This essay is also available as a chapter in the author’s volume Animals & Ethics 101: Thinking Critically About Animal Rights.
Should people who believe in animal rights think that abortion is wrong? Should […]
I greatly enjoyed reading your article, Nathan. It helped me to think through more fully my own positions on abortion as it relates to animal rights. I particularly appreciated the paragraph below:
“Fortunately, the numbers above suggest that relatively few abortions are of conscious, sentient fetuses: just a small percentage, perhaps a bit more if fetal consciousness develops earlier. These abortions are often performed because of serious disabilities found in the fetus. It is doubtful that women have later abortions for anything other than serious reasons. Regardless, the frequency of these later abortions could surely be reduced if early abortions were more readily available.”
I find it bizarre that most pro-life advocates oppose not only abortion, but also sex education and contraceptives, when in fact greater use of the latter would undoubtedly reduce the former. It indicates to me that much of the popular opposition to abortion isn’t actually grounded in ethical concern for the fetus, but a broader opposition to sexual freedom and choice on the part of women.
I do wonder, given that most fetuses are probably not even conscious at the time of abortion, why do you classify fetuses as “rational moral agents” while saying that animals are not? When, for example, prairie dog sentries adapt their danger calls to communicate whether a human is carrying a gun or not, or vampire bats share blood with sick family members despite the risk of become undernourished themselves, this shows much greater capacities for both reason and moral agency than I would expect of an unborn fetus or even a newborn human child. Just as you argue that fetuses are mere “potential persons” while animals are “actual persons,” I would argue that fetuses are merely “potential rational moral agents” while at least some non-human persons are “actual rational moral agents” to a certain degree.
Thank you for reading and reacting to this. I’m glad you benefited from it.
To respond briefly to your second point, there are people who argue that (some) animals are genuinely moral agents, citing the types of seemingly altruistic behaviors that you point to. But these sorts of views are controversial, at least at present, and it seems more reasonable to think that most non-human animals are not moral agents: maybe some are, but not many.
About your first point, that “opposition to abortion isn’t actually grounded in ethical concern for the fetus, but a broader opposition to sexual freedom and choice on the part of women,” that might be true. Or it could be that this set of views often comes together because of a common reason, or even different reasons. That would have to be investigated: perhaps the issues come apart for some people.
Thank you for your reactions!
The argument that various species of nonhuman animals are “genuinely moral agents” is only controversial among persons who are either unaware of the robust body of modern scientific data showing that human and nonhuman animal consciousness and sentience is more similar than different or those persons who have an ulterior motive in maintaining the obsolete view that humans are morally superior to animals in a perverse way that allows animals to be treated without moral consideration. Such is the spot where biomedical research scientists meet religious creationists. Asserting that, unlike fetuses, “most non-human animals are not moral agents” is unlikely to engage animal advocates in a rational consideration of arguments pro and con abortion.
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