Abortion and contraception

Christians believe that human beings are created in God's image. All human life should therefore be reverenced.

Ian Leck, Professor Emeritus and former Professor of Epidemiology at Manchester University, gave a presentation to a meeting of the Methodist Parliamentary Fellowship on the subject of the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967.

Download a copy of the presentation 'Abortion - 40 years on'.

A briefing from the Methodist-Baptist-URC Joint Public Issues Team on abortion and information about the current political debate.  Read the Abortion Briefing here.


What is the position of the Methodist Church on abortion?

The Methodist Conference Statement of 1976 states that the human fetus has an inviolable right to life and that abortion should never be seen as an alternative to contraception. Yet it also recognises that the fetus is totally dependent on the mother for at least the first 20 weeks of its life and that the mother has a total right to decide whether or not to continue the pregnancy.

The 1976 statement gives examples of circumstances in which termination of the pregnancy may be seen as necessary. These include situations where the embryo is severely disabled or is the result of rape, where the mental or physical health of the mother is at risk, and where the right of the unborn child to be healthy and wanted may not be met. The Church and others must help provide counselling opportunities to mothers so that they fully understand the decision, and the alternatives to abortion. The statement also calls for new effort to encourage expressions of human sexuality that are sensitive, responsible and do not lead to the exploitation of others.

At what stage does an unborn fetus become a person?

According to the Statement, "There is never any moment from conception onwards when the fetus totally lacks human significance ... However the degree of this significance manifestly increases". This is related to the view that "the fetus possesses a degree of individual identity", but is not considered as a person in the theological sense as "it lacks independence and the ability to respond to relationships", although it has a full right to life and loving care.

The result of the coming together of human sperm and ovum is obviously human. The appearance of the 'primitive streak' (the beginning of the neurological system) after some fourteen days is an important stage. However for many weeks after this event, natural abortion will continue to bring about the termination of over 50% of embryos.

Fertilisation, implantation and subsequent development are parts of a continuous process. It is simply not possible to identify the single moment when a new human person begins. The right of the embryo to full respect clearly increases throughout a pregnancy.

Should there be a time-limit for abortion?

Where decision has been taken to terminate the pregnancy – which should never be done lightly or under duress – it should be done as early as possible. The 1976 Statement noted that the fetus is fully viable after 28 weeks and possibly after 24 weeks. Medical progress since then means that the fetus may now be considered viable after 20 weeks. The Abortion Briefing [link above] noted that 89% of abortions were carried out before 13 weeks gestation – 68% of these before 10 weeks. But the reasons which may lead to the decision to terminate the pregnancy, including severe risk to the physical or mental health of the mother, mean that there will be situations where it is not possible to place an absolute time-limit on the termination procedure.

What about contraception?

The Methodist Church believes that responsible contraception is a welcome means towards fulfilment in marriage, the spacing of children, and the need to avoid pregnancy altogether, for example for medical reasons.

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