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Shall Thou Not Kill? The Sixth Commandment as an Insufficient Argument Against Abortion

With the reversal of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 came a fiercer and more passionate public discourse over the ethics and legality of abortion. The Supreme Court’s decision was hailed as a landmark victory by the pro-life movement, while the pro-choice movement saw it as a blatant violation of women’s rights regarding their bodily autonomy. While there is much to be said about this debate, the author does not, for the most part, seek to examine the issue here in regards to the question of personhood based on philosophy, biology, and ethics, as those areas have been ably covered elsewhere.[1] Rather, this essay’s focus is narrower, choosing instead to examine arguments against abortion based on theological grounds—specifically from the Christian perspective.

The connection between religiosity and opposition to abortion is well documented. According to one study, those who feel they have a close relationship with God “are significantly more likely to oppose abortion.”[2] In the lead-up to Roe‘s reversal, surveys showed that the more religious someone is, “the more likely the individual is to say that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.”[3] In opposing abortion from a biblical standpoint, Christians frequently cite passages from Scripture which allegedly describe the unborn as human persons.[4] However, as other commentators have shown, such verses establish little in the way of fetal personhood, as they are largely poetic, nontechnical and nonliteral verses, often focused on specific individuals rather than humanity as a whole.[5] However, suppose we ignore this and fully grant the Christian’s premise. Let’s suppose Scripture really does describe the unborn, from conception onward, as equivalent to birthed human beings. In this essay, the author will argue that, even granting this, the Bible still cannot be used to oppose abortion. To understand why, it’s important we first familiarize ourselves with certain doctrines.

For many Christians, the debate over abortion starts (and for some ends) with the Sixth Commandment; Exodus 20:13, “you shall not kill.” According to Doug Potter, “This divine law reflects and makes explicit the natural law” which allegedly shows that abortion is wrong.[6] But why, from a Christian standpoint, is killing wrong? Because according to them, only God himself has the authority to take a life. According to the late Norman Geisler, only God “can decide to take a life, because he’s the ultimate author of life.”[7] Paul Copan argues along similar lines, claiming “God is the author of life and has a rightful claim on it.”[8] Thus, if humans decide to take a life, this is considered wrong, and it’s assumed this applies to unborn humans as well. Of course, if Scripture doesn’t view the unborn as human, any claims about killing them as human life is obviously moot. But again, setting that aside for the time being, there are other problems with this line of thought.

First, Geisler and Copan’s claims are somewhat undermined by the fact that, as they’ve acknowledged elsewhere, the Bible does allow humans to kill other humans in certain situations.[9] This includes self-defense, war, and capital punishment. This principle is born from the mindset that Exodus 20:13 should more accurately be read as “you shall not murder,” and indeed many Bibles translate it as such.[10] According to U.S. Law Code, murder is “the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.”[11] In other words, murder is, by definition, a legal precept, and laws are subject to change, based on the society that designates them. Thus, it is difficult to apply this objection to abortion in absolutist terms, since any society could deem abortion right or wrong from a legal standpoint (as the passing and subsequent reversal of Roe v. Wade showed). As Wilma Ann Bailey observes, “Most killing throughout history has taken place within the context of what is legal (e.g., war, capital punishment) and therefore exempt from this commandment in the minds of many people.”[12]

However, suppose we set aside legalities and instead frame the issue purely in moral terms. Let’s consider, for example, Norman Geisler and Jason Jimenez’s preferred definition, that murder is “the intentional taking of an innocent human life.”[13] Even without considering the law, they accept this still falls under the exceptions discussed previously.[14] What they fail to consider, however, is whether abortion could meet any of these exceptions. Although unappreciated by some, abortion is widely viewed as a form of medical self-defense, needed in situations to protect the mother’s life or health, and indeed this was one of the principal findings of Roe.[15] Even today, many states continue to implement laws along the lines of what Roe originally established.[16]

To his credit, Copan at least acknowledges that terminating an ectopic pregnancy (where a fertilized egg grows outside of the uterus) counts as self-defense, and is thus permissible.[17] Elsewhere, however, he makes it clear any other type of abortion is unacceptable.[18] He too fails to consider whether other types of abortion could reasonably count as self-defense. An obvious example would be terminating a pregnancy resulting from rape, wherein the pregnancy was forced upon the woman and thus places several undue burdens upon her.[19] Yet even beyond this, most abortions could reasonably be considered self-defense, as the U.S. maternal mortality rate continues to worsen.[20] By contrast, abortion is far safer than continuing a pregnancy to term—indeed, studies show that, on average, pregnancy is more deadly than abortion by at least an order of magnitude.[21]

It is possible, even likely, that Christians such as Geisler and Copan would still find this unsatisfactory, insisting that the fetus still counts as an innocent human life, and thus should not be killed. But this leads to the second major problem for their position. The Bible cannot be used to oppose abortion, and ironically it is the very “innocence” of the unborn that establishes this.

If the unborn count as humans, then naturally, from a Christian viewpoint, they should be subject to the same rules of salvation. Yet how can they, if they are unable to hear the gospel and accept Jesus before birth? Fortunately, Christian doctrine establishes one can be saved without accepting Jesus as God—namely, if they have not reached the “age of accountability.” According to this doctrine, “young children who die automatically go to heaven because they are not morally culpable.”[22] This view is highly popular and espoused by many Christians.[23] According to Adam Harwood, “The conviction that God saves people who die in their infancy is nearly the universal response given by Christian leaders to Christian parents in a pastoral setting. And rightly so.”[24]

The logical inference is that if this doctrine applies to infants, it applies to the unborn as well, a conclusion many Christians have reached. For example, according to the late Louis Talbot, “all infants, including stillborn babies, and young children who have not reached the age of accountability at death, go immediately into the presence of God.”[25] Likewise, the late Ronald Nash was even more forceful in this position:

I cannot reach any other conclusion but that life in the womb that is ended before birth is human life—and is so from the moment of conception…. [P]renatal human life that is terminated either by miscarriage or abortion falls under the same general conditions of divine election as applies in the case of children who die in infancy…. [T]he millions and millions of innocent babies who have been butchered and killed by abortionists are in heaven.[26]

The problem with this, as applies to the abortion debate, was aptly summarized by Hector Avalos:

[I]f it is true that killing infants ushers them immediately into the presence of God, and spares them corrupting influences, then this is a fantastic argument for abortion. Why allow any child to be born if we can send him or her straight to heaven? After all, isn’t the salvation of souls more important than any human experience?[27]

According to Copan, existence in Heaven, in the presence of God, is “the greatest good” that anyone could experience.[28] How then can we deem killing one who is guaranteed to enter Heaven an immoral act? Pro-life Christians, recognizing the problem this creates, are quick to devise any number of arguments in response.

Geisler, for example, offered three objections when presented with this.[29]

  1. That God never instructed anyone to have an abortion, and that it’s contrary to the Bible’s teachings.
  2. That only God has the authority to take a life.
  3. That there is hope for children in this life, whereas there was no hope for children in cultures God sanctioned to have killed, such as the Amalekites.

Each of these points, however, are problematic. Argument (1) begs the question. In short, it assumes the Bible regards fetuses as human persons, which as we’ve noted in passing there is no conclusive evidence for (see Note [5]). And while there is nothing in the Bible which conclusively endorses abortion, nothing conclusively shows condemnation of it either.[30] Argument (2) we’ve also already addressed. As we’ve discussed, Geisler already accepted situations in which humans can kill other humans. The burden of proof is on anyone who asserts abortion does not meet these exceptions. As for argument (3), it is unclear why this was sufficient in Geisler’s mind. After all, “hope” is obviously not a guarantee, whereas by his own admission, death before the age of accountability does guarantee entry into Heaven. Furthermore, while society may not be as corrupt as those previous, there still exists a substantial level of corruption, which any children born could be subjected to, causing them to reject God and, upon death, spend eternity in Hell. As Ecclesiastes 4:3 even teaches, “better … is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” If the risk of exposure to such corruption exists, why take it? As Hector Avalos observed, someone who employs Geisler’s reasoning “substitutes a risky hope of salvation through the gospel for what is the certainty of salvation through abortion or infanticide.”[31]

Copan too offers arguments against this, though they are less focused and more confused than Geisler’s. He argues, again, that since “life belongs to God,” only he has the authority to kill and grant “heavenly life.” A would-be killer, by contrast, acts “presumptuously” if he takes matters into his own hands by attempting to send a child to Heaven, because,

The killer is not benefitting the infant; he is only harming the infant. The killer brings only death, not benefits; it is God who bestows the benefit of heavenly life. The killer isn’t “responsible” for getting an innocent to heaven; he isn’t the one bestowing the highly valued benefit. The killer neither causes these benefits nor is responsible for them.[32] (emphasis in the original)

Frankly, the author fails to see what difference any of this makes. By this logic, a poverty-stricken, drug-addled parent who gives their child to a healthier, financially stable family for adoption is not really giving the child a better life; it is the family that would do that. While true in a literal sense, we obviously recognize the actions of the parent as essential to benefitting the child. Furthermore, a parent giving their child up for adoption only grants the possibility of a better life, not a guarantee, yet we still recognize the act as good. By contrast, death before moral culpability guarantees entry into Heaven, as Copan himself acknowledges. If anything, someone who kills a child and sends them to Heaven would in fact be doing a greater act of good than a parent trying to give their child a better earthly life.

Copan likely would object, claiming the act of killing still involves harming the child, and thus remains wrong. Here too his logic is unclear, especially if we apply this to abortion. First, he fails to explain what exactly he means by “harm.” If this refers to the physical pain inflicted upon a child, this would be insignificant in the grand scheme of things. As he acknowledges, any harm that befalls a child is “overshadowed by divine benefits in the afterlife.”[33] The apostle Paul preached a similar sentiment: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Thus it is unclear, from his viewpoint, why we should care about the harm inflicted to their earthly bodies, since the benefits to follow clearly outweigh it, and the risk of Hell for those morally culpable is still a factor. And indeed, Jesus himself appears to have preached exactly that: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

This “problem of pain” is even less significant if applied to abortion. Before the third trimester (i.e., before the development of the cerebral cortex), a fetus cannot experience pain in any meaningful sense, and certainly not on the level of a birthed human.[34] The vast majority of abortions, approximately 99%, take place during the first and second trimesters.[35] Thus, most abortions result in no physical pain, and thus result in no harm to the aborted.

Perhaps physical pain is not what Copan has in mind, however. Perhaps it is the act of killing itself that he deems harmful—a moral harm, rather than a physical one. After all, there are innumerable ways of painlessly killing someone that we would still regard as immoral. But again, we must ask ourselves why, on the Christian worldview, is killing someone guaranteed to enter Heaven wrong?

Let’s accept that God truly does forbid killing, even of the unborn. Let’s also accept such an act may very well send the killer to Hell. Now let’s ask ourselves, what if the killer simply doesn’t care? If it is true that killing an innocent guarantees their entry into Heaven, and this hypothetical killer truly only wants what’s best for them, what reason is there for him to refrain from doing this? A Christian abortion doctor may reason that by aborting fetuses, they are sending them to an eternal bliss in Heaven. Christians such as Geisler, Copan, and many others may say this person will go to Hell for this. But if so, that only makes their act more admirable, not less. It means they are willing to give up their souls to an eternity in Hell, in exchange for saving countless others from the same fate. This is even more than Jesus allegedly did, and Christians are unanimous in regarding Jesus’s sacrifice as morally good.

Not only that, but the Bible teaches that such a sin may not even result in eternal punishment anyway. After all, Jesus taught that, with the exception of blasphemy, all sins can be forgiven (Mark 3:28-29; Matthew 12:31), so long as one accepts him as God (John 3:36, 8:24). Whatever prescriptions against murder the Bible puts forth, the same Bible provides a loophole that allows one to escape punishment for this act. Again, consider the Christian abortion doctor we’ve hypothesized. Not only could this individual save hundreds, if not thousands of lives, by aborting them and sending them to Heaven, but that same doctor could ask for forgiveness to escape an eternity in Hell.

No doubt Christians will develop responses to the general arguments presented here. Yet in order for their counterarguments to be successful, there are at least four obstacles to overcome for “thou shall not kill” to work as an argument against abortion:

  1. Successfully demonstrate that Scripture describes the unborn as equivalent to birthed humans, and thus are included under the sixth commandment’s protection.
  2. Explain how fetuses, even granting they count as human, are exempt from the exceptions which allow humans to kill other humans.
  3. Explain how aborting a fetus, and by extension killing any innocent, could possibly be wrong if doing so results in them receiving the greatest good they could ever receive.
  4. And finally, explain what constrains anyone from aborting a fetus, even assuming the act is a sin, if the Bible provides a loophole to escape punishment for committing said act.

The difficulty of resolving these issues only confirms this author’s conviction—that the debate over the legality and morality of abortion should be settled purely on secular terms. Religious debates over how abortion policy should be handled in this country appear hopelessly confused and unclear, whereas a careful consideration of science and secular philosophy may very well lead us to a more grounded conclusion of how best to approach the topic going forward. As we now live in what many refer to as “post-Roe America,” one hopes that both politicians and the public at large will seek to utilize proper reason and logic in deciding what to do about abortion policies, devoid of the confusion and ambiguities brought on by religion.


[1] For example, in: Jacob Derin, “Where’s the Body? Victimhood as the Wrongmaker in Abortion.” Axiomathes Vol. 32, No. 3 (November 12, 2022): 1041-1057; David Kyle Johnson, “The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of Questions of Personhood (and Mindedness) to the Abortion Debate.” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry Vol. 1, No. 2 (2019): 121-153; Gary Whittenberger, “Personhood and Abortion Rights: How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue.” Skeptic (US) Vol. 23, No. 4 (2018): 34-39; Ronald A. Lindsay, “The Christian Abuse of the Sanctity of Life” in Christianity is Not Great: How Faith Fails ed. John W. Loftus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014): 222-240, pp. 235-240; and Richard Carrier and Jennifer Roth, “Is There A Secular Case Against Abortion? The Carrier-Roth Debate” (April-August 2000). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/debates-secularist-abortion>.

[2] James D. Unnever, John P. Bartkowski, and Francis T. Cullen, “God Imagery and Opposition to Abortion and Capital Punishment: A Partial Test of Religious Support for the Consistent Life Ethic.” Sociology of Religion Vol. 71, No. 2 (September 2010): 307-322, p. 317 [Advance Access p. 11].

[3] Frank Newport, “Personal Religiosity and Attitudes Toward Abortion” (May 13, 2022). Gallup. <https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/392648/personal-religiosity-attitudes-toward-abortion.aspx>.

[4] Doug Potter, for example, cites verses such as Job 3, Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139:13-16, Galatians 1:15, etc. See Doug Potter, “Five Reasons Abortion is Murder: The Killing of an Innocent Human Being” (October 28, 2020). Southern Evangelical Seminary. <https://ses.edu/five-reasons-abortion-is-murder-the-killing-of-an-innocent-human-being>.

[5] For example, see: Margaret D. Kamitsuka, Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), pp. 49-69; Kira Schlesinger, Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), pp. 55-66; Paul D. Simmons, “Personhood, the Bible, and the Abortion Debate” (1990). Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Education Series 3, pp. 4-6; Michael J. Gorman, “The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Abortion Debate” in Life and Learning V: Proceedings of the Fifth University Faculty for Life Conference, June 1995, at Marquette University ed. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. (Washington, DC: University Faculty for Life, 1996): 140-176, pp. 143-150; and Roy Bowen Ward, “Is the Fetus a Person—According to the Bible?Mission Journal Vol. 19, No. 7 (January 1986): 6-9, pp. 8-9.

[6] Potter, “Five Reasons Abortion is Murder.”

[7] Quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 120-121.

[8] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), p. 189.

[9] For example, see: Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), p. 67; and Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? pp. 49-51.

[10] For example, the ESV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, etc.

[11] 18 U.S. Code § 1111 – Murder. LII: Legal Information Institute. <https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1111>.

[12] Wilma Ann Bailey, “You Shall Not Kill” or “You Shall Not Murder”? The Assault on a Biblical Text (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 2005), p. viii.

[13] Norman L. Geisler and Jason Jimenez, The Bible’s Answers to 100 of Life’s Biggest Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015), p. 204.

[14] Geisler and Jimenez, The Bible’s Answers, p. 216.

[15] Eugene Volokh, “Medical Self-Defense, Prohibited Experimental Therapies, and Payment for Organs.” Harvard Law Review Vol. 120, No. 7 (May 2007): 1813-1846, pp. 1824-1828.

[16] “After Roe Fell: Abortion Laws by State” (n.d.). Center for Reproductive Rights. <https://reproductiverights.org/maps/abortion-laws-by-state>.

[17] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? p. 49.

[18] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? pp. 99-100.

[19] According to a study published in 1996, over 32,000 pregnancies in the United States result from rape each year. See Melisa M. Holmes, Heidi S. Resnick, Dean G. Kilpatrick, and Connie L. Best, “Rape-Related Pregnancy: Estimates and Descriptive Characteristics from a National Sample of Women.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Vol. 175, No. 2 (August 1996): 320-325. More recently, one study found that since Roe v. Wade was overturned, over 64,000 pregnancies resulted from rape in 14 states where abortion was totally outlawed. See Samuel L. Dickman, Kari White, David U. Himmelstein, Emily Lupez, Elizabeth Schrier, and Steffie Woolhandler, “Rape-Related Pregnancies in the 14 US States with Total Abortion Bans.” JAMA Internal Medicine Vol. 184, No. 3 (January 24, 2024): 330-332.

[20] Munira Z. Gunja, Evan D. Gumas, and Reginald D. Williams II, “The U.S. Maternal Mortality Crisis Continues to Worsen: An International Comparison.” To the Point blog. Commonwealth Fund (December 1, 2022). <https://doi.org/10.26099/8vem-fc65>.

[21] According to one federal court case, Hope Clinic v. Ryan: “At any stage of pregnancy, a woman is ten times more likely to die from continuing the pregnancy through child-birth than from an abortion.” See also National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Safety and Quality of Abortion Care in the United States (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018), pp. 74-76.

[22] Hal Seed, The Bible Questions: Shedding Light on the World’s Most Important Book (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p. 106.

[23] For example: Geisler and Jimenez, The Bible’s Answers, p. 35; Louis T. Talbot, Bible Questions Explained (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2014), p. 222; William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites” (August 6, 2007). Reasonable Faith blog. <https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/slaughter-of-the-canaanites>; Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? p. 189, 194; Michael R. Licona, “What About Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel?” in Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010): 196-199; Strobel, The Case for Faith, p. 120; and Ronald H. Nash, When a Baby Dies: Answers to Comfort Grieving Parents (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), pp. 68-69.

[24] Adam Harwood, The Spiritual Condition of Infants: A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), p. 9.

[25] Talbot, Bible Questions Explained, p. 222.

[26] Nash, When a Baby Dies, p. 115.

[27] Hector Avalos, “Yahweh is a Moral Monster” in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails ed. John W. Loftus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010): 209-236, p. 225.

[28] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? p. 189.

[29] Strobel, The Case for Faith, pp. 120-121.

[30] Arguing that the Bible does in fact allow abortion is Richard Carrier, “The Bible Actually Permits Abortion and Condemns Homosexuality” (November 1, 2020). Richard Carrier Blogs. <https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/17319>.

[31] Hector Avalos, “Creationists for Genocide” (August 24, 2007). Talk Reason website. <http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Genocide.cfm>.

[32] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? p. 194.

[33] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? p. 194.

[34] See: “Facts are Important: Gestational Development and Capacity for Pain.” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. <https://www.acog.org/advocacy/facts-are-important/gestational-development-capacity-for-pain>; Raffaele Falsaperla, Ausilia Desiree Collotta, Michela Spatuzza, Maria Familiari, Giovanna Vitaliti, and Martino Ruggieri, “Evidences of Emerging Pain Consciousness During Prenatal Development: A Narrative Review.” Neurological Sciences Vol. 43, No. 6 (March 2022): 3523-3532; and Johnson, “The Relevance (and Irrelevance),” p. 134n29.

[35] Katherine Kortsmit et al., “Abortion Surveillance—United States, 2020.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) Surveillance Summaries (Centers for Disease Control) Vol. 71, No. 10 (November 2022): 1-27.