No Sean Winter, you are wrong about the Bible and abortion

Do you believe the Bible supports abortion? I’m not asking whether you support abortion or not, and to what extent. My interest here is more narrow. As you read the Bible, is your impression that the Scriptures advocate abortion or speak against abortion?

Photo by Melike Benli on Pexels.com

Sean Winter, from the University of Divinity, argues in The Conversation, that Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible.

I’ll admit, I was taken back when I read Winter’s argument. Even now as I write, I am stunned by his colander approach to the Bible. Winter makes some effort to quote many of the Bible verses that Christians refer to, but for the most part, he simply throws them away as irrelevant to any discussion on abortion. For someone who repeatedly states with imperial determination, ‘the Bible says nothing’, he offers virtually no interaction with the body of teaching in Scripture that speaks to the issue. Quoting and then dismissing Bible verses isn’t an argument. 

Winter’s (mis)use of the Bible deserves a response, not because I think there is any weight in his argument but because the issue of abortion matters, women matter, children matter, and what the Bible teaches matters.

His central thesis is, “Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible.”

The article reads like a classic example of, I know what my conclusion is, therefore I’m going to do my utmost to squeeze Christian theology into my preconceived preferences.

Does the Bible use the word abortion? No.  Does this mean that the Bible is silent on the issue? Absolutely not. There are many words not found in the Bible and yet the Bible speaks clearly and wonderfully into these situations.  For example, the word ‘Trinity’ doesn’t appear and yet the Triune God is the most foundational of all Christian beliefs. Christian theology is rarely built on a single word or sentence from the Bible but properly takes into account the entire counsel of God and rightly attributes words and teachings according to their context in God’s schema that is salvation history. 

Let’s take a few examples, 

Of Psalm 139 Winter suggests, 

“What the Bible does contain are some verses which seem to refer to the status of the unborn fetus. The most famous and commonly cited is Psalm 139:13–16, a poem in which the Psalmist expresses the view that God created them in the womb.”

Winter offers virtually no argument, he simply discounts this famous Psalm as offering no contribution to the subject of abortion.  Let’s examine the verses in question,

The Psalmist is adoring God and recognising God’s exquisite craftmanship, and he shouts what is true of all children, 

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139:13-16)

The child inside the womb is a child. This child is God’s creation and known to God, they are not a mere clump of cells and nonperson. There is no point at which the embryo is not human life and worthy of living. There is no artificial date set, as though they became a person at 12 weeks or at birth. The beauty and wonder of personhood is observed and considered from conception, ‘when I was made in the secret place’.

When it comes Jeremiah 1:5, Winter again wants us to think ‘there is nothing to see here’.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

    before you were born I set you apart;

    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

At the very least, this verse attributes Divine value and purpose to Jeremiah, which exists even before the point of his conception. Far from adding nothing to the conversation on abortion, Jeremiah 1:5 heightens the importance and dignity of the child carried in his mother’s womb.  

Winter then resurrects the worn-out trope, ‘Jesus said nothing’. This line of thought is sometimes brought out of the cupboard when someone wants to argue that Christianity supports homosexual relations: Jesus never said anything, therefore the act is morally good and Christians should support it. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to realise how tenuous is this argument. For example, when it comes to marriage, Jesus affirmed the Genesis paradigm, that marriage is for a man and a woman and all other sexual relations is porneia.

Winter asserts, 

“Jesus isn’t remembered as saying anything about the unborn. Paul is silent on the issue.

Attempts to claim otherwise are ideologically informed cases of special pleading.”

On the question of Jesus and abortion, Winter’s logic can as easily be reversed. Jesus never spoke in support of killing unborn children, and so “attempts to claim otherwise are ideologically informed cases of special pleading.”

As we read the Gospels in the New Testament what we find with Jesus is that he repeatedly and consistently affirmed the value of human life, from the youngest to the oldest. Jesus was known for his welcoming of and love of little children. Jesus loved the vulnerable in society and taught his disciples to do likewise. Who is more vulnerable than a little baby not yet born?

Perhaps the Bible’s clearest word on the topic of abortion is the 6th Commandment, 

“You shall not murder”.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reaffirmed God’s law, including this prohibition, do not murder. If Jesus upholds the commandment on murder and murder is killing innocent human life, then it’s not ‘special pleading’ in believing Jesus disproves of abortion. That is the natural and right way to read the Bible. The only way for Winter to get around this teaching is if he believes the child in the womb isn’t a person. On this point, Winter seems unwilling to tell his readers. He is quite absolute about some things, but for some reason, he’s not able to tell us whether the embryo is a person or not. 

Although, at one point he makes this rather odd statement, 

“The Christian rejection of abortion seems to have been predicated on assumptions the fetus is a person”

Ummm…yeah, and it’s not an assumption, it is a biological fact. Is Sean Winter seriously suggesting that the foetus is not a person? Before ultrasounds, some abortion proponents could trot out that view, but we can now see with our own eyes how false that myth is. It just happens that the Bible was already right in what it describes about the unborn. 

The Bible is clear on these two factors: the unborn is a person and murder is wrong. Combining these two teachings of the Bible which is the logical thing to do, it’s apparent that Sean Winter is not even close to finding support for his thesis. Again, he may find a little traction amongst those who are searching for religious support for abortion, but even a half-measured reading of the Bible demonstrates that he falls shorter than teeing off a 5 par hole with a breadstick.

Once Winter has finished dismantling nothing from the Bible, he then proceeds to whitewash the known views of early Christians who consistently saw abortion and infanticide as sin. 

Early Christians were renowned for saving newborns who were unwanted and left to die from exposure and starvation. Abortion was an acceptable practice in many ancient civilisations but not among Jewish and Christian communities. In the ancient world, abortion was not always successful and doctors couldn’t discern the sex of the baby until birth. Hence, at birth, many little girls were left to die. Christians took them in and loved and raised them. Why? Because it was a political maneuver? Or perhaps they were convinced from the Christian faith that saving the lives of the littlest children was right.

The first century Jewish text, Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides 184–186 (c. 50 B.C.–A.D. 50) says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.” Christians adopted the Jewish view of the unborn, as they did with many ethical principles from the Old Testament. 

The Didache 2.2 (c. A.D. 85–110) commands, “thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”

The Letter of Barnabas 19.5 (c. A.D. 130), said: “You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide.”

500 years before the invention of the ultrasound, John Calvin said this of Exodus 21:22

“The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy…if it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light,”

The position Calvin spells out from Scripture is today demonstrably proven through scientific technology. The living mass growing in the mother’s womb is indeed a human being.

One doesn’t need to be a gynaecologist or obstetrician or theologian to realise that the Bible is big on life and takes a very dim view of killing innocence. Winter is so far off the mark. “Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible”? Not even close. The Christian view of life has everything to do with the Bible and everything to do with Jesus. Yes, this has political implications, as does every worldview. Winter’s claims are big and will no doubt be taken up as truth for some readers, but they are as false as the yeti and bunyip. 

Winter’s most significant transgression is how he snuffs out hope. By stripping the Bible of its meaning about life and killing, Winter rips the hope of Christ who offers forgiveness and new life. In recasting abortion as no longer an issue for God, Winter’s position leaves women without the hope that someone is able and willing to remove the guilt and pain they carry. I understand that it is currently popular to boast about abortion, but I also know the profound scars that are left behind. The Gospel is good news because Jesus sees our sins and he loves to forgive and restore. For Sean Winter to take away the need for forgiveness and restoration, is simply cruel and unbiblical. 

What should we think of overturning Roe v Wade?

On June 24th 2022 the Supreme Court of the United States overruled Roe V Wade, and thus returning the question of abortion to the States. The below piece was written almost two months prior to the decision in light of the leaking of the draft majority opinion. The observations made and the points argued remain unchanged in light of the decision.

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There are quite literally millions of strong opinions and emotions being expressed right now about the future of Roe v Wade. By no means am I attempting to say everything or even to offer the final word, but as an outsider, there is a message that I wish to convey to my American friends and even to Aussies, for the issue of abortion is also present here in Australia. But before I comment on the leak coming from the Supreme Court, I want to draw attention to an ancient, yet famous and important story.

Last Sunday our church started a new sermon series on the book of Exodus. I gave the series the title ‘Journeying Home’, as I think it captures the meaning of Exodus and the language used in Hebrews ch.11 that summarises the story’s theme and trajectory. 

Exodus begins with a violent and discordant juxtaposition: on the one hand, the LORD blesses his people and they multiply. From the 70 men and women who entered Egypt at the time of Joseph, generations later they now number more than a million, even more. At the same time, Pharaoh is threatened by the Israelites. He deems them a threat to social cohesion and cultural prosperity, and so he enslaves them. This strategy, while brutal, proves inadequate for God continues to bless the Israelites and their numbers increase. Pharaoh then sanctions the deaths of all newborn male infants. 

Two Hebrew women, Shiphrah and Puah, become heroes as they ignore Pharaoh’s decree and refuse to end the lives of these children. Frustrated that his ‘health plan’ was failing, he pushes further.  The river Nile may be the source of life for Egypt but Pharaoh turned it into a graveyard as thousands of babies were disposed of in the waters. 

I begin with the Exodus story, partly because it’s fresh in my mind and because we are rightly appalled by what we read. To hear of the mass destruction of the young should create outrage and tremendous grief. How can a civil authority feel so threatened by a people group that he gives licence for infant boys to be disposed of?  At the same time, Pharaoh was trying to protect a way of life; his autonomy, position and future. 

Of course, there are significant differences between Exodus and the United States and how the removal of the unborn or newborn is considered. However there is also an uncomfortable parallel, and that is, that the life of the young is conditional and the State can justify taking life when these little ones are deemed unwanted or a threat to personal progress and way of life. The evil perpetrated by Pharaoh does not stop at the fact that he sought to control an ethnic group, but that as an ethnic group these baby boys are human beings and therefore should never be treated as a commodity or considered as having less value or with fewer rights to live. 

United States Supreme Court Building. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. by Carol M Highsmith is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Today, the news story dominating the United States is the future of abortion. Yesterday a draft majority opinion was leaked to Politico. Written by Justice Samuel Alito, the paper outlines the argument to overturn Roe v Wade. This is the first time in American history that a document of this nature has been leaked. Many people are interpreting this leak as a last-ditch attempt to pressure the Supreme Court Justices to change their minds and uphold Roe v Wade.

Overturning Roe v Wade does not mean abortion will become illegal throughout all of the USA. It does, however (and in my mind correctly) determine that the United States Constitution nowhere presents or protects abortion as a right. If it turns out that the draft opinion accurately reflects the final decision of the court, it means that the issue of abortion will return to the states and therefore will become the responsibility of the people to decide what laws will govern the unborn. In practice this will probably mean some states will restrict abortion (limiting it to pregnancies under 24 weeks or 15 weeks), others may prohibit abortion altogether,  while other states will continue to commit abortions even up to the point of birth.

Any decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States has no legal bearing on my part of the world, but the cultural influence of America eventually washes across the Pacific Ocean. My own home here in the State of Victoria is more akin to New York State where abortion is lauded, even for infants who reach 40 weeks. While I am thankful for any public and legal decision that weakens the abortion position, I am reminded of how far my own context has regressed from upholding the sanctity of human life.

In the 50 years since Roe v Wade, 60 million children in the United States have been taken from the womb. In Australia, 10,000s children are aborted every year, many because they are diagnosed as carrying a disability or disease, and many because the child is felt to be an impediment to the dreams and life preferences of the mother (and sometimes the father).  Over the weekend, a famous (now retired) Australian swimmer revealed how her coach once pressured her into having an abortion. These stories are far more common than we dare acknowledge. 

As news broke about Justice Samuel Alito’s draft statement, one could hear the palpable joy and thanksgiving among many Americans. One could also hear the anger of others. From President Biden to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, and even to politicians and commentators across the globe, including the Mayor of London, there is an anxious and loud demand to keep what they crudely describe as a ‘woman’s health care’. 

Should Roe v Wade be overturned, and I pray that it is, I also pray that pro-life Americans will not gloat or pride themselves and disdain others. Instead, give humble thanks and continue to give due love and care to women who are grappling with unwanted or difficult pregnancies. Justified anger at the destruction of life can be coupled with compassion and commitment to helping those who struggle.

When the Supreme Court decision is finally announced and comes into effect, may the final word not be one of triumphalism or anger. The story of Exodus doesn’t end in chapter 1 and with a river of death. There is much grace and mercy to be found in the story of Exodus. There is atonement for sin and freedom found for those who cry out to God.  

The blood of 60 million babies cries out for justice; God hears.  There are also countless women who to this day grieve over their dead children and the decision they once made.  The wonderful news to which Exodus points and which is found in Jesus Christ, is a word of forgiveness and hope and restoration. The final word isn’t judgement. Forever guilt isn’t the only option. The God of the Passover, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt, is the same God whose only Son gave his life to remove every stain.

As Jesus himself said, during that most famous of Passover meals, on the night he was betrayed, 

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Christians, encourage and support the removal of Roe v Wade, and let us not lose sight of the Gospel of grace and forgiveness, which is our ultimate and only hope.