Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Abortion and Animal Rights


Recently I’ve been thinking about the badness of death, particularly for non-persons. One worry that’s nagged me is that the position I endorse: that there are strong constraints limiting what we may do to animals in order to gain benefits for ourselves, may lead to an anti-abortion position. I confess that I’ve found this troubling, because it clashes with my liberal intuitions. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with abortion, but I’ve considered it an issue where the rights of the woman take priority those of the foetus.

Today, I had some work producing a guided essay plan on the subject of abortion and infanticide and it finally spurred me to sit down and give some proper thought to the problem. Here are the two premises and the conclusion they lead to:

P1. Sentient beings are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

P2. Foetuses are sentient beings.

C1. Therefore, foetuses are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

This means that if you think, as I do, that we have duties not to harm non-human animals then we are also forbidden from aborting foetuses.

C2. If it is wrong to kill non-human animals then it is also wrong to abort a foetus.

Fortunately, taking a short amount of time out of my day to think about the issue carefully revealed that the problem I was worried about doesn’t really exist – my liberal intuitions and my views on duties to non-human animals are actually very simple to reconcile. The reason for this is that not all foetuses are sentient; only late-stage foetuses are. This means that the argument has to be re-formulated as follows:

P1. Sentient beings are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

P2. Late-stage foetuses are sentient beings.

C1. Therefore, late-stage foetuses are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

This reformulation makes it morally wrong, other things being equal, to abort a late-stage foetus, which is pretty much in line with both the law and common-sense morality.

C2. If it is wrong to kill non-human animals then it is also wrong to abort a late-stage foetus.

Note, that if the conclusion is rearranged then non-human animals end up being granted much greater considerabilty they presently are:

C2a. If it is wrong to abort a late-stage foetus then it is also wrong to kill non-human animals.

If you want to refute C2a then you have to find some reason why the late-stage foetus is morally different from a non-human animal with similar levels of sentience. Such attempts often involve placing moral weight on the potential for personhood, making species membership morally relevant, or claiming human life is sacred in some way. Each of these claims requires some serious metaphysical voodoo, and I’ve yet to find anyone argue for their truth remotely convincingly.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way I can get back to reading Fred Feldman’s fascinating entry, ‘Life, death, and ethics’, in the Routledge Companion to Ethics: recommended.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

4 thoughts on “Abortion and Animal Rights

  1. Dear Thrifty,

    If late terms foetuses are worthy of moral protection in their own right then presumably they matter enough to be owed a right of third party self-defense. Does this mean it is ok for people to use violence to stop doctors, or indeed preganant women, from aborting them?

    • First, thanks for the comment, and for drawing attention to the fact that there’s still a difficult problem here Second, I think that my position may well entail what you’ve suggested (subject to all of the qualifications that go along with other-defence: propotionality, last resort, reasonable chance of success etc). That said, I’ve a lot of time for some of the arguments in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous paper ‘A Defense of Abortion’. Certainly, in cases where the mother’s life is at risk she’ll have a right of self-defence against the innocent threat posed by the foetus.

  2. One problem is that the premises put too much emphasis on the negative value of death, and not enough emphasis on the negative value of suffering. It’s much more important to avoid creating a suffering being – whether a human child or an animal – than to avoid killing ones that have already been semi-created but have no conception of wanting to live.

    Worthy of moral protection means more than worthy of protection from death. It’s much worse to create a being that will suffer (or to torture an existing being) than to prevent a future being from existing.

    Similarly, animal rights activists should be more concerned with folks not creating more suffering animals. The intuitive, excessive focus on the badness of death is what causes irresponsible people to abandon unwanted pets in the woods rather than euthanize them, release laboratory animals, etc. We don’t disvalue the suffering of other enough.

    • Thanks for the comment Sister Y. I admit that I was thinking of cases where the reason for abortion is not for the sake of the foetus, i.e. potential wrongful life cases, so thanks for highlighting that very real issue. Of course, wrongful life cases are a notoriously difficult ethical topic worthy of of more space than this post.

      On the broader topic, you won’t find me disagreeing, although the badness of death for a sentient being is going to vary depending on the degree to which their identity persists over time (their existence is biographical). I don’t think you’d find much disagreement from anyone in the animal rights/ethics field to be honest.

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