“The Bible says nothing directly about abortion.” Have you ever heard this claim before? I know I have. And the uncomfortable truth is that, in a certain sense, it’s accurate. The deliberate termination of a pregnancy is not directly addressed anywhere in scripture.
On the one hand, this could mean that the practice is merely a matter of personal choice, having been left alone by even God Himself. On the other hand, this could also mean that the culture for which the Bible was written was so deeply affirming of childbearing that the idea of aborting a baby would have been literally inconceivable to them. After all, there are no commands in the Bible to breathe, presumably because Jewish culture is staunchly pro-air.
But even if the Bible doesn’t quite give us a definitive proclamation on the overall question of abortion, that doesn’t mean it says nothing relevant at all. One of the key points of contention in this debate is whether the fetus is a person and, if so, when in gestation this occurs. Most pro-lifers believe it’s at conception, but those who believe abortion is morally acceptable think this happens at some later stage of pregnancy such as implantation, quickening, viability or birth.
Until the other day, I would have said the Bible was somewhat indeterminate on this issue. But now, I would be as bold as to say that it plainly teaches us that a fetus is a person at most within the first four weeks of gestation and, more likely, even within the first few days after conception. If so, then Christians who haven’t previously realized this would have to acknowledge that even early term abortions end the life of a person. And this would, in turn, affect the advice they give to others who might currently be contemplating abortion, even perhaps their own daughters. Let me show you what I found for the first time the other day.
I was reading the Christmas story in Luke 1 and 2 when I made what were for me several new observations. First, I noticed that Luke (a doctor and scholar) specifically tells his audience (Theophilus) that he has thoroughly investigated everything he is about to write and that he has decided to “write it out for you in consecutive order” (1:3). Unlike the other Gospel writers, Luke will tell us his story in the form we modern readers best comprehend: chronologically. This means we can rely heavily on the order of things in any of our conclusions. I know this may not seem very important, but stick with me for a moment and you’ll see why it matters.
Reading on, we learn that Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin) has become pregnant and secluded herself for five months, hiding her very late-in-life first pregnancy from everybody, even her close family (1:24). Then Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel makes his famous visit to the engaged virgin Mary in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (1:26). These time references are no coincidence.
Continuing to read, Gabriel tells Mary that she is going to give birth to the Messiah and name him Jesus (1:31-33). In the process of answering her rather understandable question about how this may be so, Gabriel uses the not-quite-as miraculous pregnancy of her elderly cousin Elizabeth as evidence that this can really happen. And once more, as if for emphasis, we have the time reference as he declares that Elizabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy (1:36).
After his departure, Mary immediately went as fast as she could (1:39) to the hill country to see her cousin, presumably to both verify the news (remember Elizabeth’s seclusion) and to share her own story. When Mary comes close enough to greet her, Elizabeth feels her baby (John the Baptist) leap in her womb with joy at the presence of his Messiah and Mary (1:41-44). By any reasonable standard, this shows that the fetus, John, is a person at this moment and nothing less.
But John is close to his third trimester by now, and even the most strident pro-choice person will usually concede that third trimester abortions are heinous for essentially this reason. Roe v. Wade even affirmed this idea. So nothing observed thus far is particularly persuasive on the subject of abortion. But that’s when I saw something that I hadn’t ever considered before.
Whose presence is John leaping at? Well, obviously the (much younger) fetus, Jesus. Yet Jesus must be only in his first trimester when John recognized him through the Holy Spirit.
But perhaps the trip from Nazareth to the hill country took a while. A terrain map of ancient Israel would lead us to think this journey take a few days at most, plus the text clearly says she went “with haste” (1:39). But perhaps some longer time frame is involved here that might extend the likely age of fetal Jesus. Luckily for us, we needn’t guess. The text itself answers these questions if we just keep reading.
After Mary sings the Magnificat (1:46-55), Luke tells us she stayed with Elizabeth for about three months before returning home (1:56). Immediately after she departs, John the Baptist is born (1:57). In the following chapter, the much more famous narrative of Jesus’s birth is told. But the key facts have already been laid out with the precision that only a medical doctor would include.
Working solely with the calendar of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Luke has told us that Jesus was a person with sufficient individual identity that His cousin could recognize him through the assistance of the Holy Spirit (1:41-44). But Luke has also told us that when this occurred, Jesus could only have been a maximum of four weeks old and probably was much younger than that.
Gabriel announced the conception to Mary in Elizabeth’s sixth month (1:26). Thereafter, Mary traveled to the hill country (1:39), where she stayed for about three months (1:56) before leaving prior to John the Baptist’s birth (1:57). This means that fetus Jesus must have been less than four weeks old when she arrived, a maximum given the parameters. But, given the fact that she went immediately and in haste (1:39), a much more likely reality is that He was only a few days old (perhaps not even implanted yet) when John recognizes Him. Mary certainly wouldn’t have even been able to know by ordinary means that she was pregnant yet.
So the pressing point of all this analysis is not that John (in his third trimester) was a person in the womb when he leapt for joy. The unavoidable and much more forceful point is that Jesus was in the very earliest portion of His first trimester when He was recognized by John as a person. And unless Jesus is not a human child, this means that all children are people at this early stage.
I realize that all of this will be of very little interest to those of you who either do not care about the Bible or else do not care whether the fetus is a person. I also know this doesn’t really do much to address the question of the legality of abortion, since the basis of my investigation is a faith text.
But for those tens of millions of Christians who every year celebrate this story and also believe that early term abortion is compatible with their faith, the point seems embarrassingly clear: It is no longer honest to say that we can’t know whether the first trimester fetus is a person.
So as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the birth of our Savior this year, I have a simple question. Since we now know that Jesus was somewhere between a few days and a few weeks gestation when he was recognized in scripture as a person, then who or what is it in the young woman’s womb today if not a person—and somebody’s grandchild?
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