Yale Divinity School professor incorrectly claims Bible is silent on abortion

Bible, Scripture, abortion

John J. Collins, a Holmes Professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, argued against the existence of a theological case against abortion in a recent op-ed he wrote for the Religion News Service. The issue of abortion, Collins said, is never mentioned in the Bible, and on this topic, “there is no divine intervention to be had.” Collins asserted the Bible is disconnected from the idea of a “supposed ‘right to life,’” and says contrary to the claims of religious pro-lifers, the Bible does not morally condemn abortion. 

The wrongness of abortion is evident even without Scripture, as science tells us the preborn are human. However, there are several problems with Collins’s argument regarding the Bible’s neutrality on abortion, as the Bible provides substantial support for the pro-life view. 

The Bible Is Not Unconcerned With Life

“The Bible’s ambivalence on the subject of a right to life begins in its first book, Genesis,” Collins claimed. “In chapter 9, God tells Noah after the flood: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed, for in his own image God made humankind.’”

Continuing, Collins wrote, “…God can even demand human sacrifice on occasion, most famously in the case of Abraham and Isaac, and the death penalty is routinely in the Bible for all sorts of offenses.”

Collins said this shows the Bible “lacks any discourse of human rights.” First, did Collins misunderstand the story of Abraham and Isaac? Genesis 22:5 and Hebrews 11:17-19 make it clear Abraham trusted God would return Isaac to him – even if it required resurrection. Furthermore, God provides a sacrifice in Isaac’s place, representing His offering His own Son for our sake. It’s not a story of human sacrifice – it’s about trusting God to fulfill His promises.

As for the death penalty, God’s words to Noah in Genesis 9:6 prove human life is inherently valuable. Instead of refuting the Bible’s support for pro-life arguments, Collins has shown God does not condone unjust killing. This is consistent with the pro-life position, which says it’s prima facie wrong to deliberately kill an innocent human being. Abortion always deprives an innocent person of life, whereas the purpose of the death penalty is to punish a capital offender. “Hands that shed innocent blood” are listed among the “things the Lord hates” in Proverbs 6. Killing an innocent is a great moral evil, and it’s an action the Bible explicitly condemns.

READ: The history of American Evangelicals’ opposition to abortion is long

Certain Actions Are Wrong Even If Scripture Is Silent On Them 

By emphasizing the Bible’s alleged silence on abortion, Collins has put himself in the unfortunate positon of having to sanction everything the Bible does not expressly forbid. Biblical documents do not specifically denounce killing toddlers for fun. Does that mean this action is permissible? 

We know it is forbidden because all humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), and unjust murder is outright condemned (Exodus 23:7; Matthew 5:21). Collins is asking the wrong question here. It is not a matter of “Does the Bible verbally forbid abortion?” Rather, “Are the preborn treated as human in Scripture?” 

If yes, then the Bible clearly does not permit abortion, as we already know it condemns the deliberate killing of innocent persons. 

Bible Verses That Affirm Fetal Personhood

Collins referenced Jeremiah 20:17 to show abortion was known to the people of Israel. In it, a despairing Jeremiah wishes his mother’s womb had been his “grave.” What is interesting is Collins happened to cite a verse that makes it clear Jeremiah had a life before birth. In fact, Scripture consistently describes the preborn using humanizing language. 

Luke 1:41 and 1:44 says John the Baptist “leaped” in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, and the text refers to John as the “brephos” (baby). The same word would be used to describe the already-born Christ in Luke 2:12. We see this again in Job 3:3, where the word “gebher” (man child) is applied to Job as a conceived embryo, tracing his humanity to the point of conception. The Bible also tells us God knows the preborn before they are born and endows them with purpose prior to birth (Judges 13:7; Galatians 1:15).     


Now, is Collins correct that Exodus 21:22-25 doesn’t treat the preborn as fully human? Even if this interpretation is accurate, criminal penalties cannot serve as the basis for personhood. Exodus 21:20-21 declares a master cannot be punished for unintentionally killing a slave. Does that mean the slave is not a human? Also, the verse is describing involuntary manslaughter. How does that provide justification to deliberately kill one’s offspring? It doesn’t, especially when the verse does not refute the numerous instances where Scripture treats the preborn as human. 

Lastly, the idea that Exodus 21:22-25 supports a lesser penalty for accidentally causing a miscarriage than it does for murdering the woman is questionable. Scholars have argued the passage bestows equal protection on the mother and the preborn, and the verse is actually referring to a premature birth. If the child is born prematurely and is unharmed, then the punishment is a fine. But if the mother or child are injured or killed, then the punishment must match the crime (life for life). 

Biblical Prohibitions on Abortion?

Even if the first-century Jewish historian Josephus’s writings forbidding abortion are absent from the Bible, Collins cannot ignore cultural beliefs about abortion during this time period. Indeed, Collins acknowledged the Hebrews saw children as a blessing (Psalm 127:3-5) and barrenness as a curse (Genesis 20:17-18). A culture that saw God at work in the womb likely saw such prohibitions as unnecessary. 

This framework applies to the New Testament authors, as many of the first Christians were Jewish. The lack of contradictory texts to the Hebrew perspective on abortion indicates Christians inherited their view on abortion. While the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas do not appear in the Bible, these texts indicate early Christians abhorred the practice. 

Theologically, the pro-life view is more consistent, as it aligns with the Bible’s teachings that all humans are valuable because they bear God’s image, and it accounts for basic human equality in a way abortion proponents cannot. 

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