Are Women Livestock?

 by Sherry F. Colb

Regular readers of this blog know that I recently received a flood of nasty messages (most of which I did not read) in response to a rather modest critique of Samuel Alito (SA)'s Dobbs opinion that I published recently on the Fox News web site. I selected one theme from the messages that I did read to explore the significance, if any, of the fact that the government that will force women to carry pregnancies to term against their will did not itself impregnate those women. Spoiler alert: that fact changes nothing about the proper analysis. We all act in ways that carry risks of disease and death and yet rightfully expect to be allowed to treat the conditions that plague us as a result. An unwanted pregnancy is no different along the "consent" dimension, even though one must separately offer an account of why a zygote or embryo or fetus cannot override the interests of the woman whose body it has colonized. I have offered such accounts in a variety of venues, so I will leave that issue unaddressed here. What I want to discuss in this post is a meme that I have encountered on FaceBook (I know, I know) a number of times and that comes from the pro-choice side of the debate. The meme says something along the lines of "women are not livestock!" The assertion here is important for what it implies about what it is that too many women seem to be seeking and for what it suggests about the proper moral order of things.

The statement "women are not livestock!" implies (or perhaps explicitly asserts) that forcing someone to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and then endure labor and delivery (what some have likened to being shot in the abdomen) essentially treats them as "livestock." Livestock, in turn, refers to living, sentient beings whom farmers and slaughterhouses and the non-vegans whose demand for meat, dairy and eggs (really mutilated corpses, stolen breast milk, and ovarian secretions) the slaughterhouses serve by brutalizing gentle, helpless animals who scream and try to escape their terrifying captors in the soundproof chambers in which their throats are cut and, with many still alive, get thrown into a scalding tank to remove their fur, feathers, or fins. The workers who inflict this torture on the innocent animals are typically extremely poor, often undocumented, and suffer from PTSD as a result of the violence in which they participate every day. And though they are desperate for the money they earn, the turnover rate per year in slaughterhouses is over 100%. Neighborhoods in which slaughterhouses appear also show higher rates of domestic violence and alcoholism compared to comparable neighborhoods without slaughterhouses. So if you don't care about animals but do care about poor men and women, you might want to reconsider your support for slaughterhouses.

I do not necessarily disagree with the idea that forcing women to take unwanted pregnancies to term treats women as "livestock." After all, one of the profound cruelties that we inflict through animal agriculture is our complete indifference to the bonds that animals form with their babies and with the friends that they make while living on the most grotesque death row ever invented. So-called dairy cattle are forcibly impregnated and carry nine-month pregnancies to term, only to watch the farmer kidnap the new infant (perhaps for veal, perhaps for another cycle of forcible inseminations ending with slaughter down the road) so that the mom's breast milk can be stolen from her and her infant and sold as unnecessary, unhealthful products and ingredients to customers at the grocery store. Consider this reality when you face a refrigerator shelf that contains both stolen breast milk and oat milk or almond milk or soy milk (and don't get me started on how soy is NOT dangerous and how most soy grown in the U.S. goes to "feed" the poor animals whose flesh ends up on your plate). Dairy foods are terrible for the environment (because of the pollution as well as the enormous amount of water--more than any plant-based milk requires--needed to produce it, which includes the water used to wash the arterial blood, sometimes ankle-deep, in the slaughterhouses where mothers who lost up to five or six babies must finally go to perish). So yes, forcing women to bear children against their will is something that farmers, slaughterhouse workers, and consumers of animal products do to female farmed animals every day.

So what? Well, we can all (I hope) agree that women should be equal members of society and that being treated like "livestock," even in only one respect, is unacceptable. So why am I fixating on the word "livestock"? Because the word implies that when we treat the animals who carry the name "livestock" in the way that we do, that conduct is perfectly acceptable. For an analogy, if you told your boss "I'm tired of your treating me like a kindergarten child," you would mean that the way in which teachers treat kindergarten children is fine but that acting in the same way toward an adult is offensive. The premise that it is okay to treat farmed animals like "livestock" is wrong. If we lived on a planet in which we ate plant-based food and left animals alone to live their lives in peace, it might be uncontroversial to state that capturing the animals, branding them with a hot iron, holding them in deplorable conditions, feeding them an unnatural diet, forcing them to reproduce, kidnaping their babies, and ultimately cutting their throats and torturing them to death is wrong. Many of us have companion animals (and I'll explain why that is not necessarily a moral problem somewhere else), and at least some of us cringe when we see them attacking a rabbit or other animal, especially if the animal screams as rabbits do. We are capable of empathy for animals; we just numb ourselves to the simple fact that the animals who walk into the slaughterhouse and come out as "meat" are just as entitled to empathy as the animals we love. To say "women aren't livestock!" is to show no desire to interrogate the practice of anyone being "livestock." It simply says women do not belong in that category. To my mind, that claim is simple self-dealing if unaccompanied by a commitment to justice for the other living beings forced into (a far more cruel) reproductive servitude.

I wonder why it is that people feel the need to implicitly insult and dismiss the moral interests of farmed animals as part of their plea for the rights of women. There was a time when women and various people of color in this country were all essentially "livestock" belonging to propertied white men. I think the idea is that it is somehow humiliating to be classed with cows and pigs and chickens. But I think it is more than that. Part of the "prize" that various groups seek on their way up to full citizenship is the right to oppress the others. The battles between feminists and African American activists around the issue of who should get to vote is a case in point. Women suffragists of the time thought they should get the vote first because it would be humiliating for them not to be able to vote while African American men could vote. And African Americans tended to prioritize their own suffrage over that of white women. Actually, it was Black men who embraced this priority so that Black women did not win the right to vote until white women did. The sad thing that stands out in recounting this story is how unfortunate it was that more people did not fight for suffrage for both groups (though there were those who did). How much harder it is to get what you are entitled to when you seem to be seeking the same right to oppress others as white propertied men have enjoyed in oppressing you.

I am not going to say that tying our fates to that of farmed animals will necessarily create a stronger movement in the way that two groups of humans could have done before either group could vote. Nonhuman animals cannot threaten to go on strike and cannot otherwise refuse to cooperate in their oppression because what we do to them is so extremely violent and constraining. They are powerless and therefore cannot enhance women's power by joining our movement. But many people care about animal rights and regard what humans do to animals as among the most obscene kinds of violence on earth. Those people, if they join women's fight for reproductive rights, can enlarge the group of individuals advocating against human reproductive servitude, while the folks already resisting the religious takeover of women's bodies can join the fight against the routine brutality that nonhumans experience on farms and in slaughterhouses. When people fight oppression together, both kinds of oppression become more likely to eventually fall.

I do not, however, want to be read as proposing that the only reason for the two groups to work together is because each group has greater efficacy with the support of the other. I of course want both the reproductive oppression of women and the total oppression of nonhuman animals to come to an end, so I do aim for greater efficacy. But I make the case here for unity primarily because if you limit yourself to fighting for the rights that you have lost, then you are not truly seeking justice.

Justice is not simply about elevating yourself to equality with the oppressor--identifying with the oppressor in this way is just feathering one's own nest. That is the selfish pursuit of more power for oneself. Once you begin fighting for others who experience a similar but even more total kind of oppression, you are truly fighting for justice. One cannot then say that you just want reproductive rights because they would benefit you. To say this differently, the declaration that "I am not livestock!" is not really a call for justice. To suggest instead that no one is livestock, including women and including the poor, helpless creatures of fur, feather, and fin, is to seek justice, kindness, and the humane treatment of everyone capable of suffering and of experiencing the relief of their suffering.

And that, by the way, is why the fight for zygote rights has no moral weight, notwithstanding the zealots who believe that their religious doctrine is morality. Zygotes feel nothing. They are single-celled organisms that effectively amount to no more than a recipe. Fighting for zygotes thus amounts to little more than fighting for the right to use women as baby-makers. And it is useful to remember that truth as the Supreme Court repeatedly shoves its religious dogma down our throats. Women and farmed animals are "someone"s. An egg penetrated by a sperm is "something."