by Larry Rosenfeld
One time or another,
most animal advocates get asked about their views on abortion. As it is,
there is no consensus among animal advocates about abortion. Some activists
are "pro-life," others "pro-choice". To illustrate how this can be, it may
be helpful to briefly explore a few popular "pro-animal" ethical positions.
Many grow impatient with attempts to dissect morality. It
involves putting into words what for many is wordless. And the
transformation of a morality from personal realization to words may
necessarily involve distortion. Many act out of inner conviction and would
find any "morality of words" to be deceiving. Hence, the following words
cannot represent these animal advocates' beliefs.
In addition, due to
space limitations, many popular and important viewpoints will be merely
alluded to. The following is simply meant to illustrate how some animal
advocates can be pro-life and others can be pro-choice. Obviously, no one
article could hope to cover the wide spectrum of pro-animal viewpoints,
whether pro-choice or pro-life.
Furthermore, although certain
philosophies are presented below as conducive to either a pro-life or
pro-choice stance, rarely can a moral system be so easily categorized. For
instance, while S.R.L.Clark's and Colman McCarthy's ideas have been used to
support pro-life viewpoints, neither Clark nor McCarthy advocate legislating
against abortion. McCarthy in particular has said, "I don't want to make
criminals out of anybody. I want to educate people."
Pro-Life Pro-Animal Ethics
Any morality put into words must
articulate what has "inherent moral value". Typically, for pro-life animal
advocates that which has inherent moral value is "life itself," imbued with
a spiritual or mystical sense.
Such a "life-centered" ethical system can
be found in Albert Schweitzer's "Reverence for Live". For instance, in
"Civilization and Ethics," Schweitzer writes: "A man is really ethical only
when he obeys the constraint laid on him to help all life which he is able
to succour, and when he goes out of his way to avoid injuring anything
living.... To him life as such is sacred. He shatters no ice crystal that
sparkles in the sun, tears no leaf from its tree, breaks off no flower, and
is careful not to crush any insect as he walks."
 Reverence such as Schweitzer's is all-encompassing.
What is the
inspiration of such a worldview? While Schweitzer at times placed Reverence
for Life in the context of Christianity (stating that this philosophy was
the rational universalization of Jesus's ethic of love
 ), he emphasized that the embracing of a mystical conception of life
was the result of thoughtful meditations. In "Out of My Life and Thought,"
Schweitzer wrote: "Rational thinking, if it goes deep, ends of necessity in
the irrational realm of mysticism. It has, of course, to deal with life and
the world, both of which are nonrational entities."
Animal advocate and theologian S.R.L.Clark (author of "The Moral
Status of Animals") advocates that the fetus has the same qualities of life
that babies do. In a recent post to an animal rights electronic bulletin
board, Clark wrote: "I do indeed hold that creatures-inside-a-womb are not
different creatures from the ones they would (or will) be outside the womb.
They're not preparing to be those creatures, nor merely the material or
potential for there being such creatures: they *are* them. It is therefore,
for me, always a very serious step to terminate them...."
 Here, by choosing the word "creature" (which he applies to beings
from conception to death), Clark sidesteps both the human/animal dichotomy
found in speciest literature and the baby/fetus dichotomy found in
pro-choice literature. In this sense, Clark's notion of creature can provide
a foundation for both pro-animal and pro-fetus (pro-life) beliefs.
Another pro-life pro-animal advocate is H.Jay Dinshah, president of the
American Vegan Society. In "Two Views of Abortion," published in "Ahimsa"
(October/December 1982), Dinshah writes: "[A]s a dedicated humanitarian, I
will be obliged to continue to oppose the monstrous evil of abortion per se,
not pussyfoot around and become an accomplice by fooling myself and others
that what really matters is the ten minutes or two hours of pain inflicted
[on a sentient fetus] and not the taking of human life itself."
 For Dinshah, life is the moral yardstick by which abortion is to be
judged; appeals to pain are irrelevent.
Implicitly accepting the
sanctity of life at conception, syndicated Washington Post columnist, Colman
McCarthy advocates a pro-life pro-animal stance as an extension of
non-violent living, exemplified by King and Gandhi. In an interview in The
Animals' Agenda (September/October 1988), "On Peace, Justice, and the
American Way," McCarthy stated: "A lot of different groups of people are out
there, but few are consistently opposed to violence. Everyone, it seems, has
his or her own little exception: Let's have one more war and we'll have
peace, one more abortion and things will be fine, one more fur coat and I'll
be warmer, one more execution and the crime rate will drop. I say you have
to consistently refuse to accept violent solutions. All have failed."
For some animal advocates, life itself is intrinsically superior
to its death, regardless of the quality of that life and of the interests of
the lives that are impacted. For others, it is the act of killing (of
violence) in itself that is seen as immoral. If in these pro-animal
worldviews the fetus is given inherent moral significance from conception,
then such pro-animal philosophies become compatible with a pro-life position
Pro-Choice Pro-Animal Ethics
While pro-life animal
advocates often attribute inherent moral value to an experience of "life"
that is spiritually imbued, pro-choice animal advocates usually assign
inherent moral value to aspects of life that are more "psychological". Such
aspects of living things include consciousness, sentience,
self-consciousness and a variety of experiences associated with these
capabilities such as interests, preferences and the ability to participate
in a caring relationship.
"Animal Rights," as a secular ethic, has been
definitively stated by NCSU philosopher Tom Regan (author of "The Case for
Animal Rights"). For Regan, inherent moral value is directly attributable to
"subjects of a life". Regan has defined subjects of a life as creatures that
"have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future,
including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of
pleasure and pain; preference- and welfare-interests; the ability to
initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical
identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their
experiential life fares well or ill for them..."
From Regan's Animal Rights perspective, a fetus is only entitled
to rights (such as the right not to be harmed) once it becomes a subject of
 How can we determine when a creature is a subject of a life? With
other-than-human animals, criteria include neuronal development and complex
 When we apply these same criteria to fetuses, much current research
suggests that the fetus does not become a subject of life until somewhere
between the middle of the second trimester to late in the third trimester of
 Regan himself advocates extending rights to "viable human fetuses"
giving them "the benefit of the doubt".
 Hence, Regan's Animal Rights viewpoint is highly compatible with a
As with the rightist viewpoint, the assignation of inherent
moral value to self-aware creatures can be seen in a variety of other
pro-choice pro-animal perspectives. For instance, Austrailan utilitarian
philosopher, Peter Singer (author of "Animal Liberation") has written: "For
on any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like
rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain, and
so on, the calf, the pig and the much derided chicken come out well ahead of
the fetus at any stage of pregnancy -- while if we make the comparison with
a fetus of less than three months, a fish would show more signs of
consciousness." From a utilitarian perspective, Singer concludes: "(A)
woman's serious interests would normally override the rudimentary interests
even of a conscious fetus."
Beyond consciousness and self-consciousness, some feminist
animal advocates emphasize the ability to engage in relationships as central
to ethical consideration. In this way, these advocates extend to animals
moral systems worked out by feminist ethicists such as Nel Noddings.
Noddings argued that since the embryo and early fetus are likely to lack
sentience, the embryo and early fetus can only obtain ethical status in
terms of how the pregnant woman cares for them. In her book on ethics,
"Caring," Noddings wrote: "The one-caring [who relates to others in an
ethical manner] is concerned not with human tissue but with ...
consciousness -- with pain, delight, hope, fear, entreaty, and response....
It is not a question of when life begins but of when relation begins."
This emphasis on the moral significance of relationship is
evident in a recent interview, "Do Feminists Need to Liberate Animals, Too?"
(in "On The Issues," Spring 1995) with feminist animal advocate Carol J.
Adams (author of the "Sexual Politics of Meat"). Adams said: "Certainly when
I was pregnant and did not want to be, I had a different relationship to
what was happening to my body than I did when I was pregnant and wanted to
be.... [W]e have a right to take part in deciding what potential life will
come into life".
 (Emphasis added.) Compare Adams' remarks on the fetus with her
description of relations between ethical humans and companion animals (from
her essay, "Abortion Rights and Animal Rights," anthologized in her recently
published "Neither Man Nor Beast"): "When we watch someone who has a
companion animal interact with that animal, we see in that relationship a
recognition of that animal's individuality, or, in a sense, that animal's
personhood: given a name, touched and caressed, a life that interacts and
 (Emphasis added.)
In addition, Adams writes: "Chickens, cows,
mice, pigs, and women should not be forced to be pregnant against their
will. If cows had reproductive freedom, there would be no veal calves and no
milk for humans to drink."
 For Adams and others, abortion highlights the way in which our
society dominates both women and animals, objectifying them as "natural
At times, animal advocates find themselves promoting a "wider
circle" of compassion or caring or justice. To this, some may then question,
"Before you widen the circle to encompass other species, should not the
circle first encompass the fetuses of your own species?" In response,
pro-choice animal advocates may respond that species is not the discerning
criterion for inclusion in the circle. Other criteria are, such as
consciousness, self-consciousness or the ability to partake in a caring
In summary then we briefly explored a few pro-animal
ethical systems. Some (such as the Reverence for Life position) can be
viewed as pro-life, while others (such as Regan's Animal Rights position)
can be viewed as pro-choice. Each of these ethical perspectives are
internally consistent. Each are strong motivators for significant segments
of the animal advocacy community. Hence, there is no single position among
animal advocates on abortion. The diversity of moral viewpoints from which
animal advocates gain strength gives voice to diverse views on the spectrum
of pro-choice and pro-life.
1. Colman McCarthy, "On Peace, Justice, and the
American Way." Animals' Agenda, vol. 8, no. 7 (September/October 1988).
Stephen R. L. Clark expressed his view in his Internet private-list message
of March 4, 1995, 6:21 p.m., as follows:
It is ..., for me, always a
very serious step to terminate ["creatures-in-a-womb"]: it does not follow
that I think the time is ripe for legislation against the termination of
such human creatures, though I certainly regret the use of "rights-talk" in
the U.S. style about this matter. We don't answer the question "what should
we do, or what should we legislate about" by trying to discern what "rights"
creatures-in-a-womb or women have: that simply replaces questions we might
be able to answer by ones that we hardly even understand.
2. Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics, pt. II of The
Philosophy of Civilization, trans. C. T. Champion, 2nd ed. (London, 1929),
pp. 246-247, cited in Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1983), pp. 241-242.
3. Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought: An
Autobiography, trans. Antje Bultmann Lemke (Henry Holt and Company, New
York, 1991), p. 235:
The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of
love widened into universality. It is the ethic of Jesus, now recognized as
a logical consequence of thought.
4. Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, p. 237.
5. Clark, Internet private-list message.
6. Peggy Spencer Behrendt and H. Jay Dinshah, "Two Views of
Abortion." Ahimsa, vol. 23, no. 4 (October/December, 1982). Spencer
Behrendt's contribution to this article (p. 4) promoted a pro-choice
position. Dinshah's contribution (pp. 5, 10-11) promoted a pro-life
position. In the subsequent issue (vol. 24, no. 1, January/March, 1983),
each co-author provided commentary on the other's previous contribution:
Spencer Behrendt (p. 4); and, Dinshah (pp. 10-15). (Note: At the time of
publication, H. Jay Dinshah was the Editor of Ahimsa, as well as the
President and Treasurer of the American Vegan Society which publishes
7. McCarthy, "On Peace, Justice, and the American Way," p. 9.
8. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, p. 243.
9. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, pp. 276-280.
10. See, for example: Richard Dawkins, "Gaps in the Mind" in
Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (eds.), The Great Ape Project: Equality
Beyond Humanity (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1993), pp. 80-87; Donald R.
Griffin, Animal Minds (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992); Donald
R. Griffin, Animal Thinking (Harvard University, Cambridge, 1984); Regan,
The Case for Animal Rights, pp. 25-28; Bernard E. Rollin, The Unheeded Cry:
Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain and Science (Oxford University Press,
11. See, for example: Susan Taiwa, "When is the Capacity for
Sentience Acquired during Human Fetal Development?" Journal of
Maternal-Fetal Medicine, vol. 1 (1992), cited in Peter Singer, Practical
Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994), p. 368;
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Pain of the Fetus
(February 13, 1984), cited in Carol J. Adams, Neither Man nor Beast:
Feminism and the Defense of Animals (Continuum, New York, 1994), p. 60.
12. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, pp. 319-320.
13. For a more explicitly pro-choice rightist viewpoint
(which is presented with no reference to other-than-human animals), see:
Judith Jarvis Thomson, "A Defense of Abortion," Philosophy & Public Affairs
vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971); reprinted in Peter Singer (ed.), Applied Ethics
(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992), pp. 37-56. Thomson explores the
conflict between ones "right to life" versus another's "right to the self
determination of their own body," suggesting that, even if we were to
hypothetically accede full rights to a fetus, these rights would not
necessarily outweigh the pregnant woman's right to bodily
14. Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 151.
15. Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics &
Moral Education (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984), p. 88. (Noddings
herself is human-centric in the extreme.)
16. Merle Hoffman and Carol Adams, "Do Feminists Need to
Liberate Animals, Too?" On the Issues, vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 1995), pp.
17. Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast, p. 61. This comes from
Adams' richly textured, explicitly pro-animal pro-choice essay, "Abortion
Rights and Animal Rights".
18. Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast, p. 58.
19. For a more detailed exploration of the notion that
patriarchal society views both women and animals as natural resources, see
Carol J. Adams' "Forward" to the recorded interview "Natural Resources: A
Conversation between Byllye Avery and Mary E. Hunt" in Carol J. Adams (ed.)
Ecofeminism and the Sacred (Continuum, New York, 1993), pp. 281-286.
20. The author wishes to express his appreciation for Carol
J. Adams' informal supportive critique of an earlier draft of this essay. In
addition to suggesting better ways of representing various viewpoints, Carol
provided recommendations for hard-to-find pro-animal pro-life perspectives
(such as the Colman McCarthy interview) that counter her own. Additional
invaluable suggestions and assistence were provided by Lisa Robinson Bailey,
Lisa Finlay, Mark Hennings, and Dietrich von Haugwitz.