Valuing Sentient Life, Not DNA

 by Sherry F. Colb

[Note to readers: The following is the text of remarks I recently made on the Think Like a Vegan podcast. If you prefer to listen rather than read, you can do so here or on the Think Like a Vegan feed on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher.]

When I first became vegan and told people about it, I ended up hearing many surprising questions. Some of the questions came from sincere curiosity, and I think some might have come from resistance. I remember not being vegan and wanting to come up with a question that would stump vegans and lead to the conclusion that I could continue to eat animals and their reproductive secretions. Regardless of why someone was asking a question, I tried to treat both the person and her question with respect. Getting angry, annoyed, or impatient in response to questions would surely turn people off veganism. If we are having a conversation about it, then change is possible.

The question I want to talk about today is some version of the following: If you believe that animals who are less intelligent and cognitively complex than humans deserve rights, then what about human embryos and fetuses? They too might have claims of right, and does that mean that an animal rights advocate should also favor embryonic and fetal rights? I have thought a lot about this question, in part because I have been pro-choice since I was old enough to have a position on the issue. If favoring veganism and animal rights as I do meant opposing abortion, I was confused about how to handle the cognitive dissonance. Were human embryos and chickens in the same boat?

After writing a chapter of one book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?, about the topic, I co-authored a whole book on the subject, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights. My sense is that before reading the book, many people would believe that the right analogy is between the embryo and the animal. They would then have to decide whether people should be free to kill both or neither. I knew of a couple of anti-abortion vegans, so maybe they were examples of consistency. On the other hand, most vegans I had encountered believed in the right to abortion, and most opponents of the right to abortion were uninterested in veganism. So I knew I would have to figure out for myself what the best resolution of any real or imagined conflict might be.

For some people, opposing abortion and opposing animal exploitation make sense together. They feel compassion for vulnerable living creatures and enact that compassion in their lives. They believe that both abortion and the consumption of animal products require people to turn their heads away from violence. One might, for instance, forget that abortion causes a death and think of it as an ordinary medical procedure. And one similarly might eat animals and just focus on what the food looks like on their plate. In both cases, anti-abortion animal rights activists might criticize those who camouflage something bloody as something ordinary. So I agree that there are ways of thinking about abortion and animal exploitation that make them seem like similarly immoral practices.

Yet I do not find the analogy between the embryo and the animal persuasive. Why? Well let’s look at things from the so-called pro-life perspective. When I think about morally troubling abortions, I immediately imagine those that happen late in pregnancy. And the signs that anti-abortion activists carry around at protests support that image. I honestly have never seen an anti-abortion poster with a picture of either a zygote, a morula, or a blastula, stages of embryonic development at which all cells are identical. But poster or no poster, those are the clumps of cells for which the U.S. anti-abortion movement supports forced pregnancy and birth. Indeed, some abortion restrictions have made late abortions much more likely by requiring waiting periods. A waiting period predictably keeps poor women saving up until they can finally miss work and travel many miles repeatedly or for an extended period of time. Anti-abortion activists want to burden all abortion and force women who do not want to build-a-baby in their bodies to do so anyway. And by saying that “life begins at conception,” such activists effectively lie about reproduction. They claim that fertilizing an egg completes the process, and women are just vessels with a “bun in the oven.” Fertilization, in reality, is just the beginning of a lengthy and trying process.

A Better Analogy

Forcing women to create children against their will, I came to understand, had far more in common with female animals forced to create children than it had with embryos and fetuses. I do understand that women and other female animals are distinct, but their exploiters’ mindsets are quite similar. When humans want a slice of dairy cheese pizza (instead of a slice of vegan cheese pizza), they act as if their particular taste is more important than the life and freedom of a cow. To get cheese, farmers must impregnate “their” cows because mammals generally lactate only when they have given birth. Then, when the cows have birthed their babies after a nine-month pregnancy, farmers separate the two animals who love each other and want nothing more than to nurse together. The farmer will hook up the cow to a pump so the breastmilk that is the perfect food for her baby goes instead to humans. The misery that baby and mother experience at separation is sickening to behold, especially because it is so unnecessary. And once the cow has given birth several times, each time losing the love of her life to pizza, she, like her babies, will be trucked to a bloody and terrifying slaughter.

None of these things routinely happens to human females, so why the comparison? In my view, forced pregnancy is violent exploitation. What animals experience is, of course, far more violent and far more exploitative. This is because our laws treat animals as though they were just things to be owned and used and discarded. But forced pregnancy and birth is, for women, a less extreme but nonetheless very extreme trauma. Creating people in your body is hard, risky, and intensely intimate work. Many women do it happily when they want to turn an undifferentiated clump of cell into a baby they will love. But sometimes a person wishes to restore her body to its resting state rather than to use it to create a new human. When this is her wish, it is nothing short of a human rights abuse to threaten her doctor or her insurance company or her friends with civil and criminal punishments for helping her avoid forcible pregnancy and birth.

Likewise, the humble cow, a gentle animal, never asked to be bred into the tortured existence of humanity’s wet nurse. Nonetheless, farmers repeatedly force semen into her vagina and then take away the infant she loves. All because people demand their dairy-based ice-cream, butter, pizza, and milk, despite the availability of delicious versions of all of it that torture no one. And this mindset that holds that “you exist for my use” animates the core thinking of the anti-abortion movement as well. For them, the purpose of women is to produce children, whether the women want to or not. In fact, even rape victims get no exemption from the newest brand of pro-forced-pregnancy legislation. If a woman becomes pregnant, which means only that two cells have merged, the government will soon be entitled to force her to stay that way for nine months. She must create a new person, no matter how much she does not want to.

In thinking about abortion and animal rights, I cannot avoid saying something about religion. Some people believe in a religion that treats a zygote as morally equivalent to a newborn baby. Such people, in keeping with their belief system, will probably avoid terminating their own pregnancies. But their belief is bizarre, and I think it is important to point that out. Clumps of cells are not anything like babies, and believing that they are certainly should not underwrite the legislation that will soon proliferate among red states, perhaps purple states, and maybe even at the national level so that women will have to go to a Catholic country like Mexico, Colombia, or Ireland to restore their bodies to a resting state. At some point, the religion of a minority somehow became the law of the majority.

People similarly rely on religion to explain/justify/rationalize their refusal to grant animals the right to freedom from torture to which they are entitled. God, after all, gave “man” dominion over the animals. I have read Biblical exegesis explaining that “dominion” means stewardship, not domination and murder. I like such interpretations, and they make sense out of the fact that God tells “man” shortly after the dominion line to eat a completely vegan diet. But most religious people believe that human DNA entitles humans to impose their will on animals who lack the same DNA. That is why, for pro-forced pregnancy folks, even one cell, a zygote, containing human DNA is so infinitely valuable that they can force a woman to change it into an actual human baby inside her body, whatever the pain and risk to her.

To believe in animal rights is to put aside our dedication to human supremacy. Notice that I didn’t say human superiority because we have long rejected the reign of superior over inferior among humans. So why should we insist on it between humans and other sentient beings? Without human supremacy, a zygote or morula or blastula is nothing but raw material, and it is insane to conscript women into reproductive servitude on behalf of raw material. And without human supremacy, we would suddenly see clearly the suffering that we inflict on trillions of animals a year for the sake of our particular (and easily changeable) tastes. We would no longer put people on the U.S. Supreme Court who say that forcing pregnancy is okay because the victim can leave her infant at a fire station. And we would no longer ourselves say that tearing calves from their mothers is okay because dairy cheese (easily replaced with fantastic nondairy cheese) tastes good. Human supremacy is all around us, and the abortion issue reminds us that it victimizes people as well as animals. I have come to see the abortion issue as a gateway into valuing sentient life, not human DNA.