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Bible Question and Answer

Does Exodus 21 support the practice of abortion?

Bob Prichard

Topic(s): Death, Moral Issues, Old Testament

No. Abortion is the intentional killing of an unborn child. Exodus 21:22-25 deals with accidental injury to a pregnant woman. Some interpret the passage to say that the unborn child is of lesser value than the mother, but the passage when properly understood shows that the life of the mother and her child are both protected by God's laws.

Exodus 21:22-25 reads: If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. Simply put, the situation described is of men fighting, who somehow injure a pregnant woman [possibly an innocent bystander, or one intervening to stop the fight]. If her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow, the men are fined, but if any mischief follow, then the more severe life for life, eye for eye punishment applies.

Some teach that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow means that the mother has a miscarriage, and loses the child, resulting in a fine, while the phrase if any mischief follow means that the woman herself dies or is severely injured. This interpretation is not reasonable, however, or true to the text.

What her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow, refers to is a premature birth, in which neither the mother nor the child suffer serious injury. How could the death of the unborn child be considered no mischief? The fine was imposed because of the threat to the life of the mother and the child by the negligence of the fighting men. Although some modern translators have inserted the word miscarriage in verse 22, the Hebrew word used in the original text means birth, not miscarriage. [There is a different Hebrew word for miscarriage, which Moses used in Exodus 23:26.] Notice the clear meaning in the NIV: If men who are fighting 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 (Exodus 21:22).

The phrase if any mischief follow in Exodus 21:23, does not make any distinction between the mother and her unborn child. The life for life, eye for eye law applied equally. In fact, if any distinction is being made between the mother and the child, the more natural understanding is that if any mischief follow applies more directly to the child than it does to the mother, because the focus of the discussion is on what happens when the fruit departs from the mother. Significantly, the law of Exodus 21:22-25 applied as harshly to the accidental death or injury of the unborn child as it does to the intentional death or injury of any other innocent person. Exodus 21 upholds the value of innocent human life. Abortion destroys innocent human life.

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