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:
- Meilander, Gilbert. 1979. “The Fetus as Parasite and Mushroom: Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Defense of Abortion“. The Linacre Quarterly. Vol 46. No. 2. 126-35.
The original 1971 Thomson article – Judith Jarvis Thomson. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 1 (1971): 47-66 – is a very significant contribution to the abortion debate, famous for its violinist analogy and well worth reading.
- Callahan, Sidney. “Abortion & the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Prolife Feminism“. 1986. Commonweal 123. April 25th 1986. 232-38.
- Smith, Andy. “Women of Color and Reproductive Choice: Combating the Population Paradigm.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 11, no. 2 (1995): 39-66.
- Hauerwas, Stanley. “Abortion, Theologically Understood (1991).” In Hauerwas, Stanley, 2001. The Hauerwas Reader. Duke University Press. 603-22.
- 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.
- Hays, Richard B. 1997. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. has a chapter exploring abortion: chpt.18, pp. 444-61. A summary of the chapter’s argument is found in Wax, Trevin. 2014. “Abortion as “Unthinkable” in the New Testament“
- Verhey, Allen. 2003. Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine. Eerdmans has Chpt 6 on abortion at pp. 194-252.
- Gorman, Michael J. 1995. “The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Abortion Debate” in Life and Learning V: Proceedings of the Fifth University Faculty for Life. 140-84.
- Paul D. Simmons “Biblical Authority and the Not-So Strange Silence of Scripture about Abortion” to which Gorman responded with “Scripture, History, and Authority in a Christian View of Abortion: A Response to Paul Simmons” (both require log-in)
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.
- A sense of its arguments can be gained from reviews (of the first edition) by David DeGrazia, this longer one from William E. May, Jason Kruze and Don Marquis. Kaczor responds to May and to Marquis here. There is also a long (2hr) 2017 interview with him about the book and a shorter (34 mins) interview from 2020. Another guide to his thinking is this 1hr lecture by him.
- “Does Personhood begin with conscious desires?” engages with the arguments of David Boonin’s A Defense of Abortion
- “The Violinist and Double Effect Reasoning” engages with the classic article by Judith Jarvis Thomson.
- “Philosophy and Theology: Reflections on Debating Dignity” explores issues relating to women’s regret over abortion
- Short articles on “Abortion and Justice” and “Equal Rights, Unequal Wrongs”
- Various other pieces by Kaczor including on abortion are online here.
- In Abortion Rights: For and Against (2017, CUP) he is in dialogue with Kate Greasley who is author of Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. This review by Amy Berg sets out the argument of Greasley’s own book and points to some of the key writers in wider ethics debates. Greasley has also argued (against Dworkin) for the importance of the question of prenatal personhood in abortion debates.
Meilaender’s book Bioethics was noted above and also important by him are:
- “The Fetus as Parasite and Mushroom: Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Defense of Abortion”
- “Against Abortion: A Protestant Proposal”
- “Abortion and the Meaning of Parenthood”
- “Regarding Life at the Beginning”, a review of James Mumford, Ethics at the Beginning of Life: A Phenomenological Critique.
- “Looking for Personality”, a review of Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’
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:
- A short newspaper article “It’s time to rethink our attitude to abortion” sets out some of his approach which is more philosophically set out in “‘To arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’: Heidegger, Phenomenology, the Way Human Beings First Appear in the World, and Fresh Perspectives on the Abortion Debate”.
- “The flawed logic of our abortion laws”
- Audio of debate with Anna Furedi on abortion and disability
- Video of short (16 mins) paper on birth and human flourishing
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
- Abortion-related articles on his website
- This video presentation
- This interview transcript
- A review of the book by M. Therese Lysaught
- A critical review of the book by Rebecca Todd Peters to which Camosy responded.
- A review of the book by Kate Ott
- “Is Disagreement between Peter Singer and Catholic Teaching on Abortion “Narrow”? – A Response to Critics”
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:
- “A Theologian’s Brief On the place of the human embryo within the Christian tradition and the theological principles for evaluating its moral status”, Ethics and Medicine (2001), 17/3, pp. 143-153 is a 9 page briefing paper supported by many distinguished theologians and ethicists from various Christian traditions.
- “The human embryo in the Christian tradition: A reconsideration”, Journal of Medical Ethics (2005), Vol 31, pp. 710-14 relates his view to earlier discussions and in particular to the important 1984 article by G.R. Dunstan – “The human embryo in the Christian tradition: a tradition recalled” – and is responded to by Robin Gill (at end of PDF in first link above).
- “The injustice of destroying embryonic human beings” is a short, more accessible article.
- “Aquinas as an advocate of abortion?: The appeal to ‘delayed animation’ in contemporary Christian ethical debates on the human embryo” provides further discussion of the “delayed animation” argument. A very detailed analysis of Aquinas on this subject is provided by a 2013 thesis by Melissa Rovig Vanden Bout.
- He is also part of a panel discussion in this 2013 Westminster Faith Debate on Abortion & The Soul of the Embryo (20 mins video).
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:
- This symposium on her book where 8 others respond and she replies to each
- “A Christian Argument for Abortion: A Q&A With Rebecca Todd Peters”
- Why This Christian Minister is Advocating for Abortion Rights – an interview with Peters.
- Her review of Camosy’s “Beyond Abortion Wars” (and his response to her review) and Camosy’s review of her book
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:
- Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, ‘Being Baptized: Bodies and Abortion’, in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (eds.) The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Blackwell, 2004.
- Jana Bennett, “Life and Death” in Oxford Companion to Catholic Thought (2019) offers a theological account with a section on abortion (chapter can also be read on Google Books)
- John J. Fitzgerald – “Christian Witness on Abortion: The Examples of Paul Ramsey and Stanley Hauerwas” in Studies in Christian Ethics (2014). Needs log-in.
- Michael A. Gorman and Ann Loar Brooks – “Holy Abortion?: A Theological Critique of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice” critically examines theological arguments supportive of abortion.
- Germain Grisez, “Is Abortion Always the Wrongful Killing of a Person?” in The Way of Jesus Christ Vol. 3.
- Robert Jenson – “On Abortion: Sorting Out the Questions” by the leading Lutheran theologian.
- Edward Langerak and others (including Allen Verhey) – “Abortion: A Covenantal View”, a reworking of material in Christian Faith, Health, and Medical Practice (1989, Eerdmans).
- M. Therese Lysaught, “Moral Analysis of Procedure at Phoenix Hospital” illustrates in some technical detail how a traditional Catholic position may approach a complex decision concerning intervention leading to the death of the foetus. There is also Kevin Flannery’s alternative account within RC moral theology.
- Helen Oppenheimer, “Abortion: A Sketch for a Christian View” (1992), Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol.5, no.2 is an exploration by a leading lay Anglican moral theologian (needs login).
- Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing – “An Open Letter to Religious Leaders On Abortion As A Moral Decision” (2005)
- Rick Simpson, Abortion: Choosing Who Lives (2002, Grove Ethics Booklet 126)
- Janet E. Smith, “Abortion as a Feminist Concern” and “An Application of an Ethics of Virtue to the Issue of Abortion” are from a conservative Roman Catholic ethicist.
- T.F. Torrance, the Scottish Barthian theologian – “The Being and Nature of the Unborn Child”
More on personhood:
- Samuel B. Condic & Maureen L. Condic, Human Embryos, Human Beings: A Scientific and Philosophical Approach (2018, Catholic University of American Press) is a detailed defence of there being a human being from fertilization. The lines of its argument can be gained from this supportive review by Patrick Lee and this critical review from Ann Furedi. A sense of the scientific argument can be gained from Maureen Condic’s “When does human life begin? The scientific evidence and terminology revisited” (2013).
- John Harris, ‘Embryos and Hedgehogs: On the moral status of the embryo,’ in Anthony Dyson and John Harris (eds.), Experiments on Embryos, (1990, Routledge) by a leading secular consequentialist.
- Malcolm Jeeves (ed.), From Cells to Souls and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature (2004, Eerdmans) and Malcolm Jeeves (ed.), The Emergence of Personhood: A Quantum Leap?, (2016, Eerdmans). Also his “Neuroscience, Evolutionary Psychology, and the Image of God” (2005).
- M. Lockwood, ‘Human identity and the primitive streak,’ Hastings Center Report 1995: 25(1)1: pp. 45-6. Among responses to this see A.A. Howsepian, “Lockwood on human identity and the primitive streak”.
- Jean Porter, “Is the Embryo a Person?: Arguing with the Catholic Traditions”, Commonweal (2004) is by a leading Catholic expert on natural law tradition. See also her article “Individuality, Personal Identity and the Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo” which is a more theological and philosophical response to quite a scientifically technical article by Mark Johnson.
- Paul Ramsey, The Patient as Person: Explorations in Medical Ethics, (2002, 2nd end, Yale University Press).
- Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’ (Oliver O’Donovan, trans.) (2006, OUP). For sense of argument see review by Meilaender
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)
- A Statement on Abortion (1976)
- A Report on the Status of the Unborn Human (1990)
- Created in God’s Image (2008)
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 2270-2275.
- Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974)
- Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae (1987)
- John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (1995)
- Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae (2008)
- Catholic Bishops of England, Wales & Scotland 2017 statement on abortion.
- Pope Francis has addressed the issue in a recent speech
- For a longer historical perspective see John Noonan: “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History” (1967)