Abortion & The Embryo: Resources

Abortion & The Embryo: Resources

This page provides a range of key resources on both abortion and on the embryo and human personhood. Most, but not all, of these are available online (some though requiring a subscription to be accessed).

The initial section points to some helpful introductory and widely reprinted pieces found in dictionaries and readers. It is followed by pointing to important discussions in more general books on bioethics.

There follows a selection of resources particularly focussed on Scripture and then on the Christian tradition.

The extensive section on contemporary ethical discussions first introduces a range of authors with particular expertise in this area before providing other resources on both abortion and on the embryo and personhood.

Finally, there are links to a number of denominational statements.

Last Updated on 2 March, 2021 by Andrew Goddard

Dictionary Articles & Readers

Berry, Caroline. “Embryology” in Atkinson, David, and David Field. 1995. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology. IVP. 338-40.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle. “Abortion” in Childress, James F., and John Macquarrie. 1986. A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics. SCM Press. 1-5. For a fuller discussion from her see Cahill, Lisa Sowle. 1984. “Abortion, Autonomy, and Community” (subscription required) in Callahan, Sidney and Daniel Callahan D. (eds) Abortion: Understanding Differences. The Hastings Center Series in Ethics. Springer.

Gorman, Michael J. “Abortion” in Green, Joel B., Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Rebekah Miles, and Allen. Verhey. 2011. Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics. Baker Academic. 35-7.

The reader On Moral Medicine has 3 editions and each of these has a chapter on abortion with a short introduction and a number of articles.

  • Lammers, Stephen E., and Allen Verhey. 1987. On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics. Eerdmans. Chpt 13. 389-438.
  • Lammers, Stephen E., and Allen Verhey. 1998. On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics. 2nd ed. Eerdmans. Chpt 13. 583-638.
  • Lysaught, M. Therese, Joseph J. Kotva, Stephen E. Lammers, and Allen Verhey. 2012. On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics. 3rd ed. Eerdmans. Chpt 19. 894-964.

Some of these articles are also online:

  • Steffen, Lloyd H. 2010. Abortion : A Reader (2nd edn). Wipf & Stock. A collection of readings on the subject of abortion.
  • Neil Messer’s introductory reader in bioethics – Messer, Neil. 2002. Theological Issues in Bioethics: An Introduction with Readings. Darton Longman & Todd – has a helpful introduction on theological visions and Chpt 2 (“Respect for Life”) and Chpt 3 (“Persons, Bodies and Why They Matter” ending with a case study “Dilemma about Abortion”) reproduce some important articles including:
    • Junker-Kenny, Maureen. ‘The Moral Status of the Embryo’ in Maureen Junker-Kenny and Lisa Sowle Cahill (eds.) 1998. The Ethics of Genetic Engineering SCM. 43-53.
    • Cahill, Lisa Sowle. 1995. ‘ “Embodiment” and Moral Critique: A Christian Social Perspective’ in Lisa Sowle Cahill & Margaret A. Farley (eds). 1995. Embodiment, Morality and Medicine, 199-215. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

General Bio-ethics books

Most books on bioethics will have material on abortion and on the status of the embryo including

Meilaender, Gilbert. 2020. Bioethics : A Primer for Christians (4th edition). Eerdmans. This has chpt 3 on abortion and chpt 11 on embryos. Note that in chpt 3 he moved from a position on the status of the early embryo in the 1st edition (1996) which gave weight to the significance of 14 days and twinning to a more conservative position in the 2nd edition (2005). Despite this, the chapter was still critiqued by the Catholic moral theologian, William E. May in May, Wiliam E. 2009. “Meilaender on Abortion“.

Wyatt, John. 2009. Matters of Life and Death (2nd edn). IVP is the work of an evangelical Anglican, Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics, Ethics & Perinatology at University College London and a senior researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. Chpt 6 (135-56) on abortion and chpt 7 (157-78) are the most relevant. His website has a page with links to some of his articles and talks on abortion.



On the early church see Gorman, Michael J. 1998. Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, Jewish & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World. Wipf and Stock. Some of its arguments are able to be picked up from this short edited extract.

See also the chapter in Elsakker’s thesis (linked below) on “Early Christian Views on Abortion”.

A detailed study on Tertullian is Barr, Julian. 2017. Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective. Taylor & Francis which derives from his 2014 thesis Tertullian’s thinking on the human foetus and embryo.

For the early medieval period, Zubin Mistry’s thesis “ ‘Alienated from the womb’: abortion in the early medieval West, c.500-900” is a detailed study (published as Mistry, Zubin. 2015. Abortion in the Early Middle Ages, C. 500-900. Medieval Press. 2015) whose main ideas can be gleaned from this review.

There is also an earlier thesis “Reading between the lines: Old Germanic and early Christian views on abortion” by Marianne Jacqueline Elsakkers with a 5 page summary and chapters (in addition to that above on early Christian views) on “Abortion in the Early Medieval Penitentials” and “Early Medieval Abortion: Some Final Considerations

Contemporary Christian Ethical Discussions of Abortion and of Personhood

The most detailed Christian ethical survey and conservative critique on abortion ethics is from the Roman Catholic philosopher Christopher Kaczor in his book Kaczor, Christopher. 2014 (2nd edn, 1st edn 2010). The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice. Taylor & Francis.

Gilbert Meilaender

Meilaender’s book Bioethics was noted above and also important by him are:

James Mumford’s recent Ethics at the Beginning of Life: A Phenomenological Critique (2013, OUP) is a major discussion around what it means to be human but not an easy read. Information about it and links to reviews are here on his website and another more critical review is by [Orion Edgar](file:///C:/Users/Andrew/Documents/Ridley/Resources/journal.radicalorthodoxy.org/index.php/ROTPP/article/view/120/72). His lecture on “Beginning of Life Ethics” explores some of its ideas especially critiquing the religion vs reason framing of the debate. See also:

Michael Banner’s Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems (CUP, 1999) has two relevant chapters: “Christian Anthropology at the Beginning and End of Life” (Chpt 2, pp. 47-85) and “The Practice of Abortion: A Critique” (Chpt 3, pp. 86-135) which was also published as a booklet by Affirming Catholicism. His more recent The Ethics of Everyday Life (OUP, 2014) is less directly relevant but may be worth looking at for the chapters on .

Charles Camosy, **Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (**Eerdmans, 2015) is a helpful discussion of the cultural and legal debates from within the US context by a Roman Catholic moral theologian. A sense of his approach can be gained from

Oliver O’Donovan’s work is an important Anglican contribution:

  • His early Grove booklet – The Christian and the Unborn Child, (2nd ed. 1975).
  • Begotten or Made? (1984, Oxford University Press)
  • ‘Again: Who is a Person?’ in J. H. Channer (ed.), Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life (1985, Paternoster) is an important theological discussion of this questions which appears also in Lammers & Verhey On Moral Medicine reader Chpt 52 in 2nd edition and Chpt 49 in 3rd edition.

Beverly Wildung Harrison was an early advocate for a Christian pro-choice position in her Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion (1983, Beacon, reprinted, 2011 with Wipf & Stock). The first two chapters can be read online at Google books. There is a short review by leading RC ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill and a number of articles about Harrison and her work in a 2014 edition of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion “Roundtable: Revisiting Our Right to Choose after Thirty Years”.

Angela Anette Chipman’s thesis “Discussing the underlying concerns in the abortion debate: searching for an effective model of discourse” looks at Harrison alongside Noonan and Cahill.

Stanley Hauerwas’ “Abortion, Theologically Understood” is a must-read. See also his “Abortion and Normative Ethics: A Critical Appraisal of Callahan and Grisez” (1971, JSTOR) and “Abortion: Why the Arguments Fail” in his Community and Character.

David Albert Jones is a leading Roman Catholic bioethicist who has done much research on the status of the human embryo. His book-length study is The Soul of the Embryo: An Enquiry into the Status of the Embryo in the Christian Tradition (2004, Continuum). Other helpful shorter guides are his:

D. Gareth Jones has written extensively in this area as an evangelical who does not see conception as the key development. His main books are the now slightly dated Brave New People (IVP, 1984), esp chpt 7 and Valuing People (1998), esp chpts 5-7. See also his “The Human Embryo: Between Oblivion and Meaningful Human Life” (1994), “IVF & The Destruction of Embryos” (2015) and “Responses to the Human Embryo and Embryonic Stem Cells: Scientific and Theological Assessments” (2005)

Calum MacKellar’s recent The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo (2017, SCM) is a detailed defence of a conservative position from . The opening chapter on “The Moral Status of the Embryo” can be read on Google Books. A brief overview from the author is available here and see also a fuller, sympathetic review from David Jones (need to sign in) and a more critical shorter review from Robin Gill

Rebecca Todd Peters is a major recent Christian voice for reproductive rights in Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice (2018, Beacon Press). A sense of her arguments can be gained from:

Kira Schlesinger’s Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice (2017, Westminster John Knox) also takes a similar position.

Both Todd Peter’s and Schlesinger’s books were reviewed in Christian Century by Amy Frykholm.

Although focussed on Stem Cells and Cloning, Brent Waters & Ronald Cole-Turner (eds), God and the Embryo: Religious Voices on Stem Cells and Cloning (2003, Georgetown University Press) has four important essays in Part Two on Embryos:

  • Brent Waters, “Does the Human Embryo Have a Moral Status?”, pp. 67-76 (readable on Google books).
  • James C. Peterson, “Is a Human Embryo a Human Being?”, pp. 77-87 (readable on Google books).
  • Ronald Cole-Turner, “Principles and Politics: Beyond the Impasse over the Embryo”, pp. 88-97.
  • Robert Song, “To Be Willing To Kill What For All One Knows Is A Person Is To Be Willing to Kill a Person”, pp. 98-107.

A 2010 conference at Princeton – “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair-Minded Words” brought together people from across the range of views on abortion and the presentations can be watched online. Includes presentations and discussion on the status of the fetus (with John Finnis, Peter Singer and Maggie Little), A Woman’s Moral Duty to the Fetus? (with Charles Camosy and Ruth Macklin)

Other contemporary writers and articles on abortion and/or personhood and the embryo worth sampling include:

More on abortion:

More on personhood:

A Selection of Denominational Statements

Church of England:

  • Abortion: An Ethical Discussion (CIO, 1965) a 70 page report from the Board for Social Responsibility prior to the 1967 Abortion Act
  • Personal Origins: The Report of a Working Party on Human Fertilisation and Embryology of the Board for Social Responsibility (CIO Publishing, 1996 (2nd revised edition, 1985 first edition)
  • Abortion and the Church: What Are The Issues? (Church House Publishing, 1993) another short (33pp) BSR report (GS Misc 408).
  • Abortion: Church of England Statements” is a short (4pp) 2010 summary of statements since 2005.

Church of Scotland:

  • Church of Scotland BSR, **Abortion in Debate (**Quorum Press, 1987).
  • Summary of statements 1984-99 (pp. 32-33)

Methodist Church

Roman Catholic

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