Abortion and animal liberation

Par David Olivier Whittier

This text was published in French 1994 in the issue n°9 of the Cahiers antispécistes (1994). Translation by the author.

Read time: 8 min.

The issue of abortion has already been discussed in this journal1 by Carol Adams, in an article on feminism and animal liberation. However, we are still often asked by both opponents and supporters of the pro-choice position where we stand on this issue. The former generally seem to hope, and the latter to fear, that we oppose abortion, probably because vegetarianism is frequently associated with an idea of a “respect for all life” and “moral” asceticism (in the anti-sexual sense that the word is given).

The idea that one must necessarily hold an extreme, and in practice untenable, position of “respect for all life” if one respects the lives of the cows and chickens that everyone kills for hardly any reason at all, itself reflects a profoundly speciesist view. I will nevertheless take the issue seriously, and develop some thoughts.

Why I am for the freedom of abortion

I will first explain my position before returning to the relationship with animal liberation.

I do not respect the life of, for example, plants. This is not out of contempt for them, but because I do not believe that they are sentient, that is that they feel what happens to them2. If they feel neither pleasure in living, nor pain in being cut down or dug up, nor regret at having to die, I see no reason not to use them as I please, and in particular, not to eat them.

This example of plants shows the difference between respecting life in itself (the unconscious phenomenon of development and reproduction) and respecting sentient life, that is, taking into account the interests of beings that have interests to respect.

It is practically certain that the human embryo3 is not sentient at least during the first 18 weeks of pregnancy (out of 38), due to the absence, and then the immaturity, of its nervous system. The newborn baby is sentient, so sentience appears at some point during the second half of pregnancy. Before that, the being in question, experiencing neither pleasure nor suffering, fear nor hope, is no more morally significant than a blade of grass or a stone.

One may answer that it is a future sentient being, that one should respect its potential life; and ask me, for example: “What about you, would you have liked your mother to abort you?”

The idea that I might not exist may be unpleasant (one does not like to think too much about one's contingency), but it is no more unpleasant if I imagine this non-existence being the result of abortion than contraception, my parents' abstinence or their failing to meet at all. The only thing that is determined after a being is conceived but not before is its genetic endowment; but I don't see how that makes the unsentient organism, devoid of history and projects but with a particular genetic code, me, any more than I would consider an embryo cloned from my body or an identical twin brother whose existence I only heard of today to be me4.

Abortion during the first 18 weeks after fertilisation, a period when the embryo is surely not sentient, is akin to a form of delayed contraception. The choice of whether to have an abortion is not trivial, since it determines the existence or not of a future sentient being; but this is the same as contraception or the absence of potentially fertile sexual relations. I think that in addition to the desire to have a child or not, the happiness that the child could expect on the one hand, and the human world overpopulation on the other, should be taken into account in this decision. But that's another discussion; in any case, one does not normally force someone to have a child, and I don't see why one should do it more for a woman who wants an abortion than for a priest who has chosen celibacy.

If a woman wishes to have an abortion, then I think she should be able to have it without restriction, at least up to 18 weeks after fertilisation; and, given social realities, every effort should be made to make it easy, and free at least where the cost would be a hindrance5.

Opponents of abortion are often presented with the sole argument of a woman's freedom. This cannot suffice if one does not add, as I have done, that the embryo itself has no interests. Without this clarification, it is an empty argument, just like the “choice to eat meat” that is opposed to us when we put forward the interests of animals. And the problem does arise in the case of late abortion when in the second half of pregnancy the foetus has acquired sentience and with it at least an interest not to suffer. Ideally, the interests of the mother and the foetus should be taken into account equally in this case. I cannot take such a clear-cut theoretical position for a late abortion as in the first period of pregnancy when the embryo is not sentient; without going into detail, however, and given the rather sketchy nature of the interests of the foetus, I think that in practice it is still best to leave the decision to the woman concerned6.

What could be done in any case in the interests of the older foetus is to ensure that it does not suffer if aborted. The speciesist blinkers that are generally worn by both sides lead to arguments about the absurd question of whether the embryo is or is not a human being. Depending on the answer, its life will be declared sacred, or on the contrary, devoid of any moral importance. Both sides fail to take into account what in my view is the only thing important, namely the actual interests of the beings who have them, and in particular the eventual interest of the embryo not to suffer. I don't know enough about abortion techniques to say more, but I can see how it might be a concern of animal liberation that the interests of late-term aborted human foetuses, who are animals too, should be weighed on the same scales. (Easy access to early abortion also reduces the number of late-term abortions, which are additionally more painful for the woman).

Abortion and animal liberation

The anti-abortion position is most often based on the great importance, inviolability and sacrality given to the human embryo simply because of its species. What opponents of abortion want to protect is human life, regardless of its sentience. This is the exact opposite of the animal liberation position.

As Carol Adams7 puts it:

Perhaps nowhere is speciesism more pronounced than in the protest over the fate of a human conceptus, while the sentience of other animals is declared morally irrelevant because they are not human. Some abortion opponents define morally relevant life so broadly that it includes the newly fertilised egg, but at the same time so narrowly that adult animals with well-developed nervous systems and social sensitivities are excluded.

Opponents of abortion attribute great importance to fertilisation, which fixes the genetic identity of the being. Thus, even traditionalist Catholics, who condemn contraception, do not call it murder, unlike abortion. For the opponents of abortion, the essence of a being seems to lie in its genetic identity. This idea, which I consider absurd – for if our genome determines us, it is in the same way as any environmental factor, and “innate” has no different status from “acquired” – is central to racism, sexism and speciesism. That doesn't make someone who holds such an idea racist, sexist or speciesist; but animal liberation can more easily do without it than accommodate it.

It cannot be denied that there are people who oppose both abortion and the exploitation of animals by humans. However, their position appears to run counter to the logic of animal liberation.

1. «Anima, animus, animal», in the Cahiers antispécistes n°3 (1992).

2. Arguments in favour of the non-sentience of plants can be found in Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, Chapter 6, and in Yves Bonnardel's article, «Quelques réflexions au sujet de la sensibilité que certains attribuent aux plantes», in the Cahiers antispécistes n°5 (1992).

3. A developing animal is called an embryo between conception and birth, especially at the beginning of gestation (the first three months in humans), and a foetus once it has begun to show a recognisable general morphology (head, legs, etc.).

4. True twins are a problem for those who consider the embryo to be a human individual starting at fertilisation. It is literally not an individual at this stage, since it is a few days later that the division from which the two future twins originate takes place. Potentially, this embryo could even be divided ad infinitum; if abortion were murder because of this potential, it would be an infinite number of murders, which seems a bit absurd.

5. French law only allows abortion during the first ten weeks. This restriction is absurd and, added to others, often has serious consequences. Other countries allow much later abortions.

6. It can be argued that a being who is not aware of his existence over time may have an interest in not suffering, but not in remaining alive. This is the position of Peter Singer, in Animal Liberation, Chapter 1, and more fully developed in Practical Ethics (2nd Edition, 1993). See also in this issue of the Cahiers antispécistes Karin Karcher's article, «Les animaux, la mort et l'acte de tuer», and the conference by Peter Singer, «L'éthique appliquée». My own position is identical to Singer's in practice, while based on a different theoretical point of view (hedonistic utilitarianism).

7. «Anima, animus, animal»; translated from French.