While Christians adopt different stances on how to best address the morality of abortion, we should all bear in mind what the Bible implies about God’s role in conceiving human life by studying again the stories of our Lord and his predecessors in Israel which begin at their conception, not at their birth.
Apostles’ Creed: I believe… in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary….
Nicene Creed: We believe… in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God…begotten, not made, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man….
Whether one uses the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed in Sunday worship, most Christians affirm their faith every Sunday, if not every day, using the words of the creed. The words refer to the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and that is one of the seven events of the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels that are deemed foundational to the Christian faith and so recited in the creeds. The circumstances of Jesus’s conception and birth are only detailed in Luke and Matthew.
In Luke’s Gospel Mary is not told she is already pregnant, despite a common misconception (forgive the pun) that that is the angel’s “annunciation.” Rather, the conception of our Lord takes place only after she considers what the Gabriel has announced — that God has chosen her to bear the Messiah. She asks the obvious question: “How can this be since I am a virgin?”
The angel Gabriel answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Mary then replies in a huge leap of faith, “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:35, 38). The Feast of the Annunciation thus celebrates the conception of Jesus, which occurs at the moment in time when Mary accepts God’s call for his Son to be conceived in her womb by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the story is told through Joseph’s learning that his fiancée Mary is pregnant, but not by him. The angel appears to him in a dream and informs him, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:18-24). Joseph accepts the call to be husband to Mary and human father to Jesus long before the baby is born. He takes her as his wife then and there but does not “know her until she had borne her first-born son.”
Clearly the beginning of Jesus’ life is his conception. This fact is so obvious that somehow it often does not get noticed and therefore fails to inform the theology and moral conclusions of clergy and laity alike when faced with the contentious modern issue of the morality of abortion. Considering the life of a person to begin with conception is also to be found in accounts of other leaders and prophets of Israel, as well as in the Psalms and other Writings.
Mary’s call from God to conceive and bear a special baby is the culmination of a very long tradition of her people Israel.
The first matriarch, Sarah, who is old and “past the way of women,” laughs when she overhears the angels tell her even-older husband Abraham that she will conceive and bear a son. But she and Abraham go to their marital bed do what is required to produce a child, and lo and behold, she becomes pregnant! The promised son is born and is named Isaac, from the word for “she laughed.” So God’s promise of descendants for them is fulfilled.
Next Rebecca, Isaac’s wife from back home in Nahor, has difficulty conceiving even though Isaac loves her from the moment he saw her. After Isaac entreats God for her, she conceives twins. They fight constantly in her womb, however, causing her to lament and inquire of God what it can mean. His answer is that there are two great nations in her womb, but that the elder will serve the younger. These unborn children have their destinies set out. Esau and Jacob are born in that order, and the rest of the story tells how that prophecy comes to pass, even though Esau is not only the older, but is obviously the more honorable, twin. In fact, he is the Old Testament antecedent for the father in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, for he rushes to meet the returning Jacob, who had cheated him, with embraces and forgiveness.
Then Jacob’s beloved wife remains barren while her sister Leah, who is also his wife, has many children. When Rachel complains to her husband, “Give me children, or else I die,” Jacob replies that conception is in God’s hands, not his:
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, [Am] I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
In the Book of Judges, Sampson’s parents are promised conception after a long period of infertility. An angel appears to Manoah’s wife, and later to them both, to tell them they will have a son who will be a special hero for his people, a Nazarite, who must not cut his hair. Interestingly, she is told to abstain from alcohol while pregnant as her son will be a Nazarite (Judges 13).
Others who were called as adults, like Jeremiah, nevertheless reflect that that God actually called them while they were in the womb. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5).
Isaiah also, who had an amazing experience as an adult of God’s call to him, nevertheless says:
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
Or consider the psalmist:
For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.
Then in the New Testament, Elizabeth, like her foremother Sarah, was past the age of child-bearing when her husband Zechariah was told by the angel Gabriel that they would at last have a child, and that “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15). That child, named John by the angel, would be the one who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah. When the newly pregnant Mary goes to visit her pregnant kinswoman Elizabeth and greets her, John leaps for joy to greet his Lord, who was just getting started being knit together in Mary’s womb. That recognition of an unborn child of another unborn child in another womb is the strongest testimony in all of Scripture that human life begins at conception.
If God regards the conceived child as merely pre-human, these accounts are irrelevant and have no claim on our conscience. It would seem that a Christian who advocates for abortion on demand, for any reason, and at any time, has to ignore these biblical accounts of human life beginning at conception and believe instead that God has no part in conception or in a pregnancy that is not wanted by the mother. One wants to ask: could Mary or Elizabeth or Sarah or Hannah, or Rebekah, having once consented to become pregnant, have changed their minds mid-pregnancy and ended it if the means were readily available in their time as they are today?
To strengthen this line of thinking, some people cite the biblical phrase, “the breath of life,” to assert that human life begins only with breathing after birth. That phrase, however, derives from the creation story in Genesis 2, in which God creates “adam” (who is not yet male or female) from the “aphar” or dust of the “adamah,” ground. Then God breathes his own breath into the image of clay and the “adam” becomes a living “nepesh,” or soul, albeit not complete until he is later put to sleep and the helper fit for him is created out of the rib of his side. Only then are they called “ish” and “ishah,” man and woman. Note there is no further breathing of God’s breath involved in her creation or in any future birth of the offspring they are commanded to produce. It was a once and for all creation of the first adam — a way of saying that all human beings are created by God in his image and likeness as in Genesis 1.
Both the Bible and traditional Church teaching provide for taking human life in cases of self-defense, capital punishment, and just war. It is possible to regard abortion as self-defense when it can be considered the lesser of two evils — for example, to save the mother’s life — or to differ on the best policies for addressing the reality of abortion. But, for a Christian who believes the creeds and studies the Bible, it is hard to deny that abortion is ending a human life that was begun at conception, and therefore it should be undertaken only as a grievous necessity, with mourning and prayers for the life thus ended.
The Rev. Jean Meade, Ph.D. is a priest of the Diocese of Louisiana, now retired. She has four children and ten grandchildren.