Does Exodus 21 Sanction Abortion?

It is sometimes claimed that Exodus 21:22-23 provides evidence that a fetus is not entitled to the same legal protection as the mother, and, therefore, is not treated as an equal “person.” Is this an accurate exegesis of the text?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

Some Bible teachers say that Exodus 21:22-23 implies that the life of a fetus is not in the same qualitative category as that of its pregnant mother. Would you comment on this?

This is a common rationalization of those who seek some biblical justification for the practice of abortion. It is a theory without merit. The passage in the book of Exodus reads as follows.

“And if men strive together, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit [children] come out, and yet no harm follows; the one who hit her shall surely be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall impose upon him; and he shall pay a fine as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:22-23).

The argument runs something like this. If two men are fighting, and the struggle injures a pregnant woman (who perhaps intervenes in an attempt to stop the dispute), so that she miscarries, a monetary fine may be imposed to compensate for the death of the fetus. This infraction, however, was not viewed as a capital case. It is then contended that the implication must be that the fetus was not a human being with rights comparable to an adult person.

Misunderstanding the Text

This theory was presented a while back by Jewish rabbi Shira Stern, daughter of violinist Isaac Stern, as representative of the modern Jewish view (cited in Feder, 50). The position is false, because it is based on a misunderstanding of what the text actually says.

We must observe, though, that some translations have given credence to this erroneous viewpoint by rendering the word “depart” as miscarriage. The Revised Standard Version reads: “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage” (cf. NASB; emphasis added). The The Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon, 1952), as well as other liberal commentaries, also accommodate this view.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that a dead fetus is under consideration in this passage. The fact is, the Hebrew language has a term (shachol) that denotes an abortion or miscarriage (see 2 Kgs. 2:21; Hos. 9:14). But that word is not employed in this context. This passage deals with a premature birth, not an aborted fetus.

The Hebrew word rendered “depart” is yasa, basically meaning “to go (come) out.” Though the word has a wide variety of uses in the Old Testament, it is frequently employed of an ordinary birth.

God told Jeremiah, “before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you” (Jer. 1:5). In Exodus 21:22 the verb is used “of untimely birth” (BDB, 423) or of “premature birth” (cf. NIV; NKJV).

Noted Hebrew scholar Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. has observed that it is a “gross error” either by translation or by means of commentary to argue that a miscarriage is suggested in this passage (170).

In an excellent article which discusses this passage at length, Jack W. Cottrell, a professor of theology at the Cincinnati Bible Seminary, declared: “There is absolutely no linguistic justification for translating verse 22 to refer to a miscarriage” (8).

The “Fruit” Is a Person

A second factor to be given consideration in this text is the use of the word “fruit.” The term derives from the Hebrew yeled, which is a “child.” In this instance the word is plural, “children,” which likely is calculated to cover multiple births or perhaps both sexes.’

In Genesis 21:8, Moses wrote regarding Isaac: “And the child grew, and was weaned.” Is there any question but that Isaac was an actual person at this time? Dr. Kaiser thus notes: “The use of the term ‘child’ makes it clear that a human being is in view here” (op. cit).

The Meaning of the Text

What, then, is the passage teaching?

Simply this. If two fighting men injure a pregnant woman, causing her to give premature birth and no harm follows to either mother or child, a fine will be levied as a penalty for such carelessness.

However, if any harm followed to mother or babe, justice was to be meted out commensurate with degree of damage. Both the mother and unborn child had equal protection under the law.

We must, therefore, protest the use of Exodus 21:22-23 as a proof-text for the support of abortion. Alan Cole observed:

“It has sometimes been claimed by those in favor of abortion that the unborn child is not really considered as an individual here: but that is not the point of this passage . . .The destruction of the unborn child was regarded by the Hebrews as an instance of the most barbarous cruelty, calling down God’s judgment (2 Kings 15:16)” (169).

Again, as professor John Hannah observed: “the unborn fetus is viewed in this passage as just as much a human being as its mother; the abortion of a fetus was considered murder” (141).


Of the wicked Menahem who became king of Israel, an inspired Old Testament writer states that he “ripped up” women that were with child (2 Kgs. 15:16), an act which God abhorred (cf. Am. 1:13).

Today, abortion clinics are performing the same savage deeds. Surely a time of reckoning will come.

  • BDB. Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. 1907. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Cole, Alan. 1985. “Exodus.” Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity.
  • Cottrell, Jack W. Christianity Today. March 16, 1973.
  • Feder, Don. “Abortion, Judaism, and Jews.” National Review. July 8, 1991.
  • Hannah, John. 1985. “Exodus.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books.
  • Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. 1983. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.