BU Law Review Symposium on “Beating Hearts”

David Cassuto

Sherry Colb & Michael Dorf’s book, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights is the subject of an online symposium by the Boston University Law Review.  You can find it here.  Full disclosure: I was one of the respondents.

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Babies and Pigs in Diapers

cute_baby_pig_in_diaper_button-p145519727683822193t5sj_400Nadya Suleman, the California mother of 14 children, has said in a recent news interview that she is considering adopting a pet pig and/or a small dog.  PETA is urging Ms. Suleman to refrain.  According to PETA, a representative of that organization sent Ms. Suleman an e-mail dated April 27, 2009 (this is a copy, PETA says):

We’re writing to you today after reading an interview in which you said that you would like to buy a pig and a dog for your children. In today’s uncertain economy—and with all the demands that come with raising 14 children—we urge you to reconsider adding two more dependents to your family. Like children, pigs and dogs are intelligent, social beings with complex needs. They require a lot of attention, space, and exercise as well as a huge financial commitment.

You also said that you would keep the pig outside because of “the smell.” Keeping a pig outside and making him or her a playmate for your children—who do not understand a pig’s many needs and will only pay attention to him or her when it suits them—is not an acceptable way to treat an intelligent animal such as this.

I generally find PETA’s ads distasteful.  I don’t like the organization’s use of sexualized images of women in its ad campaigns (about which Ann previously has blogged; see, e.g., here).  I do admit, though, that I agree with the big substance of this particular communication: having pets or children is a big responsibility.  But in reading the PETA’s letter, I had a somewhat negative reaction.  Many thoughts swirl in my head.

Apart from the letter’s breezy “Dear Nadya” (followed by a comma, not a colon — a peeve of mine), its public judgment — of what I think should be a private matter — bothered me the most.  Yes, yes, the personal is political, the political is personal, etc. etc.  But still, isn’t it for each person or family or household to decide whether to welcome a companion animal?  For many animal rights activists, I appreciate that the answer is a resounding, “No,” just as for many opponents of abortion, it shouldn’t be for each woman to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term.

I agree that having 14 children does not seem to be a smooth route to health, happiness or financial security.  Adding a pig or a dog wouldn’t make that route any smoother.  But in the end, I would leave it to Ms. Suleman to decide.

The PETA letter doesn’t mention concerns about animal hoarding (an indication of a real psychological problem).  But there persists a way (blogged here) in which  of Ms. Suleman is viewed as an abnormal “hoarder” — first of children and potentially now of animals, as well.

-Bridget Crawford

(H/T Amanda Ambrose)

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