In depth information


(the views expressed below are neither for or against abortion – it is for the individual to make their own minds up)

The human ovum (egg) is already clearly alive when it enters the fallopian tubes, many hours or days before it has the opportunity to be fertilised. Women release one about each month between puberty and menopause – a few hundred in a lifetime. Almost all of these are destined to die and be ejected from the body. Unless infertility is a problem, very little thought is given to these hundreds of deaths. Although the ovum is a form of life, there is a public consensus that it is not human life.

Hundreds of millions of male sperm are liberated during a typical sexual encounter. They are also clearly alive. Viewing them under a microscope reveals them to be energetic swimmers. Essentially all of these will die within days. Again, if infertility is not a concern, little attention is given to these deaths. An average man produces thousands of sperm a second. At most, a very few during his lifetime will contribute to the formation of a baby. The rest will die. Few men are consciously aware of the loss. Sperm are very much alive and kicking. But, again, a public consensus exists that they are not human life.

The meeting of sperm and ovum often causes conception. Among women without an IUD, about 50% of fertilized ovum develop into a baby which is born some nine months later. The remainder are aborted or result in a miscarriage. A consensus exists that an infant is the most precious form of life on earth, and needs to be protected under law. The philosophical and religious principle behind the pro-choice/pro-life argument is: when does life (in the form of an ovum and sperm) become human life?. After that event occurs, terminating life is a form of murder which many people believe can only be justified to prevent the death of the mother, prevent extremely serious injury to the mother, or in cases of rape or incest.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus of when that event occurs.

Science can tell us, with increasing detail, the processes that start with a sperm and ovum and end up with a newborn baby. But it cannot tell us: does the fetus have a soul?

When do the products of conception become a human being?

Does a zygote have a full set of human rights?

When does personhood develop?

Is abortion murder?

These are questions with philosophical, religious and political aspects. Science cannot contribute a great deal towards resolving them. And because they have a religious component, there will always be a wide variety of beliefs among persons in different faith groups.

Some indication of the lack of consensus is listed below:

Most people in the pro-life camp believe that this happens at conception. That is, a just-fertilized egg is a full human being and should be protected as such. The reasons for this belief vary:

Some hold this belief because of their religious faith. Their denomination or religion teaches that a soul enters the just-fertilized egg at the instant of conception, and the cell becomes a human person at that time because of the presence of the soul. The concept of a soul is a religious one; it cannot be located, weighed, seen, smelled, felt, measured or otherwise detected.

Others point out that shortly after conception, a unique DNA code is formed which will remain unchanged through the life of the fetus, and throughout the potential later life after birth. They might say that the presence of a unique DNA code converts the egg into a human person. But others disagree. A skin scraping of a child or adult contains a very large number of living, single cells; each has the unique human DNA code of human from which it came.

Theoretically, each cell could be encouraged to develop into a new person – an exact clone of the original. This process has actually been accomplished with mammary tissue from a sheep. Thus, a just-fertilized egg contains the same genetic information as a skin scraping of an adult human.

Others are reluctant to define the event at a later point, because this might lead to a “slippery slope” situation in which abortions would be legal at progressively later times in gestation.


Some people feel that this transition to human life happens at a certain stage in the development of the fetus:

1. when the fetus loses its neck structures which resemble gill slits
2. when the fetus loses its tail
3. when the fetus begins to “look like” a baby, or
4. when the fetus becomes viable, (i.e. able to live outside the womb), or
5. when its brain has developed to a particular degree. “Scientists have found hints of consciousness in 7-month-old fetuses and measured brain-wave patterns like those during dreaming at 8 months gestation.”

The medical profession appears to follow the viability criteria. Medical societies enforce regulations prohibiting abortions after (typically) 20 or 21 weeks of pregnancy. The US Supreme Court also seems to have used viability as a significant event; it allows states to prohibit abortions after viability for a wide range of reasons. Some believe that the fetus becomes a human being only after it has been delivered and is breathing on its own.

There is some Biblical justification for this belief. Genesis 2:7 states that God made Adam’s body from the dust of the ground. But it was only after God “breathed into it the breath of life” that “man became a living person.” They may be reluctant to consider a fetus that is about to be delivered as human, because that might result in a “slippery slope” argument that would criminalise abortions at gradually earlier gestational ages.

No consensus and no compromise appears possible. To a person who believes that human life begins at conception, an abortion clinic is the ethical equivalence to a Nazi death camp; embryo research is the equivalent to the fabrication of lampshades made from human skin in the same death camps. To a person who believes that life becomes human life at, say 25 weeks, a first trimester abortion (i.e. during the three months following conception) is a regrettable option, but often the most ethical choice for a pregnant woman.

Public opinion surveys give conflicting results, depending upon the exact questions asked. It would appear that a significant majority of adults in the US and Canada agree that a woman should have free access to a safe abortion in at least the first trimester. Terms must be used with great care. Because various groups define words differently, misunderstandings are common.

Some often used and confused terms related to abortion are:

Abortion This word has two basic meanings.

The definition used by the medical and pro-choice communities is: the end of a pregnancy before viability. i.e. the termination of the process of gestation after the time when the zygote attaches itself to the uterine wall (about 14 days after conception), but before the fetus is possibly capable of surviving on its own.

(currently 24 weeks from conception). There are two types of abortions:

Accidental abortion: a termination of pregnancy before viability that occurs naturally, without medical intervention. This is a medical term for a miscarriage.

Therapeutic abortion: a termination of pregnancy via the intervention of a physician through surgery or the use of RU-486 or some other medication.

Pro-lifers sometimes define abortion as an intentional interruption of the development process, at any time from conception to birth.

Anti-abortion: This is a term whose meaning is in flux. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for “pro-life.” Recently, it has been frequently used to refer to individuals and groups who take violent actions against abortion providers or clinics.

Anti-choice: Derogatory term used to refer to pro-life advocates, implying that their prime motivation is to control women and restrict their freedom. It is not. Almost all “pro-lifers” appear to be motivated by religious reasons. See “Pro-life”.

Baby: Normally, this means a very young child aged from birth to perhaps 1 year. The term is also sometimes used (particularly by pro-life advocates) to refer to a embryo or fetus.

Blastocyst: A stage of pre-natal mammalian development which (in humans) extends from the morula stage (a shapeless mass of cells about 4 days after fertilization), to an bilaminar (two layer) embryo stage (1 weeks after fertilization).

Child: Normally, this means a person aged from birth to puberty. Sometimes it is used to refer to an unborn fetus as well – particularly by pro-life advocates. In legal usage, it often means a person who has been born but has not attained their 18th birthday.

Conception: A synonym for “fertilization”

D&X Abortions A rare procedure in which the brain is removed from a fetus when it is partly born. Perhaps 3,000 out of the 1.8 million yearly abortions in the US use this procedure. The size of the skull is reduced; this permits the fetus to be removed more easily through the woman’s cervix. Its use is normally restricted to very rare instances in which:

1. the fetus is already dead
2. the fetus is alive but must be killed in order to save the life of the woman
3. the fetus is alive but must be killed in order to avoid very serious injury and long term or permanent disability to the woman.

Testimony before a Senate committee indicated that a few doctors in the United States routinely performed D&X abortions for reasons other than stated above. The alternative to performing a D&X is a hysterotomy. This is a type of Cesarean Section which is far more dangerous to the woman; it can cause perforation or tearing of the uterus, hemorrhaging, and/or complications in future pregnancies.

Embryo: A stage of pre-natal mammalian development which (in humans) extends from 2 to 8 weeks after fertilization. It is termed a “bilaminar” or two layer embryo during its second week and becomes a trilaminar (3 layer) embryo during its third week. At 9 weeks it is called a fetus.

Fertilisation: The process that starts when a sperm contacts an ovum. It ends with the intermingling of chromosomes from both the sperm and ovum to produce a full set of chromosomes – 46 in most humans. The result is a zygote, often popularly referred to as a “fertilised ovum.” If it has two X chromosomes, then the zygote is a female; if it has an X and Y, it is male. This is generally regarded as the start of pregnancy within the pro-life movement. Physicians and the pro-choice movement regard the start of pregnancy when the fertilised ovum attaches itself to the wall of the uterus.

Fetus: A stage of pre-natal mammalian development which (in humans) extends from 9 weeks after fertilisation to birth.

Hysterotomy: A surgical procedure which involves cutting through the woman’s abdomen and removing the fetus. It is popularly known as a Cesarean section.

Implantation: Attachment of the zygote (fertilized ovum) to the wall of the uterus. This is generally regarded as the start of pregnancy by medical professionals and the pro-choice movement.

Infant: A child; variously defined as aged from birth to 1, 7, and even (in some legal applications) as old as 21 years.

Life: Sperm is a form of life which is not human life. An individual sperm might have been alive for many months before it has the possibility to come into the vicinity of an ovum.

An ovum is a form of life which is not human life. It ripens and is expelled by an ovary many days before having the possibility being exposed to sperm.

Pro-life advocates typically believe that the transition from life to human life happens at fertilisation. Pro-choice advocates typically believe that the transition happens much later (e.g. when the fetus is viable — capable of living on its own or when it is born).

Miscarriage: Interruption of pregnancy prior to the 7th month. Usually used to refer to an expulsion of the fetus which starts without being induced by medical intervention. Approximately 25% of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage. Sometimes, it occurs sufficiently early in pregnancy that the woman is unaware of the event.

Ovum: The mature sex cell generated by females in an ovary. They are about 1/100 inches in diameter and are often (although not necessarily) released from alternate ovaries about once per month. Probably over 99% of ovums die without being fertilised and given the opportunity to develop into a fetus.

Pregnancy: As used by the medical and pro-choice communities: The stages of pre-natal mammalian development which extends from the time that the embryo attaches to the wall of the uterus until birth. Pregnancy thus starts about 2 weeks after conception. As used by pro-life groups: pregnancy extends from fertilization to birth.

Pro-abortion: Derogatory term used to refer to the pro-choice stance, implying that they promote abortion. They do not. Their motivation is to give women choice in controlling their own bodies. See “Pro-choice”.

Pro-choice: A belief that women should be given free access to abortions. People who consider themselves “pro-choice” take many positions. Some believe that a woman should have free access to abortions up until fetal viability; others say that a woman should be able to choose to have an abortion later in pregnancy.

Pro-life: A belief that life becomes human life at the instant of conception (or perhaps shortly after) and that it should be protected under law from that point. According to one Pro-life group, legislators who have vote in favor of a partial birth abortion ban are now calling themselves “pro-life”: “When the pro-life movement began in the early 70’s, being pro-life meant you were 100% opposed to any and all abortion. In the early 80’s, that standard was watered down to include those who had rape, incest, and the life of the mother exceptions. Now in the 90’s, things have declined so rapidly that someone who is only opposed to partial-birth abortions can sell themselves as pro-life.”

Sperm, Spermatozoa: The mature sex cell generated by males. They are about 1/500 inch long. Almost all of their length is formed by a tail. Tens of thousands are generated every minute by most males, starting at puberty. Over 99.999% of sperm die without being able to fertilize an ovum.

Stages of development: An ovum, after fertilization, is called a Zygote. This becomes, in turn, a morula, blastocyst, embryo and fetus. After birth, the fetus is a newborn.

Trimester: A period lasting nominally 3 months. A human pregnancy is often divided into three trimesters, from fertilization to birth. Laws restricting abortions often differ among the trimesters.

Viability: The ability for the developing fetus to live on its own if it were delivered by cesarean section or by normal delivery. This typically occurs sometime after the 21st week after conception. Abortions are allowed by various state and provincial Medical Associations only prior to viability. Terminations of pregnancies at or after viability are not usually performed, except for overwhelming medical reasons (threat to the woman’s life or death of the fetus). The US Supreme Court defined viability (Roe v. Wade, 1973) as “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.”


4th CENTURY BCE TO 4th CENTURY CE (Abortion = Murder):

In ancient times, the “delayed ensoulment” belief of Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was widely accepted in Pagan Greece and Rome. He taught that a fetus originally has a vegetable soul. This evolves into an animal soul later in gestation. Finally the fetus is “animated” with a human soul. This “ensoulment” was believed to occur at 40 days after conception for male fetuses, and 90 days after conception for female fetuses. The difference was of little consequence, because in those days, the gender of a fetus could not be determined visually until about 90 days from conception, and no genetic tests existed to determine gender. Thus contraception and abortion were not condemned if performed early in gestation. It is only if the abortion is done later in pregnancy that a human soul is destroyed. By coincidence, this 90 day limit happens to be approximately equal to the end of the first trimester, the point at which the US Supreme Court decided that states could begin to restrict a woman’s access to abortion. The 40 and 90 day limits also bear a striking resemblance to the 40 and 80 day periods when a woman was considered ritually impure after birth in Judaism (Leviticus 12:2-6).

The Jewish faith was totally opposed to both infanticide and abortion. Early in the 1st century CE, Philo of Alexandria (? – circa 47 CE) wrote on both topics, 2 condemning non-Jews of other cultures and religion in whom the practices were widespread.

During the early history of the Christian church, it was surrounded by a mosaic of other competing religions within the Roman Empire, including Judaism, the Greek state religion, Mithraism, the Roman state religion, and various Mystery religions. With the exception of Judaism, most or all of the competing religions allowed women to have abortions and allowed parents to strangle or expose (abandon) new-born babies as methods of population control. There are many writings, letters and petitions of early Christian philosophers and Church Fathers which equated abortion with infanticide and condemned both as murder. Uta Ranke-Heinemann quotes:

Barnabas: “You shall not kill either the fetus by abortion or the new born” (Letter of Barnabas, 1st century CE)

Athenagoras: He stated that Christians “call women who take medications to induce an abortion murderers” (Petition to Emperor Marcus Aurelius)

Tertullian: “…we are not permitted, since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy …the fetus in the womb. It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth.”

Minicius Felix (a Christian lawyer): “Some women take medicines to destroy the germ of future life in their own bodies. They commit infanticide before they have given birth to the infant”

St. Ambrose: “The poor expose their children, the rich kill the fruit of their own bodies in the womb, lest their property be divided up, and they destroy their own children in the womb with murderous poisons. and before life has been passed on, it is annihilated.”

Some Church writings and synods of this period also condemned abortion:

The Didache (also known as “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) dates from the first half of the second century. It refers to “child-murderers, who go the way of death, who slay God’s image in the womb”.

The Synod of Elvira, held in Spain during the early 4th century, condemned abortion. The penalty was permanent excommunication. The Synod of Ancyra, held in 314 CE, condemned abortion. The penalty was 10 years of penance. The Apostolic Constitutions, of the 4th century, allowed abortion if it was done early enough in pregnancy. But it condemned abortion if the fetus was of human shape. The Canons of St. Basil condemned all abortions. The penalty was 10 years of penance.

4th TO 17th CENTURY CE (Abortion is, then is not, then is, then is not murder):

St. Augustine (354-430 CE) reversed centuries of Christian teaching, and returned to the Aristotelian concept of “delayed ensoulment”. He wrote that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body. Thus, early in pregnancy, an abortion is not murder because no soul is destroyed (or, more accurately, only a vegetable or animal soul is terminated). He wrote extensively on sexual matters, teaching that the original sin of Adam and Eve are passed to each successive generation through the pleasure generated during sexual intercourse. This passed into the church’s canon law. Only abortion of a more fully developed “fetus animatus” (animated fetus) was punished as murder.

St. Jerome wrote in a letter to Aglasia: “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs”

Starting in the 7th century CE, a series of penitentials were written. These listed an array of sins, with the penance that a person must observe as punishment for the sin. Certain “sins” which prevented conception had particularly heavy penalties.¬†Abortion, on the other hand, required a less serious penance. Theodore, who organized the English church, assembled a penitential about 700 CE. Oral intercourse required from 7 years to a lifetime of penance; abortion required only 120 days.

Pope Innocent III (?-1216) wrote a letter which ruled on a case of a Carthusian monk who had arranged for his female lover to obtain an abortion. The Pope decided that the monk was not guilty of homicide if the fetus was not “animated.” Early in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of “quickening” – when the woman first feels movement of the fetus. After ensoulement, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human life, not human life. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also considered only the abortion of an “animated” fetus as murder. Pope Sixtus V issued a Papal bull “Effraenatam” in 1588 which threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the death penalty. Pope Gregory XIV revoked the Papal bull shortly after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the “quickening” test, which he said happened 116 days into pregnancy (16¬Ĺ weeks).

17th TO 19th CENTURY CE (Abortion becomes murder again):

In the 17th century, the concept of “simultaneous animation.” gained acceptance within the medical and church communities. 9 This is the belief that an embryo acquires a soul at conception, not at 40 or 80 days into gestation as the church taught. In 1658 Hieronymus Florentinius, a Franciscan, asserted that all embryos or fetuses, regardless of its gestational age, which was in danger of death must be baptized. However, his opinion did not change the status of abortion as seen by the church.

Pope Pius IX reversed the stance of the Roman Catholic church once more. He dropped the distinction between the “fetus animatus” and “fetus inanimatus” in 1869. Canon law was revised in 1917 and 1983 and to refer simply to “the fetus.” The tolerant approach to abortion which had prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries ended. The church requires excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy.

Papal decrees in 1884 prohibited craniotomies, which is an operation that kills the fetus by dismembered the its skull in order to save the life of the pregnant woman. In 1886, a second decree extended the prohibition to all operations that directly killed the fetus, even if done to save her life. The effects of these decrees were often the death of both the woman and the fetus. These rules are still in place today, although they are ignored by most physicians in North America.

20th CENTURY CE (Abortion is murder, but only within some Christian denominations):

In the 20th century, a diversity of views has developed within Christian churches. Liberal and mainstream churches either promote a woman’s right to choose an abortion, or are relatively silent on the matter. Conservative churches are generally unalterably opposed to all abortions, from conception to birth, although some would permit it in the event of rape, incest or extreme danger to the woman’s life.

The Roman Catholic church believes that all abortions are a form of murder. In violation of the historical record, the church also teaches that its current position has remained unchanged. A number of liberal and mainline Christian churches and religious organizations have publicly stated that abortions are sometimes an acceptable option, and should continue to be legal. According to lists prepared by The Secular Web and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, they include:


American Baptist Churches-USA

American Ethical Union

American Friends (Quaker) Service Committee

American Humanist Association

American Jewish Committee

American Jewish Congress

Catholics for Free Choice at

Central Conference of American Rabbis

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Council of Jewish Federations

Episcopal Church

Jewish Women International

Lutheran Women’s Caucus

Moravian Church in America-Northern Province

Na’Amat USA

National Council of Jewish Women

North American Federation of Temple Youth

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice at:

Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Union of American Hebrew Congregations

Unitarian Universalist Association

Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation

United Church of Christ

United Methodist Church

United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism

Women of Reform Judaism

Women’s American ORT

Women’s Caucus Church of the Brethren

Women’s League for Conservative Judaism


A list of statements by many of these organizations may be found on-line at:

Many hundreds of Fundamentalist and other Evangelical churches oppose freedom of choice of abortions.

Inconsistencies in the Current Pro-Life movement:

There are two inconsistencies in the “pro-life” stance taken by many conservative Christians:

There appears to be relatively little mention of IUD’s (Intra-uterine devices). The precise mechanism by which IUDs prevent pregnancy is unknown.

Some researchers believe that the IUD immobilizes sperm, preventing them from reaching the ovum; Others believe that it causes the ovum to pass through the fallopian tube so fast that it is unlikely to be fertilized. Most believe that the IUD interferes with the implantation of fertilized ovum in the uterine wall.

If the third property is true, then IUDs terminate the development of a fertilized ovum after conception, and cause its expulsion from the body. To a person who believes that life becomes human life at the instant of conception, there is no ethical difference between using an IUD, having a first trimester abortion, or having a partial birth abortion. Yet pro-life groups actively campaign against PBA’s, picket abortion clinics, and attempt to pass restrictive legislation limiting choice in abortion.. Some have made negative statements about IUDs. But none have, to our knowledge, picketed IUD manufacturing facilities, or sponsored anti-IUD legislation. This is surprising, because in those countries where IUDs are widely used, the number of fertilized eggs which

IUDs apparently expel from women’s bodies far exceeds the number of surgical abortions. About 43% of American women will have had a surgical abortion sometime during their lifetime; about the same percentage of women who use an IUD will expel a fertilized ovum every 6 months (assuming that they engage in intercourse once per week).

At no time in the history of the Church have an embryo or pre-viable fetus been considered full persons to the extent of being worthy of a formal requiem mass or formal burial service.

British Poll of 1998-MAR:

The Harris Research Centre conducted a public opinion poll involving 1762 people aged 16 and above from 1998-MAR-27 to 31. The question asked was: “Should a pregnant woman be able to decide for herself whether to have an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy?” Overall results were:

77% yes (ranging from a high of 84% in the North East of England to a low of 70% in Scotland)
12% no
11% undecided

More women then men supported the pro-choice stance (81% to 72%)

New York Times/ CBS Poll of 1998

This poll was conducted on the 25th anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court “Roe vs. Wade” decision. This ruling established abortion on request during the first trimester, and allowed states to place increasing restrictions on access to abortion in the second and third trimester.

Results of the poll were:

Opinion – Men Women

Keep abortion generally available, as now
31% 32%

Increase restrictions on abortion
45% 44%

Prohibit abortions
23% 21%

This is obviously a topic where people have strong opinions. The percentage of undecided respondents was 1% for men and 3% for women – an unusually low number for public opinion polls.

The poll does not appear to be well structured. Respondents were not given the option of preferring the liberalization of abortion laws. Also, the “prohibit abortions” did not differentiate between those who wish to stop all abortions, and those who wish to criminalize all abortions except cases of rape, incest or where the woman’s life is in danger from a continued pregnancy. A better series of answers might be:

1.make abortions more freely available

2.keep abortions generally available, as now

3.increase restrictions on abortion

4.prohibit abortions except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the woman’s life

5.prohibit all abortions.

But even a series of 5 questions would not really generate an accurate picture of public attitude towards abortion. A further improvement would be to differentiate between early and late abortions. Perhaps the above series of 5 questions could be asked for abortions in each of the trimester.

It is probable that some of the “increase restrictions” responses were a reaction to the recent debate over “Partial Birth Abortions.” There appears to be a great deal of public opposition to this procedure. This may have motivated some clients to switch from the status quo to advocating restrictions.