• Abortion was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland in 1967. Unlike the rest of the UK, abortion is only allowed in Northern Ireland to save the life of a mother.
  • In total, there have been over 8 million abortions in Great Britain since the 1967 Act was passed.1
  • In Great Britain 199,314 abortions (98.4% of all legal abortions) were carried out in 2013 for social reasons [statutory grounds C and D].2
  • A further 3,063 abortions were performed because the child was likely to be born handicapped [statutory ground E].3
  • Only 193 abortions (0.1% of all legal abortions) in England and Wales in 2013 were carried out because of a risk to the mother’s life or because of the risk of grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the mother [statutory grounds A, B, F or G].4
  • 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). However, Department of Health guidance published in May 2014 says that there is “no legal requirement” for doctors to see women seeking an abortion before approving it.5
  • Between October 2014 and January 2015 the Northern Ireland Department of Justice consulted on liberalising abortion law in the Province.

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 said:

“Any society which can tolerate these things, let alone legislate for them, has ceased to be civilized. 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 commercialized, 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 civilized society.”14

What about the ‘hard cases’?

The clear biblical principles have to be applied to many different practical situations, without compromise, but with compassion.

Doesn’t compassion therefore compel us to allow abortion sometimes? What if the pregnancy is a result of rape? What if the child is seriously handicapped or if the mother’s life is at risk?

The statistics above help to put these questions into perspective. Less than 1.6% of all abortions in England and Wales in 2013 were performed because of handicap or serious injury to the mother. There is no doubt that the Abortion Act is used to facilitate massive numbers of abortions for social reasons.

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.

The Abortion Act 1967

  • There have been over 8 million abortions in Great Britain since the 1967 Act was passed.
  • In 2013, 98.4% of all legal abortions were carried out for social reasons.
  • In 2012 a Daily Telegraph investigation uncovered evidence that gender-based abortions were taking place in the UK. Police referred the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service, who did not bring any prosecution on the grounds that the doctors concerned had no guidance on abortion. The Department of Health issued guidance in May 2014, insisting that abortion based on sex alone is illegal.
  • Also in 2012, an investigation by the Care Quality Commission discovered that doctors at 14 NHS hospitals had been pre-signing abortion consent forms. The General Medical Council took no action against the doctors involved. MPs wrote to the Metropolitan Police asking them to investigate a criminal offence.
  • Under the Abortion Act, two registered medical practitioners must certify that they are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that at least one of the legal grounds for abortion exists. But in May 2014 the Government issued guidance which says there is “no legal requirement” for doctors to see women seeking an abortion before approving it.
  • On 23 February 2015 Fiona Bruce MP proposed an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill to make sex-selective abortion explicitly illegal. However, MPs voted against the amendment by 292 to 201.

Key points

  • Many women who have abortions later deeply regret doing so. For many the decision to have an abortion is made under pressure, with little time for careful thought or without proper information on the psychological or physical consequences.
  • The medical risks of abortion include greater likelihood of premature births, breast cancer and mental illness.15
  • 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 in American Institutions (Political Science) 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 license to kill those who stand in the way of their education or the advancement of their careers”.16
  • 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…”17

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.18

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”.19

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”.20

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’.”21

  1. 1Between 1968 (when the Abortion Act came into force) and 2013, there were 7,661,051 abortions carried out in England and Wales (Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2013, Department of Health, June 2014, Table 1) and 459,767 abortions carried out in Scotland (Abortion Statistics – Year ending 31 December 2013, ISD Scotland, May 2014, Table 6).
  2. 2Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2013, Department of Health, June 2014, Table 13, page 55
  3. 3Loc cit
  4. 4Loc cit
  5. 5Guidance in Relation to Requirements of the Abortion Act 1967, Department of Health, May 2014, page 5
  6. 6Exodus 20:13
  7. 7See for example The Church of England Board of Social Responsibility, Personal Origins (2nd edition), CHP, 1996, pages 33 and 35
  8. 8Cameron, N and Sims, P, Abortion: the crisis in morals and medicine, IVP, 1986, pages 28-29
  9. 9Braine, D, Medical Ethics and Human Life, 1982, pages 11-12, quoted in Cameron, N, Op cit., page 29
  10. 10Lecky, W E H, History of European Morals, Longmans, 1877 (1913 edition), page 20
  11. 11Loc cit
  12. 12Ibid, page 22
  13. 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
  14. 14Stott, J, Issues Facing Christians Today, Marshall Pickering, 1990, page 311
  15. 15Lanfranchi, A, Gentles, I and Ring-Cassidy, E, Complications: Abortion’s Impact on Women, The deVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, 2013, page 235. For premature births, see for example Shah, P, Zao, J, on behalf of Knowledge Synthesis Group of Determinants of preterm/LBW births, Induced termination of pregnancy and low birthweight and preterm birth: a systematic review and meta-analyses, BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 116 (11), October 2009, pages 1425-1442. For breast cancer risks, see for example Jiang, A-R et al, Abortions and Breast Cancer Risk in Premenopausal and Postmenopausal Women in Jiangsu Province of China, Asia Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 13, 2012, pages 33-35 and Lecarpentier, J et al, Variation in breast cancer risk associated with factors related to pregnancies according to truncating mutation location, in the French National BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations carrier cohort (GENEPSO), Breast Cancer Research, 14, 2012. For mental illness, see for example Coleman, P K, Abortion and mental health: quantitative synthesis and analysis of research published 1995-2009, British Journal of Psychiatry, 199, 2011, pages 180-186
  16. 16Arkes, H, First Things, Princeton University Press, 1986, page 370
  17. 17Ibid, page 371
  18. 18Abortion – 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
  19. 19Quoted in Abortion & Religion Factsheet 5, Education for Choice, 1999. This position was reaffirmed by the Board of Social Responsibility in 1999.
  20. 20Quoted in Abortion & Religion Factsheet 5, Education for Choice, 1999
  21. 21’Cherishing Life’, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, 2004, pages 76-77