What does the Tanakh say about abortion?



Fundamentalist/Evangelical and Catholic pro-lifers like to cite certain cherry picked verses of the Bible (what they call the “Old Testament”) to prove their position.  The problem is that much of the time the versus they pick have nothing to do with how and when a soul takes occupation of the human form.

One set of popular verses is Psalm 139:13-16. In the Jewish Bible (AKA the Tanakh) it reads as follows:

13 For You created my reins, You covered me in my mother’s womb. יגכִּֽי־אַ֖תָּה קָנִ֣יתָ כִלְיֹתָ֑י תְּ֜סֻכֵּ֗נִי בְּבֶ֣טֶן אִמִּֽי:
14I shall thank You for in an awesome, wondrous way I was fashioned; Your works are wondrous, and my soul knows it very well. ידאֽוֹדְךָ֗ עַ֚ל כִּ֥י נֽוֹרָא֗וֹת נִ֫פְלֵ֥יתִי נִפְלָאִ֥ים מַֽעֲשֶׂ֑יךָ וְ֜נַפְשִׁ֗י יֹדַ֥עַת מְאֹֽד:
15My essence was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, I was formed in the lowest parts of the earth.  טולֹֽא־נִכְחַ֥ד עָצְמִ֗י מִ֫מֶּ֥ךָּ אֲשֶׁר־עֻשֵּׂ֥יתִי בַסֵּ֑תֶר רֻ֜קַּ֗מְתִּי בְּתַחְתִּיּ֥וֹת אָֽרֶץ:
16Your eyes saw my unformed body, and on Your book they were all written; days have been formed and one of them is His. טזגָּלְמִ֚י | רָ֘א֚וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ וְעַל־סִפְרְךָ֘ כֻּלָּ֪ם יִכָּ֫תֵ֥בוּ יָמִ֥ים יֻצָּ֑רוּ וְל֖וֹ (כתיב וְלֹ֖א) אֶחָ֣ד בָּהֶֽם:


Psalms is a book of poetry and song, composed by King David. In these versus, David is acknowledging that his body was crafted in the womb. That’s it. It says nothing about the body having a soul although it does allude to the idea that this particular body would at birth become the child King David. Poetry does not have the clout that other parts of the Tenach have so…..


The next verse we will consider is Psalm 51:5:

5 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. הכִּֽי־פְ֖שָׁעַי אֲנִ֣י אֵדָ֑ע וְחַטָּאתִ֖י נֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִֽיד:


This verse has nothing to do with abortion, or even the question of personhood. I suspect that Xtian versions of this passage have some added stuff not found in the original ew.


Next verse is Judges 13:7:

7 And he said to me, ‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son; and now do not drink wine and strong drink, and do not eat any unclean (thing), for a Nazirite to G-d shall the lad be, from the womb until the day of his death.’ “ זוַיֹּ֣אמֶר לִ֔י הִנָּ֥ךְ הָרָ֖ה וְיֹלַ֣דְתְּ בֵּ֑ן וְעַתָּ֞ה אַל־תִּשְׁתִּ֣י | יַ֣יִן וְשֵׁכָ֗ר וְאַל־תֹּֽאכְלִי֙ כָּל־טֻמְאָ֔ה כִּֽי־נְזִ֚יר אֱלֹהִים֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה הַנַּ֔עַר מִן־הַבֶּ֖טֶן עַד־י֥וֹם מוֹתֽוֹ:

In this verse an Angel appears to Manoah, whose wife was barren. He tells him that his wife will bear a son, and advises him (as Doctors would today) to abstain from wine and strong drink, and to keep Kosher. The Angel further says the lad will be a Nazirite (not the same thing as a Nazarene) which was a special person devoted totally to G-d.  The Hebrew for “from the womb” implies that these things will after the child is born. Soo  no reference to personhood before birth.


Next up is Job 10:8-9:

8 Your hands shaped me and made me; [Your hosts are] together round about, and You destroy me. חיָדֶ֣יךָ עִ֖צְּבוּנִי וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֑וּנִי יַ֥חַד סָ֜בִ֗יב וַתְּבַלְּעֵֽנִי:
9 Remember now that You made me like clay, and You will return me to dust. טזְכָר־נָ֖א כִּֽי־כַחֹ֣מֶר עֲשִׂיתָ֑נִי וְֽאֶל־עָפָ֥ר תְּשִׁיבֵֽנִי:

Again, a poetic acknowledgement that fetus’s grow in the womb. The verse does not address personhood.  The second verse alludes to Genesis, where it states that G-d made man from the dust of the earth.  (Again, Xtian bibles may differ, since they usually have an agenda).


What verse do Jews use to justify abortion? Again, remember that the Jewish position is that a fetus is nothing until it takes it’s first breath outside the womb: Genesis 2:7:

7 And the Lord G-d formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul. זוַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה:

And there it is: the answer to when a fetus becomes a person: “He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.”


Another verse that Jews like to cite is Exodus 21:22-25:

22 And should men quarrel and hit a pregnant woman, and she miscarries but there is no fatality, he shall surely be punished, when the woman’s husband makes demands of him, and he shall give [restitution] according to the judges’ [orders]. כבוְכִֽי־יִנָּצ֣וּ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְנָ֨גְפ֜וּ אִשָּׁ֤ה הָרָה֙ וְיָֽצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן עָנ֣וֹשׁ יֵֽעָנֵ֗שׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָשִׁ֤ית עָלָיו֙ בַּ֣עַל הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֖ן בִּפְלִלִֽים:
23 But if there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life, כגוְאִם־אָס֖וֹן יִֽהְיֶ֑ה וְנָֽתַתָּ֥ה נֶ֖פֶשׁ תַּ֥חַת נָֽפֶשׁ:
24 an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, כדעַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן יָ֚ד תַּ֣חַת יָ֔ד רֶ֖גֶל תַּ֥חַת רָֽגֶל:
25 a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise. כהכְּוִיָּה֙ תַּ֣חַת כְּוִיָּ֔ה פֶּ֖צַע תַּ֣חַת פָּ֑צַע חַבּוּרָ֕ה תַּ֖חַת חַבּוּרָֽה:

Here it clearly shows that the fetus is not considered a person as yet, so the prescribed penalty is one of monetary value, not one of capital punishment.


Here is an article that goes into depth about the question of abortion within Judaism: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/abortion-in-jewish-thought/

One thing to consider is that whether abortion is permitted or not varies widely between the different Jewish denominations. But in all cases it is acceptable if the Mothers health is in question, or if rape or incest is a factor. Basically the opinion runs from most restrictive (the Chabad or Hasidic community) to the most liberal (the Reform community).

In my childhood I was mostly exposed to Reform Judaism, so that is where my considerations lie.

In using biblical arguments to justify, well, anything, one must keep in mind that the original scriptures were written in Hebrew. They were written by Jews and the Jews are the experts when it comes to Hashem – G-d. But, as will all things, YMMV.