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How does Exodus 21:22–23 relate to the issue of abortion?

Exodus 21:22–23 and abortion

Exodus 21 lays some of the groundwork for the laws of retribution, in which punishment is tailored to fit the crime. Exodus 21:22–23 gives this rule: “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.” The passage goes on to say that, in general, penalties should be “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (verses 24–25). The punishment, in other words, should fit the crime.

This law relates to abortion in that it gives the example of a pregnancy ending prematurely. Basic to the statute is the assumption that the baby delivered prematurely has the same rights and protections under the law as an adult human being. That is, the fetus is a person.

Medical science says that life begins at conception (see Moore, Keith, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology, Saunders, 2008, p. 2; Sadler, T., Langman’s Medical Embryology, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 10th ed., 2006, p. 11; and Krieger, Morris, The Human Reproductive System, Sterling Pub., 1969, p. 88). Several passages of Scripture also show that truth.

One such passage is Psalm 139:13 and 16: “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. . . . Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” David’s declaration reveals that God is present in the womb, in the first moments of a person’s life, and He has plans for that life from before birth. Phrases like unformed body, inmost being, and knit me together describe processes occurring at the cellular level of embryonic and fetal life. God makes unique plans for every life He creates, including how many days each person will live—all before that child is born.

God planned for Jeremiah to be a prophet before he was even conceived: “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” (Jeremiah 1:5). The statement I knew you indicates that God regarded Jeremiah as an individual well before he was born.

Paul says in Galatians 1:15 that God had set him apart for a special work before he was born.

In God’s eyes, each baby in the womb is already an individual, no matter where in the developmental process the baby happens to be.

The law of Moses gave equal protection to both the pregnant woman and the child she carried: “Now suppose two men are fighting, and in the process they accidentally strike a pregnant woman so she gives birth prematurely. If no further injury results [i.e., the baby is born alive and healthy, and the mother suffers no lasting injury], the man who struck the woman must pay the amount of compensation the woman’s husband demands and the judges approve. But if there is further injury [to either the woman or the fetus], the punishment must match the injury: a life for a life” (NLT).

Under the law in Exodus 21, causing the death of an unborn child was a serious crime, and the punishment for it was “a life for a life.” That law was an extension of a more basic law in Genesis 9:6: “If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his own image” (NLT). Couple these two passages, and we conclude that the fetus given legal protection in Exodus 21 was considered a human life—a human being created in God’s own image.

Note that, if the only consequence of the men’s fighting was that the woman gave birth prematurely, but she and the baby were ultimately unharmed, then the worst that would happen was that the offender would pay a fine determined by the husband and approved by the judges. The law did not address every loss or consequence, but it did ensure that permanent consequences were justly compensated.

If the mother or baby or both were injured, the husband of the baby’s mother, along with the judges, would decide a fair punishment. If a life was lost, however, the law specified that the offender would also lose his life.

Human life is inherently precious to God. We are made in His image. Anything that cheapens human life, denies the image of God in humanity, or devalues God’s handiwork is sin. The shedding of innocent blood, including the blood of an unborn child, was punishable under the Old Testament law. The same standard of protecting the innocent should be reflected in today’s laws as well.

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How does Exodus 21:22–23 relate to the issue of abortion?
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This page last updated: May 11, 2022