The abortion debate is probably the most contentious debate in practical ethics. Although in many western countries abortion is now legalized, debate about the morality and legalization of abortion continues. In most countries where abortion is legalised, there remain significant constraints on women’s reproductive choice.
Much of the debate turns on a disagreement about whether the foetus has a right to life. So called ‘pro-lifers’ typically think the foetus, in virtue of being a person or a potential person, has such a right. Abortion, then, is wrong because it violates that right. It is like murdering an innocent child or adult. Some who oppose abortion do so, not on the grounds that the foetus has a right to life, but for other reasons – for example, because killing a foetus deprives it of a valuable future or violates human dignity.
Those in the ‘pro-choice’ camp have typically denied that the foetus has a right to life. But some have argued that even if the foetus has a right to life, that would not necessarily make abortion wrong. They claim that a right to life does not imply a right to use a woman’s body against her will. Generally, we do not force people to make their bodies disposable to others, even when the others will die if we don’t. In response, some claim that the relationship between a woman and her foetus is of a special kind that we should think differently about it.
Even within pro-life and among pro-choice camps, there is heated debate. Pro-lifers disagree about whether abortion is always wrong: some allow that it is permissible in special cases, such as following rape or where there is serious danger to the mother’s life. Pro-choicers are also divided. For example, they disagree about whether a woman may abort her foetus because it has a minor disability, or because she prefers a child of the opposite sex? The concern exists that selective abortion will result in further stigmatization of and discrimination against disabled people, or in complicity in suspect societal attitudes, such as sexism.
2010 Survey: Australian attitudes to early and late abortion
Lachlan J de Crespigny, Dominic J Wilkinson, Thomas Douglas, Mark Textor and Julian Savulescu
Reference: de Crespigny, L., Wilkinson, D., Douglas, T., Textor, M. and Savulescu, J. (2010), 'Australian attitudes to early and late abortion', Medical Journal of Australia, Vol: 193(1) pp. 9-12
- Download paper "Australian attitudes to early and late abortion"
- Download additional survey data
- Lachlan de Crespigny Opinion Piece: Australians support women’s access to late abortion
- Press Release by The Medical Journal of Australia: Survey shows most Australians support late abortion
- Julian Savulescu Press Release: An Ethical Approach to Abortion
- Blog: special feature on late abortion
- Link to article in Medical Journal of Australia
JME Blog post: The Unconscious Violinist – 50 Years On, by Matthew John Minehan, MSt in Practical Ethics (9 May 2021)
Giubilini, A., (2018), 'A Civilized Debate', (7 February). Is it possible to have a civilized debate on the issue of abortion? Interviewed in connection with the Irish Times article here.
Giubilini, A., (2018). Five rules for a open and civil debate on the abortion referendum. The Irish Times.
Hiruta, K., (2012), Blogpost: 'Charles Camosy versus Julian Savulescu on the Ethics of Abortion' http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/10/charles-camosy-versus-julian-savulescu-on-the-ethics-of-abortion/
Savulescu, J., (2012). Debate with Charles Camosy: The Possibility of Religious- Secular Ethical Engagement: Abortion. St Cross College Special Ethics Seminars. Oxford.
Savulescu, J., (2012), 'Anti-Abortion Fanatics are Threatening Free Speech'. The Guardian (29 February) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/29/abortion-ethics-threat-free-speech?newsfeed=true
Savulescu, J., (2012), 'Journal Editor Defends Pro-Infanticide Piece: Killing Newborns is Already Legal in Holland'. LifeSiteNews (28 February) http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/journal-editor-defends-pro-infanticide-piece-killing-newborns-is-already-le/
Savulescu, J. (2010), Abortion Law Reform Needed, Greens Say. Brisbane Times (5 July)
Savulescu, J. (2010), Abortion Laws Don't Reflect Public Opinion. Sydney Morning Herald (5 July)
Savulescu, J. (2010), Support for Decriminalised Abortion in Australia. cited in online article in couriermail.com.au (5 July)
Savulescu, J. (2008), Radio Interview on Australian Abortion Reforms. mytalk.com.au (01 September)
- Savulescu, J. (2008), Abortion bill's rights 'breach'. The Age (October 6)
- Savulescu, J. (2008), Abortion Bill Rights Breach. Brisbane Times
- Savulescu, J. and De Crespigny, L. (2008), When Mums Come First. Herald Sun (23 January) (Republished 2010 in Abortion Issues, Vol 312)
Savulescu, J. and Schuklenk, U., (2017), 'Doctors Have No Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception', Bioethics, Vol: 31(3): 162–170 [open acces]
de Crespigny, L., Wilkinson, D., Douglas, T., Textor, M. and Savulescu, J., (2010), 'Australian attitudes to early and late abortion', Medical Journal of Australia, Vol: 193(1): 9-12. [open access]
Wilkinson, D. and Savulescu, J. (2008), 'Refusing to Refer: Abortion and the Limits of Professional Conscience', Bioethics Forum,
de Crespigny, L. and Savulescu, J. (2004), 'Abortion: time to clarify Australia's confusing laws', Medical Journal of Australia, Vol: 181(4)
- Savulescu, J., (2013). UK Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability (UK House of Parliament). Submitted written evidence on invitation from Fiona Bruce MP. Download report here www.abortionanddisability.org/resources/Abortion-and-Disability-Report-17-7-13.pdf
- Savulescu, J. and De Crespigny, L. (2007), Submission to Victorian Law Reform Commission. The Law of Abortion
Roache, R., (2014), 'The rights and wrongs of abortion'. Practical Ethics Bites Podcast Series. (14 October)