Thursday, April 29, 2010

When Beliefs Follow Actions: Animal Rights Versus Abortion

By Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the new Nebraska law that, when it goes into effect, will prohibit abortions after twenty weeks.  The reason for the selection of twenty weeks is the belief that this is the point at which a fetus becomes capable of feeling pain, i.e., sentience.  My column takes up the question of what implications the sentience line in an abortion law might have for our thinking about animal rights.

In this post, I want to explore a different feature of commonality and contrast between those who support fetal rights and those who support animal rights:  the impact of exposing the otherwise-hidden violence involved.

I still remember seeing my first anti-abortion poster.  I was in college at the time, and I was spending a summer internship as a (nonprofessional) counselor at a rehabilitation center for mentally ill clients.  The building where I worked had many floors, and one floor was rented by an abortion clinic.

As a result, every morning as I entered the building, I passed a group of people holding up posters with full-color photographs of bloody, dead fetuses.  The fetuses in the pictures looked to be at or close to term, and I found the images very disturbing.  The people holding up the posters did not seem to recognize me from one day to the next, because they urged me not to kill my baby with the same passion each morning, as though I might be having daily abortions.

I had not, at that point, given much thought to the political issue of abortion, though I was aware of the existence of a controversy.  But the bloody, disturbing pictures stayed with me.  I ultimately learned more about abortion (including the fact that most occur far earlier in pregnancy than what was depicted in the photographs) and came to see the question as one of women's bodily integrity rather than one of fetal "non-personhood."  I nonetheless considered the moral issue a serious one.  Seeing the pictures held by anti-abortion protesters perhaps contributed to my perception.  I suspect that most women see such pictures or hear various arguments against abortion long before they are in a position to consider consuming such services themselves.

Contrast animal rights.  The largest number of animals subjected to mutilation, pain, terror, and a bloody and horrible death, are farmed animals, including birds such as chickens, turkeys, and ducks; mammals such as cows, sheep, and pigs; and fishes.  Yet most of us do not see pictures or films of their suffering -- if we see such images at all -- until we have been consuming their bodies and their secretions for many years.  This chronology -- eat them first, learn what happens to them later -- has a significant impact on people's thinking.

Many people do not think about their daily decision to eat the flesh, eggs, and breast milk of nonhuman animals as a choice with moral implications.  Indeed, many people do not think of it as a choice at all.  They have been eating these products as long as they can remember, so it just feels normal, natural, and unobjectionable.  They might have heard that some object to this practice on moral grounds, but they likely looked around and found that most people did not object and concluded that the objection must therefore be faulty in some way.

If you are engaging in a particular behavior every day (and if you are an average American, you are engaging in animal-flesh-and-secretion consumption at virtually every meal, a health disaster, incidentally), you perhaps noticed at some point during childhood and perhaps asked your parents about whether you were actually eating the body of what was once a live animal.  If you asked the question, your parents probably told you that yes, the chicken (or cow or pig) was alive once but that (a) the chicken had a good life and was taken good care of by a farmer; (b) the chicken was killed painlessly; (c) the chicken's purpose is to become our food; (d) you need to eat chickens to grow big and strong; or some variation on these false claims.

Significantly, you probably also were read stories at bedtime about happy "farm" animals enjoying their designated lot in life, before you were even old enough to read the books yourself.  Firmly ingrained in your consciousness, by adulthood, were thus the family of falsehoods:  farmed animals have a good life, and eating them and their eggs and milk is a harmless, necessary, and healthful activity.

In light of this early indoctrination, it would be an understatement to say that contrary and accurate images and messages about farmed animals and their lives would encounter powerful emotional resistance.

For those who oppose abortion, the task of reaching an audience is far simpler.  Children (particularly children of people who do not oppose abortion) neither participate in (nor have) abortions nor likely even hear much about them during childhood.  The first time they hear about abortion, they therefore are not emotionally invested in viewing it in a positive light.  Dislodging the view -- if one even holds the view -- that abortion (particularly later abortion, which corresponds to the pictures shown at protests) is innocuous is thus relatively easy.

To decide to oppose late abortion is not threatening to one's self-concept as a good person.  In fact, even if one may have already had an abortion or even two or three or four, no one considering what to think about the issue will have had a number of abortions even approaching the number of animal-flesh-and-secretion meals that one has already ingested by the time that moral reflection becomes possible.  It is accordingly much easier to condemn an action that one has never taken or that one has, at most, taken once or twice or even three or four times, than it is to condemn an action that one has taken and continues to take, every day, three or more times a day.

Changing hearts and minds about consuming animals (and, necessarily, about the validity of animals' interests in being left alone and not being harmed or killed) is thus more challenging than changing people's views about late abortions.  People may want to believe what they have always believed about abortion, but the more powerful psychological drive is the felt need to justify continuing to live as one has always lived -- off the deliberate and cruel mutilation and slaughter of feeling beings.

Understanding the power of this drive to justify one's ongoing behavior is critical to those who support animal rights and to those considering whether to embrace a new, healthier, and more ethical way of living -- the dissonance between what you do and what you believe will often drive you to believe the unbelievable.  Knowing this can make it possible to see the rationalizations for animal-eating for what they are.


Keith Ramsay said...

I bet the prohibition is after 20 weeks, not prior.

The response by certain opponents of abortion to the National Geographic special, "In the womb: Animals", seems to illustrate the effect you describe. They have said that the typical response to the film, to find the unborn animals appealing, illustrates the extent to which people have become desensitized to the fate of human fetuses.

A. said...

Sherry makes an excellent point about "the child who doesn't even know how to ask a question," to borrow from the story of the Paschal lamb...

But framing the issue as one where human health and animal dignity (using this term advisedly and hesitatingly for reasons of doubt regarding animal "self-overhearing.") converge may obfuscate a more difficult choice: Let's posit that eating three "Happy meals" (consider the role of the agro-industrial-marketing complex on our psychology) is absolutely terrible for your (and public) health, but that eating one serving of non-farmed Pacific salmon and another serving of low-fat organic goat's milk yogurt is, in fact, excellent for your health. I.e., let's assume that the MOST healthy diet is low amounts of animal products all taken from either the death of animals whose brains are relatively simple (fish, snails, squid, let's say) and from the MILK of free-range mammals such as responsibly raised goats and cows. The NEXT most healthy diet, let's assume is the "Chinese" diet that Sherry posted to, or, perhaps some similar diet heavy on legumes etc. The INTERESTING question becomes whether we can defend the marginal health benefits (and maybe enormous hedonic benefits) that we derive and extract from killing fish and invertebrates and from milking free-roaming goats and cows. I.e., would and should we be willing to SHORTEN our life spans and flatten our taste experiences to avoid causing pain and harm to fish, e.g.? If so, then how can we POSSIBLY justify injecting mice with vicious tumors, or performing experimental surgeries on pigs, say, in order to support substantial gains in the life sciences?

Gnash said...

I oppose any concept of either animal or fetal rights. It should be incumbent upon proponents of those rights to come up with arguments why we should take them seriously. And those arguments should be secular to have any relevance for laws, present or future, actual or proposed, that would ever be binding for the entire population.

Unknown said...

In response to Adam S. ...

I'm sorry, Adam, but your arguments can pretty much be summed up by one of Sherry's final comments -- "...the dissonance between what you do and what you believe will drive you to believe the unbelievable."

I refer specifically to:

(1) "...eating one serving of non-farmed Pacific salmon and another serving of low-fat organic goat's milk yogurt is, in fact, excellent for your health." This would be an example of rationalizing for taste's-sake. There is no need for humans to consume any animal parts or secretions. Excellent health is fully attainable, in fact superiorly attainable, without using animals.

(2) "...the death of animals whose brains are relatively simple (fish, snails, squid, let's say)..." Attributing hierarchy to animal intelligence, obviously using human "intelligence" as the base, is another way humans justify their continued exploitation of animals. Animals possess full intelligence relative to their environment. You, for example, could not survive as a fish, a snail, or a squid.

(3) " mammals such as responsibly raised goats and cows." The entire notion of "free-range" is just that, a notion. No matter the location, mother goats and cows are still repeatedly artificially inseminated in order to keep them lactating. The babies born to these goats and cows are still removed from their mothers almost immediately, causing trauma for both the mothers and the babies. The unwanted babies are shipped off to slaughter, or to veal production, an equally horrific short life for these youngsters. And when the production of milk declines, as it always will, the mother goats and cows are also sent to slaughter.

(4) "...the marginal health benefits...that we derive and extract from killing fish and invertebrates and from milking free-roaming goats and cows." See #1, 2, and 3.

(5) "...SHORTEN our life spans...." Not eating animals or their secretions does not in fact shorten human life spans. Quite the contrary. Vast amounts of data has been collected that empirically corroborates this fact.

(6) "...flatten our taste experiences...." If you compare the cuisine of the average person who consumes animals and their maternal and menstrual secretions, dairy and eggs, and the average cuisine of one who doesn't, the one who doesn't consume animals and their secretions has a far broader range of tastes and savory culinary experiences.

(7) " can we POSSIBLY justify injecting mice with vicious tumors, or performing experimental surgeries on pigs, say, in order to support substantial gains in the life sciences?" There is no justification for vivisection, the word for what you describe. The life sciences are stuck in a very antiquated and ineffective mode of searching for "substantial gains". Not only is exceedingly much research done on animals simply out of curiosity and/or to land big grants, it has been repeatedly proven how little research on animals has to do with outcomes relative to humans. It's also ironic how desperately the life sciences choose to cling to the paradigm of cure over the paradigm of prevention. If only the life sciences would embrace the truth of what's right in front of them -- where prevention comes first, plant-based food is the foundation.

A. said...

A few quick points pending some actual data to resolve the key empirical uncertainties dividing myself from Alex (recognizing of course that the question of default rules is thereby raised):

to say an animal is well-adapted is not to say that its cognition is such that it experiences pain, joy, fear, or any sense of memory or other form of self-overhearing. E.g., a coral has the "intelligence" to cope in a symboitic, stationary relationship and environment with various autotrophs, but how does that possibly speak to the question whether eating coral or using it as a soap and water delivery device in the shower is more like eating wheat or eating a chimpanzee alive?

Alex's notion of relative adaptation is a pure non-sequitur. Yes, Octopi are well adapted to their environments, and so are jellyfish, but as between those two invetebrates it's just silly to say there is no way to justify a PREFERENCE for eating the jellyfish over the Octopus. Now, you can argue that eating a jellyfish is still wrong regardless of the fact that it cannot think at all (not even a little bit), but then how can we eat anything? Because we need to in order to survive? Sure, but then we still find ourselves making decisions based upon intelligence, i should think, or else we should just give up and eat cows, no?

Similarly irrelevant is the fact that prevention is more effective and efficient than cure in medicine; we still get diseases EVENTUALLY and we still have to ask ourselves whether we want to impose enormous suffering on mice BEFORE we test the products on humans. Your ipse dixits and generalities don't get us out of that dilemma. Just saying that vivisection is wrong because you say so gets us nowhere and implies, actually that causing the death of a mouse is more bad than causing the rescue of a human is good. I would think there are very cogent reasons for limiting experimentation upon animals for, e.g. cosmetic products, while nevertheless thinking that we are COMPELLED to kill mice to save people.

mherzog said...

Here is a good video on animal rights:

Gnash said...


If it is wrong to eat any animal, why is it OK to eat plants? Are plants not living beings?

Unknown said...

Yes, Mherzog, is an excellent video.

Here are others:
-- "Earthlings". Scroll down, click on the Full Video icon, and you can view a low-resolution version of the entire film:
-- Humane Myth, about the reality behind feel-good slogans such as "happy meat", "free-range", "grass-fed", "organic", "local", etc.:
-- "Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry", about what really goes on in slaughterhouses despite USDA oversight:
-- "The Witness", about the use of fur:

Adam, and Bullfighter, it's hard to tell whether you are genuinely interested in the truth about the lifestyle we have been guided from infancy to consider normal. If so, there is a wealth of information out there. As this is not the forum to cite references for each statement, I encourage you to investigate.

A jumping off point, in addition to the above, could be reading "The China Study", which is teaming with citations. Part IV, "Why Haven't You Heard This Before?" in particular is a fascinating exposé of the lengths the meat, egg, and dairy industries go to protect their profits. Their influence extends well into legislation, education, medicine, research, pharmacology, even school lunches. Their ethics with respect to human health and the billions of animals who suffer excruciating lives and deaths are questionable at best. As recently as April 29th, the milk industry is trying to push legislation such that the word milk can only be used in reference to milk taken from cows. This is because there has been a significant rise in the purchase of plant-based milks such as soy, almond, rice, etc.

Regarding vivisection, there is also a wealth of information on the frequency with which animal outcomes have provided no, false, and even harmful correlates to human outcomes. There are much more viable alternative methods to test for human outcomes besides using healthy living humans. Here's an informative place to start, PCRM:

And only when the medical profession begins suggesting to humans that their first line of defense should be cutting out meat, dairy and eggs from their diets will your comments on prevention vs. cure not in themselves be ipse dixits. Without that control group, there isn't a legitimate way to compare -- or to discredit or dismiss.

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