Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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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.