Abortion: facts, ethics & the Bible

The abortion debate is not just about a woman's rights, medical science, law, and situational ethics. It also concerns absolute morality, as found in the Bible, and one's relationship to God.

Medical Definitions

Induced abortion: (as opposed to a miscarriage) is the intentional termination of a pregnancy before the fetus can live independently. Such an abortion may be elective (based on a woman's personal choice) or therapeutic (to preserve the health or save the life of a pregnant woman).

Fetus: An unborn offspring, from the embryo stage (the end of the eighth week after conception, when the major structures have formed) until birth.

Human embryo: the developing organism from fertilization to the end of the eighth week.

World Abortion Statistics

Some key facts, link:

  • The world abortion rate (the number of abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age (15-44) was 28 in 2008.
  • Nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, and nearly all unsafe abortions (98%) occur in developing countries.
  • In 2008, six million abortions were performed in developed countries.
  • In Europe, 30% of pregnancies end in abortion.

USA Abortion Statistics

Today, abortion is legal in all 50 states, through all nine months of pregnancy, for virtually any reason at all, link. Key abortion statistics in the US can be summarized as follows:

  • US abortion rates are higher than those in Europe but similar to those in Australia.
  • Abortion rates peaked in 1990 and are slowly decreasing (typically 21% of pregnancies, link).
  • Nearly 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion.
  • In 2010, 85% of all abortions were performed on unmarried women.
  • About 4 in 10 of unintended pregnancies are aborted.
  • Some 1.06 million abortions took place in 2011.
  • Between 1973 and 2011, there have been some 53 million legal abortions.

UK Abortion Statistics

Under UK law (England, Scotland and Wales), an abortion can usually only be carried out during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, link. Key abortion statistics in England and Wales can be summarized as follows:

  • Between 1968 and 2002 there were some 6 million abortions, link.
  • There are typically 190,000 abortions each year.
  • Up to 2011 the abortion rate had been steadily rising (typically 21% of pregnancies link).
  • The number of teenagers having abortions has been falling.
  • The majority of abortions (about 99%) are performed under Ground C (covering the mental health of the woman), link, link.
  • Just 1% of abortions are carried out under Ground E (there is a risk the child would be handicapped).
  • Some 37% of all abortions performed in 2014 were repeat procedures (dozens of women have had at least nine abortions), link.
  • Some 96% of abortions are funded by government, under the NHS.

European Abortion Statistics

Almost all countries allow abortion to save a woman's life and to preserve mental or physical health. Key abortion statistics in Europe can be summarized as follows:

  • Some western European countries have some of the lowest abortion rates in the world e.g. Belgium (typically 12% of pregnancies link) and Switzerland (typically 12% link).
  • Some eastern European countries e.g. Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine have some of the highest abortion rates in the world.

Israel Abortion Statistics

Typically 97% of abortions are approved, amounting to over 10% of pregnancies, link.

African Abortion Statistics

Abortion is illegal in some countries e.g. Angola, Central African Republic, Congo and Somalia, whilst here are no restrictions on abortion in Cape Verde, South Africa and Tunisia. Key abortion statistics in Africa for 2008 can be summarized as follows:

  • Some 6.4 million induced abortions were carried out, of which only 3% were performed under safe conditions.
  • Eastern Africa had the highest abortion rate, and South Africa had the lowest abortion rate.
  • Some 13% of all pregnancies ended in abortion.

Abortion under Islam

Abortion law is strict in many Muslim-majority countries, and abortion tends to be illegal. Countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Mali, Yemen, and Iraq have very restrictive abortion laws, link. But as of 2013, some countries with Muslim majorities had legalized abortion e.g. Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Tunisia and Turkey, link, link.

  • In Tunisia, abortion is legal on demand, link. Abortion is typically 8% of all pregnancies, link.
  • The abortion rate in Turkey has been steadily falling and was about 10% (of all pregnancies) in 2008, link.
  • In Egypt, abortion is illegal except in exceptional cases, link, and religious and social regulations bar women from terminating their unwanted pregnancies. Some claim there were over 2 million illegal abortions in Egypt between 1995 and 2000, link.
  • In Iran, abortion is illegal except in exceptional cases, but some 250,000 illegal abortions still take place in Iran each year, link.

Abortion Law

In America abortion was illegal in the early 20th century, except in order to save the life of the mother, link. Today, abortion is legal in all 50 states, through all nine months of pregnancy, for virtually any reason at all, link.

In Israel, a 1977 law ensures low-cost (or free) legal abortion to any woman who meets one of several criteria, e.g. she is under 18, or her mental health would be damaged if she continued with the pregnancy, link. It is claimed Israel's abortion law is now among the world's most liberal.

In the UK abortion was a criminal offence in the 19th century, and was enshrined in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (which is still in force). Then, in the early 20th century, the concept of legal exceptions was introduced under the umbrella of 'preserving the life of the mother', and 'avoiding detrimental effects on a woman's mental health', link. These concepts were enshrined in the 1967 Abortion Act, link, which applies to England, Scotland and Wales. This Act did not legalise abortion, but it allowed for exceptions to the 1861 Act to the illegality of abortion. A 1990 amendment to the 1967 Act gave grounds A-G for abortion, the legal upper limit for grounds C and D being 24 weeks, link. Officially, abortion needs the approval of two doctors, but in practice this rule has been relaxed link.

Since the 1967 Act, the number of legal UK abortions have increased by an order of magnitude, link.

Abortion for 'Social' Reasons

Ground C of the amended 1967 UK Abortion Act allows abortion if there is risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, ground E permits abortion if the child could be born seriously handicapped, and grounds F and G are emergency grounds to protect the woman. Some 97% or 98% of legal abortions in the UK are carried out under ground C, link whilst the remaining abortions are essentially carried out under ground E, link, link.

Such unbalanced statistics suggest that most abortions are carried out for 'social-financial-career' reasons (ground C). Statistically, it seems the rights of the mother usually trump the rights of the child. For instance:

"It would be entirely reasonable for a doctor to decide that a woman who presents for an abortion saying that she cannot afford to continue the pregnancy can lawfully be provided with the abortion, as to refuse her might have relatively negative consequences for her health." link.

In fact, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), link now views abortion as a 'healthcare need', link. Whilst proponents of the 1967 Act maintained that such abortions would only be in 'extreme cases', the passage of time demonstrates that UK abortion is now effectively available on demand (although there is still no legal right to abortion). Why shouldn't the 'healthcare need' extend to cases where the parents claim they are incapable of caring for the child, or the child will have an inferior quality of life?

Cultural Attitudes to Abortion

Historically, abortion was forbidden by the Sumerian Code (one of the earliest legal documents of the ancient world), and Roman law punished women for contraception and abortion, link. The early Church condemned abortion and regarded it as murder, link, and virtually all of Christendom held this view until the 20th century.

Today, ground F in UK abortion law states that abortion is legal to save the life of the woman. Whilst opposing abortion, many cultures reflect this particular concern for the life of the woman, as in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism, link. Even the Church of England recognises that there may be conditions under which abortion is 'morally preferable', link.

In the secular world there is significant support for legal abortion in all circumstances i.e. it's the woman's choice: 36% in the UK, 31% in the US and 40% in Germany support this concept link. Similar attitudes prevail in Eastern Europe, where typically 80% think a woman should have the right to decide whether to have an abortion, link. Abortion views in the US have been stable since 2000; as of 2012, 41% of Americans identified themselves as "pro-choice" whilst 50% called themselves "pro-life", link.

Physical and Mental Risks of Abortion

Whilst officially denied, the majority of studies have shown a positive correlation between abortion and breast cancer, link, link, link, link. Post-abortive women are three times more likely to develop breast cancer in later life, Abortion Physical Effects. Other physical dangers of legal abortion are increased risk of cervical and uterine damage, cervical cancer, uterine perforations and subsequent ectopic pregnancies, Abortion Risks.

Abortion also places women at risk of haemorrhage, endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease which can all be fatal if left untreated, link, link.

Abortion affects people emotionally. Following a review, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCOP) now admits that abortion may damage a woman's mental health:

"We agree that there is a high prevalence of mental disorders in the first 3 months after termination as well as in the years that follow ... the rates of mental health post abortion are high" [Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2008 ]

Studies show a strong correlation between abortion and psychological disorders ranging from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and even suicide. One extensive study concluded that abortions increase the risk of developing mental health problems by 81%, link. Induced abortion can also affect a woman spiritually, link.

When does Life Begin?

Before we look at the ethics of abortion, it is important to ask the question: 'When does life begin?'. Pro-Choice organisations base their view on that of the US Supreme Court, which is that 'legal personhood begins with birth', link. They maintain that conception is not the beginning of a person, that embryos are a cluster of cells with the potential to develop into a human life, and that the fetus is a potential person. But what does medical science say?

"It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception" [Professor Micheline Matthews-Roth, Harvard Medical School]
"By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception" [Professor Hymie Gordon, Mayo Clinic]
"After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being" [Jerome LeJeune, Professor of genetics, University of Descartes, Paris]

and the conclusion of a United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee was, link:

"Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being - a being that is alive and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point in countless medical, biological, and scientific writings." [ US Senate Bill 158, the "Human Life Bill", 1981 ]

The image below shows a human embryo approximately 6 weeks after conception. This was a spontaneous abortion (not a termination).

Human Embryo

Human Embryo: Image licensed under Creative Commons

How does Life End?

This is a delicate subject, but everyone needs to know the painful facts. There is a measurable heart beat 21-24 days after conception, and brain waves can be detected after 6 weeks, link. Just 8 weeks after conception the unborn baby reacts to touch, link, and at 20 weeks gestation the body's pain network is established, link.

"The neural pathways are present for pain to be experienced quite early by unborn babies" [Steven Calvin, M.D., Chair of Program in Human Rights Medicine, University of Minnesota]
"An unborn baby at 20 weeks gestation is fully capable of experiencing pain. Without question, [abortion] is a dreadfully painful experience." [R. J. White, M.D., PhD., professor of neurosurgery, Case Western University]

So virtually all abortions terminate a beating heart and brain waves, and usually it is a very painful experience for the unborn child. The results can be seen at Abort67. Until banned from doing so, a few UK hospitals burned aborted children in waste-to-energy plants to heat hospitals, link!

The Biblical View of the Unborn

The Bible underscores the view that the womb carries a human being and that conception is the start of a person:

Gen 25.21,22: Two children (Heb: ben) struggled in Rebekah's womb. The Hebrew root meaning is two sons i.e. two individuals.

Job 3.3: Job is referred to as a 'child' (an individual) at the point of conception.

Job 3.16: Job refers to an infant (Heb: olal) who is still-born. The Hebrew root meaning is a young child, delivered dead. Note the parallel with abortion.

Jer 1.5: God says He knew Jeremiah as a person before he was born, even, it seems, before the point of conception.

Lk 1.41,44: Here we have the reaction of one person to the voice of another: the babe (Gk: brephos) leaped in Elizabeth's womb when his mother heard Mary's voice. The term 'babe' is always used to denote an individual person, as for example in Lk 2.12.

Not surprisingly, abortion was condemned in the early church.

The Ethics of Abortion

Having a firm scientific and biblical basis, we are now in a position to consider the ethics/morality of abortion. Ethics comes from the Greek word 'ethos', meaning 'what ought to be' - the 'right' and 'wrong' in a particular situation. So we must first ask, 'where do our ethics come from - is there indeed absolute right and wrong?' Pro-Choice organisations maintain that it is important to avoid adopting one religious view over another, and so are in the realm of moral relativism with few absolutes. Whether abortion is right or wrong then depends upon an individual's belief:

"Abortion is a moral choice made by a woman based on her moral beliefs and that every woman must be free to choose", link

Where there is moral relativism and little absolute moral belief, the Pro-Choice argument then centers upon a woman's right to control her own body. But suppose there are moral absolutes, absolutes set by God?

Let's look at the scientific and biblical view of abortion. Rather than talk of embryo and fetus, we should really be talking about a human being - a person - from the time of conception. The person in the womb is simply in the early stages of human development, just like a child grows up into an adult. So we are faced with the question:

"When, if ever, is it right to take the life of a human being in the womb?"

Of course, the Bible says "You shall not murder" (Exod 20.13), which draws a line in the sand for many believers - induced abortion is not an option. But, as discussed, many cultures (including many Christians) accept that abortion may be justified where a mother's life is in danger (ground F in UK abortion law). There is also the question of fetal abnormality or child handicap; should induced abortion in such cases be legal? This is recognised as ground E in UK law. Having said this, ground E amounts to just 1% of all legal abortions, and ground F is very rarely used, link.

In the UK, the majority of abortions occur on ground C - the mental health of the mother. In the US, common reasons for abortion are failure of contraception, inability to support a child, and lack of partner support, link, link. In Israel, valid reasons for abortion could be from an emotional or mental threat caused by the pregnancy or for not being married to the baby's father.

So, rare exceptions aside, and taking the scientific and biblical viewpoint, we should ask:

"Are most induced abortions (i.e. over 95% of abortions) ethical? Are they morally wrong (sinful) in the sight of the one true God? Is it right to murder a human being simply for 'social' reasons like 'the pregnancy was unintended', 'I don't wish to be a single parent', 'it is unaffordable' or 'it is inconvenient'? "

The biblical and moral response must be a resounding 'no': apart from rare exceptions, induced abortion is immoral and wrong in the sight of God. In Western countries at least, the State has legalized murder. And an individual contemplating abortion should consider their relationship to God.

Bible quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV)