University of St Martin - Fall, 2006 - PHIL232

Excursus 2: Abortion in Judaism and Christianity

Midterm Essay
Monday, Sept. 4 - What is philosophy?
Wednesday, Sept. 6 - Aristotle (1)
Monday, Sept. 11 - Aristotle (2)
Wednesday, Sept. 13 - Aristotle (3)
Monday, Sept. 18 - Nietzsche (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 20 - Nietzsche (2)
Monday, Sept. 26 - Abortion (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 28 - Abortion (2)
Excursus 1: Historical overview
Excursus 2: Abortion in Judaism and Christianity
Excursus 3: Abortion in Islam
Excursus 4: Pro-choice argument
Monday, Oct. 2 - Suicide (1)
Wednesday, Oct 4 - Revision
Monday, Oct 16 - Suicide (2)
Wednesday, Oct 18 - Paradigm shifts
Monday, Oct 23 - Brave New World (1)
Wednesday, Oct 25 - Philosophical Anthropology (1)
Monday, Oct 30 - Sexual History of the USA
Wednesday, Nov 1 - Philosophical Anthropology (2)
Monday, Nov 6 - Race, death, tragedy, and bad faith
Wednesday, Nov 8 - Race, Biology, and Culture
Monday, Nov 13 - Racism and culture
Wednesday, Nov 15 - Existentialism
Monday, Nov 20 - Political Obligation, Moral Duty, and Punishment
Wednesday, Nov 22 - Kant and Moral Obligation
Monday, Nov 27 - War and Peace
Wednesday, Nov 29 - Non-Western Philosophies (1)
Monday, Dec 4 - Non-Western Philosophies (2)
Wednesday, Dec 6 - The End
Final Paper

Birth control and abortion in the Bible

The only clear reference to birth control is found in Gn 38:8‑10. There, Onan is described as pulling out before ejaculating (coitus interruptus). Numbers 5 may, perhaps, constitute another witness to abortive practices. The husband who suspected his wife of having been unfaithful could bring her to the priest. She would then be given the water of bitterness to drink (cf. Nm 5:18). If she did not experience a miscarriage, that would have proven that she was indeed innocent (cf. Nm 5:22.27‑28.). There is, in fact, evidence that the surrounding cultures knew of contraceptive methods, such as tampons and unguents, and of abortive methods, such as potions. Cf. Athalya Brenner, The Intercourse of Knowledge, 71f.

Anyone who was hoping for an explicit Biblical statement on abortion will be disappointed. The Bible just does not spell it out in so many words.

If we look for a Biblical statement defining life or soul in measurable terms, the only statements that could plausibly be taken as a direct connection are the verses connecting life with blood. Perhaps this means that life begins when the unborn child first has blood. (At the latest we would have to say it is when the heart begins to beat, which comes about 5 weeks into pregnancy.) This is interesting, perhaps, but I would be reluctant to use it in a debate; I think it is just too weak. Barring some startling new observation, it seems that the Bible is not going to clearly tell us when human life begins. And so we must turn to other sources for an answer. The obvious source is science.



Abortion in Judaism


Within Christianity, Judaism, Humanism and other religions and ethical systems, the morality of abortion is grounded in the precise belief of the nature of the fetus. There is a general consensus in North America that when the fetus becomes a human person, then abortions should be severely limited. Most would confine abortions at that stage to situations that threaten the life of the pregnant woman; a very few would eliminate access to abortions totally. The problem that generates so much controversy is that no consensus exists in society over the point, between conception and birth, when personhood begins.

Halacha (Jewish law) does define when a fetus becomes a nefesh (person). "...a baby...becomes a full-fledged human being when the head emerges from the womb. Before then, the fetus is considered a 'partial life.' " 5 In the case of a "feet-first" delivery, it happens when most of the fetal body is outside the mother's body.

Jewish beliefs and practice not neatly match either the "pro-life" nor the "pro-choice" points of view. The general principles of modern-day Judaism are that:

         The fetus has great value because it is potentially a human life. It gains "full human status at birth only."

         Abortions are not permitted on the grounds of genetic imperfections of the fetus. 

         Abortions are permitted to save the mother's life or health.

         With the exception of some Orthodox authorities, Judaism supports abortion access for women.

         "...each case must be decided individually by a rabbi well-versed in Jewish law."

Historical Christianity has considered "ensoulment," the point at which the soul enters the body) as the time when abortions should normally be prohibited. Belief about the timing of this event has varied from the instant of fertilization of the ovum, to 90 days after conception, or later. There has been no consensus among historical Jewish sources about when ensoulment happens. It is regarded as "one of the 'secrets of God' that will be revealed only when the Messiah comes."

Abortion-related passages in the Hebrew Scriptures & Talmud:

The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b states that: "the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day." Afterwards, it is considered subhuman until it is born. 

"Rashi, the great 12th century commentator on the Bible and Talmud, states clearly of the fetus 'lav nefesh hu--it is not a person.' The Talmud contains the expression 'ubar yerech imo--the fetus is as the thigh of its mother,' i.e., the fetus is deemed to be part and parcel of the pregnant woman's body." This is grounded in Exodus 21:22. That biblical passage outlines the Mosaic law in a case where a man is responsible for causing a woman's miscarriage, which kills the fetus. If the woman survives, then the perpetrator has to pay a fine to the woman's husband. If the woman dies, then the perpetrator is also killed. This indicates that the fetus has value, but does not have the status of a person.

There are two additional passages in the Talmud which shed some light on the Jewish belief about abortion. They imply that the fetus is considered part of the mother, and not a separate entity:

         One section states that if a man purchases a cow that is found to be pregnant, then he is the owner both of the cow and the fetus. 

         Another section states that if a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, that her conversion applies also to her fetus. 

Abortions needed to save the life of the mother:

A passage from the Mishna quotes a Jewish legal text from the second century CE. It describes the situation in which a woman's life is endangered during childbirth. A D&X procedure (often called Partial Birth Abortion in recent years) might be used under these conditions today. However, this technique was unknown in ancient times. The legal text states that the fetus must be dismembered and removed limb by limb. However, if "the greater part" of the fetus had already been delivered, then the fetus could not be killed. This is based on the belief that the fetus only becomes a person after most of its body emerges from the birth canal. Before personhood has been reached, it may be necessary to "sacrifice a potential life in order to save a fully existent human life, i.e. the pregnant woman in labor." 1 After the forehead emerges from the birth canal, the fetus is regarded as a person. Neither the baby nor the mother can be killed to save the life of the other.

A second consideration is the principle of self-defense. Some Jewish authorities have asserted that if the fetus placed its mother's life at risk, then the mother should be permitted to kill the fetus to save herself, even if the "greater portion [of its body] had already emerged" from the birth canal.


Abortion in (Catholic) Christianity

The Aristotelian theory of "mediate animation" was the predominant belief among Christians throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote in one of his biological treatises that the male embryo develops a human soul -- and thus becomes a human person -- about 40 days after conception, whereas a female fetus acquires its soul at about 90 days. For much of its history, the Christian religion believed in this delayed-ensoulment principle and allowed abortions up to 90 days into pregnancy.

Protestant denominations which had made formal statements on abortion generally regarded abortion to be "a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family." Lately, Protestant denominations have been divided along liberal/conservative lines with the latter strongly opposing abortion access.

The Roman Catholic Church, since the 19th century, has consistently regarded personhood as beginning at conception. Pope John Paul II said in the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., on 1979-OCT-07:  "...all human life -- from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages -- is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God." Pope John Paul II (1979) "An embryo is an individual, no matter how small. While the embryo receives cells from the mother and the father, it is neither the mother nor the father." Pope John Paul II (1995).

See also

To think about       

"Any society that values creativity also needs to enable criticism. If we cannot question the way we are doing things and thinking about things at present, it will not occur to us that they could be thought of or done differently. (...) So philosophy is important partly because cultural criticism is so important."

CHRISTENSON, Tom (2001). Wonder and Critical Reflection. An invitation to Philosophy, p. 37. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.


This page was updated on Nov 21, 2006
at 10.00 PM St Martin Time (-4 UT)