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.