The status of the embryo and sanctity of life

What does Christianity teach about abortion?

For Christians, human life is sacred and is a gift from God. It is to be respected and protected. This teaching is called the sanctity of life.

The Bible teaches that human beings are created in the image of God. It also teaches that murder is forbidden. Jesus reminded his followers that each person is precious to God, so much so that God has counted every hair on their head.

Christians understand and apply the guiding principle of the sanctity of life in a variety of ways to the issue of abortion. Within the same church, views may differ. The four main positions are as follows:

  • Pro-life - some Christians, including many Roman Catholics, say that abortion is morally wrong because of their belief that human life begins at conception. They may make an exception if an abortion is essential in order to save the life of the mother (the principle of double effect), assuming all efforts have been made to save the foetus.
  • Pro-choice - it is up to the woman to decide whether it is right for her to have an abortion because it is her body. Some Christians believe that a woman has a right to a safe abortion, and that it shows compassion if the law allows this.
  • Absolute moral - abortion is wrong in every circumstance.
  • Relative moral - abortion is permitted in certain circumstances.

Bible teaching

The Bible does not have any direct references to abortion. However, there are a number of passages which emphasise that human life is special as it is created by God and that each individual is known to God – even in the womb. Here are some examples:

In Jeremiah 1:5, God says to Jeremiah, “I chose you before I gave you life, and before you were born I chose you to be a prophet to the nations.” This shows us that Jeremiah was precious to God, and that he was a person long before he was born.

The writer of Psalms (Psalm 139:13-16) states, “You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb.” This teaches that God knows all about each person in minute detail, as He has created each one of us. Our souls began life long before we were actually born.

Luke 1: 39-44 describes a meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Each woman was expecting a baby – Jesus and John the Baptist respectively. Elizabeth’s unborn child “leapt in the womb” in recognition of Mary’s unborn child.

Luke uses the word ‘brephos’ to describe the unborn Jesus and John – this is the same word used for babies and toddlers. In doing so he gives equal status to unborn children as those already born. The unborn John - who "leapt in the womb" - had a soul, just as much as if he had been born.

Also in the Bible, one of the Ten Commandments clearly states, “Do not commit murder” (Exodus 20: 13). Although in certain circumstances the Bible allows the use of lethal force in self-defence or in the defence of others. However, Biblical teaching states that the deliberate killing of an innocent human being is always wrong.