Last updated December 2011
This factsheet aims to reflect the attitudes and beliefs of religious groups in the United Kingdom (UK) to contraception and abortion.
There is a wide range of religious groups in the UK – the seven most commonly followed faiths are represented in this factsheet.
The 2001 Census showed that just over three-quarters of the UK population reported following a religion.
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Religion and culture
Religion can be a powerful influence on sexual attitudes and behaviour for many individuals. It can often form a society's viewpoint towards human sexuality.
When a particular religion is practised by many people in a society, it contributes to create that society's culture, and influences those who don't practice religion.
Influences such as ethnicity, age, sex and social class as well as culture can all have an effect on how someone views a religious faith. Religious texts can be viewed as a means to a spiritual goal, rather than merely a restriction on what is and is not acceptable.
Personal interpretations of religious texts and aspects of faith may vary from the liberal to traditional. Religious leaders within the same faith may also interpret the same text differently.
Throughout history, religion has influenced societyʼs attitudes and thinking about sexuality. Many societies have created laws concerning sex as a result of the attitudes and thinking of that time.
This factsheet gives basic information and it is important to consult source material from the relevant religions in order to avoid making generalisations.
Buddhist teaching centres around developing insight, acting responsibly and taking complete responsibility for the effects of actions. This applies to all activity and behaviour including sexual activity.
Buddhists try to avoid ʻsexual misconductʼ which would be caused by not following Buddhist precepts.
These encourage all Buddhists to treat themselves and others with respect and ʻloving kindnessʼ.
Most Buddhists believe that conception occurs when the egg is fertilised, so contraception that prevents fertilisation is not ordinarily a problem. Emergency contraception may be unacceptable because it could prevent a fertilised egg from implanting in the womb (uterus).
However, as Buddhism is open to personal interpretation and deep consideration of the ethics of all actions, attitudes to this and other questions of birth control will vary.
Most Buddhists believe in reincarnation and this belief impacts directly on Buddhistsʼ views on abortion. Buddhists believe that human life begins at the moment of conception, at which point consciousness enters the womb, and therefore abortion would be seen as an act of killing going against Buddhist precepts. However, if the pregnancy caused a risk to the life of the mother then an abortion would be seen as the most ethical thing to do by many Buddhists, if that is what is needed to save her life.
The views of the Catholic Church in England and Wales are summarised in the following quote taken from Cherishing Life (2004), paragraph 104, 113.
“The context for sexual intercourse should be one of genuine, exclusive and committed love. Indeed, the love implied in making love is nothing less than the love that is expressed in marriage... The Church teaches that sexual intercourse finds its proper place and meaning only in marriage and does not share the assumption common in some circles that every adult person needs to be sexually active. This teaching applies to all, whether married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual, engaged, single through choice, widowed or divorced."
In its document Cherishing Life (2004), the Catholic Church in England and Wales states that parenthood will often involve planning when to have children “but this should not be by means of contraception that places a barrier between the partners, or that suppresses the healthy working body to make the act infertile” [paragraph 125].
The Catholic Church sees effective family planning as “reliable knowledge of the cycle of female fertility and a willingness to abstain from sexual union at certain times.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (from the official Latin text of 1997) states that “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception ... Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or means, is gravely contrary to the moral law ...”.
Church of England
The Church of England views the ʻidealʼ expression of sexual love as being within a faithful marriage.
The Church of England states that, “Contraception is not regarded as a sin or going against Godʼs purpose. Anglican thinking changed during the 20th Century from concern about increased use of contraception to official acceptance of it.” [www.churchofengland.org]
The last official response of the Church of England on the topic of contraception was during the 1968 Lambeth Conference. This was one of the gatherings of Anglican bishops worldwide which meets every 10 years.
“The Church of England combines strong opposition to abortion with the recognition that there can be – strictly limited – conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative." [www.churchofengland.org]
The Church of England recognises that individuals will have different opinions on this issue but states that the above is a consistent position as reflected in the reports and resolutions of its General Synod which is the national assembly of the Church of England.
The concept of Izzat (honour) is similar across Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.
In terms of sex, sexuality and sexual health this means that any deviation from the traditional codes of conduct, for example, the importance placed on marriage, may cause difficulties for the individual(s) concerned and lead to possible rejection by family or community.
All methods of contraception are permitted.
Arguments for family planning can be found in Hindu scriptures and epic stories such as the Mahabharata, although many Hindus see it as their duty to have a family. As the eldest son traditionally takes part in Hindu funeral rites, some Hindus will decide not to use contraception until they have had a son.
Abortion tends to be disapproved of as Hindus believe that both physical and spiritual life enter the human embryo at the moment of conception. To Hindus all life is sacred. However, in keeping with the diversity within the Hindu faith there are varying views on the subject of abortion and to many Hindus it is an accepted part of modern life
Islam views the ideal expression of sexual love as being within marriage.
All forms of contraception are acceptable in special circumstances. These are usually to do with protecting the life of the mother, preventing a pregnancy if the woman is breastfeeding and for personal reasons dictated by conscience.
If a motherʼs life is at risk by pregnancy then abortion is permitted, as her life is considered to be more significant than that of the embryo. There is also the belief that the soul does not enter the fetus until the 120th day of gestation, which indicates that an abortion, if deemed appropriate, should be carried out before that time.
Family and community are at the core of Jewish religious practice. The basic source of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the Old Testament of the Bible, which gives a fundamentally positive view of sexuality.
As with other religions there are several different strands of Judaism. In this factsheet the distinction is broad, referring to those known as Orthodox Jews and to those who do not follow the Orthodox approach to Judaism.
The sources in Jewish law state categorically that a man may not use any form of contraception. However, there is no mention of females and contraception, which is omitted from the sources. Most if not all, use this omission to interpret that females may use contraception.
For those who believe no physical impediment may be used, even for females, there are methods that do not interfere in any way with the natural act of intercourse and where sperm is not directly destroyed.
Jews who do not follow Orthodox Judaism are not forbidden from having an abortion. Each case should be considered on its own merits and a decision taken after consultation with a Rabbi.
Orthodox Judaism permits abortion only in cases where continuing with the pregnancy would put the motherʼs life at risk.
Sikhs believe that sexual activity should only take place within marriage. Sikhs believe in monogamy, and great importance is attached to high moral character, modesty and sexual morality. Sikhs are encouraged to discipline themselves and control Kaam (lust), one of the five vices.
There is no definitive religious guidance concerning contraception in Sikhism. Therefore the use of contraception is acceptable and it is up to a couple to decide whether and when to use it. The couple is also free to decide which method of contraception suits them.
The Sikh view is that abortion should be considered only in exceptional circumstances; for example, if continuing the pregnancy would constitute a very serious threat to the womanʼs physical or mental health or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.
1 Office for National Statistics. Census 2001, ‘Key Statistics’.
2 Hyde, Janet Shibley. Understanding Human Sexuality. McGraw-Hill, 5th ed, 1994.
3 Blake, Simon and Katrak, Zarine. Faith, Values and Sex & Relationships Education. National Children’s Bureau, 2002.
4 Your Guide to Emergency Contraception. (London: FPA, March 2011)
5 Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997)..
Hallgarten, Lisa. Abortion Rights, Responsibilities and Reason. Education for Choice, 2004.
Halstead, J Mark and Reiss, Michael J. Values in Sex Education: From Principles to Practice. Routledge Farmer, 2003.
Health Education Authority, Sex Education, Values and Morality. HEA, 1994.