Religion, contraception and abortion factsheet

Last updated November 2016

This factsheet summarises the attitudes and beliefs of religious groups in the UK to contraception and abortion.

It gives a brief overview, so it is important to consult source material from the relevant religions in order to avoid making generalisations.

Contents

Religion in the UK

There is a wide range of religious groups in the UK. The six most commonly followed faiths [1] are represented in this factsheet.

The 2011 Census for England and Wales [1] showed that just under three-quarters of the total population of England and Wales reported following a religion, although almost one-third of people in Wales reported following no religion. The most-followed religion in England and Wales was Christianity (59.3% of the population). The different Christian denominations were not separately identified in this Census.

The 2011 Census in Northern Ireland [2] showed that just over 83% of the population reported following a religion, with just under 17% either following no religion or not stating a religion. Most people (82.8% of the population) reported following Christianity with the majority of these recording Roman Catholicism as their religion.

Scotland’s Census 2011 [3] showed that around 56% of people reported following a religion, with 44% either following no religion or not stating a religion. Most people (54% of the population) reported following Christianity with the majority of these recording Church of Scotland as their religion.

The Census question asked about religion (and the allowed responses), differed across England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland so results are not directly comparable.

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 that society’s culture and influences those who don’t practice religion [4].

Influences such as ethnicity, social class, age, sex and gender, 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 [5]. Personal interpretations of religious texts and aspects of faith can vary. Religious leaders within the same faith may also interpret the same text differently.

Throughout history, religion has influenced society’s attitudes and thinking about sexuality. Many societies have created laws concerning sex as a result of the attitudes and thinking of that time. A specific, recent example of this is marriage. Same-sex marriage became legal in England, Wales and Scotland in 2014. However, many, but not all, religious leaders and groups have said that their theology means that when they talk about marriage they are only talking about opposite sex marriage since they do not recognise same sex marriage [6].

Buddhism

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.

Buddhist precepts (the ethical code that Buddhists aim to live by) encourage all Buddhists to treat themselves and others with respect and ‘loving kindness’ and not to indulge in ‘sexual misconduct’.

Contraception

Most Buddhists believe that conception occurs when an 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 uterus (womb) [7].

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.

Abortion

Most Buddhists believe in reincarnation and this belief has a direct impact on Buddhists’ 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 a pregnancy caused a risk to the life of the pregnant woman then an abortion, if it was needed to save her life, would be seen as the most ethical thing to do by many Buddhists.

Catholic church

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."

Contraception

In 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].

Effective family planning is seen as “reliable knowledge of the cycle of female fertility and a willingness to abstain from sexual union at certain times” [paragraph 126].

Abortion

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” [8].

Church of England

The Church of England views the ideal expression of sexual love as being within a faithful marriage.

Contraception

The Church of England states that, “Contraception is not regarded as a sin or going against God’s purpose. Anglican thinking changed during the 20th Century from concern about increased use of contraception to official acceptance of it.” [9]

The last official response of the Church of England on the topic of contraception was during the 1968 Lambeth Conference [9]. This was one of the gatherings of Anglican bishops worldwide which meets every 10 years.

Abortion

“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.” [10]

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.

Hinduism

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.

Contraception

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

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

Islam views the ideal expression of sexual love as being within marriage.

Contraception

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 [5].

Abortion

If a woman’s life is at risk due to pregnancy than 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 [5].

Judaism

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 is a wide variety of theological positions and religious practices within Judaism. In this factsheet a distinction is made between traditional Judaism and more liberal forms of Judaism.

Contraception

Most rabbinic authorities agree that women may use contraception as long as it is one of the forms that means that sexual intercourse can occur naturally and without any barrier (the contraceptive pill, for example). More liberal forms of Judaism generally permit any form of contraception for women.

Traditional Jewish law based on interpretations of the Torah and the Talmud (Jewish holy texts) state that for men, any contraceptive method, or attempts at abstinence or withdrawal (withdrawing the penis from the vagina before ejaculation) would be prohibited. However, more liberal rabbinic authorities do permit men to use condoms, particularly in situations where unprotected sex would pose significant health risks to either partner.

All Jewish people are encouraged to talk to a rabbi but a 2009 study [11] found that although 90% of the observant, married Jewish women surveyed used contraception only half of them consulted a rabbi about their decision.

Abortion

Jews who follow one of the more liberal forms of 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.

More traditional forms of Judaism permit abortion only in cases where continuing with a pregnancy would put the pregnant woman’s life at risk.

Sikhism

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.

Contraception

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.

Abortion

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 woman’s physical or mental health or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

References

  1. Office for National Statistics (ONS), Religion in England and Wales 2011, ONS, 2012.
  2. Northern Ireland Neighbourhood Information Service (NINIS), Religion: KS211NI (Statistical Geographies), NINIS, 2011.
  3. Scottish Government, Analysis of Equality Results from the 2011 Census (PDF), Scottish Government, October 2014.
  4. Hyde, Janet Shibley and DeLamater, John, Understanding Human Sexuality, McGraw-Hill, 13th ed, 2016.
  5. Blake, Simon and Katrak, Zarine, Faith, values and sex & relationships education, National Children’s Bureau, 2002.
  6. Government Equalities Office, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act: A factsheet (PDF), Government Equalities Office, April 2014.
  7. FPA, Your Guide to Emergency Contraception, FPA, January 2014.
  8. 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.
  9. Contraception, Church of England website (accessed November 2016).
  10. Abortion, Church of England website (accessed November 2016).
  11. Friedman et al, Observant Married Jewish Women and Sexual Life: An Empirical Study (PDF), 2009.

Further reading

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.

BBC Religion and Ethics

Catholics for Choice

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice