When and when not have an abortion

What relevance does the theology of personhood have for Abortion Christian ethics? 

I shall attempt to address how the theology of personhood bears on Christian ethics in very early life by tracing the development of strands of theological and ethical thought before attempting to weave them together into a rope of rational aimed at informing the decision-making process that ethically driven Christian women and men may have to face at some point in their lives. Central to this will be an attempt to establish the pivotal role that the personhood of developing foetuses play in the ethics and personhood theology. I have also questioned what right society has to have an opinion over this uniquely female of functions – the conception and nurture of their embryos and then foetuses. Is there a point at which a women’s embryos and foetuses are not her embryos or foetuses - but independent people with human rights and legal protection? If so, when does this happen and under which theological tradition? I will consider these questions from biblical, historical, physiological, theological and Christian ethical perspectives. These then will be the various strands of our rope of rational and the basis for suggestions for a future way forward.


The chronology of Theology and Ethics of personhood

There is no mention of abortion per say in the Bible. However, the Sixth Commandment says ‘Thou shall not kill’ (Exodus 20:13). In the New International Version and Septuagint translations this appears more emotively as ‘Thou shall not murder’. This central commandment is applied to miscarried foetuses in (Exodus 21:22-25). These seeds of early personhood theology appear as the sanctions incurred when a pregnant woman is injured resulting in a premature birth of her baby. The fact that the Israelites evaluated the physical completeness of the foetus shows that they had started to consider a gradation of 'human beingness’. This is demonstrating early Monist thinking whereby the soul is an emergent property which grows in completeness as the foetus develops. The sanctions for damaging the foetus are commensurate with the degree of damage of to its human personhood. If the foetus is fully formed this is considered murder. The Septuagint Bible is clear. “But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life.” In other words, the perfectly formed foetus is being treated as a person therefore to kill a foetus is a capital offense. The theology of personhood had been born and was starting to tolerate not only on Christian Ethics but the law of the land.

 So, are we asking the right questions? When is a ‘foetus perfectly formed?’ There are references to the status and degrees of awareness of the foetus in Biblical literature. Most quoted include Luke 1:15; Jeremiah 1:4–5; Deuteronomy 24:16; Genesis 25:21–23; Matthew 1:18; and Psalm 139:13–16.

Hays dismisses Luke 1:5 as pure Christology.

“To extrapolate from this text (Luke 1:15) - whose theological import is entirely Christological – a general doctrine of the full personhood of the unborn is a ridiculous and tendinous exegesis (Hays 1997:448)”

Hays is also equally dismissive of other texts. Only Psalm 139 does he grudgingly accept worthy of consideration within the context of pre-birth personhood (Hays 1997: 447) However, he generally laments the lack of precision and particularly the lack of passages on abortion “This gives us very little material for the construction of a normative judgement (ibid:448)” - and therefore the Wesleyan Quadrilateral has to be discarded as a usable tool for theological analysis.

Sadly, much of the literature on the subject is full of ‘intuitionism’, largely of course, because it is not possible to the get the foetus’s side of the argument! This means that while there have been enormous medical advances in our ability to see, measure, even operate on foetuses, communications remain either reactive or ‘intuitive’ – especially at the critical early stages of pregnancy when the personhood debate really begins. Consequently, some of the historical literature and its intuitionism, can be as valuable in suggesting when personhood starts to establish within the human foetus as that produced today.

From early Greek times thinkers such as Aristotle focused around the point at which the soul enters the foetus; he thought around 40 days for males or 80 days for females! The soul, he considered, was an animating principle. Aristotle described vegetative, animal and finally the human souls the latter of which he referred to as the ‘rational soul’. When this has entered the embryo or foetus of the unborn, he describes it as the process as quickening - or for later thinkers ensoulment.. This leads us to consideration of degrees of manifestation of personhood within Christian theology – which in turn impacted on ethics.

“.........but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation. (Aristotle:350 BC)”

Whether in Dualist or Monist thought the effect on Christian Ethics was similar – the critical point was when the Soul entered into, or was manifested in, the developing embryo or foetus and to what degree. The Stoics called this vital force the pneuma, holding that it enters the body much later - when the new-born takes its first breath. The result was that both these schools saw no ethic conflict in early abortion.

However, Hippocrates (BC460 – BC370) had moved personhood to the point of conception. Original versions of Hippocratic oath states that the doctor will “never do harm” and “not cause an abortion”. Although no original documents Scribonius Largus refers to it in 43AD. This recorded Hippocrates abhorrence of any form of abortion. (Markel 2004:2026–2029) This of course creates real ethical conflict for graduating Christian medical students taking the Hippocratic oath. Medical schools using the oath today have to either remove or modify the text in order to accommodate the performance abortions. However, some Christian doctors still adhere to the original Hippocratic instruction to ‘do no harm’ and will not perform abortions on ethical grounds.

The Early Christian Church inherited these mixed views in relation to both personhood and abortion. Theologians such as Tertullian (155 – 240 AD) and Marsilio Ficino, still propounded the Monists view that the soul developed in parallel with the physical development of the body. This again could be supported by the Exodus 21:22-25 ruling to the Israelites. It was St Augustine who held that there was a 40 day delay in ensoulment of the foetus and therefore the creation of its personhood. However, he always regarded abortion at any point to be sinful perhaps partly as a result of considering the role of sex to be an act of procreation rather than pleasure. Later Thomas Aquinas was to agree with St Augustine in considering abortion both abhorrent and sinful.

At this stage it is worth recording the Jewish Talmud view that although life is precious the foetus does not have the same level of personhood as its mother. This allows abortions to be performed if the woman life is endangered. However, once a greater part of the foetus has emerged then its life is sacrosanct even to save the woman's, because you cannot choose between the mother’s life and that of her new born child’s as both are regarded of being of equal value at that point.

The Catholic church aligns strictly with the Didache of the 1st or 2nd century (Didache 2.2) "You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the new born to perish".  Article 2258 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church records:

“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” (Vatican Archive 2019)

Cardinal Noonan puts this theology beautifully within the ethical perspective

“‘ … it is wrong to kill humans, however poor, weak, defenceless, and lacking in opportunity to develop their potential they may be. It is therefore morally wrong to kill infants. Similarly, it is morally wrong to kill embryos.’ (Noonan 1968:134)”

Catholics believe both the embryo and the foetus to be sacred siting Genesis 1:27. If man is made in the ‘image of God’ (Imago Dei) what right have we to destroy the thing that God has made – without committing either murder or infanticide.

 forbidden by the Sixth Commandment. Although theologically completely safe, this ruling has and continues to create many virtually insuperable ethical problems which have resulted in loyal, ethically driven Catholics seeking theologically illegal or dangerous abortions. This ruling is also diametrically opposed to the feminist pro-abortion agenda. 

At this stage we must consider womens’ moral and ethical right to decide what they do with their bodies. Given the minimal Biblical guidance regarding abortion we are thrown back to the theology of personhood for ethical guidance. Most theologians agree that an embryo is not yet a person and so is not heir to the rights and security of personhood. However, as they develop into foetuses, and particularly as they become perfectly formed foetuses, the less vulnerable they are – both theologically and ethically. However right up until birth most groups prioritize the pregnant women and her wishes over the survival of their foetuses. The feminist theologian Mary Anne Warren, while accepting that womens’ rights over the foetus, says that they cease at birth. Never the less she riles against any strictures over the fate of the foetus regardless of whether its personhood is established. “The belief that moral strictures against killing should apply equally to all genetically human entities, and only to genetically human entities is such an error. (Warren 1973: para 54)”. This in effect makes 100% personhood, only achievable after birth. However, it would seem that a majority of populations are ethically troubled by late term abortions - regardless of their religious persuasion. As a result, the legal limit for routine UK abortions is set at 24 weeks. In exceptional circumstances abortions can take place after 24 weeks “if there's a risk to the life of the pregnant women or there are problems with the baby's development. (NHS:2019).” In short, secular ethics of personhood are still weighted in favour of the mother.

I would suggest that the issues of foetal ownership, gender equality, the women’s health and life chances have to be balanced in relation to the existence or non-existence of personhood. Warren suggests that personhood exists in beings with ‘Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and the capacity to feel pain.’ She also requires that they be capable of ‘Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control (Warren 1973: para 30).’ Contemporary medical science indicates that by the end of third month of pregnancy the foetus has both a brain and a body able to satisfy these criteria. The prenatal section of the NHS website says “Just 12 weeks after your last period, the foetus is fully formed. All the organs, muscles, limbs and bones are in place, and the sex organs are well developed. (NHS:2018)” This statement, although from a secular source, is of great importance to both Christian Theology and Ethics as it states that the foetus is fully formed after three months. If recall that Septuagint Exodus 21:23 ruling ‘But if it be perfectly formed ……’. We can see how contemporary foetal observations link with Biblical reference to personhood. The words ‘perfectly formed’ provide us a medical / biblical interface suggesting a point in time when ensoulment occurs - when life and therefore personhood is manifested in the developing foetus. Potentially this establishes foetal theological and ethic rights – putting them on an equivalent footing with the mothers from this point onwards.

Science, Theology of Personhood, Christian Ethics and the future

I have argued that scientific advance has important contributions to make to the theology of personhood and Christian ethics. Up until the magic of ultrasound scanning it was impossible to view and witness both the completeness and the movement of live foetuses at every stage of their development. Once current medical observation linked with the Biblical and Theological criteria suggesting the personhood on the grounds above, we are no longer hampered by the absence of specific Biblical guidance precluding the normative analysis. It could be that in this instance the Wesleyan Quadrilateral needs to turn into a Pentagon where scientific observation is used to augment scriptural guidance.

Neil Messer has a useful definition of an embryo. It is something which “ …..is not aware of itself, cannot suffer, cannot have relationships with others and cannot have interests desires or plans (Messer 2012:36)”. An embryo is collection of cells which, although having the potential to be an ensouled, is not yet a ‘person habitable’ organism capable of expressing the ‘Imago Dei’. (Genesis 1-17) It lacks a brain. An embryo or an early stage foetus surely cannot have either personality or personhood. However, once they develop into the foetus, quickening or ensoulment can take place. At 12 weeks they do have a functioning brain and can even suck their thumbs. Therefore, I would suggest that, given current scientific knowledge, it would be rational for both Christian theology of personhood and Christian ethics to allow women total rights and ownership of their embryos but not over their foetuses once quickening or ensoulment have been observed to have taken place.

Perhaps the establishment of a Christians’ ethical traffic light analogy would be useful here. If a woman approaches the crucial and potentially life changing crossroads of an unwanted pregnancy the lights would be green up to a given period – perhaps eight weeks. Therefore, the ‘morning after pill’ and other early terminations would seem totally ethical, right and within the ownership of the women. This must impact on the application of the Theology of Personhood especially that of the Catholic Church. Current observations would suggest that the traffic lights would go amber during the third month as an embryo becomes a foetus and more perfectly formed. However, where there is doubt, pregnant women do have a moral and ethical duty to protect their supremely vulnerable unborn person whenever possible. This said as Warren suggests “mere ownership does not give me the right to kill innocent people who I may find on my property….” (Warren1973: para 3) This threshold will surely change both with scientific advance and from pregnancy to pregnancy. Perhaps in the future there will even be a routine ensoulment test to remove all doubts as to the status of the foetus. By the twelfth week we know the foetus has a brain and can initiate activity (such as sucking its thumb) and almost certainly feels pain. Again, this threshold will change but from this point onwards the Christians’ ethical lights would be red. Whether abortions after this red light were a theologically or ethically restricted would not be up to the mother. I would suggest that a soul would be inhabiting the foetus she was nurturing - with all the theological and ethical consequences of personhood flowing from this.


I can conclude that once the Theology of Personhood is combined with current obstetric diagnostic tools, Christian Ethics would permit pregnant women complete ownership ethical control over their embryos and during the very early stages of it becoming a foetus. This would allow women to abort their pregnancy as a result of rape or “… becoming pregnant through ignorance, carelessness or contraceptive failure (Singer 2005:148).” The Theology of personhood applied in this way would refute the Catholic position and all the desperately difficult ethical consequences which can flow from a blanket ban on abortions. After this time modern science has revealed a personhood appearing in the foetus which now has to be acknowledged and included both in the Theology of Personhood and Christian Ethical thinking. 




 Aristotle.350 BC “The Experienced Midwife.” BBC London http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/abortion/legal/history_1.shtml

(accessed 04/03/19)

 Aristotle: (350 BC) Politics 7:16 Translated by Benjamin Jowett available at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.7.seven.html (accessed 20/02/19)

Brind'Amour, Katherine (2007) Quickening. Embryo Project Encyclopaedia, Arizona State University http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/1717 . (accessed 01/03/19)

Didache (1st Century) 2.2: quoted 2258 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican  available at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm (accessed 20/02/19)

 Markel, Howard (13 May 2004). "I Swear by Apollo" On Taking the Hippocratic Oath". New England Journal of Medicine. 350 (20): 2026–2029 (assessed 27/02/19)


Messer,Neil (2012) Christian Ethics  Croydon: CPI Group Ltd

National Health Service (2018) Methods of Abortion. National Health Service. London  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/abortion/what-happens/ (accessed 26/02/19)

National Health Service (2018) You and your baby at 12 weeks pregnant .National Health Service .London https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/12-weeks-pregnant/ (accessed 03/03/19)

Noonan John, (1968) Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History, Natural Law Forum 13

Singer, Peter (2005). Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press. New York & Cambridge, U.K.:

Warren, Mary Anne (1973) "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion The Monist, Vol. 57, No. 4, 1973. Part II reprinted, with postscript, in The Problem of Abortion, Joel Feinberg, ed., Belmont: Wadsworth




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