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.