When To Compromise on Abortion and Animal Rights

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss the Oklahoma bill, vetoed on May 20th by Governor Mary Fallin, that would have banned all abortion and instituted criminal penalties on doctors who performed them.  I explored the thinking behind the bill in terms of a desire to be authentic to the true position of the pro-life movement rather than to compromise their vision in an effort to attract support (whether judicial or popular) for more modest legislation that fails to reflect or positive betrays core commitments of the pro-life movement.  As one example, quite a few states have passed abortion bans starting after 20 weeks pregnancy, when fetuses are supposedly capable of feeling pain (although medical doctors dispute this conclusion about sentience).  Placing a prohibition at 20 weeks implicitly conveys the message that later abortions are worse than earlier abortions and that, correspondingly, whatever it is that happens at conception does not vest the same level of moral status in an entity (a zygote, an embryo, or later, a fetus) than the development process that precedes the 20-week mark.  By contrast, a full ban on all abortions (including, it seemed--based on the criminal provision--those that would save the life of the mother) makes clear that all zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are equal from the moment of fertilization.

In my column, I examine both why anti-abortion advocates might settle for compromise measures and why they might, as they did in the Oklahoma law, choose to be fully faithful to their views on the issue.  Here I would like to extend that discussion to the topic of animal rights and the sorts of compromise measures that are even more common in the animal protection area than in the abortion rights area.

First, I'll say that my general reaction to "compromise" measures in the animal rights area is to find them not only inadequate but positively counterproductive and disturbing.  How can I take this position when I can see the value in anti-abortion compromise measures?  My answer is not, as some might suspect, that I am pro-choice on abortion and therefore perhaps less critical of those who would compromise a vision with which I strongly disagree (though I cannot rule out completely the possibility that these sympathies play a role).

One answer I have is that the measures taken in response to animal advocacy are generally so modest as to be--in my mind--virtually worthless.  A typical piece of such legislation requires that by some date named in the future, animals set to be slaughtered will have to be kept in slightly larger cages (whether pigs, veal calves, or laying hens).  People who visit the supposedly more "humane" farms consistently find themselves witnessing hideous cruelty, animals choking on ammonia, and more. Does this mean that a more humane setting for farmed animals is impossible?  Of course not.  But what is asked of animal breeders, captors, and slaughterers is very minimal (and perhaps must be very minimal to be economically and thus politically viable, consistent with keeping animal products demand at the height that it currently occupies).  Those who support the production of animal products (both the consumers who repeatedly demand obscene quantities of it and the producers who wish to fill that demand without cutting into costs) are far stronger and more numerous than those who support the practice of abortion.  As a result, abortion restrictions--though at odds with the ideals of the pro-life movement--create true obstacles for those seeking to obtain or to perform abortions and, as a result, likely reduce the number of abortions that people have.

So what kind of animal welfare measure might I support, despite the fact that it would necessarily regulate rather than abolish the practice of animal exploitation and slaughter?  At this point, I am not certain.  I think I would strongly support the removal of subsidies to the animal product industries. Removing subsidies (by analogy to refusing government support for abortion) would probably help reduce demand, because the artificially low prices currently enjoyed by consumers of animal products likely make a difference in the quantity of animal products that shoppers feel free to put in their carts at the market.  I might also support legislation that would prohibit killing an animal under the age of one.  Such legislation, of course, would directly parallel the 20-week abortion restrictions in some states, though from the opposite direction.  The reason I might support such legislation is that even though I do not believe that baby animals are worthier of rights (such as the right not to be branded, mutilated, separated from one's family, and stabbed in the throat) than adults, I think that a law like this would create a major obstacle for animal industries, since part of their profit comes from the rapid growth of animals so that most of them may be slaughtered when they are still babies and adolescents.  Pressing for such a law, moreover, could have the beneficial effect of alerting consumers to the fact that the animals whose flesh and secretions they consume are typically put to death (in a most inhumane fashion) when they are still babies and children.  Broiler chickens, for instance, are under two months old when slaughtered and often utter the familiar baby chick sounds because they are still babies.

Generally, though, I suspect that precisely because some of these more ambitious animal protection measures might actually be effective in reducing demand for animal products, they would be unlikely to pass a legislature typically beholden to animal industries.  Instead, my view of how we should proceed in moving us closer to a vegan world is to spread the word about veganism, about how beautiful it is to spare the animals whose lives we never had the right to take in the first place, how fantastically delicious and healthy the food is, and how much better for our environment a plant-based diet truly is.  With such education, new vegans are born and they then become sources of enlightenment about the mess that animal consumption has created for animals, our health, and the planet.  To say this differently, I don't think the law is ready to do much directly to help support a more vegan world, but I believe consumers are.  To read more about the surprising connections and disconnections between the anti-abortion movement and the pro-animal-rights movement, check out Beating Hearts:  Abortion and Animal Rights, by Mike Dorf and me.