Should Animal Advocates Have an Official Position on Abortion?

Some animal advocacy groups contend that “just as the pro-life movement has no official position on animal rights, the animal rights movement has no official position on abortion“. It is easy to see why there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and believing in animal rights. As Peter Singer has suggested, the typical argument against abortion goes something like this:

It is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being,

A human fetus is a human being,

Thus, it is wrong to kill a human fetus

Given that the point of departure of this argument is that human beings have a right to life, embracing it in no way commits you to affording similar rights to animals. Therefore, it is undestandable for pro-life groups to have no official position regarding animal rights. Is it also understandable for animal advocates to have no official position regarding abortion? I’m not sure.

Someone committed to animal rights would oppose the killing of animals by arguing something along these lines:

It is wrong to kill an innocent sentient being

(Most) animals are sentient beings

Thus, it is wrong to kill (most) animals

It seems to me that embracing this argument should commit us to opposing the killing of sentient fetuses. It does not commit us, however, to opposing the killing of non-sentient fetuses. If sentience is what entitles beings to rights, it follows that – all things being equal – killing a sentient fetus is wrong, whereas killing a non-sentient fetus is not.

Some animal advocates have attempted to avoid this conclusion by pointing out that abortion presents a unique moral issue because it entails balancing conflicting interests. While it is true that the sentient fetus has a right to life, it is also true that the mother has a right to make decisions regarding her own body. When faced with such a conflict, we can either let the mother decide whether to have an abortion or let the state decide which interest should prevail. Regarding the latter, the state might decide that the interests of the fetus (almost) always trump the interests of the mother, that the interests of the mother (almost) always trump the interests of the fetus, or that the conflicting interests should be balanced differently depending on whether the fetus is sentient or viable. Once the issue is framed in this manner, animal advocates have argued that their commitment to animal rights does not commit them to solving these conflicts in any particular way.

This is problematic because animal advocates are not only committed to the notion that animals have interests worthy of legal protection, but also to the idea that only a few fundamental human interests should trump animal rights. Many people, for example, enjoy deer hunting because it is a family tradition.  In such cases there is a clear conflict between the hunted animal’s interests in life and the hunter’s interest in maintaining his family’s tradition. Most animal advocates would conclude that the animal’s interest in life trumps the hunter’s interests. Similar issues arise in the context of animal sacrifice for religious reasons. Most animal advocates – including my co-blogger David – have suggested (here and here) that the sacrificed animal’s interests should trump the individual’s right to practice animal sacrifice pursuant to his or her religious beliefs.

If animal advocates believe that the interests of animals stem from their sentience and that such interests are sufficiently important to trump a person’s interest in maintaining his family traditions or practicing his religion, can they claim that such beliefs do not commit them to solving the conflicts that arise in abortion cases in any particular way?

Suppose, for example, that a woman decides to abort a sentient fetus so that she can fit into a new dress. If religious considerations and family traditions do not trump a sentient animal’s right to life, what interests may the mother invoke in order to trump the vital interests of a sentient fetus? At the very least, it would seem that an interest to fit into a new dress will not do.  It could be argued that saving the life of the mother may justify killing the fetus. It would seem, however, that few other interests would justify engaging in such a course of action. Can animal advocates hold otherwise without calling into question the principles that undergird their commitment to animal rights?  

Luis Chiesa

3 Responses

  1. Being a Feminist and an Animal Right’s defender I have come across authors such as Carol J Adams, who’s work I admire, and who is also Pro-Life.
    Personally I do not subscribe to all she writes as I am pro-choice, and I will explain why:
    I agree that animals, Human on non-Human animals have a right to live free from harm – sentient animals. However, these animals – from mice to elephants – are independent, they have always existed without our help and will continue doing so long after we’re gone.
    Babies, on the other hand, are at the mercy of their parents – mostly of the mother who carried the baby for 9 months, will give birth and feed the baby (obviously nowadays you can feed a baby artificially with powdered milk, but it won’t safeguard the child from future diseases or build the immune system the way breast milk does). This makes it a personal choice when it is the person who is pregnant that will be responsible for this vulnerable life.
    One can argue that adoption is always an option but… really? 3 to 5-year long waiting lists in which the babies grow up in god-knows-which awful conditions? All for the sake of existing?
    Animal Rights’ defenders will defend that any sentient animal should have a quality of life – even if that means us not interacting with them in their natural habitats – a Zoo, we will argue, is not quality of life for an animal, in the same way an adoption center or a different foster home every 3 months is not.

    I very much doubt someone would be so sick as to have a painful and traumatizing abortion for the sake of fitting into a party dress, and if someone ever did then they should have psychological assistant as they are not very right-minded (not because they want an abortion but because the whole scenario indicates something’s wrong in that person’s brain, the same way that if someone refuses to eat for a month to be skinny they need psychological support)

    Another thing I must add, if the previous explanation did not suffice (which it does to me), is that it has not yet been proven that a fetus is sentient in the first months of gestation.

    I would more easily understand your point if you said “Catholic Animal Right’s Defenders” as opposed to any AR activists. Even so, I see many question marks in that statement.


  2. sorry, *or and not *on (3rd paragraph)

  3. Some animal rights advocates hold that – if an animal would suffer absolutely no pain – it would be permissible to kill such an animal. (Ingrid Newkirk from PeTA said “If I only could have one thing, it would be to end suffering.”)
    They would also agree with Francione that while the animal is alive it should not only be free from torture, but also from being treated as property. In reality, however, they are forced to be vegans because it is effectively impossible to have meat that was not produced through torturing or propertyzing the animal.
    These advocates can easily believe that animals should have rights while a fetus should not. According to them, there is nothing wrong will killing a sentient being; only hurting one.
    Even those who hold that animals should not even be killed might hold that if an animal has a very low level of sentience – like a goldfish, or a fetus – one may kill it, especially if the reason behind it is not trivial (although not torture it). Ending a pregnancy, as the earlier post noted, is never done for trivial reasons.
    In short, many, although not all, animal rights advocates can consistently hold that abortion should be permitted.

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