Abortion and Other Animals

A conservative majority on the Supreme Court is firmly in place. As Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance (more as cultural symbol than as practical reality), it is useful to reflect on the assumptions embedded in pro-life arguments. They are more important than ever. 

My goal is to think about the relationship between a common pro-life position and speciesism. Speciesism is the view that the species membership of an entity is by itself a morally significant trait or property; thus nonhuman animals are unimportant or less important than humans simply because they are not humans. 

I believe that reflecting on this relationship shows that prominent pro-life arguments rest on speciesist or theocratic assumptions. 

My colleague highlights a key issue for the abortion debate in an article from 2017: 

As a liberal democracy founded on liberty of conscience, the United States is committed to neither promoting nor hindering any particular religious cause. This commitment restricts the kinds of reasons that we can offer when proposing a piece of legislation that requires another citizen to behave in a certain way, or prevents her from behaving as she chooses. We are committed to offering the kind of justification that she is in a position to accept – that is, one that does not presuppose (or suppress) any particular set of religious convictions.

The idea is that the political pro-life position (that is, the view that pretty much no one should be permitted to have an abortion) requires a religious presupposition. According to my colleague, it is that “there is such a thing as a soul, created by God, and that it joins with human genetic material at the moment of conception.” 

There is room for nuance depending on the specifics of the pro-life position, but the general point stands. Pro-life positions include substantive claims about the moral status of a fetus. What justifies these claims? In a liberal democracy the justification must be fundamentally secular. Yet pro-life people reference religious justifications, which are not of the kind that should enter into political discourse. 

The question now becomes whether it is possible to provide a secular justification for a pro-life position of some kind. I will not take a position on that here. Instead I want to make a point about a particular type of move that pro-life advocates often make when attempting to answer the question.  

The move is best encapsulated in the implicit logic of so-called “heartbeat” bills. One passed in my home state of Missouri in 2019. These bills make abortion illegal after the fetus has a detectable heartbeat. They give the pro-life position something of a secular or scientific facade. 

The animating idea is seemingly that a heartbeat is a morally significant property of an entity. More specifically, the assumption is that a heartbeat is a sufficient condition for moral status or patiency. 

If this is the assumption, there is a very obvious problem. Don’t chickens have heartbeats? Cows? Pigs? If one’s pro-life position is based on the view that it is wrong to kill entities with heartbeats, it would also be wrong to kill the tens of billions of nonhuman animals we effectively torture and kill each year. In other words, the logic of the heartbeat bills would imply a radical political veganism. And it is one that should be pursued with equal conviction to the pro-life policies (maybe even more, considering the mind-bendingly massive scope of destruction in factory farms). The movement should demand legal enforcement of universal veganism. 

Of course, there are few if any pro-life people who would bite this bullet. Surely there are distinctions to be made. Let us consider a few options. 

First, someone might object that the heartbeat itself is not morally significant but it is indicative of morally significant traits like consciousness or sentience. At the level of moral philosophy, this is slightly more plausible, since it is unlikely that a heartbeat matters in itself. But there are two massive problems. First, it is simply wrong that the emergence of a fetus heartbeat is indicative of consciousness or sentience. But second, even if it were, all the chickens, cows, and pigs are conscious and sentient. Or we have just as strong a reason to think farm animals are conscious and sentient as we do for human fetuses. So the pro-life position and veganism would remain tightly linked. 

Second, someone could say that what matters are human heartbeats. Chicken heartbeats are morally irrelevant. On this view, it is actually the case that heartbeats and other traits, like consciousness and sentience, are irrelevant. All that matters is species membership. End of story. It is an all too common view. It is, unfortunately, speciesist. From the perspective of most moral philosophy, the assumption should be rejected. It is a secular assumption, but if the pro-life position is based on it, the position would fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.  

There is more to say here. Much of the abortion debate hinges on the concept of personhood. Persons have a special set of traits that earn them membership in the moral community. In principle, persons can be humans or nonhumans, and thus the concept is not explicitly speciesist. 

This issue isn’t really my concern. But a similar dilemma crops up for many ‘relevant traits’ approaches to moral standing and personhood. The earlier you want to call a fetus a person and, accordingly, the stronger your pro-life position becomes, the wider variety of farm animals would be counted as persons too. In other words, the more you want to justify killing nonhuman animals, the harder it becomes to maintain a nonspeciesist pro-life position. Eventually you’ll become pro-choice. 

The same points might extend to other secular attempts to motivate the claim that abortion is immoral. For instance, if we think that the default moral position is that abortion is immoral (and we include the dubious further step that it should be illegal), the same can be said about the killing of nonhuman animals. 

The third version of the assumption is most common in politics. It is the theocratic assumption: the fetus has a soul implanted by God. One’s speciesism therefore gets a divine endorsement (though whether other animals have souls—and if so, what type—is theologically tricky). Here, deferring to my colleague, the assumption should be rejected on the principles of a liberal democracy. 

In the end, the mainstream pro-life arguments fit one of three descriptions:

  1. The secular foundation for the pro-life position implies a radical political veganism.
  2. The secular foundation for the pro-life position is transparently speciesist. 
  3. There is no secular foundation and the pro-life position is based on theocratic assumptions, which amount to the rejection of the principles of liberal democracy.

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