8/31/00 [updated August 18, 2003]
Abortion and Animal Rights:
Related, but Importantly Different, Issues
In a recent letter (August 2001, p. 5), a “Veg-News” reader asked why she does not see the vegetarian and animal rights communities taking a stand against abortion. She said it seems to be a "great contradiction" to respect animal life, but to not equally respect human life by opposing abortion. She asked that this issue be addressed. I would like to do so, especially since it’s a common concern. Most animal rights advocates have been asked, ‘Why don’t you do something to save aborted babies?’ although, surely nearly all the hecklers who ask this question have never done anything to oppose any abortions. Although the hecklers usually don’t stay for an answer, I provide one below.
Those who challenge the status quo regarding our society's consumption and treatment of animals do this from a wide variety of moral and philosophical perspectives. But all within the movement agree on this: a fundamental evil of animal agriculture and a diet and lifestyle that involves animal products is that they cause pain, suffering, and early death that is totally unnecessary, for both animals and humans (Note: for readers not familiar with the conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses, and not familiar with the vast medical literature detailing the nutritional benefits of vegetarian diets, I recommend checking out these links:http://www.meetyourmeat.com/ , http://petatv.com) To think productively about these issues, one must be familiar with the empirical facts). We would all be profoundly better off if animals weren’t raised and killed for food. The conviction that evils like these should be opposed and that we should bring an end to them is what motivates and unites many people in the vegetarian and animal rights community.
Should these people also be motivated to oppose abortion? Unfortunately, the safest answer seems to be this: ‘no’ and ‘yes’. The answer is not simple because abortions affect two importantly different kinds of fetuses: those that can experience pain and those that cannot. Scientific evidence suggests that early fetuses, those in the first trimester and slightly beyond, cannot experience pain since they lack the necessary neurological development. Conservative estimates are that some kind of fetal consciousness begins at 18 weeks but most estimates are around 26 weeks (for a review of the medical literature, see David Benatar, Ph.D. and Michael Benatar, M.D, “A pain the fetus: toward ending confusion about fetal pain,” Bioethics, 15, 1, Feb. 2001, pp. 57-76.). Although reliable data is hard to come by, most fetuses that are aborted are early fetuses. Since they cannot experience pain in the procedure, the vegetarian and animal rights advocate's opposition to unnecessary pain and suffering does not apply here since there is no pain and suffering to oppose. There is no "great contradiction" here.
While most abortion providers will not perform abortions past the fourth or fifth month (check your yellow pages under “abortion”) and so there are relatively few later-term abortions, there are strong reasons to oppose later-term abortions due to the fetal pain and suffering. While probably no abortions are taken lightly, these definitely should not. The vegetarian and animal rights advocate should find these abortions morally troubling, considered in themselves.
We might, however, suspect that in many, if not most, cases of later-term abortion that the woman's health or safety is in question, or that the fetus is aborted to prevent a very unfortunate future from befalling it due to disease or serious disability. While the pain and suffering of the fetus is very bad (although it might be preventable with anesthesia), these cases of later abortion might be permissible, given the complications of the case and that others’ interests are at stake as well. Later-term abortions done for trivial reasons (if abortions are ever done for trivial reasons) are likely to be morally inexcusable from many vegetarian and animal rights perspectives, since they cause serious pain and suffering without adequate justification or need.
There are other arguments for and against abortion that I can only briefly address. Some ask, “How would you like it if you had been aborted?” suggesting that this shows that abortion is wrong. But one can ask right back, “How would you like it if your parents had used birth control?” Since most don’t view birth control as immoral and the arguments are parallel, this shows this anti-abortion argument to be weak.
Sometimes it is said that fetuses are ‘human’. If this claim is that fetuses of biologically human mothers are themselves biologically human, then this is thisobviously true and nobody disagrees with it. Biologically human fetuses are not fetuses of cows or pigs or dogs. But the fact that something is biologically human does not entail that it has moral rights. Cheek cells under a microscope are biologically human, but they lack rights. Human organs, hair, and corpses are all biologically human as well, but they don’t have rights. So the fact that human fetuses are biologically human, in itself, shows nothing.
Perhaps what is meant is not that all fetuses are human but that all fetuses are persons. But what is a ‘person’? On most views, to be a person one must have a personality: one must have beliefs, desires, conscious experience, a sense of the past and future and so forth. On this view, which can be rationally defended as the core concept of what it is to be a ‘person’, being biologically human is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a person. It is not sufficient because not everything that is biologically human is a person: human organs are not persons, corpses aren’t persons (they once were, but now they lack a personality since they are dead), cells aren’t persons. Having human DNA is not sufficient for being a person. It is not necessary either: if God exists, then God is a person (Christianity says God is three persons in one). If beings like ET, Mr. Spock, and Chewbacca existed, they would be persons too. And this is because of the features of their mental lives that give them a personality. Early fetuses lack those features: they are not persons.
But, some respond, they are potential persons. True, some of them are, but being a potential something does not grant one the rights that one would have, were one that actual thing or actually have those characteristics. For example, even as children many of us are potential parents: we could become a parent with all the rights and responsibilities involved in parenthood. But the fact that we have that potential as children doesn’t mean that we have those rights and responsibilities as children. In general, the characteristics you possess only as potentials do not give you the rights that you would have were you to actually have those characteristics.
It is often said that "all fetuses have a right to life," but this is just another way of saying "it's wrong to kill fetuses." If it's wrong to kill fetuses, why is this so (and which ones)? Unfortunately, groups that oppose abortion tend to not address these questions and, when they do, fail to realize their best answers (which will appeal to the loss of a valuable future for the fetus) imply that living beings that are more conscious and sentient than human fetuses – animals, such as cows, pigs and chickens -- have a "right to life" as well. Since anti-abortionists tend to be opposed only to the ending of fetal lives and indifferent to the tragic lives and brutal deaths of farm animals and fur-bearers, it's a serious misnomer to call them "pro-life."
On the other hand, pro-choice groups tend to refuse to admit that some choices of abortion result in intense pain and suffering for some fetuses. They stubbornly uphold a woman's right to choose to abort at any time and for literally any reason (or none whatsoever), no matter the consequences for the fetus, including late-term ones. Anyone convinced, as vegetarians are, that causing unnecessary pain and suffering is seriously wrong cannot accept an unconditional pro-choice position, one that gives infinite moral weight to a women's right to choice so that fetal pain counts for nothing, morally-speaking.
However inadequate most debate of the morality of abortion is and however muddled most common arguments for and against abortion are, at least it is an issue that there is public debate over and that most people believe is important. Politicians' fates can be sealed by their views on abortion. Will there ever come a time when a "litmus test" for a candidate's viability is whether he or she believes that animals have the right not to be eaten, worn, or experimented on? Will there come a time when campaign contributions from the meat industry will be viewed with as much suspicion as those from "Big Tobacco," as they both peddle products known to be harmful to human health? Vegetarian and animal rights advocates hope that their work makes it all the sooner that the answer to these questions is, “Yes.”
Many vegetarian and animal rights advocates have likely been asked why they don't spend their efforts on supposedly "more important" issues, such as abortion. This question, of course, assumes that abortion (or any other pressing social ill) is a “more important” moral problem. I have argued that since most aborted fetuses are not conscious and so cannot feel pain, the two issues—abortion and animal rights—are importantly different and so indifference to some kinds of abortions is consistent with a commonly-held motivation for advocating vegetarianism and respecting animals. Furthermore, there is no inconsistency in being opposed to both abortion and the needless killing of animals, so the real challenge lies on the critic of abortion to explain why he or she isn’t an advocate for the animals since all that requires, minimally, is not eating them.
For those fetuses that can feel pain, this is a serious issue, one that should not be dismissed. However, the number of these fetuses is tiny, compared to the tens of billions of animals slaughtered each year and the vast numbers of humans who unnecessarily suffer as a consequence of eating them. Also, there already are a large number of defenders of these fetuses: whether they will be able to convince a critical political mass might depend on their substituting reason for their current rhetoric.
Since abortion already is a public issue, the best thing vegetarian and animal rights advocates can do is continue striving to make their issues a common topic of public debate and scrutiny. We do this by educating people about the horrors of factory farming, the utter lack of necessity for any of its products, the unreliable of animal-based medical research and product testing, the health benefits of a vegan diet and the wrongness of discounting or ignoring serious animals’ interests—in avoiding pain, suffering, torture and death—merely since they are of a species other than our own. Given the huge numbers of animals and humans that are harmed by this system and whose lives would change for the better were it abolished, it’s not clear that there’s anything “more important” to be done.
 Furthermore, it’s not at all clear how this question is relevant anyway since whatever one’s position on abortion is, one can still easily cease supporting torturing and killing animals for culinary entertainment and other pleasures. Peter Singer put the point better:
[T]hose who claim to care about the well-being of human beings and the preservation of our environment should become vegetarians for that reason alone. They would thereby increase the amount of grain available to feed people everywhere, reduce pollution, save water and energy, and cease contributing to the clearing of forests; moreover, since a vegetarian diet is cheaper than one based on meat dishes, they would have more money available to devote to famine relief, population control, or whatever social or political cause they thought most urgent. [W]hen non-vegetarians say that "human problems come first", I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals. Peter Singer Animal Liberation, 1990
 For further discussion of these points, see section 6.3 of my article “Carl Cohen’s ‘Kind’ Arguments FOR Animal Rights and AGAINST Human Rights”