Updated: 4 days ago
Over 98% of abortions in the UK are performed on healthy mothers of healthy children. These pregnancies are not the result of rape or incest, nor is there evidence of serious foetal abnormality or risk to the mother should the pregnancy continue. Essentially these are children that are unwanted by one or both parents. Maybe the pregnancy was not intended. Perhaps the relationship has ended, or it was an affair or one-night stand. It could be that the mother’s life situation is deemed not quite right - a new job, no job, or limited chances of promotion should a child be born. There may already be a number of children in the family and the parents feel they cannot cope with another. Whatever the reason, the pregnancy is deemed a problem. And our culture has taught us to rid ourselves of such “problems.”
Does the Bible have anything to say to the majority of people seeking abortion for such “problematic” pregnancies? The context and culture of the Bible are different from ours in multiple ways. Children are regarded as a gift not a problem (e.g., Psalm 127:3). Moreover large families were prized for the labour assistance children provided. Nevertheless a number of pregnancies within Scripture are far from straightforward, and could easily be classed as problematic in some way. Considering four such instances can help our understanding of pregnancy and the unborn child.
Hagar (Genesis 16)
Hagar’s story is certainly unusual: the idea of a man marrying a second wife purely so he could have children is curious to a Western reader. Yet what happens next, the toxic mix of family tensions, relational breakdown and a father effectively abandoning his pregnant partner and her unborn child, is much more familiar. This is not Abram or Sarai’s finest hour.
The irony is that this baby had been desperately wanted. Abram and Sarai had watched the years roll by with no sign of the heir God had spoken of. With faith wavering and after ten childless years in the land of promise, they take matters into their own hands. Hagar – the foreign servant girl – is married to the much older Abram. She is fertile and conceives; the plan appears to be working. The concept of the surrogate mother crops up later in Genesis, as both Rachel and Leah offer their maids to Jacob. The children Bilhah and Zilpah collectively bear: Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher are genuinely received as the children of Rachel and Leah. Yet Sarai is not so welcoming of her adopted child. In fact she rejects the unborn child along with Hagar, a situation in part precipitated by Hagar’s attitude.
Abram and Sarai’s course of action was clearly not God’s original will for them, in fact the narrator deliberately echoes the Fall narrative (Genesis 3) in the way Abram consents to his wife’s plan. Yet here they are, with a pregnant Hagar. However a child is conceived, the response should never be to regard that child as a problem, let alone to end his or her life. The hardheartedness of Abram and Sarai contrasts sharply with the angel of the Lord, who seeks out Hagar, and addresses her by name (see Genesis 16:8–12). Hagar is the first woman in the Bible to receive this kind of annunciation, which includes a promise similar to that which Abraham received (Genesis 15:5; 22:17). She discovers her baby is a boy and Ishmael is also the first child in Scripture named while in the womb. His name, which means “God hears,” is an abiding reminder that God has seen and heard Hagar’s affliction.
Hagar’s pregnancy brings her not only rejection and cruelty, but also a dramatic theophany revealing God’s character. “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Genesis 16:13, NIV). So it is that a (possibly teenaged) foreigner, pregnant by her master and temporarily homeless, is given a profound insight into the nature of Israel’s God. She is the only person in the entire Old Testament to give God a name. While the Lord (re)names Sarai, Hagar names God! How many lives might have been different, had a “problem” pregnancy been allowed to continue, and the child bring new hope and meaning into the world?
Tamar (Genesis 38)
If Hagar’s story is messy, cruel and bitter, Tamar’s takes us to another level - Sunday school material this is not! Again, the background in terms of levirate marriage (see Deuteronomy 25:5–10) is specific to the Old Testament, but the themes of betrayal and sexual misconduct are all too common. Disguising herself as a prostitute Tamar conceives by her – recently widowed – father-in-law Judah. While carefully orchestrated by Tamar, her pregnancy comes as an outrageous shock to Judah, and he initially calls for her and her unborn child to be burnt. Tamar then reveals that Judah himself is the father, who eventually recognises Tamar’s superior integrity: “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26, ESV). It is Judah who has failed in his duty, by withholding his youngest son from marrying Tamar.
Tamar, like Hagar before her, is vindicated for seeking to safeguard her unborn child – and going to some lengths to do so: “[s]he makes it her one aim to be able to become a mother in this house into which she has been placed by divine authority.”1 While Hagar’s surrogacy is unconventional and Tamar’s ruse scandalous, both narratives suggest God is deeply committed to these women. God sides with Tamar and her unborn children, one of whom, Perez, becomes an ancestor within the Davidic, and then Messianic, line (Genesis 49:8–12; Ruth 4:12, 18–22; Matthew 1:3). This is not the only occasion where children conceived in less than ideal circumstances go on to have important descendants. The unloved Leah’s third and fourth sons are Levi and Judah: “priesthood and kingship . . . have their origin in an unwanted and unplanned marriage.”2 God’s saving grace works through human brokenness. An unexpected pregnancy is never “unexpected” for God, and is not going to throw him.
Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)
If there is one pregnancy in the Bible that qualifies as “inconvenient” in the way pregnancies can sometimes be regarded, it is Bathsheba’s. Bathsheba becomes pregnant as the result of David’s adultery – a one-off encounter – and David does everything he can to cover up the affair, which threatens his reputation and reign. How many pregnancies are ended to protect careers, cover up affairs and safeguard reputations (including within the Church)?
Bathsheba’s objectification is apparent in the fact that she is described as “very beautiful” (2 Samuel 11:2) before we even learn her name. To David she is less a person, more an object of desire, the latest in a long line of sexual conquests. David is overcome with his own lust, forgetting that God gave the gift of sexual intimacy for within marriage, with a particular accent on procreation (Genesis 1:28; 2:24). Once pregnant, Bathsheba assumes a more active role in the drama; like Hagar, conception changes things. The announcement of her pregnancy to David (2 Samuel 11:5) is very much the hinge in the book of 2 Samuel.
This is the point that David’s kingdom begins to crumble, as his grip on power, including his authority over his own children, rapidly falls apart thereafter. The remainder of 2 Samuel is a sorry tale of betrayal, rape and murder, with an ever-increasing body count. Our culture’s cherished separation between private and public, sacred and secular is shown to be a nonsense by the biblical text. Actions are never purely private, and often have a devastating ripple effect for numerous other lives. Abortion is never just a private decision: at least one other life is always lost. And, as with David, God sees all (2 Sam 11:27–12:12).
Although David takes cynical measures to kill Uriah, he never contemplates destroying his unborn child. His attitude towards the infant is one of love, and he does all he can to preserve his life (2 Samuel 12:16–17), if unsuccessfully. As Nathan has prophesied, the child will not survive, with David’s guilt in some sense vicariously borne by the baby (2 Samuel 12:13–14). The child’s status as scapegoat is announced in utero. It is possible to see in Bathsheba’s first-born son a forerunner of Christ, in that the infant dies because of the sins of others. Matthew 1:20–21 presents an infinitely more hopeful message of salvation through forgiveness of sins, regarding a child as yet unborn, who is also a “son of David.”
This brings us to the beginning of the New Testament and the most scandalous pregnancy of all, involving an engaged teenage girl in an obscure corner of Galilee. Like Hagar’s pregnancy, Mary’s conception causes her considerable relational difficulties. In fact the gossip swirling around that unique event never completely leaves Mary, Joseph or Jesus. When Jesus is asked about his father’s identity and whereabouts (John 8:19), this is more character slur than theological enquiry (John 8:41).
Of course the Virgin Mary’s is a unique pregnancy, but it is not without prophetic foreshadowing in the Old Testament. Like Hagar, Mary receives an angelic annunciation about the conception and birth of her child. Like Tamar’s children, Jesus, and those infants born in the same village as him, are threatened with violence. While Judah sees the error of his ways, Herod will not stop until he spills the blood of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Like Bathsheba’s firstborn, Jesus is born to die for the sins of others.
The realisation of the enormity of what Mary has said yes to takes time to sink in. There will be all manner of unusual visitors and prophecies she needs to reflect on and process (Luke 2:19). There is never any doubt that her vocation leaves her vulnerable to pain and anguish almost too great to bear (Luke 2:35). Mary’s life, like any parent’s, has its ups and downs, including moments of genuine concern regarding her child’s behaviour (Luke 2:48–50; Mark 3:21). Yet Mary is one of the few constants in her son’s life. She is with Jesus from the womb to the tomb. Mary witnesses the public abuse, torture and execution of her son. And at the foot of the cross she and the disciple John become adoptive mother and son.
We get no hint that Mary ever regretted her calling, still less saying yes to this pregnancy that momentous night in Nazareth. How many mothers really regret giving birth to their children? Yet how many mothers (and fathers) do regret aborting their children? Mary, who goes on to have several more children (e.g., Mark 6:3), bears witness not so much to the problem of pregnancy, but its privilege. May we heed her example and that of other faithful mothers in the Bible and be encouraged to celebrate, rather than dread or stigmatise, pregnancy.