• Abortion was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland in 1967. It remains illegal in Northern Ireland.
  • Prior to 1967 the Courts permitted abortion where the mother's life was in danger. This is still the position in Northern Ireland.
  • In England and Wales only 137 abortions were carried out in 2003 because of a risk to the mother’s life.1 [Statutory ground A]
  • In the same year only 1,950 abortions were performed because the child was likely to be born handicapped; 2 [Statutory ground E]
  • A further 2,218 abortions were carried out in 2003 because of the risk of grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the mother.3 [Statutory ground B]
  • By contrast 177,286 abortions (97% of all legal abortions) were carried out in 2003 for social reasons.4 [Statutory grounds C and D]
  • So less than 2.4% of all abortions in England and Wales are performed because of handicap or serious injury to the mother.5
  • Two doctors must certify the grounds for abortion (unless the mother’s life is in imminent danger or she is at imminent risk of grave permanent injury in which case a second opinion is not necessary).

Biblical arguments

The sanctity of life

Life is sacred from conception (see Sanctity of life). Abortion is the destruction of a human being. The Bible states that the deliberate taking of an innocent human life breaks the sixth commandment “You shall not murder”.6 Abortion at any stage of gestation is wrong.  

Christians have always opposed abortion

There was universal condemnation of abortion in the early Church.7 The practice was roundly condemned in early Christian writings including the Didache and the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine.8

David Braine in his study concludes that:

“For the whole of Christian history until appreciably after 1900… there was virtually complete unanimity amongst Christians, evangelical, catholic, orthodox, that, unless, at the direct command of God, it was in all cases wrong directly to take innocent human life.”9

Historically, pagan societies generally accepted abortion. W E H Lecky (1838-1903), the Irish historian, commented that “The practice of abortion was one to which few persons in antiquity attached any deep feeling of condemnation.”10 For example, in Roman times abortions were carried out for social reasons.

Though Lecky often disagreed with Christian doctrine, he commented with approval that: 

“…it was one of the most important services of Christianity, that besides quickening greatly our benevolent affections it definitely and dogmatically asserted the sinfulness of all destruction of human life as a matter of amusement, or of simple convenience, and thereby formed a new standard higher than any which then existed in the world. The influence of Christianity in this respect began with the very earliest stage of human life.”11

Lecky summarised the view of the early church in regard to abortion:

“With unwavering consistency and with the strongest emphasis, they denounced the practice, not simply as inhuman, but as definitely murder.”12

John Calvin (the 16th century French theologian) said:

“The foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being... If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light.”13

Commenting on the 12 million abortions carried out in the USA up to 1981, John Stott says:

“Any society which can tolerate these things, let alone legislate for them, has ceased to be civilised. One of the major signs of decadence in the Roman Empire was that its unwanted babies were ‘exposed’, that is abandoned and left to die. Can we claim that contemporary Western society is any less decadent because it consigns its unwanted babies to the hospital incinerator instead of the local rubbish dump? Indeed modern abortion is even worse than ancient exposure because it has been commercialised, and has become, at least for some doctors and clinics, an extremely lucrative practice. But reverence for human life is an indisputable characteristic of a humane and civilised society.”14

When the mother's life is in danger

Situations can arise where continuing with a pregnancy will put the mother’s life in imminent danger. Under these difficult circumstances, medical intervention to save the mother is accepted as justifiable by many Christians who hold to a pro-life position, even though it has the effect of ending the baby’s life.

Key points

  • Many women who have abortions later deeply regret doing so and some experience psychological problems. For many the decision to have an abortion is made under pressure and with little time for careful thought. Those who pressurise women in this way are morally responsible.
  • Adoption is a positive alternative to abortion.
  • There is no legal right to abortion on demand, though in practice many doctors permit abortions on this basis.
  • Social abortions are not permitted after 24 weeks. Parliament reduced this from 28 weeks in 1990 because it was accepted that a foetus could survive outside the womb at 24 weeks. But the age of ‘viability’ has now fallen to around 22 weeks.
  • Hadley Arkes, Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College, USA, has written on the ethics of abortion: “…if the proposition were put to us explicitly, as a matter of principle, we would not consider for a moment that people may have a licence to kill those who stand in the way of their education or the advancement of their careers.”15
  • Professor Arkes has pointed out that strictly speaking from the point of view of an American Court “…the right to an abortion would be taken to mean the right to a dead fetus, not merely the removal of the child from the womb. After all, the prospect of giving a child up for adoption has always been present...”16

Church positions

The Church of England and the Church of Scotland

The official positions determined respectively by the General Synod (1983) and the General Assembly (1985) both state that abortion is only permissible where the mother’s life is in danger. Both Churches have called for a review of the Abortion Act.17

The Board of Social Responsibility for the Church of Scotland recommended in 1988 a position much weaker than that adopted by the General Assembly, but still much stronger than the present law. The Board advocated that abortion should be permitted “only on grounds that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve serious risk to the life or grave injury to the health, whether physical or mental, of the pregnant woman.”18

Roman Catholics

The Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) states:

“The direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit (lawful) means of regulating birth.”19

In 2004 the Catholic Bishops’ conference of England and Wales stated:

“Though it [abortion] is performed with all the appearances of medical care, and surrounded by euphemisms, termination of pregnancy is the termination of a human life. Taking the life of a child in the womb is as unjust to the unborn child as taking the life of a new born baby is to the infant…In the words of the Second Vatican Council, both abortion and infanticide are ‘abominable crimes’.”20

  • 1Summary Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2003, Statistical Bulletin 2004/14, Department of Health, 2004, Table 2 
  • 2Summary Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2003, Statistical Bulletin 2004/14, Department of Health, 2004, page 1
  • 3Summary Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2003, Statistical Bulletin 2004/14, Department of Health, 2004, Table 2 
  • 4Summary Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2003, Statistical Bulletin 2004/14, Department of Health, 2004, Table 2 
  • 5The total number of legal abortions in England and Wales in 2003 was 181,582
  • 6Exodus 20:13
  • 7See for example The Church of England Board of Social Responsibility Personal Origins (2nd Edition), CHP, 1996, page 33, 35
  • 8Cameron N and Sims P Abortion: The crisis in morals and medicine, IVP, 1986, pages 28-29
  • 9Quoted in Ibid, page 29
  • 10Lecky W E H History of European Morals, vol 2, Longmans, 1877, (1913 edition), page 20
  • 11Loc cit
  • 12Ibid, vol 2, page 22
  • 13Calvin J Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses, vol 3, translated by Bingham C W, Baker, Michigan, reprinted 1979, pages 41-42, quoted in Barnes P Open your mouth for the dumb: Abortion and the Christian, Banner of Truth, 1986, page 17
  • 14Stott J Issues Facing Christians Today, Marshall Pickering, 1990, page 311
  • 15Arkes H First Things Princeton University Press, 1986, page 370
  • 16Ibid, page 371
  • 17Abortion – A briefing Paper, Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Division, February 2005, see also  Cameron N and Sims P Abortion: The crisis in morals and medicine, IVP, 1986, page 128
  • 18Quoted in Abortion & Religion Factsheet 5, Education for Choice, 1999. This position was re-affirmed by the Board of Social Responsibility in 1999.  See Report To The Church of Scotland Assembly, Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility, 1999, 24/21.
  • 19Quoted in Abortion & Religion Factsheet 5, Education for Choice, 1999
  • 20Cherishing Life, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, 2004, pages 76-77

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