Does Exodus 21:22-25 justify abortion?

by Luke Wayne

The Bible clearly lays out principles that would lead to the complete rejection of abortion, and Christians have always understood biblical teaching to forbid abortion. Some pro-abortion advocates, however, point to Exodus 21:22-25 as proof that the Bible doesn't value the unborn child as human. They further claim that this validates the practice of abortion. Ironically, this passage actually teaches the opposite. Christians standing against abortion will point to this very same passage as evidence that the Bible does value the life of unborn children and teaches that it is wrong to harm or kill them. The passage reads:

"If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise," (Exodus 21:22-25).

The pro-abortion argument contends that, where the NASB here reads "so that her children are born prematurely," it should actually read "so that she has a miscarriage." Read this way, the passage would be saying that if the child dies but the woman is okay, then there is only a small fine. If, however, the woman is injured, then there is a serious penalty. This, they contend, shows that the author views the woman as a person and the unborn child as something less. They further argue that this demonstrates that the Bible is largely unconcerned with the life of an unborn child.

But is this interpretation correct? The Hebrew phrase in dispute here simply means "so that the child comes forth." It could be a miscarriage or a premature birth (though this would be an unusual way to refer specifically to a miscarriage without further clarification in the text.1) This straightforward, literal reading is found in the KJV's rendering "so that her fruit depart from her," the ESV's, "so that her children come out," and even the translation of leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholars, "so that the child is born."2 The phrase just means that the child comes out of the womb. If we stick to this plain reading, the passage is distinguishing between a blow that results in the child coming out without injury and a blow that results in the child coming out with an injury. It would be rather forced to argue that the "with injury" and "without injury" has nothing to do with the child that is being born. If the child is maimed or killed, the guilty party is physically punished accordingly for having harmed or killed the child. If not, he still receives a fine for the unintentional assault and the trauma caused to the mother in the premature birth.

This is the most obvious reading of the Hebrew text, and also makes the most sense in the context. Wounding or killing a grown woman plainly falls under other laws about assault, manslaughter, and murder. The life and health of the unborn child is the only factor unique to the scenario presented here, and so the law focuses its attention there. This is why the majority of modern translators (such as those for the NASB, NKJV, NIV, HSCB, NET, and many others) render the relevant phrase "so that she gives birth prematurely" (or something very similar). It is the most obvious meaning of the passage. The Mosaic Law, therefore, requires the same punishment for injury done to either the mother or the child. Both lives are held equally precious, and crimes against them are treated just as severe.

Another difficulty is presented here, though one less often discussed. The Greek Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament often quoted in the New Testament) contains a distinctive interpretation of this passage. It reads:

"Now if two men fight and strike a pregnant woman and her child comes forth not fully formed, he shall be punished with a fine. According as the husband of the woman might impose, he shall pay with judicial assessment. But if it is fully formed, he shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

It should be noted upfront that even this interpretation clearly affirms that the passage is dealing with the life and health of the child. According to this interpretation, if the child has not reached a certain stage of development, then the assailant is only to be fined. If, however, the child is beyond that stage of development, then the men are to be punished to the full degree that they have injured the child, even up to life for life. One might be tempted to use this to justify early abortions, but consider this carefully. While this interpretation weighs an early abortion differently than a late one, it should not be misconstrued as approving of any abortion. It still condemns both as crimes. A first-century Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria commented on this passage in the Septuagint, explaining:

"But if anyone has a contest with a woman who is pregnant and strikes her a blow on her belly, and she gives birth, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he committed and also because he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence. But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct Shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; for such a creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature," (Philo, Special Laws 3:108-109).

The unborn child at any stage was seen as sacred and it was always wrong to terminate that life. Philo went on to address voluntary abortion and infanticide, and was particularly outraged at the fathers:

"Those men are devoted to pleasure who are not influenced by the wish of propagating children, and of perpetuating their race, when they have connection with women, but who are only like boars or he-goats seeking the enjoyment that arises from such a connection. Again, who can be greater haters of their species than those who are the implacable and ferocious enemies of their own children? Unless, indeed, anyone is so foolish as to imagine that these men can be humane to strangers who act in a barbarous manner to those who are united to them by ties of blood,” (Philo, Special Laws 3:113).

The point here is not to use Philo's words to club every father of an aborted child. The point is simply to show from his particularly harsh evaluation that when the ancient Jewish writers offered this interpretation of Exodus, they by no means intended to excuse any abortion.

It should, of course, be noted that the Septuagint reading in this particular passage seems to be more of an interpretation than a translation and it does not represent any known Hebrew text. The Hebrew text holds the unborn child to be a person with full rights and legal protections without making any distinction between stages of development. But even if one assumes the Septuagint to be the correct reading rather than the Hebrew, it would still forbid abortion at any stage of human life, even if that abortion was accidental. There are no grounds to defend the act of intentional abortion here. The most important takeaways from the Septuagint are that the earliest interpreters saw this passage as dealing primarily with the life and health of the child and that these interpreters still saw abortion as being immoral and criminal at any stage of development.

So the evidence of language, context, and history all point together to the fact that this passage upholds the value of unborn human life and provides grounds to condemn abortion. As John Calvin said in his commentary on this passage:

"The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost 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."

  • 1. John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Crossway, 2010) 107.
  • 2. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperCollins Publishers, 1999) 56