Yale Divinity Dean: There is “No Biblical Basis” for Abortion Bans

We recently discussed how university presidents and deans have departed from long-standing tradition in remaining neutral on political and legal debates to maintain a welcoming and diverse environment for all faculty members and students. It is becoming more common (indeed expected) for presidents and deans to publicly endorse liberal ideological or legal positions. The latest example is Yale Divinity School (YDS) Dean Gregory Sterling, who issued a statement not only opposing the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade but declaring there is no “biblical basis” for abortion bans.

Of all of the schools in a university, divinity schools are the most likely to have faculty and students who maintain pro-life viewpoints. One would think that a dean would be sensitive to that fact and seek to maintain a more neutral and ecumenical approach across different faiths and viewpoints.

Not Dean Sterling.

Sterling begins with the observation and question: “The decision culminates a decades-long effort by those who identify as pro-life. But is this decision pro-life or pro a particular ideology?”

He then categorically rejects the widespread view among pro-life advocates that abortion is a sin. While recognizing many in his community hold this view, he calls it “simplistic” and without “biblical basis”:

“The pro-life stance is often linked to Christianity and there are many people who are genuine in their faith who will support the Supreme Court’s decision, including members of the YDS community. It is, however, a more complex issue than some acknowledge. There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion. The only text that deals directly with a fetus is Exodus 21:22–25, and it makes a distinction between the penalty levied on someone who causes a pregnant woman to miscarry versus an injury to the woman herself. The former results in a fine; the latter in the lex talionis (an eye for an eye etc.). In other words, it distinguishes between a fetus and a human being. Simplistic appeals to the biblical traditions are just that, simplistic. Christianity is supportive of human life, but we must work through our traditions with care. It is not at all clear that today’s decision reflects a text like Exodus 21:22–25.”

There could have been a myriad of ways to engage in this debate on the meaning of such passages. However, Sterling felt obligated to speak as the dean in declaring categorically that “There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion.”

What is equally striking is that Sterling’s interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 does not appear self-evident. That is not to say that he is wrong, but rather his categorical rejection as dean is questionable from both a decanal and divinity perspective.

Exodus 21:22 addresses the harming a pregnant woman:

“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely, but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.”

One can clearly read that language to see that, even in an accidental context, the killing of an unborn child was viewed as murder subject to the death penalty. If you cannot accidentally kill a life, even a fetal life, some believe that you certainly cannot do so intentionally.

Yet, one can argue that this passage deals with fatal accidents that injure a woman. It does not address a situation where the woman herself seeks the abortion.

Sterling also ignores other biblical passages that, while not referencing miscarriages directly, are commonly cited as authority for pro-life views. Indeed, the Catholic Church holds the opposing view. Other groups share in that biblical view, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Assemblies of God.

Indeed, early Christian figures affirmed the view that abortion was a sin in their interpretation of this and other biblical passages. This was also evident in 1st and 2nd Century writings like the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and Letter of Barnabas. The latter states “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.”  Influential writings by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas reinforced such views.

My interest is less the merits of the debate (which is a legitimate and important debate to have at divinity schools), but the role of a dean in declaring in his official capacity that one side is right or wrong. It is reminiscent of the recent inaccurate and strident position taken by the Hastings Law Dean on the Dobbs decision in his official capacity.  As with a divinity school dean, a law dean should recognize that many of his alumni and students hold an opposing view. Even with the dwindling number of conservative or libertarian professors on our faculties, there should be some small modicum of recognition that other views are still present in the student body and society at large.

For religious people, let alone divinity scholars, there is a rising intolerance at universities. This includes a concern that religiosity itself is under attack as shown in the recent controversy over the selection of an atheist to serve as president of Harvard’s chaplains.

It is the obligation of deans like Sterling to maintain a diverse intellectual environment, including for pro-life scholars in a divinity school. This role is even more important given the growing orthodoxy at most schools where opposing views are actively silenced.

Even iconic liberals have been cancelled in seeking to express pro-life views. A good example of this intolerance was the treatment of my friend, the late and great Nat Hentoff. Considered the prototypical liberal intellectual, Nat also happened to be pro-life despite his atheist views. In a 1992 Washington Post column, Hentoff described how activists would prevent his even leading discussions of the issue.

Nat and I would often discuss what we saw as the rising intolerance on the left and the growth of an anti-free speech movement on our campuses. It has become worse than either of us imagined before his death.

There was a time when it would have been scandalous for a dean like Sterling to use his official position to make such a declaration. Today it is barely noted. Indeed, it is more likely to be cited as proof that pro-life arguments are not just legally but religiously invalid.

Once again, there were a host of ways that Sterling could have framed his message in a neutral and inclusive way. He could have also spoken expressly as an individual and not the Dean. That was clearly not his intention. He wanted to speak as Dean in opposition to the pro-life arguments after the Dobbs decision. He is certainly not alone in this departure from tradition, but it is particularly alarming to see from the head of a divinity school.

163 thoughts on “Yale Divinity Dean: There is “No Biblical Basis” for Abortion Bans”

  1. Jonathan: As a member of the Catholic Church I can understand why you criticize YSD Dean Sterling for saying there is no “biblical basis” for abortion bans. But you are clutching at straws. Clearly, the Catholic Church is unalterably opposed to abortion. Nancy Pelosi found this out when SF Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone told her she could no longer receive communion because she refused to “publicly repudiate your advocacy of abortion ‘rights'”. So much for the separation of church and state when Catholic officials think Church policy should dictate what public officials can/cannot say on public issues. If Dean Sterling should, in your words, maintain a “neutral” position on religious issues shouldn’t the same standard apply to Cordileone? Don’t recall you discussing the Pelosi/ Cordileone controversy.

    You cite Exodus 21:22 for the proposition that killing a fetus is a sin. It is interesting that Judaism, which you don’t mention, is a strong proponent of abortion with few if any restrictions. The Torah has the same passage, you cite, in Exodus 21-22-23. The common interpretation in Jewish thought is that if a woman is gravely injured (killed) the penalty is a “life for a life” as in other homicides. But if the woman survives and there is only a miscarriage the penalty is only a “fine” because because the fetus is not considered a person. The primary concern in the Exodus passage is the well-being of the woman. I’m not a biblical scholar. But that’s how I interpret the passage. So I think it is a stretch for you to say: “One can clearly [???] read from that language to see that, even in an accidental context, the killing of an unborn child [based on a religious presumption–not science] was viewed as murder subject to the death penalty”. You reveal the flaw in your argument by admitting in the next paragraph of your post: “Yet, one can argue that this passage deals with fatal accidents that injure a woman”. Indeed, and why your arguments are full of contradictions.

    You can’t, despite great effort, find support for your position in the scriptures for the proposition that life begins at conception. Perhaps, Archbishop Cordileone can provide the support you desperately seek.

    1. Regarding Nancy Pelosi, she is entitled to say, think or do anything she wants (if it is legal) as an individual or as a politician. As she claims to be a member of the Catholic Church, a “devout Catholic’, she is also free to attend mass but she is not free to partake in the sacrament of holy communion if she remains and unrepentant proponent of abortion, especially abortions that occur in the third trimester. The church teaching is unwavering and crystal clear on the subject of abortion. She can simply renounce the church or stop going or not partake in holy communion. It is that simple.

      1. Communion is a matter of faith in Jesus between God and those believing in Christ’s sacrifice. No other human has any scriptural authority to decide you can partake of the symbols of his body & blood. This is a crucial heresy of all false teachers who ordained themselves as superior to certain other believers so as to say who can partake of those symbols.

  2. Being a progressive conservative and virulently pro-abortion as a means to cull the herd of a mostly liberal fan base, I smolder at the machinations these Humanists on the left come up with to justify their vile, filthy idiocy spewed by supposedly educated people who rely on a hyena like-minded mentality to rationalize the irrational.…’Thou shall not kill’ is pretty clear and absolute…their dichotomy of killing fetuses and not murderers is hilarious…and vice-versa on the right. I don’t think a civilization can survive without codifying its favorite deaths…and right now we are floundering..

    1. Thou shalt not kill is bad enough, thou shalt not commit homicide, thou shalt not perform human rites, but murder as a privacy rite… uh, right, is clearly a violation of human and civil rights, . The wicked solution is a human rite performed for social, redistributive, clinical, and fair weather special and peculiar interests. The nominally secular Pro-Choice ethical religion denies women and men’s dignity and agency, reduces human life to negotiable commodities, and is a first-order forcing of catastrophic anthropogenic diverse (numeric and color) mischief… Keep women, and girls, affordable, available, and taxable.

    2. If the zygote is alive, remove it from the blasphemous woman and let it live. Then we’ll have settled the matter.., I think. 🤷🏻‍♀️

  3. He is not a “priest” to morality and ethics but a priest to liberal ideology.

    1. Jesus was nothing if not liberal if he came “to save all that was lost.” But the religious right have restored the moneychangers to God’s house after Jesus said to stop making his house a cave of robbers. Jesus also said, “ you cannot serve god and riches because will love one more than the other.” And they only reason they created this alliance was to get human government to enforce their judgments against others. Jesus said, “Stop judging that you may not be judged.” Meanwhile, the financial lords you elevated by this alliance you have bound up the “strong man of God’s house” who should be the Lord Jesus Christ. But you are ignoring our Lord’s teachings in favor of those who twist the scriptures to their own destruction. You bound up The Living Word of God (as manifested by Jesus’ life on earth, opened the door and welcomed in the robbers of God’s house. And those robbers, in servitude to riches not God, are destroying every last inheritance God gave to sustain life, as outlined in Genesis. You do not know that your work is already reaping your reward.

      1. I honestly have no idea what you are talking about. To whom do you refer as the “moneychangers [in] God’s house”? What is the “alliance” of which you complain?

        As for the strong man who needed to be bound up, I do recall that in that analogy, Jesus was referring to Satan as the strong man, and himself as the one who bound him, so that he could be robbed.

        1. Matthew chapter 12. Jesus explained that every kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. This is true of God’s kingdom as well as Satan’s. The Pharisees (religious scholars accused Jesus of expelling demons by means of Beelzebub but then told them if I’m fact expelling them by God’s Spirit then the kingdom of God has come upon you. In Biblical Greek references the word “come” in Matthew 12:28 as meaning to have sooner than expected. In other words, if they were saying Jesus’ works were from satan, then they were too blind to see the kingdom of God standing right in front of them. After speaking of binding the strong man in any household Jesus summation is “He that is not on my side,” such as those accusing him as doing the work of Beelzebub, “is against me, and he that does not gather with me scatters.”

          As for the moneychangers, they were those who were selling sacrifices for a profit to those of God’s people who travelled too far to bring their own sacrifice for atonement. – John 2:13-16

      2. Jesus was conservative or a moderate who followed principles.

        The religious (i.e. ethical, nominally secular) left are steeped in redistributive change (i.e. minority capital and control schemes) through progressive prices, including subsidy in lieu of affordability, forced by single/central/monopolistic solutions (e.g. Obamacares, school loans, structure loans, etc.), and, of course, the wicked solution a.k.a. planned parenthood and planned parent/hood, diversity [dogma] (i.e. color judgment, class-based bigotry), Green renewable/intermittent/unreliable ecological hazards, etc.

        1. In the many povs here I’d like to address one more person’s comment but I lack the time to track it down. The comment mentioned Solomon’s wisdom to threaten cutting a baby in half because two women claimed to be its mother. The part of that which is often overlooked is why the wrong mother tried to steal the other’s baby. It was because her own baby died. Now if God loved that baby and it’s life was so important why did it die?

          Now I have to move on.

        2. Jesus said you received free so give free. Wall Street money changers have stolen god-given resources of the earth to sell back to everyone else. I’m so doing, they are robbing all of us of our divinely given inheritance. The rich man created economics as a means for trading off the work of others. Nowhere in the Genesis account of God’s work did he create for the purpose of gaining wealth. We see in times of disaster that humans come together to look after their neighbors and one another. This is how it should always be, but afterwards they go back to laboring for the rich man to the ignoring of others all over again. Living by way of economics is Satan’s design. All economies, be it capitalism, socialism or communism, always ends up in the hands of a few controlling the worth and wages of everyone else. When anyone believes he earned his way through life, he blasphemes the Creator who provided everything for everybody to sustain life. And where has this pride led mankind? To the precipice of earth’s inability to sustain life on earth. Open your eyes. It was granted to the sun to scorch the earth with fever and it scorched the men on earth, and still they did not repent of their deeds and give glory to one who alone can fix it. Satan in your heart has caused you to hate your neighbor and to seek to punish him because you think you are righteous for doing so.

          1. You strain out the gnat and gulp down the camel through your elevating the pursuits of Wall Street above what Jesus said are “the weightier matters of the law, namely justice, mercy and faithfulness.” -Matthew 23:23

    2. I’m talking about Catholic priests, not YDS Prof. Sterling. This format makes it difficult to follow who is replying to whom. I thought an elite university professor could do better.

  4. How about Psalm 139, 13-16: (NRSV)

    For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
    14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
    that I know very well.
    15 My frame was not hidden from you,
    when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
    16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
    In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed

    1. That sentiment was made by a person already born. It was also made by someone who shared lineage with the Messiah. Now that the Messiah has come, none of us share that lineage. Today our hope lies in remaining in Jesus’ words, not in our animalistic nature formed before we accepted His Spirit of Life.(John:6:6o-65; 8:21-22) “God is spirit.” “God is love.” “…only God is good.” Ergo, the Spirit of love and goodness also says in the Bible that God (the Spirit of Love and Goodness) both opens the womb and closes. It can be both loving and good to open or close it and none of our business which path another person takes. “Stop meddling in other persons affairs.”

    2. I forgot to include the basis for understanding God closes the womb. 1Samuel: 1:5-6. Now you might respond that I’m misusing that verse. But that is exactly what you are doing when you judge pro-choice advocates. So, what’s the correct way for a Christian to act regarding this dispute? You can follow your path of lifting up the moneychangers and human governors who will carry out your judgments. Or you can follow Jesus who said to stop judging one another. Also, you might choose to hear what Apostle Paul wrote as recorded in Romans chapter 14 to “Welcome those having weaknesses in their faith, but not to make decisions about inward questionings”

        1. And none of the pro-lifers are repenting for lifting up leaders to punish persons whom God loves and has forgiven through the spilled blood of Jesus Christ. It was God’s own household who chose to kill Jesus and then blame it on the Roman governor when they declared WE HAVE NO KING BUT CAESAR! They even accused the governor if he would not kill Jesus he was no friend of Caesar.

      1. There is no mystery in sex and conception. A woman, and man, have four choices: abstention, contraception, adoption, compassion, and an equal right to self-defense through reconciliation. The wicked solution to a hard problem: keep women, and girls, affordable, available, and taxable, is neither a good nor exclusive choice. The Pro-Choice ethical religion denies women and men’s dignity and agency, and reduces human life to negotiable commodities.

  5. 16 U.S.C. 668-668d protects eagles and migratory birds. If a person even disturbs an eagle egg or the egg of a migratory bird, they face charges and if the act is deemed to be a misdemeanor the fine is $5000 and up to one year in prison.

    “A violation of the Act can result in a fine of $100,000 ($200,000 for organizations), imprisonment for one year, or both, for a first offense. Penalties increase substantially for additional offenses, and a second violation of this Act is a felony.” (Fish and Wildlife Website)

    Have some become so calloused in this nation that they cannot see the irony?

  6. Under Hebrew law if two people were fighting and happened to injure a pregnant woman and that woman aborted due to her injuries. The two fighter were guilty of murder. I don’t know how much clearer the biblical view can be.

    1. If you are a Christian you have every right to believe abortion rights is sinful. What is not your Christian duty to get Caesar to punish them. That is a judgment and Jesus directly said to stop judging one another. Once you seek earthly kings to do your bidding you have rejected God’s mercy through the compassion of His Christ. Indeed, your appeals to human governors you are rejecting Jesus as Lord over the whole earth. Instead of waiting for God’s righteousness to manifest itself, you blasphemously turn to human authorities to carry out your own treachery upon God’s children. I’m so doing you have not reconciled them to God but rather you made them reckon for your own self righteousness. 2nd Corinthians 5:15-20

      1. I apologize for typos. I need to get my iPad out instead of trying to type on my phone’s small keyboard. Anyway, I think you can easily discern what my typos should have said.

        1. your profile reads

          My life revolves around the Bible (and my understanding of it, which is always subject to change

          Thankfully the Church is not as flimsy nor petulant as you. No where in the Sacred Scriptures nor Sacred Tradition does it even remotely imply that Christianity is lived solo. Read Acts of the Apostles, for starters. Even St Paul knew better than to strike out on his own because of his understanding of Jesus Christ, immature as it was.

          Christianity involves accountability to others, community of believers, those with gifts of leadership and teaching, those with gifts of serving, healing, etc. Read Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, the gifts of the Spirit are listed there. Better yet, consult your pastors and community members to help you discern whatever gifts you may or may not have. I get it, everyone wants to be pope, seen as infallible and having their opinions as taken as Dei Verbum. Neophytes are like that.

          You are entitled to your opinion not that anything you wrote on this subject is mature, intellectually sound nor consistent with 2000 years of Church teaching. Anyone can cherry pick quotes from Scripture.

          This was just ludicrous:

          Kidrambler says: July 4, 2022 at 11:57 PM
          And that hasn’t happened since.


          1. I’m not going to read past your first paragraph about your church as being unchanging. That was why Israel rejected the Christ, aka, the living word of god because he came to set them straight, but they rejected him and asked Governor Pontius Pilate to crucify him. No one is master over my faith but my Lord Jesus Christ’s words which are Spirit and Life. John 6:63 If you never change perhaps God doesn’t love you because he disciplines those he loves. And since “All men fall short of the glory of God,” we all are continually growing in faith. You are following a man made cult who make a showing display of their “faith” and add burdens to their followers instead of giving them faith that Jesus’ yoke provides refreshment and adds no burdens to his flock. You place your church as a mediator between you and our Heavenly Father, yet the Bible tells us Jesus is the only mediator between God and men. It is as just as Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees, “you shut up the kingdom of the heavens before men, for you yourselves do not go in, neither do you permit those on their way in to enter. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you traverse land and sea to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one you make him a subject for Gehenna twice as much as you yourselves.” Why would that be? Context suggests it’s because they give their followers faith in Christ but then immediately take it away by setting themselves us as the only ones who can reconcile them to God.

      2. But that’s not the point Dr. Turley’s making here. He’s saying that the dean of the divinity school is using his position deliberately to exclude a point of view held by many of the students and presumably still some faculty of the school – to delegitimize that point of view. The dean claims that there is no biblical basis for the belief that abortion is a sin, a claim that is so easily refuted that we plain old blog commenters can do it with ease – we don’t have to be divinity scholars.

        What to do about abortion is a completely separate question.

      3. Neither redistributive nor retributive change. That said, diversity [dogma] (i.e. color judgment, class-based bigotry), including ageism, breeds dysfunction, confusion, corruption, and adversity. The nominally secular Pro-Choice ethical religion denies women and men’s dignity and agency, and reduces human life to negotiable commodities. Civilized society has a compelling cause to discourage human rites performed for social, redistributive, clinical, and fair weather causes.

        1. n.n, uh that’s a bunch of meaningless mumbo jumbo. It is the Supreme Court that denied women free agency. And once upon a time Catholics supported Hitler who persecuted Jews and thought blacks were a cursed people. Talk about denying free agency! Evangelicals thought kidnapping blacks for low cost laborers was not a bad idea. Religious Right comprise the biggest hypocrites on this planet. And for what? So your overlords can live in the lap of luxury at your expense. Where’s the agency in that? My grandmother locked her doors and pulled her blinds so as not to be caught reading the Bible in fear of excommunication. Where was her agency in that? My great aunt was divorced and remarried for which she was denied communion for the rest of her life. Where was her free agency in that?

      1. I use Strongs Concordance; Hebrew and Greek interlinears; Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words; Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies; The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon; and The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon. I don’t have any pompous Ivy League education but then God’s Word says “not many wise are chosen,” because God cannot use those wise in their own eyes. I have loved reading the Bible since I was a child in Catechism classes. I don’t care to study dogma or doctrine. By choosing God’s Word alone as my teacher all the contradictions organized religious teachers create is removed and the truth shines through like a bright light and it is glorious.

  7. I’m confused.

    When the 14th Amendment was debated in the Congress, the American people were assured no woman would ever again be forced to have sex against her will (think Sally Hemings) or be bred like cattle only to see those children sold. Bodily autonomy (the right to chose with whom you will have sex, how many children to have or not have any, rear your children, maintain a home, family, marriage. Etc) is a “privilege and immunity” extended to all humans only in 1867. “Parental rights” is very fashional now, but were not a natural right for everyone until 1867.

    Here’s what confuses me, Prof Turley

    When a woman is raped, she does not have the “freedom” to purge that invasive creature from her body. Against her will, it is forcibly inserted and becomes literally a parasite sucking nutrients from her . It could kill her and that “potential life” (maternal morality is not zero).

    But, the rapist might infect the woman with a deadly, respiratory disease, one that could kill her and the “potential life”…..Forcing him to cover his mouth and nose with a breathable mask to filter out those pathogens violates HIS freedom.

    So, Professor Turley, explain “freedom” to me again.

  8. Farmers know that someday that a fetal cow will have value as an adult cow. The value of the embryo gets carried forward to the adult cow, like compound interest. If embryos didn’t have worth, then their worthlessness, not worthfulness, is what would get carried forward. But farmers know this is not true when they raise livestock.

    1. “Farmers know that someday that a fetal cow . . .”

      A perfect analogy for how anti-abortionists view women.

  9. The Reverend Gregory Sterling. High Priest of the Progressive religion.

  10. This article is an “Inside Baseball”. discussion, just of interest among the religious. Religion may be the reason for a personal decision but now, abortion can and should be argued – one way or another – on Scientific, legal, and maybe moral reasons.

    1. How about Psalm 139, 13-16 (NRSV)

      For it was you who formed my inward parts;
      you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
      14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
      Wonderful are your works;
      that I know very well.
      15 My frame was not hidden from you,
      when I was being made in secret,
      intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
      16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
      In your book were written
      all the days that were formed for me,
      when none of them as yet existed.

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