Should its drinking result in abortion (“make your belly swell up and your thigh shrivel’), adultery is confirmed. If she remains immune to it, the woman is absolved from doubt.
The full text is Numbers 5:11–31. Below is 16–22, the most relevant excerpt (NASB translation):
“Then the priest shall bring her forward and have her stand before the Lord, and the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware container; and he shall take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it in the water. The priest shall then have the woman stand before the Lord and let down the hair of the woman’s head, and place the grain offering of reminder in her hands, that is, the grain offering of jealousy; and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse. And the priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, “If no man has had sexual relations with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, as you are under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; if, however, you have gone astray, though under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had sexual intercourse with you” (then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), “may the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people by the Lord’s making your thigh shriveled and your belly swollen; and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, to make your belly swell up and your thigh shrivel.” And the woman shall say, “Amen, Amen.””
Given the amount of time and energy that the church, advocates and legislatures around the globe have devoted to the issue, one would be forgiven to believe that abortion is clearly prohibited by the Bible.
Instead, the Bible imposes abortion as punishment.
Think about that for a second. If abortion is punishment for bad behavior, it is a direct contrast to every anti-abortion argument put forward on biblical basis, which form the majority of anti-abortion arguments in many nations. In this one instance when the Bible addresses the issue, it is a life improperly lived that is the culprit, i.e. adultery, while abortion is its corrector. In inducing abortion under the supervision of a priest, the Bible firmly places the value on the woman’s life, her relationship to her husband, and the correction of her suspected misdeeds.
This is especially remarkable in the context of the Ancient Near East, where the book of Numbers comes from. Ancient Israelite society, like its contemporaries, held a woman’s life entirely under the purview of her husband; her standing was very much related to her ability to have children — but of course, whose children also matters. It is tempting to view this passage as the furthering of men’s authority over the lives of women, and in a modern sense it is. But through ancient eyes, eliminating a suspicious pregnancy through abortion, and thus giving a wife the ability to return to her husband’s good graces is also an act of kindness towards the woman.
Therefore, unlike contemporary abortion bans, the Bible gives parents agency over their lives and over a pregnancy. The claim that every pregnancy has to be carried to term as “God’s will” goes directly against this biblical standard.
Abortion prohibitions that cite the Bible as their basis never refer to this text, despite it being the one time the Bible addresses the issue. Instead, they are based on bans on the taking of human life, of which there are plenty. The problem is that by doing so, they deny the fundamental principle embedded in God’s command to Moses: the placing of agency over the parents’ fully formed lives. What they do is to emphasize the potential for human life instead.
The Bible defines human life in multiple places as the ability to breathe. Fetuses do not breathe; parents do. A pregnancy, then, is a potential for human life. In this one instance that the Bible addresses abortion, it is clear that the parents’ lives are held to a standard of expectation of behavior. The termination of the pregnancy with the priest’s assistance would be due to a failure to meet these standards.
The issue of expectation of behavior is especially resonant in cases of rape and incest, which so many abortion bans try to also overlook by placing the emphasis on the potential for life. But it is equally relevant when a potential mother knows that she will not be able to provide for her potential child, when a potential father abandons, when life circumstances make the bringing of another human into this world impossible.
There is one further step we can take: if one believes God to be the creator of all life, one has to entrust God with what God entrusts, and God has entrusted women with the bringing of human life into the world. Surely, God could have come up with a different way to create new humans besides pregnancy. But God did not do so. The fact that God endowed women with that ability (and ability is just that: ability; not obligation) means that God trusts women to determine what is best for their offspring. Making abortion illegal is removing God’s trust in women, therefore going against God’s will.