Abortion, Animal Rights, and Moral Consistency

Ok, I can’t take it any more. I’m supposed to be working on a paper but the recent flood of articles regarding Planned Parenthood and abortions are making me loco–but not for the reasons you might think. I’m not going argue for a position regarding abortion but I just want to point a few things out in regards to how a position on the abortion issue “bears” on animals rights if there is going to be a modicum of concern given to moral consistency.

Before continuing I just want to emphasize that this article isn’t intended to engage with all of the philosophical literature on abortion–that would require a book or more. The intent is to look at some the most common reasons given for opposing abortion and how they relate to animal rights if moral consistency has any value. At the end I’ll briefly
“flip it and reverse it” and suggest how a position on animal rights bears on abortion.

The Basic Argument
One of the most common arguments against abortion is that “it is murder.” The argument goes something like this:

P1. Abortion is killing an innocent person.
P2. Killing an innocent person is murder.
P3. Murder is wrong.
C.  Therefore abortion is wrong (via transitivity).

Of course the argument only works if you accept P1 which is in fact where the real debate is. Is a fetus a person? And if so, what attributes confer personhood?

Often what you’ll hear is that the fetus is a person because they are human and since everyone agrees it’s wrong to kill innocent humans, abortion is also wrong. But being human is simply a biological category. What we want to know is what attributes the fetus has that makes its interests worthy of moral consideration. Saying “because it’s human” only redescribes what we already know. Nobody is doubting that the fetus is trivially biologically human. We still need an answer to the question “what morally relevant attribute do human fetuses have that makes it so it’s wrong to kill them?”

Taking a step back, this is one of my favorite things about philosophy. We ask questions for which the answer seems so obvious that no reasonable person would even think to ask the question in the first place, yet once we ask the question the answer doesn’t seem so obvious after all. In this case, the general question is “why is it wrong to kill humans?”. As should be clear now, answering “because they are human” is not very satisfying.  Duh! We know that! Surely, there must be something about humans that makes it so it’s wrong to kill them. What is it?

One popular answer is “rationality”. Ok, suppose we accept that. Is a fetus rational? Nope. Are some adult mammals rational? Yes (maybe they can’t do upper division math but they have a minimal rationality that we recognize in human children). So, if rationality is truly the standard for moral consideration of interests, it seems like we should have less of a problem with abortion than we do with killing pigs and experimenting on primates. Pigs and other adult mammals are orders of magnitude more rational that a fetus–which isn’t even rational–and at least as rational as young children.

The obvious reply is that a fetus is potentially rational. It will one day be rational and since rationality is what makes it so we shouldn’t kill humans, we shouldn’t kill the fetus. One problem with this reply is that it’s not clear how potential properties confer current rights. If I will potentially be a landlord does that mean I should get all the rights a landlord has now? Does the fetus that will one day be a university student get all the rights of a university student now? We typically don’t give children full rights of adulthood until they have the capacities to exercise those rights. How do you get rights for capacities you don’t currently have? That seems a bit odd.

But let’s grant that that you can somehow get rights based on your potential attributes, in this case rationality. Is rationality really the measure of moral consideration? Consider: a child poet and an adult logician are both about to die and you can only save one. Is it so clear that you should save the logician? Although rationality seems to play some role in whether we confer moral consideration, it doesn’t seem to be the most important consideration. If it were, we should give more moral consideration to adult mammals than fetuses since adult mammals are more rational.

And, even if we grant that a fetus can have rights in virtue of a potential attribute, surely we should also take into account rights that derive from that same actual attribute.  In other words, if we want to say that a fetus has certain moral rights in virtue of its potential rationality, consistency demands that we also say that, in so far as living animals are actually rational, they have rights commensurate with their actual rationality.  It would be a strange moral theory that confers greater moral status commensurate with potential attributes than actual attributes.

You can run this same argument for potential and actual desires (to live). Although an animal might not be able to express it verbally, it’s reasonable to infer from its behavior that it would rather live than die. Does a fetus have desires? Nope. Ok, so we can go the potential or future desires route but accepting this would seem to require us to also accept the actual desires of animals not to be killed.

OK, so a fetus isn’t rational and maybe rationality isn’t all there is to having moral status. Maybe the capacity to feel pain is what confers moral consideration? At least in the early stages of development, a fetus is incapable of feeling pain since it has no central nervous system. Animals, on the other hand, do feel pain, so, if pain is the marker of moral consideration, we should give moral consideration to living animals rather than to fetuses. Again we can appeal to potential pain (?) if this even makes sense. Even if we allow it, it seems as though the actual pain of animals should be weighed at least as heavily as the potential pain of a fetus that doesn’t ever live to feel that pain–if that even makes sense.

But a fetus has a beating heart!!!”  Perhaps after 6 weeks this is true. But again, suppose we accept that having a beating heart is what confers moral status and make termination impermissible. Animals  have beating hearts too and so too must have moral status and termination of their life is also impermissible.


Another possible answer is that it’s wrong to kill a fetus because it has human DNA. First of all, this criteria is question-begging. We already know that the human fetus has human DNA. What we want to know is why merely having human DNA confers moral status. My fingernail clippings have human DNA. Do they have moral status? Maybe it’s replicating human DNA that has moral status. But why? The various organs in my body all have replicating DNA, do those cells have moral status? That seems weird.

Life Begins at Conception
If we charitably employ the term “life” this is trivially true in a biological sense but of course mere descriptive biological facts don’t necessarily imply moral conclusions. Typically, for something to be considered alive in a full sense we’d think some degree of self-sufficiency would come into play. Anyhow, is “being alive” all that’s required for moral consideration of interests? If that’s the case, all animals should also have their relevant interests considered in proportion to how alive they are.

“No! No! It’s different because it’s human life.” Ok, fine. Tell me again what morally relevant attribute a human fetus has that other creatures don’t have. And saying “because it’s human” again and again doesn’t answer the question. It merely redescribes the biological facts but says nothing of the moral facts. We need an answer to the question, “what morally relevant attribute do human fetuses have that living adult animals don’t have?”

Life Begins at Conception and In Vitro Fertilization
Although not directly linked to the issue of animal rights, one of the most glaring inconsistencies with the anti-abortion movement is their silence on in vitro fertilization.  With most in vitro fertilization usually 8 eggs are fertilized. Do you think that every couple that engages in in vitro fertilization uses all 8? Nope. Maybe they’ll use two…(unless you’re Octo-mom).

Now, if those that argue that moral life begins at conception take their position seriously they should be protesting in vitro clinics rather than abortion clinics. For each person they prevent from going through with the fertilization procedure they save 6 or 7 human “lives” rather than a measly single life at an abortion clinic.

The reason why they would never do this is because politically their cause would fail and it wouldn’t surprise me if at least some people who oppose abortion have used in vitro. Nothing like your own needs and desires to motivate a special pleading argument or initiate motivated reasoning.

To be fair, some in vitro clinics have gotten around this “inconvenient truth” by freezing whatever embryos aren’t used. “Hey, we never terminated them, we just froze them forever”–or (more realistically) at least until we forget about it. Anyone with any intellectual honestly should see what a cop-out this is.

The Bottom Line
When we talk about rights we usually think of rights in terms of particular capacities. We don’t give children the right to vote or to drive because we don’t think they have the relevant capacities. When they develop those capacities they gain the relevant rights. Similarly, we don’t give men the same reproductive rights as women because biologically they couldn’t exercise these rights. If this is our model of rights (i.e., capacities) then it seems odd to confer rights to something without any relevant capacities. We can of course say that it has the capacity to live but this doesn’t distinguish it from any other living thing and so consistency requires either we reject the argument or we confer those same rights on those other living things. 

And so, if anti-abortions were sincere in their arguments consistency demands that they just as sincere in their advocacy and protection of animal rights. In short, there should be no meat-eating anti-abortionists.

[Philosophers note: the capacities theory of rights isn’t the only theory of rights.]

Flip it and Reverse It
Notice that the consistency requirement works the other way too. If you have strong views against killing animals yet are pro-choice, your views may be inconsistent depending on how you defend your position on animal rights and the stage in a fetuses development up to which you think abortion is permissible.  If you think abortion is permissible at a stage in its development where it has some of the attributes that are shared by living animals, then your position is likely to be inconsistent. Or if you think it’s just wrong to terminate an animal’s life prematurely for any reason then your case for the permissibility of abortion is paper-thin if moral consistency matters–especially if you are OK with late term abortions.

One other puzzle that pro-choice advocates have to deal with is to come up with a morally relevant criteria that distinguishes a late-stage fetus in the womb and a new-born infant. Well, let me qualify that. The distinction has to be made so long as the pro-choice advocate thinks it’s wrong to terminate a healthy new-born but permissible to terminate a 3rd trimester fetus. What is the morally relevant attribute that the new-born has that the fetus doesn’t have? 

And in the interest of fairness, animal rights proponents often point to the gruesomeness of killing animals at the factory level. If gruesomeness is a morally relevant property (which, in my view, is very plausible) late-term abortions are also gruesome and so this gruesomeness should inform our position. To get an idea of what late-term abortions are like, I suggest watching the documentary Lake of Fire which is probably one the best documentaries on the abortion debate.

7 thoughts on “Abortion, Animal Rights, and Moral Consistency

  1. You've used the abortion debate as an example in more then one post and I fear you might be misunderstanding the debate. Whether a fetus is or is not a person is not a really what people are debating, given that drawing any hard and fast distinction about life begins could be seen as arbitrary or imprecise. In fact, pro-choice advocates can grant that premise and still argue that it is ethically permissible to obtain an abortion (See: Judith Jarvis Thomson's Defense of Abortion, Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. N. 1. 1971).Even if the fetus is a human being, it does not necessarily follow that a woman has a moral obligation to carry it for nine months and risk her life in child birth. She asks the reader to consider the possibility of being kidnapped and waking up attached to an unconscious violinist. He needs to remain fused to you for nine months to save his life. It would be great if you did decide to remain bed ridden for nine months – but it can hardly be called a moral obligation. Ultimately, this is a discussion about controlling women's bodies, not about what constitutes personhood. By failing to recognize how gender informs and motivates discussions about abortion, you fail to identify the pertinent arguments. Not to mention, incorrectly identify moments of moral inconsistency. But what I really find problematic about this post is that it encapsulates so much of the historical problems in philosophy – that it written by someone who is in a privileged position, and therefore doesn't take into account how gender, race, orientation, etc.


  2. Waking up attached to someone is hardly comparable to something that grows within you. And being pregnant isn't the same as being bed ridden for 9 months. This comparison is completely irrational.


  3. Hi, Thank you for taking the time to post a comment. Regarding your first point, I make clear at the beginning of the post that I'm writing about arguments laypeople make–not philosophers (I am familiar with the canonical philosophical literature on abortion, but that's not what this post was about). Nevertheless, thank you for bringing it up as other readers can look it up if they're interested.I'm not quite sure what your second point is exactly, however, I do share your concern that philosophy (like some other disciplines) is dominated by white males and could do with a more diverse faculty (for a variety of important reasons). That said, I don't see how one's gender, race, orientation bears on their ability to evaluate arguments. It *does* matter when particular experiences are relevant data to a philosophical problem but once those facts are on the table, I don't see how gender, sex, or race give one particular insight into how they ought to be weighted. In short, I find it hard to believe that a particular race, gender, or sex (etc) has privileged access to the *principles* of justice, morality, etc.


  4. Nobody is saying they're descriptively the same. The issue is whether they are *morally* different. If they are, anyone who objects to the analogy needs to point to the morally relevant features that differ between cases. Merely asserting they are different doesn't provide the information required to make the case. There may very well be important moral differences but you have so far failed to provide them.


  5. I enjoyed your paper above. This may be of interest, especially since there are some overlapping points:Abortion and Animal Rights: Does Either Topic Lead to the Other?Should people who believe in animal rights think that abortion is wrong? Should pro-lifers accept animal rights? If you think it’s wrong to kill fetuses to end pregnancies, should you also think it’s wrong to kill animals to, say, eat them? If you, say, oppose animal research, should you also oppose abortion?Some argue ‘yes’ and others argue ‘no’ to either or both sets of questions. The correct answer, however, seems to be, ‘it depends’: it depends on why someone accepts animal rights, and why someone thinks abortion is wrong: it depends on their reasons.. . .https://whatswrongcvsp.com/2016/07/16/whats-wrong-with-linking-abortion-and-animal-rights/https://whatswrongcvsp.com/2016/07/16/whats-wrong-with-linking-abortion-and-animal-rights/


  6. I enjoyed your paper above. This may be of interest, especially since there are some overlapping points:Abortion and Animal Rights: Does Either Topic Lead to the Other?Should people who believe in animal rights think that abortion is wrong? Should pro-lifers accept animal rights? If you think it’s wrong to kill fetuses to end pregnancies, should you also think it’s wrong to kill animals to, say, eat them? If you, say, oppose animal research, should you also oppose abortion?Some argue ‘yes’ and others argue ‘no’ to either or both sets of questions. The correct answer, however, seems to be, ‘it depends’: it depends on why someone accepts animal rights, and why someone thinks abortion is wrong: it depends on their reasons.. . .https://whatswrongcvsp.com/2016/07/16/whats-wrong-with-linking-abortion-and-animal-rights/https://whatswrongcvsp.com/2016/07/16/whats-wrong-with-linking-abortion-and-animal-rights/


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