Abortion and the soul of the embryo

‘Stem cell research, abortion and the ‘soul of the embryo’?’

In 2011 there were 189,931 abortions among residents of England and Wales. That is 17.5 per 1,000 women, compared with 12 per 1,000 in Scotland. The vast majority, 91% of abortions, are carried out under 13 weeks, and most under 10 weeks. Just 1% are carried out on the grounds of the risk that the child will be born with a disability.

When do people think that human life begins (or, as some religious people understand it, that the embryo is ‘ensouled’)? Our YouGov poll revealed that 44% per cent of people believe that human life begins at conception, 30% that it begins at some time during pregnancy, 17% when the baby is born, and 8% ‘don’t know’.

The survey also found that the majority of religious people, like the majority of non-religious people, are in favour of retaining or even raising the current 24-week limit on legal abortion (43% of religious people, 46% of the general population). A slightly higher number of religious people (9%) would like to see an outright ban on abortion than in the general population (7%)

Although a lot of people believe that life begins at conception, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are anti-abortion.


“We evolve over time from the moment of our conception. From the very beginning, therefore, it seems to me we are human beings and potentially human persons.”

Revd Dr Gerard Hughes

“God starts life. God will end your life. This is why suicide, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and abortion are all prohibited in our religion.”

Dr Majid Katme

“If we wish to recommend legislation policy in a multi faith, multi-cultural or no faith society like ours we have to use arguments and evidence that are in principle available and acceptable by all citizens.”

Professor John Harris

Some media reaction

The success of adult stem cell research is being underplayed in favour of more controversial work using embryonic cells, according to religious figures who blame ‘aggressive secularism’ and the ‘personal investment’ of researchers in their projects for the alleged bias.

Elizabeth Gibney, Times Higher Education, 21 February 2013

Anti-abortion sentiment in Britain is declining, according to a YouGov poll which also found that support for keeping or even relaxing the current 24-week limit on terminations is on the rise.

Ben Quinn, Guardian, 12 February 2013


Read about the ethical arguments concerning abortion in the BBC Ethics Guide

For resources and arguments against abortion, see www.prolife.org.uk

For resources and arguments in favour of the availability of abortion, see the website of Abortion Rights, a national ‘pro-choice’ campaign

This event was held at QEIICC, Westminster, Wednesday 13 February 2013


  • Abdul Majid Katme

    Dr Abdul Majid Katme, born in Lebanon and educated in Egypt, came to Britain in 1972 to practise...

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  • David Albert Jones

    Dr David Albert Jones is Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre , a Roman Catholic academic...

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  • Gerard Hughes

    The Revd Dr Gerard Hughes tutors in philosophy at Campion Hall, part of the University of Oxford,...

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  • John Harris

    John Harris is Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester. He has acted...

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  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion...

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  • Intro by Linda Woodhead

  • Intro by David Albert Jones

  • Intro by Gerard Hughes

  • Intro by Abdul Majid Katme

  • Intro by John Harris

  • Abortion Part 1

  • Abortion Part 2


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