A shameful anniversary: 50 years of abortion in Britain

Dr Sharon James, The Christian Institute’s Social Policy Analyst, reflects on Britain’s shameful anniversary.

On 27 October 1967, the Abortion Act was passed by Parliament. For 50 years, it has been legal in England, Wales and Scotland to kill an unborn child in the womb.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) was formed in 1966 to campaign against the Act, followed by LIFE in 1970. A few individual evangelicals joined these groups, but evangelicals, generally speaking, were silent. Why?

In 1989, the respected Reformed leader, Geoff Thomas, then pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth, said: ‘In 1973 I preached a sermon on abortion … six years after the Abortion Bill had become law. Why had I not preached it earlier? No one of any leadership in our evangelical constituency had spoken up’.

He went on to explain that most evangelicals had ‘believed the politicians, that this bill would not result in abortion-on-demand, that it would end back-street abortions and that there would be careful safeguards’ (Evangelicals for LIFE newsletter, No. 21, November 1989, pp.3-5).

Asleep at the wheel

The years that followed 1967 saw little clear teaching in this area. Abortion: the personal dilemma, by Rex Gardner (1972), then the ‘go-to’ resource among many evangelicals, even argued that ‘fully human life’ begins only at birth, and abortion right up to full-term could be morally acceptable in some circumstances.

In total, there have now been almost 9 million abortions in Great Britain since the 1967 Act was passed.

In addition, throughout the 1960s many evangelicals regarded any political engagement as potentially contaminating. ‘Just preach the gospel!’ was a standard response if disquiet was voiced about proposed legislation.

Even during the 1970s and 1980s, it remained commonplace for evangelicals to steer clear of any engagement with politics, arguing that ‘we can’t impose our ethics on others’. In an interview in 2010, Lyndon Bowring, the long-time executive chairman of CARE, recalled that he often tried to explain that to seek to persuade others of biblical truth was not the same as to impose it. Sadly, he found that many evangelicals couldn’t seem to distinguish between the two.

Amidst such apathy, abortions began to be carried out on an industrial scale. The year after the Act there were around 25,000 abortions in Britain. By 1973 there were already about 175,000 (Abortion statistics, England and Wales: 2016, ONS, Department of Health, June 2017, Table 1; Termination of pregnancy statistics — year ending December 2016, ISD Scotland, 30 May 2017, Table 6).

In total, there have now been almost 9 million abortions in Great Britain since the 1967 Act was passed, about 98 per cent of them for social reasons. Approximately one in five pregnancies in Britain now ends in abortion.

The turnaround begins

From 1970 onwards, evangelical passivity relating to social and political involvement started to transform into greater awareness and activity. An increasing number of evangelicals realised that where sanctity of life issues were concerned, ‘Love your neighbour’ requires a degree of political engagement.

In 1987, in contrast to 20 years earlier, when David (now Lord) Alton introduced a bill to reduce the time limit for abortions from 28 to 18 weeks, many evangelicals backed his campaign.

…all human life is made in the image of God.

A major factor in this turnaround was the visit to England of the late Francis Schaeffer in 1979. His film series, Whatever happened to the human race?, electrified many evangelicals. It showed with devastating clarity that, when people reject God’s truth, the door is opened to every kind of inhumanity. With prophetic clarity, Schaeffer warned that secularisation would lead to widespread abortion, infanticide and euthanasia.

Crucially, he drew attention to the seemingly forgotten biblical truth that the sanctity of human life does not rest on capacity or independence, which may be extinguished by sickness or age (see footnote below). It rests on the truth that all human life is made in the image of God, and is intrinsically valuable from conception. The earthly life of Jesus Christ himself began when he ‘was conceived by the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:20).

The role of The Christian Institute

Since its inception in 1991, The Christian Institute (CI) has sought to help Christians understand this biblical truth and its application to abortion and other ethical issues such as assisted suicide.

One of the CI’s most popular resources is Dr John Ling’s concise yet insightful booklet When does human life begin? You can download it from christian.org.uk/resource/when-does-human-life-begin or contact the CI office for a free copy.

The CI has also sought to defend the sanctity of human life through targeted campaigns. In 2008 it campaigned to stop amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act, which would have had the effect of liberalising the abortion law.

Scientifically speaking, life begins when a father’s sperm combines with the mother’s egg.

Mobilising Christians, conducting polling and briefing MPs all helped to ensure the law was not weakened. In particular, efforts to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland were thwarted.

More recently, in 2014 the CI publicly exposed secret guidance from the coalition government to clinics saying that doctors did not need to see women seeking an abortion.

This effectively removed the requirement for two doctors to agree that there were legal grounds for an abortion — a rule designed to protect the lives of women and their unborn babies.

Imago Dei

Scientifically speaking, life begins when a father’s sperm combines with the mother’s egg. A completely unique genetic code is formed, different from anyone else who has ever existed.

Abortion is not only a doctrinal issue, but a pastoral one.

At five weeks, the heart is forming, the nervous system is taking shape and some blood vessels are present. At week six the heart can sometimes be seen beating. At week seven, the brain is growing rapidly. And all this is before most women even have their first scan.

When Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge recently announced that they are expecting their third child, there was no question that their unborn child is a baby, not just a clump of cells!

Yet, shockingly, in Great Britain it is legal to abort children up to 24 weeks, or up to birth if it is believed that the baby will be born with a disability. We need to actively encourage others to consider the truth that all humans are made in the image of their Maker, the one true Creator God. And we need to pray and work towards a sea-change in public attitudes towards abortion.

Choose Life

Abortion is not only a doctrinal issue, but a pastoral one. Every abortion is a tragedy, for mother as well as child.

The CI frequently shares good news stories of mums and dads who choose life for their unborn child, often against the advice of their doctors. Many of these parents are not Christians, but through their actions they bear witness to God’s common grace.

…they owe their very lives to parents prepared to fight for them.

Our Choose Life series features stories from parents such as the Harwoods, who said ‘no’ to abortion despite very difficult circumstances. Others, such as Leslie McCaskie, have spoken bravely of the damage abortion has done in their life.

Then there are those like Gary Moore, who have shared how they owe their very lives to parents prepared to fight for them against outside pressure to undergo abortion. You can find out more at christian.org.uk/chooselife.

We are grateful to all those who have supported The Christian Institute over the last 25 years on abortion and other issues. The work goes on.


The argument that a foetus is less than human because it is dependent on its mother could disprove the ‘humanity’ of a newborn infant or an adult on dialysis. The argument that taking independent breath is needed for full humanity could call into question the humanity of an elderly person on a respirator. The notion that relationality is a qualification for full humanity could disqualify an elderly person with advanced dementia.

This article first appeared in the Evangelical Times.