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