Nathan Nobis, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, kindly contributed the following piece to What’s Wrong? Professor Nobis is the author of many articles and book chapters on topics concerning ethics and animals (e.g., vegetarianism, experimentation) and the ethics of abortion, an unpublished 2003 essay on the relations between these topics, and a review of a recent book on these topics’ intersections, which inspired this essay. What’s Wrong? is grateful to Professor Nobis for permission to publish this original piece here.
your views on abortion influence your views on animal rights? Should your views
on the moral status of animals influence your views on the moral status of
Generally, no. Most arguments against abortion have no implications
for animal rights and those that might seem to be poor arguments against
abortion. And arguments for animal
rights only have implications for rare, later abortions of conscious fetuses,
not the majority of abortions that affect early, pre-conscious fetuses.
On the other sides, though, a common of objection to animal
rights does support a pro-life view and an influential feminist pro-choice
argument does suggest positive implications for animals, though.
Overall, the topic of abortion presents with an inherent
complexity never analogously present in animal rights issues – the perspective
of the pregnant woman whose life and body the fetus depends on – and so the
issues are importantly distinct.
Should people who believe in animal rights think that abortion is wrong? Should pro-lifers accept animal rights? If you think it’s wrong to kill fetuses to end pregnancies, should you also think it’s wrong to kill animals to, say, eat them? If you, say, oppose animal research, should you also oppose abortion?
Some argue ‘yes’ and others argue ‘no’ to either or both sets of questions. The correct answer, however, seems to be, ‘it depends’: it depends on why someone accepts animal rights, and why someone thinks abortion is wrong: it depends on their reasons.
1. Animal Rights and Abortion Wrongs?
On some reasons, there is a clear connection between the topics.
If someone says abortion is wrong because fetuses are “living things,” or “organisms,” or “beings,” those reasons clearly apply to animals, since they too are living things, organisms and beings. If someone else says animals have (moral) rights because they are living, organisms or beings, those reasons apply to human fetuses: they are alive (abortion involves killing them, and you can’t kill non-living things), they are organisms (they are complex and developing) and they are beings (albeit dependent beings).
These arguments connect the topics: one argument leads to comparable conclusions for the other. If you think fetuses have rights, for those reasons, you should be inclined to think the same about animal rights, and vice versa.
These arguments are no good though. They both assume the premise that all living things, organisms and/or beings are wrong to kill. And that’s not true. Plants, mold, bacteria and many insects, like mosquitoes and gnats are not wrong to kill, at least.
These types of things aren’t even what’s called “prima facie” wrong to kill, meaning something like, “Wrong to kill unless there is a very good reason to kill it.” We, readers of this essay, are prima facie wrong to kill: if someone kills us, that’s wrong unless there’s a really good reason that justifies it. You don’t need areally good reason to kill a weed or a carrot, or some mold in your shower or a mosquito flying by.
So, these arguments connect the issues, but aren’t good arguments about either: one didn’t provide good reason to think that animals have rights, and the other doesn’t provide good reason to think that abortion is wrong.
2. Abortion Wrongs and Animal Rights?
Let’s consider some other arguments to seek a connection.
Let’s start with abortion and see what might lead us to animal rights. Considering why abortion might be prima facie wrong is useful since most people who claim that abortion is wrong deny that is absolutely or necessarilywrong: they acknowledge some cases where it is not wrong: to save the life of the pregnant woman and perhaps rape, at least. So even people who call themselves “pro-life” typically think abortion is prima facie wrong. But why? And what might their reasons suggest for whether animals have rights?
Abortion is sometimes said to be prima facie wrong simply because fetuses are human. If ‘human’ means, biologically human then that argument just isn’t going to apply to non-human animals, whether it’s a good argument against abortion or not. And it’s not: random biologically human cells and tissues are not even prima facie wrong to kill either: it wouldn’t be wrong to kill a smear of living human cheek cells cultivated in a petri dish, for example.
A more sophisticated argument is that abortion is prima facie wrong because fetuses are biologically human organisms: they are not random clumps of cells, but special cells that can develop into someone much like us (and so, some argue, they are someone like us now). Another argument is that abortion is prima facie wrong because fetuses are the “kind” of being that is a rational moral agent: a feline or bovine fetus, in contrast, is not that “kind” of being.
Deciding whether these arguments are good or not requires some careful thinking. We can avoid that for now since these arguments don’t connect the topics: non-human animals are not biologically human organisms and they likely are not rational moral agents or that “kind” of being. No argument that restricts serious moral concern only to humans or their unique abilities will connect to non-humans.
Another argument begins with the safe assumption that it is wrong to kill and act violently towards innocent and vulnerable beings. Since fetuses are innocent and vulnerable, killing them by abortion is wrong, so some argue.
This argument seems to apply to many animals, who are clearly innocent and vulnerable. Farm animals fearfully trying to escape from workers trying to kill them are clearly vulnerable beings: they are vulnerable to all sorts of physical and emotional harms. If this argument inclines anyone to think that the abuse of vulnerable and innocent animals is wrong and should stop, more power to it. (Some “pro-lifers” might resist though, claiming that their serious moral concern is only for innocent and vulnerable human life, not any and all innocent and vulnerable lives, not all victims of violence. We must ask what, if anything, might justify this speciesist prejudice, and that might be a long conversation, and we might conclude that this is an unjustified prejudice. But, we should notice that this new argument about abortion – now only concerning innocent, vulnerable humans – no longer has implications for non-human animals: it doesn’t connect the topics.)
While it is true that innocent and vulnerable beings should be protected – that’s a moral near-certainty – are fetuses really innocent and vulnerable, despite what people often say?
“Innocent” seems to mean something like “capable of intentionally doing wrong, but not doing wrong and so not deserving ill treatment.” But fetuses, especially early fetuses, aren’t capable of doing wrong, since they can’t intentionally do anything, especially anything with moral dimensions. Fetuses seem to be neither innocent nor not: the concept just doesn’t apply to them. (It’s doubtful that animals can be morally blameworthy, but they are often called ‘innocent’ when they haven’t done anything that’s dangerous to others: this suggests that being capable of doing things is necessary for ‘innocence’).
Are fetuses “vulnerable”? Recall the image of animals in fear, trying to evade their killers. Imagine a child cowering in fear, covering her head to shield herself from blows from an abusive parent. These are paradigm instances of the abuse of a vulnerable being: they reveal vulnerability.
Are abortions like that? Are early abortions, of early fetuses, like that? More detailed information about the development of fetal consciousness and the potential for fetal pain will be given below, but at least early fetuses are not yet conscious and are not able to feel anything: their brains and nervous systems are not yet developed for that. Given what fetuses are like, at early stages, to call them “vulnerable” may be a stretch of the term: what are they vulnerable to? At least, they are very different from the clearly vulnerable animal or child examples above in that they physically and emotionally experience their abuse. Early fetuses don’t experience anything, yet. So, while animals can be described as innocent and vulnerable, it is unclear that those concepts apply to early fetuses.
Some argue that fetuses are persons (from conception?) and so abortion is prima facie wrong. While persons are prima facie wrong to kill, we need to ask what is meant by ‘person’. Some respond, ‘human being,’ which is not going to lead anywhere for animal rights. More thoughtful answers recognize that there are, or could be, divine persons and extra-terrestrial persons: in science fiction, humans interact with friendly and intelligent extra-terrestrials as their moral equals (as they would be). And a human body can remain biologically alive but the person gone: this is why being alive in a permanent coma is not much better than being dead, if that individual’s consciousness will never return.
What are persons, then, on this account? Roughly, beings with personalities: conscious, feeling beings with abilities to perceive, reason (in some manner and at some level), have emotions, communicate, a sense of self and so on. The idea is that personhood is determined by one’s psychology and so personhood could, and perhaps does, emerge in bodies that are not human: if there is a God, personhood occurs in a being without a body at all.
This definition of personhood arguably applies to many animals: they have thoughts, feelings, memories, anticipations and unique personalities tying all these psychological states and abilities together. Are cats and dogs and cows and pigs more “like us,” as persons, or are they more like carrots or rocks, clearly non-persons? If “like us,” then perhaps they are closer to being persons than many suspected.
Whether this theory of personhood applies to fetuses, whether and when they are persons, depends on what they are like in terms of their cognitive, mental or psychological development. Here is some relevant information:
When Abortions Occur: The CDC reports: “In 2012, the majority (65.8%) of abortions were performed by ≤8 weeks’ gestation, and nearly all (91.4%) were performed by ≤13 weeks’ gestation. Few abortions (7.2%) were performed between 14–20 weeks’ gestation or at ≥21 weeks’ gestation (1.3%).”
There is room for informed empirical debate these issues, and the CDC numbers are limited to the United States. But this information suggests that most aborted fetuses are, fortunately, not conscious and can’t feel anything and that these fetuses are not persons, on a psychological definition. Early abortions involve killing biologically human beings, but not human persons:potential persons (discussed below), yes; human organisms, yes; beings of the “kind” rational moral agent, yes: but recall that these arguments don’t apply to animals.
(Another view is that persons are intrinsically valuable beings. This is a fine answer, but we must ask who or what has that type of value and why – what makes a being have that type of value – and that takes us back to the answers we are discussing here).
If fetuses aren’t persons, they are potential persons, and that makes abortion wrong, some argue. Insofar as most animals whose rights in question are, arguably, already actual persons – on the psychological definition of personhood – that would imply that they are not potential persons: if you are actually something, you aren’t potentially that same thing. So any proposal for how potential persons should be treated won’t apply to actual persons: again, there’s no connection. (The other premise of the argument though, that potential persons have the rights of actual persons, such as the right to life, is doubtful since potential beings [potential doctors, lawyers, presidents, parents, adults, spouses, senior citizens, and on] never have the rights of actual beings of that kind, in virtue of that potential. Arguments against abortion from potential personhood are doubtful).
Finally, some might respond that these above arguments evade the simple point that abortions seriously harm fetuses, and so abortions are wrong. Causing serious harms is prima facie wrong, and animals clearly can be (and are) harmed: the idea of cruelty to animals and calls for the “humane” treatment of animals presume that animals can be harmed, and that certain harms must be minimized. So this type of argument connects the issues.
But are early, pre-conscious fetuses harmed when aborted? Some might quickly react that they are obviously are, since they are destroyed and killed. Thinking through the nature of “harm” though suggests perhaps otherwise. Think about all the ways you can be harmed: physically, emotionally, cognitively, financially, and more. In each case, you are always made worse off, in some important way,compared to how you were: something happened and now, from your perspective, you are worse off. This suggests that to be harmed, one needs a perspective that can take a turn for the worse. But pre-conscious fetuses have no perspective: they are not aware of anything, yet. So, it seems that they cannot be made worse off, compared to how they were, since they never “were” in a conscious way. Later conscious and feeling fetuses can be harmed, but not early fetuses, it seems.
In reply, it must be observed that abortion usually results in a future person not being born: because of an abortion, there is some future individual who does not exist. While that’s true, it is surely not wrong to not reproduce and contraception, including by abstinence, prevents the existence of future people. But we don’t usually think of that as harmful: who would it harm? Someone who doesn’t yet exist? Since it’s not wrong to not bring future people into the world, that abortion has this same result wouldn’t make it wrong either.
To conclude, these are a few common arguments that abortion is wrong. Some of these arguments don’t connect to animal rights: human– and moral agent-based arguments, at least. Arguments from innocence and vulnerability and psychological personhood might support animal rights. But we saw that these may not be very strong arguments about abortion, at least early abortions, since these early fetuses might not really be innocent, or vulnerable or persons, given what they are like and the nature of these concepts. These doubtful arguments about abortion might support animal rights though, nevertheless.
These are just a few arguments about abortion though, quickly discussed, and none of them were theological or religious-based. Further arguments could, and should, be investigated to seek connections from anti-abortion arguments to pro-animal arguments: maybe a strong argument would be found that connects the issues.
3. Animal Rights?
Now let’s go the other direction and consider some arguments about animal rights to see if they lead us to think that abortion is wrong.
Cases for moral rights for animals or, more generally, views that it is wrong to seriously harm animals for food, experimentation, entertainment and other purposes – this this view can be stated without mentioning ‘rights’ – depend on the observation that many animals have minds: they are conscious, are aware, and can feel pain and can suffer. This is true of mammals and birds, likely all vertebrates (including fish) and perhaps some invertebrates also. These animals also have positive feelings: pleasure, happiness and other positive emotions. And they are not disconnected blips of consciousness: they are psychologically unified by memories, anticipations, knowledge, social relationships and distinct personalities. They are individuals: each is a someone not a something.
Combine those facts about animals’ minds with many plausible moral theories or principles and we are on our way to an animal-rights-like view. That theory might be utilitarian-related and concerned with the pleasures and pains of all beings who can experience such feelings, not just humans. Or it might be Kantian and emphasize treating all conscious beings as ends-in-themselves, not just rational beings. Or it might, as a Golden Rule and John Rawls require, demand that we treat others in ways we would be willing to be treated, seeing things from their perspectives as best we can. There are many moral-theoretical options to justify the belief that conscious animals have basic rights to avoiding pain and suffering, rights from other types of harms and, most importantly, rights to their own bodies and lives.
4. Animal Rights and Early Fetuses’ Rights?
Our purpose here isn’t to defend animal rights though. It’s to see what animal-rights arguments imply or suggest for human fetuses and abortion. Is there a connection?
Animal rights principles apply to conscious, feeling beings – sentient beings – and early, first trimester fetuses are not that. According to the information above about fetal consciousness and when most abortions occur, most aborted fetuses are not yet conscious and so can’t feel anything.
So should animal rights advocates oppose early abortions? Not for any plausible reasons they give to think that animals have rights, since those reasons just don’t apply to early fetuses. If someone thought that animals have rights because they are “life,” as we saw above, this implies that vegetables and plants and mold and bacteria have rights, a conclusion that animal advocates and anyone else sensibly rejects. So, if and when animal rights advocates are pro-life about early abortions, it wouldn’t be for animal-rights or, more generally,conscious-or-sentient-being-rights-related reasons: it’d have to be another argument.
Some mistakenly argue that animal rights arguments positively imply that fetuses lack rights. They offer this charge against animal rights advocates:
You think that if a being is conscious and feeling, then it has rights. But you say early fetuses are not conscious and feeling. So you must think that they don’t have rights.
But this argument is logically invalid, “denying the antecedent,” just like this argument:
You think that if Eve goes to State College, then Eve is a college student. But you know that Eve doesn’t go to State College. Therefore, you must think Eve is not a college student.
Since Eve could attend a private college, that means the premises could be true but the conclusion false. So, these premises do not lead to the conclusion or justify it, and this pattern of reasoning is never good.
In sum, plausible animal rights arguments don’t justify thinking that early fetuses have rights or, importantly, that they lack rights: they are neutral on the issue and so further arguments are needed to go either way on abortion, pro-choice or pro-life.
5. Animal Rights and Later Fetuses’ Rights?
Later abortions, affecting conscious and feeling fetuses, are a different issue, however.
Obviously we don’t know what it’s like to be a fetus, but being killed in an abortion would surely feel horrific, to say the least. According to moral principles that motivate animal rights, causing this type of pain would surely be wrong unless done for a very good reason, and so animal rights-related thinking seems to reject any possible pro-choice views that claim that abortions are nearly necessarily morally permissible, that an abortion just could never be morally wrong, even if done very late in pregnancy and for frivolous reasons.
What might a good reason be to painfully abort a conscious, feeling fetus? At least, if this type of abortion was required to save the pregnant woman’s life or prevent other harms to her as bad or worse than the harms to the fetusfrom this type of abortion, then that would be a good reason, it seems.
Fortunately, the numbers above suggest that relatively few abortions are of conscious, sentient fetuses: just a small percentage, perhaps a bit more if fetal consciousness develops earlier. These abortions are often performed because of serious disabilities found in the fetus: it is doubtful that women have later abortions for anything other than serious reasons. Regardless, the frequency of these later abortions could surely be reduced if early abortions were more readily available.
What else might be a good reason to potentially justify a later term abortion? Or who else?
Absent from our discussion so far has been the pregnant woman: she tends to be overlooked by anti-abortion arguments, which have been our focus. Obviously though, the fetus is developing in her body and will be making major demands on her and her body over pregnancy and birth.
Would a fetus have a right to her body, especially if that fetus was conscious and feeling? Philosopher Judith Thompson, in her famous 1971 “A Defense of Abortion” article, observed that other people don’t rights to our bodies, even if they need our bodies to stay alive: you don’t have a right to my kidney, even if you need it to live, and I don’t violate your rights if you die because I don’t give it to you. Fetuses, even if they were persons with the right to life, might not have a right to pregnant women’s bodies, and pregnant women have a right to not allow fetuses to use their bodies. This fact complicates later abortions and simplifies earlier ones: the emergence of fetal consciousness doesn’t make later abortions straightforwardly wrong, and women’s rights to their bodies makes early abortions more easily permissible.
It’s useful here to compare animal and fetal rights. It’s easy to respect animals’ rights: just don’t shoot them to hang their heads on the wall, don’t electrocute them to turn them into fur coats, don’t infect them with diseases, don’t kill them to eat them. Animals’ rights, mainly, are negative rights: basically, just leave them alone. Fetuses’ rights, in contrast, would be positive rights: rights to various benefits and forms of assistance from the women they are inside of. A pregnant woman surely does not just “leave the fetus alone” over the course of pregnancy and childbirth, so to speak: she has to put in a lot of physical and emotional effort and energy, to say the least. And a pregnant woman might not be willing, for many reasons, to provide those benefits to a fetus, given all that’s involved. If Thompson is correct, the fetus has no right to these benefits, even if they are necessary for his or her life to continue, and the pregnant woman has a right to not provide them: until there are artificial wombs to transplant unwanted fetuses into, a woman has a moral right to an abortion.
These considerations about rights provide further reason to think that early abortions are morally permissible, beyond the inability of the above arguments to show that early abortions are wrong. It also provides another reason to think that later abortions, even of conscious and feeling fetuses, could be morally permissible. But we need to be cautious here: again, even if you need my kidney to stay alive, I have a right to my kidney. If, however, somehow you need my kidney to avoid being brutally tortured to death, I may be morally obligated to give you my kidney, whether you have a right to it or not (and maybe you would?!). And so if any later abortions are like that, for feeling fetuses, concern for their pain and suffering – if it is present – might trump a woman’s rights here. The best response about this concern seems to be to ensure that this conflict of rights doesn’t arise, by ensuring that any abortions happen early in pregnancy, before fetuses are conscious and can feel pain. And it might prompt developing methods to ensure that any later abortions are painless.
In sum, animal rights principles don’t condemn early abortions and they don’t necessarily condemn later abortions either. The perspectives and rights of the pregnant woman make the issues complex in ways that we never see with animal rights issues: in thinking about animal farming and slaughter, or experimentation, we confront animals as individuals. When they are in pairs or groups, such as mother and offspring, there never is a conflict of rights or ideal outcomes: what’s best for one is always best for all. Abortion is not like that, by design.
6. Anti-Animal Rights and Pro-Life?
To ensure that our discussion is complete, we shouldn’t forget that there are animal rights advocates and animal rights critics. Do any of the critics’ arguments have any implications for abortion?
Yes. Some arguments emphasize that animals don’t contribute to (human) culture, lack intellectual accomplishments and don’t comprehend the idea of rights, and these concerns seem applicable to human fetuses also. But since they also apply to many children and adults also, these are poor objections to animal rights.
A more challenging argument against animal rights that claims that that animals lack rights because they are not human and/or because they are not the “kind” of being that’s a rational moral agent. These arguments’ advocates don’t seem to notice that these arguments seem to imply that fetuses have rights, insofar as they are human and the kind of being that’s a rational moral agent. So, to avoid animal rights, some people embrace an argument that seems to have “pro-life” implications, which they don’t realize. Most people don’t think that to consistently avoid thinking that animals have rights, they must think that abortion is wrong. And they need not. That this objection to animal rights has this result shows that it is not a good objection to animal rights. (This argument is developed in my “Tom Regan on ‘Kind’ Arguments against Animal Rights and for Human Rights” in The Moral Rights of Animals).
There may be other connections, but I will leave it to critics of animal rights to see what other implications their arguments might have for abortion.
7. Pro-Choice and Animal Rights?
Finally, do any of the reasons given to be pro-choice imply anything positive for animals?
There are many types of reasons to think that abortion is not wrong and many of them have no implications for animals: for examples, arguments that abortion is not wrong because fetuses are not human beings or not conscious or that they are not persons have no implications for animals. Arguing that early fetuses lack the right to life because they don’t have any desires for the future won’t clearly apply to animals since they have some present desires that drift into the future. So some pro-choice arguments don’t have any implications for animals.
Arguments for abortion based on women’s rights, discussed above, suggest profound implications for animals, however. These arguments recognize that pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood are unique and profound experiences for nearly all women who experience them. Even when wanted, these are physically and emotionally challenging, life-altering events. And these aren’t just things that happen, passively, to a woman: she is actively engaged in making them; she is part of them and they become her and she will never be the same.
Female animals who are mothers very likely have some similar experiences and feelings. There are obviously very important differences in the experiences of human and non-human mothers, but the simple and clear point is this: animal mothers love their babies. Cows used in dairy production (female, obviously) clearly grieve when their calves are forcibly taken from them so that they don’t drink their own mother’s milk, biologically meant for them: this is kidnapping and theft, so human beings can drink that calves’ milk. And a “mother hen” is not just some made up phrase: she cares for her chicks, and they care for her. Animals change when they have babies.
Pro-choice thinkers emphasize that it should be a woman’s choice to have maternal experiences, that whether she has these experiences should be under her control. This control includes the choice to not have these experiences (at least at this time, in this situation) and so abortion should be allowed, they argue. This impulse for reproductive and maternal control should, arguably, extend to female animals used in, for examples, the dairy and egg industries and some animal research. Female animals used in industries are typically forcibly impregnated. Dairy cows lose their calves and will fight to keep them. Hens don’t get to nest with their eggs; they don’t get to see their eggs hatch; they don’t get to watch over their chicks. Some scientific research disrupts mother and offspring relations: remember Harlow’s monkeys?
Female animals and their offspring endure many unique and specific harms in virtue of being female. Their reproduction and maternal experience is controlled by human choices which result in bad experiences and outcomes for animal mothers and their offspring. A certain type of feminist thinking about abortion should lead to an animal rights-like view, initially about certain harms to female animals. Fairness and empathy should then lead to concerns for any conscious and feeling animals, female or male: that is, unless there is some relevant difference here that would justify discrimination against female animals which, of course, there isn’t. And one hopes that people opposed to discrimination against women and girls would be opposed to unfair discrimination wherever it is found, whether its victims are human or non-human, female or male, mother or child.
In sum, we have discussed two controversial issues: abortion and animal rights. Not all issues are controversial though: it is uncontroversial that it is prima facie wrong to kill human beings. If asked why this is so, however, many would quickly respond, “Because they are human!” But this answer takes us back to controversies, since (biologically) human fetuses are human and it’s debatable whether it’s wrong to kill them, and non-human animals are clearly not human and it’s debatable whether it is wrong to kill them also. ‘Human’ then, seems to not be much of a moral explanation.
Here we have explored some potentially deeper explanations about each topic, some more sophisticated arguments, trying to see if any reasons given in favor of views on one topic clearly extend to the other topic. Generally, with a few exceptions, they don’t. That means that one’s views about one topic generally needn’t be determined by one’s views about the other. Even when some connections or implications are suggested, there are ways to avoid these suggestions, given the differences between the issues. Whether all those ways of resisting a suggested implication of one’s moral principles are rational or intellectually responsible, we would have to see. By developing our skills at doing just that would surely improve our skills at theorizing and arguing about both animal rights and abortion and continuing to try to discern what to think about these issues individually, in relation to each other and, potentially, in relation to other pressing ethical and social issues.