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An Ethical Approach to Abortion

by Julian Savulescu

Abortion should be decriminalised. Early abortion should be freely and easily available on request. Late abortion should be freely and easily available at least for those who have a valid justification: significant fetal abnormality, threat to woman’s health or a serious social reason, for example child pregnancy or rape. Family planning, including safe, free and open abortion services, is an essential part of a civilized society.

Abortion remains a crime in NSW, South Australia and Queensland. Laws are obsolete and unclear. There has been recent debate on law reform in both Queensland and NSW. Around 100,000 abortions are performed around Australia every year. In practice, early abortion is available on demand.

This survey shows the majority of Australians believe early abortion (61%) should be fully decriminalised. Only 12% believe it should be unlawful.

There are overwhelmingly strong ethical arguments for making early abortion, freely and easily available, paid for by Medicare. It is safest, it allows women the possibility of family planning and it is consistent with the practices occurring in Australia and attitudes of a majority of Australians.

NSW, South Australia and Queensland should repeal their antiquated abortion laws and make abortion available on demand.

This survey also suggests politicians will not lose votes by taking a liberal stand on abortion.

2% of abortions are late, occurring after 24 weeks, usually because of a delay in medical diagnosis. Most Australians are against professional sanctions being imposed on doctors who perform such abortions. Nearly half of Australians believe they should be lawful when performed for a valid reason. And most were against professional sanctions in a wide variety of circumstances.

Ethically, there is little difference between early and late abortion. After 24 weeks the fetus becomes capable of living outside the mother with intensive care and becomes minimally conscious. But neither of these developments has real ethical significance for abortion. We already have one line of huge moral significance: birth. We don’t need to add another one during fetal development. More restrictive public attitudes to late abortion are not grounded on good ethical arguments but rather gut responses, current social norms and traditional dominant Christian religious values.

If ethics and law are not to depart too far from current public attitude, we should embrace decriminalisation of late abortion for valid justification. Virtually every woman who chooses to have a late abortion does so for good reason. What is essential is that we remove the legal, professional, social and economic barriers to late abortion for those women who have valid reason to obtain one. It is time to take a more ethical approach to abortion.

Prof Julian Savulescu

University of Oxford

Sir Louis Matheson Distinguished Visiting Professor, Monash University

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Personally I have a lot of sympathy for this position, for broadly the same reasons I expressed in my comment on the post “Roman Infanticide, Modern Abortion”.

    What I don’t agree with, though, is the implication that this is an issue of absolute right vs absolute wrong, ethical vs inethical. Your argumentation contains implicit values, and they need to be made explicit (see Janet Radcliffe-Richards “Foetal pain and the abortion debate”).

    In particular, you appear to value women’s health (hence “early abortion…is safest”), family planning (why?) and consistency between laws, on the one hand, and practices and attitudes on the other. Some of the values underpinning your argumentation are harder to discern (why does birth have “huge moral significance”?). You seem to want to restrict the number of such “lines” (“we don’t need to add another one”). You also apparently value what you describe as “good ethical arguments” over “gut reactions, current social norms and traditional dominant Christian religious values”. Again, why? (And is there such a thing as a “Christian non-religious value”?)

    Again, in terms of our actual ethical stance on this issue I think I have basically the same position as you do. But if we want to truly convince people, rather than just barking in the wind, then we need to be more explicit about the values that underpin this stance, and accept that it is not a question of absolute right and wrong.

  2. Maybe I am confused, but I am Australian (NSW) and had an abortion, and most of the fee was paid for by Medicare. I went in to see if I could get a refund on my appointment fee at least, and found that most of the charges were refunded (well, partially refunded, in the way Medicare does it). I think out of $400-500 for the procedure I ended up only about $100 out of pocket, anyway (it was a couple of years back so I’m rough-guessing).

  3. This is a very clear ethical position on a real political issue, and one that I broadly support.

    But in line with Janet Radcliffe-Richards’ recommendation in her post “Foetal pain and the abortion debate”, I would recommend being much more explicit about the values that underpin this position. I also think it is important to accept that this is not a question of absolute right and wrong: others have different values that are no less legitimate, and which lead them to take a different position on this issue.

    Among the values that appear to underpin your own stance on this issue, judging from your argumentation, are the following:

    1. Women’s health is important (hence early abortion is better because safer).
    2. So is family planning (might be helpful to spell out why).
    3. Laws should be consistent with current practices and attitudes.
    4. We don’t want a multiplicity of moral “lines” (we already have conception and birth…but why does birth have “huge moral significance?).
    5. Good ethical arguments (what is a “good ethical argument”) are better grounds for decision-making than gut responses, current social norms or traditional religious values. (Is this always the case, or should we sometimes indeed go with our gut response?)

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