Why do we need a biblical theology of the unborn child?
Updated: Jun 15
Controversies and legal judgements involving the unborn child have received a lot of recent air-time. In the UK there has been the ongoing saga around so-called “DIY abortion” (a temporary covid measure, now made permanent) and in the USA the Supreme Court are apparently on the verge of overturning the 1973 Roe v Wade decision – which framed abortion as a constitutional right – and returning legislation to individual states. So one might expect a large amount of the narrative to concentrate on the unborn child – given abortion’s purpose is to terminate the lives of the unborn (over 200,000 unborn children are killed in the UK alone each year; around a quarter of all pregnancies).
In reality the unborn child tends to be airbrushed out of mainstream media discussion around abortion. It’s rare to even read or hear about the “child” in the womb at all. Yet as John Stott rightly recognised back in 1984, we cannot understand abortion aright unless we understand the unborn child aright: “for it is our evaluation of the foetus which will largely determine our attitude to abortion,” (Abortion, 1984, 10-11). Among those who do recognise this, concern tends to be focused on questions like establishing the most accurate age of viability or research into foetal pain. A scientific and medical terminology, worldview and expertise predominates, with only occasional nods to more philosophical conundrums, such as whether an unborn child can rightly be described as a “person.” In reality questions which touch upon the humanity and value of the unborn child are of the utmost importance.
One would expect a deep grounding in the biblical witness to inform the Church’s thinking on the unborn child. Yet many biblical scholars remain ambivalent about this possibility, a state of affairs which has been lamented for some time. Oliver O’Donovan for example, writes of “the widespread and false impression that the Bible says nothing much to the point” about the unborn child (The Christian and the Unborn Child, 1975, 4). There has been some biblical work on the unborn child by both ethicists and biblical scholars (e.g., John Warwick Montgomery, John Frame, Paul Fowler, John J. Davis, and Michael Gorman), but unfortunately O’Donovan’s diagnosis remains largely accurate. Richard Hays’ chapter on abortion in his Moral Vision of the New Testament, for all its strengths, is a case in point.
This reticence to speak out – often stemming from a desire to appear non-judgemental and compassionate towards women who find themselves with an unplanned pregnancy or who have had an abortion – is reflected in the pulpit of evangelical churches. Abortion is regarded as a taboo subject, or perhaps as the slightly embarrassing niche interest of a zealous few that distracts from, or even discredits, the church’s wider mission to proclaim the Good News. This is strange, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there is rarely shyness about speaking out over other justice issues, where human lives are at stake (the refugee crisis, human trafficking, climate change, etc.) Secondly, given the scale of abortion – 1 in 3 UK women will have had at least one abortion in their lives – this is hardly “niche.” We will all know women, couples and families that abortion has impacted. Nor should we imagine the Christian community is unaffected. Never speaking on the issue will only increase the sense of shame and isolation women in churches who have experienced abortion are likely to feel. Thirdly, this silence is inappropriate given abortion is a deliberate process that ends an infant life. If the Gospel is about God entering a human womb to bring life to the guilty, abortion reverses this: man enters the womb to bring death to the innocent. How can this not be a “Gospel issue”?!
There remains a pressing need for further work in this area. The research I am engaged in seeks to make one such a contribution, through developing a biblical theology of the unborn child. The aim is to present a cumulative argument that Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, far from being silent or ambiguous on this issue, has a coherent and robust understanding of the child in the womb. Texts like Job 10:8–12, Psalm 139:13–16 or Luke 1 are rightly well-known, but these are very much of a piece with a broader worldview. Themes like creation theology; the experience of pregnancy and how vocation is traced back before birth, all help shed light on the unborn child. And in the incarnation of Jesus, which begins in utero, we see God’s definitive statement on unborn life. Jesus, fully human in every way (Heb 2:17), commences his life as a zygote, in order “that he might go to the root and repair our nature from the very foundation” (Lancelot Andrewes).