General AR Philosophy
well-written opinion about abortion and AR
Abortion and Animal
Rights by Robert Cohen
April 2007: Animal Rights and Abortion
anti-abortion and AR activists
Abortion versus Animal Rights
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?
on this Article
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
Our utility principle could simply be stated as: "Unnecessary and
preventable disrespect to beings possessing inherent value is to be
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
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
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
1 HUMAN FETUSES AND THE CRITERION OF PAIN AND SUFFERING
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.
2. HUMAN FETUSES AND THE SUBJECTS-OF-A-LIFE CRITERION
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.
3. SOME POSSIBLE EXAMPLES OF SOME SUPPLEMENTARY PRINCIPLES
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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.