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Carl Sagan on Abortion - excellent analysis
Abortion and Animal Rights
About abortion and AR

Abortion and Animal Rights by Robert Cohen
Animal Rights and Abortion Dilemmas

Comparisons between anti-abortion and AR activists

Abortion versus Animal Rights
by Ted Altar

The question has been raised as to how the consequences of applying the logic of animal rights might conflict with, or bear upon, the abortion controversy. This is a good and difficult question. If animal rights advocates are so concerned about chickens, should they not be equally concerned about human fetuses?

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Before broaching the controversial issue of abortion we need to first review the two most frequent criteria employed by animal rights advocates as to how we must expand the circle of our concern to include non-human animals.

The central thesis of animal rights is that if some non-human animals share with us in some extent certain morally relevant attributes, then to that extent those non-human animals should be given equal consideration. Not to do so is thought to be unwarranted or unjust. It should also be remembered that such equal considerations only applies with respect to those concerns that we would attach to those morally relevant attributes. We are, therefore, only considering certain "patient rights" of basic protections from human cruelty and exploitation. We are not talking about the right to vote and full citizenship in human society, only certain rights of protection from human society and human individuals.

Now, let us very briefly review those 2 morally relevant attributes that have been commonly proposed. Keep in mind that what we demand of ethical theory is that we can apply to individual judgements the test of principle, and to principles the test of usefulness or justice.

I. Pain and Suffering Criterion

As has been argued by Peter Singer and others, human beings and other animals share in common a vital interest in the avoidance of pain and suffering. These are intrinsic harms which we ought not to wish or inflict upon others who like ourselves can experience pain and suffering. For most people, when actually faced with the situation, the poignant cries and hopeless struggles of animals being killed or tortured is sufficient to establish that real and terrible pain and suffering is here taking place.

Of course, behavior alone is an unreliable index of felt pain and suffering. Mechanical robots can mimic such cries and struggles that we normally associate with felt pain and suffering. Hence, we need to augment the behavioral criterion with a structural one, like that of comparative neuroanatomy. While worms, crayfish and fish are animals, in the scientific sense, they are generally seen by animal rights advocates as borderline cases. One reason, I would give, is that they do not possess those central neural systems associated with the perception of pain (like the intralaminar and parafascicular nuclei of the thalamus) nor do they possess central neural centers associated with mediating the emotional components of pain (like the limbic system). Insects, as far as I know, do not even have the kinds of peripheral free nerve endings (C fibers and A-delta fibers) associated with sensing tissue damage.

We would, therefore, exclude those creatures that do not appear to have, given our current knowledge, the requisite neurological enabling conditions to experience pain and suffering. Mammals, reptiles and birds are sufficiently well-endowed with the neurological equipment associated with what we know to be those enabling conditions making for the instantiation of physical pain and suffering. I here recommend Margaret Rose and David Adams scholarly paper, "Evidence for pain and suffering in other animals" in "Animal Experimentation: The Consensus Changes" (edited by Gill Langley, 1989).

With respect to a principle of utility from this criterion of pain and suffering, this might be simply stated as: "All unnecessary and preventable pain and suffering directly or indirectly caused by human beings is to be avoided".

II. Subjects-of-a-Life Criterion

The other criterion, and one which has been ably forwarded by Tom Regan (see his important work, "The Case for Animal Rights" 1983), pertains to a more global analysis of animal sentience. To put it simply, we ought to give respect towards those sentient creatures which are "subjects of a life", a life that matters to them as to whether it fares well or ill for them. Here we might try to assess to what degree certain creatures appear to be capable of some representation of themselves as individual beings, capable of self-direction, and in possession of an emotional life. Such an emotional life would include the capacity to feel pain and to suffer, and such feelings would figure in alerting or informing such sentient animals about what it is that does matter to them or should be of significance. We are therefore talking about conscious creatures that have beliefs, desires, perceptions, memories, a sense of the future including their own future, preferences and desires, a psychophysical identity over time, and a sense that their experiential life is faring well or ill for them. All such marvelous living beings have inherent value, a value independent of how we might desire to exploit them. Should such fellow feeling seem too vague, or removed from one's experience, we can instead turn to the astute empirical observations of good ethologists like Jane Goodall and Donald Griffin.

Our utility principle could simply be stated as: "Unnecessary and preventable disrespect to beings possessing inherent value is to be avoided".

III. Animal Rights and Abortion

Now, let us consider some delimitations shared by both the pain and suffering criterion and the subjects-of-a-life criterion. That is, what might be the relevant delimitations of those attendant principles of justice for these two criteria.

First, neither the principle of there being a shared interest in avoiding pain and suffering, nor the principle of due respect towards subjects-of-a-life, would claim to be the only principles to resolve all ethical questions. No single principle or even a small set of principles can be. With respect to the animal rights issue (and most human rights issues) this principle of inherent value serves us well and does a good job. With respect to, say, environmental ethics, it interesting that even Tom Regan himself has noted the limitations of this principle of inherent value for generating all that we might want for such an environmental ethics. For an environmentalist ethics, for example, we would need to turn to more general principles like that of Paul Taylor's (1986) "Respect for Nature". The disadvantage of such additional principles like Taylor's, is that they are no longer are cut from the same cloth as the human rights movement in general, as are the two animal rights principles here being reviewed (hence, the argument of consistency with extant principles of human justice can't be made for Taylor's principle).

The second point to remember is that the principles I've presented are only sufficient, not necessary conditions for the recognition of certain rights. This is very important to keep in mind.

While not all animals that one might want to protect will satisfy the conditions of being a" subject-of-a-life", more than enough do meet the conditions to keep us busy. If a human fetuses do not satisfy the "subject-of-a-life" criterion this does not mean that no other principle cannot be invoked for their moral rights.

Given the criteria I've already outline we might now construct the following argument:


With respect to criterion of pain and suffering, a fetus has not yet developed those neurological preconditions for the experience of pain and suffering. I don't know off hand at what age we could say that the limbric system and cerebral cortex have sufficiently developed for the emotional experience of pain and suffering but I would guess that it is not earlier than 4 months.


From the inherent value theory stance, I would suggest that the requisite consciousness of being an individuated subject of a life, a subject that knowingly cares how things fare well or badly for it, would not be present during the first 4 or 5 months. Whether it is even present later is an open question. Does a fetus at 8 months have conscious "beliefs" about themselves and their world? There is no obvious answer. Maybe with future developments in neuro- and cognitive psychology we can one day be more precise, but until then there is no precise demarcation of when such qualities of becoming a subject-of-a- life are present. Whether a human fetus has the inviolate right to be born, is therefore unresolved by this principle. This need not be an disadvantage, but in fact can be seen as a virtue. We simply need not get bogged downed in the abortion debate in order to make progress on the issue of animal rights, and in turn the abortion issue is left open for other principles to be applied.


Given that our two most common animal rights principles are simply insufficient and cannot purport to resolve the abortion issue by themselves, what might some other principles relevant to this issue of abortion? I'm am not going to presume to forward my resolution of this issue, as this is not the proper forum for that, but simply list some supplementary principles that one might want to consider when attempting to do this, or for that matter, any other issue involving a conflict of competing claims upon our principles. By no means do I presume to here be providing a complete list of such conflict resolving principles.

(1) Minimizing Principle

When faced with choosing between harming the few who are innocent or harming the many, and when all those who will be harmed face a prima facie comparable harm, then we ought to choose to override the rights of the few.

To apply this principle to the abortion issue, we might, for example, argue that in order to reduce the suffering of existing humans and non-humans from human over-population, we must yield to the unpleasant necessity of abortion in situations where alternative birth controls are not available or accepted.

(2) Worst-Off Principle

When faced with choosing to harm the many or the few who are innocent, and when the harm faced by the few would make them worse-off than any of the many, then we ought to override the rights of the many rather than the few.

By "worst-off" we only mean that there be some wide-spread deprivation (not a radical harm) of a greater number to prevent the greater harm to a few. With respect to the abortion issue, it could be argued that human overpopulation is arguably a radical harm for all.

(3) Benefit Of Doubt Principle

Let us contemplate, given our uncertainty and extensive ignorance about fetuses, that a benefit of the doubt consideration applies to treat fetuses "as if" they are due basic rights, naturally keeping in mind that we may well be giving them more than is their due.

A life of potential suffering that might be unavoidable for a profoundly retarded "human vegetable" may outweigh what momentary pain could result from an abortion. For the inherent value theorist, a certain "benefit of the doubt" might be granted towards "lives" that may well matter for the subject of the life in question but which for us is no life at all. I would not want to exist like a ground squirrel or a retarded human being, but they do. Now, when we have a conflict of concerns, this benefit of the doubt cuts both ways. We should also grant some benefit of the doubt to the mother for her right of the exercise of what she might judge is best for herself (and her potential baby).

(4) Precedence of Actual Lives or Potential Lives

Another principle to consider might be the potential harm to "actual" adult lives that might accrue from the overpopulation of too many "potential" lives being born. There are better birth controls than abortion, but until they are seriously implemented, I am not sure if we should right away deny abortion under what might be very desperate circumstances. The same notion of desperate circumstances applies to animal rights. If we are truly faced with the desperate situation of saving a person's life only by killing an animal for food, then of course we would accept the unpleasant necessity of killing the non-human animal.

Some examples where this principle of precedence would offset the benefit of the doubt consideration might be:

i) A comparable harms issue. For instance, if a mother's life is in endangered by coming to term.

ii) A prevention of a greater suffering issue. An example might be if we can predict that a young fetus will only grow into a "profoundly" retarded child subject to physical suffering and a certain premature death.


When we enter upon such thorny issues like that of animal rights or abortion, the paths to ethical skepticism become many and winsome. Let us at least observe that excessive doubt becomes a mere caricature of doubt.

With this optimistic note, let us not return to a "situational ethic" where we would evaluate each situation as unique and do so independently of any guiding principles. "Auswitz no!" Rather, let us try a "casuistry" where we would try to seek the application of our general principles to particular cases or types of cases and where those cases may be permitted to clarify our principles.

Again, keep in mind that the rights view we have in hand would not presume to resolve each and every debate. Simply because we cannot establish due rights under the inherent value criterion, this does not preclude such rights being granted under some different criterion. Now, the first task would be to establish if human fetuses satisfy the "subject-of-a-life" criterion. I've already suggested that no conclusive answer is here currently possible. We cannot determine if a fetus has beliefs about their world and if a fetus has some sense of a separate identity, two necessarily preconditions for a subject-of-a-life to have a live that matters to it.

Failing the subject-of-a-life test, we still have the sufficient criterion of there being an experiencing subject of pain and suffering. While this might more readily be established by neurological comparisons, we still seem to have inconclusive evidence even on this score. As it presently stands, therefore, there is sufficient doubt, at least for a fetus up to 4 months, for us to not be compelled to warrant fetus rights under the inherent value criterion.

This leaves us open to entertain other considerations, other principles, all to be individually weighed with respect to how they might be augmented or offset by other principles. Not an easy deliberation and decision, but one we must all undertake.

Comments on this Article

Both the pain-and-suffering and subject-of-a-life criteria "logically" resolve the problem of abortion, if they do not practically resolve it. Under criterion one, abortion is permissible up to the moment immediately preceding the commencement of the ability to feel pain, after which abortion is prima facie wrong, and would have to be justified by proving that continuing the pregnancy would be a greater disutility than ending it.

Under the second criteria, abortion is again absolutely permissible until the foetus becomes the subject of a life, after which abortion is a prima facie harm, that can only be justified if not aborting would so harm (the parent) that not aborting would violate the miniride principle. (Your minimizing principle).

Human overpopulation: you give this too much weight: even if human overpopulation is a radical harm to all, aborting one pregnancy will not have a noticeable benefit, nor will one additional human make the world appreciably worse off. Incrementing or decrementing the world's population by the total number of abortions performed in any given period of time may make a significant difference, but to think in such terms is to apply consideration of aggregate harms and benefits to individual cases. This is disrespectful of the individual's inherent value.

The whole issue of potential lives is alien to both Regan and Singer. In the absence of a spiritual commitment to reincarnation or something similar, potential life is only a source of logical error. Think of the adopted people the anti-abortion movement parades about "if my mommy had aborted me I wouldn't have this wonderful life." Indeed -- but nor would they miss it or know that had missed it. I can't help but feel how silly these people are. This would be different only if one proposed that sentient disembodied souls were anxiously awaiting a shot at the fleshly life, and suffered on having their chance taken away from them.

The idea that abortion may be less necessary as access to birth control improves is misguided. Condoms break or slip, pills may be missed (or may not work), tubal ligations and vasectomies can be botched and so on. (I know a woman who has had two children since having a tubal ligation performed. Good birth control reduces the number of abortions performed, but does not lessen the need for abortion.

There is also one further issue: unlike "normal animals," a fetus exists entirely within another subject of a life, and cannot survive without it. That makes the entire issue a rather special case, and I am not sure, even were fetuses proven to be subjects-of-a-life, that abortion would be made wrong because of this. The difference between a life form that depends on us not to kill or abuse it, and a life form that requires us to actively nurture and support it, at great personal cost, and entirely within our own bodies, is immense. Inherent value, contracts, utility and so on are concepts developed to guide behavior between separate individuals. They may not be applicable at all to the unique relationship between a woman and the embryo she hosts.

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