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Excerpt from "Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans"

Chapter 7. Are You Against Abortion?

by Sherry F. Colb

When an acquaintance learns that I am an ethical vegan and that I believe that animals are entitled to live free of our violence, he will sometimes ask me about my views on abortion. His questions are natural and legitimate. After all, an abortion inflicts violence and death on the unborn, so if I am opposed to violence against nonhuman animals, then does it not follow that I must be opposed to violence against unborn humans as well?

Abortion is actually a very complicated and difficult issue for me. I have long supported a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, but I am not unmoved by the arguments on the other side. I am inviting readers to become vegan because I believe that consuming animal products is unjustified, so I feel obliged to explain my view of abortion and why that view is consistent with ethical veganism. I hope that my own thought process will help shed light on some of the similarities and differences between consuming animals and undergoing an abortion. In this way, pro-choice and pro-life readers who share my opposition to unnecessary violence against the innocent—human and nonhuman alike—can see where and why we might differ somewhat on this (other) controversial issue.

Similiarities Between Abortion and Animal Consumption

My first reaction to questions about abortion is to acknowledge that consuming nonhuman animals and undergoing an abortion share several important features in common. First and foremost, both involve terminating the lives of innocents. Moreover, both consuming animal products and having an abortion closely resemble practices that involve no violence or death to anyone. In the case of consuming animal products, the act subjectively feels very much like consuming plant-based products. For this reason, a consumer can easily overlook the fact that eating a plate of chicken and drinking a glass of milk require animals to endure immense suffering and slaughter.

In the case of abortion too, the act may feel very much like other medical, gynecological procedures that a woman might undergo, including the removal of polyps, fibroids, or a malignant tumor. A woman can have an abortion and subjectively experience it simply as an invasive medical intervention with no ethical implications.

This common feature of consuming animal products and having an abortion allows us to engage in both without necessarily being aware of the moral dimension of our actions. I considered the importance of this “invisibility” factor in the last chapter. To summarize, a person who might shrink from hurting an animal whose suffering he can actually witness nonetheless participate in inflicting suffering and slaughter on animals he does not see, through his choices of food and clothing. A pregnant woman can likewise undergo an abortion without meeting the living fetus who will die because of her choice and without observing the death that results.

This invisibility makes both sorts of choices emotionally easier than they might otherwise be, and it helps explain why advocates for both nonhuman animals and unborn human babies have sometimes used videos and pictures to try to awaken viewers’ conscience about these issues. Some animal rights activists try to expose the hidden cruelty of animal products by publicizing graphic footage of animals enduring routine violence and mutilation on farms and terrifying and grotesque (and equally routine) deaths at the slaughterhouse.[i] Anti-abortion activists likewise try to show people considering an abortion disturbing footage of what the procedure really looks like.[ii]

Moreover, abortion opponents in some states have successfully campaigned for laws requiring medical providers to invite each patient to view an ultrasound picture of her own living fetus inside her womb prior to the procedure.[iii] Some pro-choice scholars have criticized such laws on the ground that they impose an unwanted visual experience of the fetus as a woman’s live offspring, which can cause distress to a woman who has decided to terminate her pregnancy.[iv] That may be true, but it is not clear that people should have a legal right to turn away from seeing the consequences of their actions. A more sympathetic understanding of mandatory ultrasounds might note that they simply expose patients to the truth of what (or whom) they destroy when they choose to have an abortion.[v]

Now consider another fact about both animal consumption and abortion: most of us delegate the “dirty work” they involve to someone else. Most consumers of animal products do not slaughter cows, pigs, chickens, or fishes with their own hands. They do not personally separate dairy cows from their babies or throw male chicks into a meat grinder, fully conscious, shortly after the chicks hatch from layer hens’ eggs. People who work in these industries do not have the luxury of closing their eyes to what consumers of animal products demand, but most consumers do enjoy that luxury.

By the same token, women who decide to have an abortion do not ordinarily perform the abortion themselves. They hire medical providers to do so. To be sure, the reasons for the delegation are obviously different in the two cases. Consumers delegate animal slaughter because it is an undesirable, dangerous, and disturbing job.[vi] By contrast, patients delegate abortion at least in part because they lack the requisite expertise. Still, the delegation in both areas places physical and psychological distance between the consumer and the violence that he or she solicits. And defenders in both realms denounce as abusive and coercive efforts to use visual imagery to bridge the gap between actions and their consequences.[vii]

There are still more similarities. Neither non-human animals nor human fetuses legally qualify as “persons,” even though they may share important traits with those of us whose deaths and suffering do qualify for legal consideration and protection. As discussed in chapter 1, the farmed animals whom we consume, including cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and fishes, are sentient. That is, they are capable of experiencing the world by suffering pain and fear, and by enjoying pleasure and comfort.

Some proportion of the fetuses whose lives we take in abortion are likewise almost certainly capable of feeling discomfort and pleasure. During the course of a pregnancy, the developing human baby at some stage becomes sentient. It would indeed seem fanciful to suggest that prior to the moment at which a baby emerges from the birth canal, he remains unable to experience sensations such as warmth, cold, pain, or pleasure.

Yet despite their sentience, neither of these groups of living beings enjoys the legal status of personhood. Our law treats corporations as persons for most purposes, but not birds, dogs, pigs, or human fetuses.

We can identify at least one more similarity: People consume both animal-products and abortion services in circumstances falling short of what we might call life-and-death necessity. People who consume animal products or undergo abortions, in other words, are ordinarily not doing so to avoid death or serious threats to their health. And in both sorts of actions, people defend what they do on the basis of individual liberty and by reference to the lesser moral and legal status of the victim, whether a nonhuman animal or a developing human fetus.

Both issues accordingly pit a vulnerable being’s interest in avoiding direct violence and death against another’s interest in freely pursuing his or her own goals without outside interference. A pro-choice bumper sticker captures this sentiment: Against abortion? Then don't have one. And those who feel strongly that they are entitled to consume animal products similarly maintain that while it is fine for vegans to limit their own dietary and other choices, we should not seek to impose our will on others. Both of these autonomy arguments are variants on the “let us all value and respect one another’s choices” idea explored earlier, in chapter 5.

Do all of these similarities between animal consumption and abortion mean that we should hold the same position on the two issues? If so, we might wonder why people who are pro-life commonly oppose animal rights, while ethical vegans commonly support a woman’s right to have an abortion.[viii] One possible explanation is that society views both the pro-choice position and the animal rights position as falling along the liberal/left side of the political spectrum. Because people are inclined to adopt a group of political positions as a whole, rather than picking and choosing their political views “a la carte,” it may be that those already on the left on one issue would tend unthinkingly to lean towards the left on the other, and vice versa.

I suspect, though, that there is more to the animal rights/fetal rights split than an unthinking adoption of politically aligned positions. For one thing, the pro-animal rights position is so unusual that it does not appear on any pre-packaged ensemble of political views. Progressives and conservatives alike choose in overwhelming numbers to consume animal products without carefully examining that choice. Whether in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, the National Review or the Nation, one will find complete acceptance for consuming and producing animal products, expressed through editorials and advertising alike.

Whether a person is pro-life or pro-choice therefore fails to dictate a position on animal rights. Conversely, someone who decides to become vegan despite the surrounding society’s uncritical embrace of animal exploitation shows independence from the crowd, and we might expect such a person to give thoughtful consideration to both sides of the abortion issue as well.

The fact that people who favor animal rights also tend to be pro-choice cannot, then, be automatically attributed to a one-size-fits-all ideology. There must be some other reason that people do not usually treat abortion and animal exploitation as morally equivalent. What could that reason be?

Before we try to answer that question, we should acknowledge that people could be making a moral mistake in distinguishing between consuming animal products and having an abortion. Perhaps they are confused and ought to be either pro-life and vegan or pro-choice and non-vegan, if they wish to be morally consistent. If so, then as a vegan, I should not be pro-choice. Yet I am. I should either offer compelling distinctions between the two issues, or I should consider changing my views. Which shall it be?

Differences Between Abortion and Animal Consumption

Let us consider some differences between the two issues and determine whether any of the differences matter. People who are pro-life but oppose animal rights say that one moral difference is the beginning and end of the inquiry: a human embryo or fetus is human, and a nonhuman animal is not.[ix] If one must be a member of the human species to have a right against violence, and if all humans hold this right in virtue of their humanity alone, then it makes perfect sense to oppose abortion and to simultaneously tolerate the consumption of animal products.

As we discussed earlier, however, our sense of why we should refrain from hurting or killing another human being has very little to do with anything uniquely human about our victim. Most of us have a strong moral intuition that we should not torture or kill someone who is able to experience pain and death, at least when doing so is not necessary. That is why many of us might view it as no better and perhaps even worse to inflict pain or death on an infant than on an adult, even though infants do not have the ability to use symbolic language or to deploy the other special talents that appear to distinguish humans from other animals.

Our intuitions confirm that what repels us from violence against the innocent victim is not the victim’s linguistic ability but instead her sentience, her ability to have experiences in the world such as pain and pleasure. Because a baby can have such experiences, we take something precious away from the baby if we harm or kill her. Because a plant apparently cannot have such experiences, we appear to take nothing from the plant when we kill it.

So far, it may appear that we should oppose both the consumption of animal products and abortion, if we believe we should refrain from harming sentient beings. In the case of abortion, however, we are dealing with a human who is undergoing development from a single cell. Therefore, not every abortion kills a sentient being. A woman who terminates a pregnancy immediately after embryonic implantation, for example, almost certainly does not destroy a sentient organism. On the other hand, a woman who has an abortion near the end of her pregnancy is killing a sentient fetus.

Part of why many of us feel much less comfortable about late abortions than about early ones may be that the early human organism lacks the traits that we associate with human beings, most notably sentience. Pro-life doctors and pro-choice doctors differ somewhat in identifying the point of sentience, but not by much. The consensus seems to place the line somewhere between 20 weeks after conception, which is usually called 22 weeks gestation (because doctors typically measure gestation from the first day of the woman’s last menstrual period), and 22 weeks after conception (24 weeks gestation).[x]

Therefore, I can favor animal rights for ethical reasons and favor a woman’s right to have an abortion prior to fetal sentience, without any contradiction. A being who can have experiences has the moral entitlement not to be killed or subjected to pain and distress. One can be a human organism without being sentient, because one has not yet reached the developmental stage at which one can feel pain, pleasure, or anything else. And one can be a sentient nonhuman being, as cows, chickens, fishes, and other animals we consume are.

A human zygote or embryo is thus as different from a 30-week fetus, along the dimension of sentience, as it is from a newborn calf. Understanding this overlap in human and nonhuman sentience, we can view some but not all abortions as raising the kinds of moral questions that consumption of animal products raises. The moral question is one about sentience rather than one about species.

If we treat abortion in this way, the next question is whether we should oppose a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy after the fetus is sentient. A number of states have passed laws banning abortion beyond 20 weeks, with narrow exceptions to avoid the mother’s death or serious impairment of her major bodily functions. [xi] These bans rest quite explicitly on the theory that the fetus is capable of feeling pain by this point and therefore has the right not to be killed.[xii] If we are committed to protecting sentient beings against human violence, then shouldn’t we oppose abortion once a sentient human organism is living in the womb? Is the violence of abortion, when a fetus is sentient, the same as the violence of animal slaughter?

In one sense, the answer is yes. From the perspective of the victim, it may be no better to be killed at an abortion clinic than it is to be killed at a slaughterhouse. And just as I find the existence of slaughterhouses very upsetting, I find the fact of late-term abortions very upsetting as well. In his opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in Gonzales v. Carhart,[xiii] Justice Anthony Kennedy quotes from the testimony of a nurse, describing an “intact dilation and evacuation” abortion that she observed on a 26 ½ week fetus:

[The doctor] went in with forceps and grabbed the baby’s legs and pulled them down into the birth canal. Then he delivered the baby’s body and the arms—everything but the head….

The baby’s little fingers were clasping and unclasping, and his little feet were kicking. Then the doctor stuck the scissors in the back of his head, and the baby’s arms jerked out, like a startle reaction, like a flinch, like a baby does when he thinks he is going to fall.

The doctor opened up the scissors, stuck a high-powered suction tube into the opening, and sucked the baby’s brains out. Now the baby went completely limp….

He cut the umbilical cord and delivered the placenta. He threw the baby in a pan, along with the placenta and the instruments he had just used.[xiv]

If the question is whether the act described here represents violence directed at an innocent, sentient being, the answer would appear to be yes. This is the visceral reality of late-term abortion that most of us never observe directly and rarely hear about in such graphic detail. From the perspective of the sentient fetus, an abortion is an act of undeserved and extreme violence.

The Pregnant Woman’s Unique Dilemma

One cannot accurately discuss the issue of abortion, however, without considering the perspective of the pregnant woman who carries the fetus inside her body, both before and after the fetus becomes sentient. The pregnant woman has a very different physical relationship with her pregnancy and with the consequences of what she does about it than the rest of us have with the people around us who may fall victim to violence. Let us consider how.

When we bear responsibility for someone else’s death or suffering, it is almost always because we either acted in a manner that helped to bring it about, or we failed to intervene to keep it from happening. If we solicit violence against a human being or a nonhuman animal, our contribution to that being’s suffering is through our actions. If instead, we see someone in trouble and do nothing to help, our contribution is through our omission or failure to act. Ordinarily, we hold people more accountable for their actions than we do for their omissions.

To make all of this more concrete, consider a hypothetical example. Cain hates Abel and wants to kill him, but Cain is a bit squeamish about weapons and blood, so he hires Delilah to carry out the killing. If Delilah stabs Abel to death for Cain, both Cain and Delilah are legally and morally responsible for the murder, because both acted culpably to bring it about.

Let us assume now that after Delilah stabs Abel, Bathsheba walks by and notices that Abel is bleeding to death, and no one else is around to help him. Bathsheba could tie her scarf around Abel’s wounds, call an ambulance, and thereby save his life, but she decides instead to continue on her way to the neighborhood bookstore to purchase a copy of the book Atlas Shrugged. In this situation, Bathsheba bears some moral responsibility for Abel’s death, because she could easily have averted it but chose not to. Nonetheless, virtually no law in this country would hold her accountable for the killing,[xv] and I suspect that most readers would not consider her to be nearly as culpable as Cain or Delilah is.

Most of us would agree that failing to help an injured party is, in most situations, not as bad as affirmatively bringing about the injury in the first place. Furthermore, if it would have been extremely burdensome or risky to intervene to save someone, we might not even criticize the failure to intervene. If, for example, a different bystander, Deborah, would have had to donate a kidney to save Abel’s life, very few people would fault Deborah (let us call her “Deborah 1”) for failing to save Abel, even though her failure would have led to Abel’s death.

If Deborah (let us now call her “Deborah 2”) decided instead to undergo the surgery and donate her kidney to Abel, people would likely view her as an unusually generous Good Samaritan. A Good Samaritan is quite different from someone who refrains from actively killing. If an alternate version of Cain, named Refrain, felt tempted to murder Abel but decided not to, we would not praise Refrain in the way that we would praise Deborah 2, the kidney donor. Deborah 2 goes far above and beyond the call of duty, whereas Refrain merely satisfies a basic duty to refrain from killing.

When the person faced with the moral dilemma of whether to save a life is a woman carrying an unwanted pregnancy, the moral calculus becomes more complicated. If the woman goes to a clinic and has an abortion, then she is acting affirmatively to cause injury and death to the fetus. In this way, she is like (the original) Cain, who hired Delilah to kill Abel. If the pregnant woman decides instead not to have an abortion, however, then she immediately becomes like Deborah 2, who donated a kidney to save Abel.

Her decision to remain pregnant will result in her experiencing significant pain, discomfort, and risk to her own health in order to provide another person with what he needs to survive. For the pregnant woman who does not want to be pregnant, there is no third option through which she can decide not to inflict injury and death on the fetus and not to undergo the enormous burden of carrying a pregnancy to term, with all of the intimate cost and risk entailed. In the case of pregnancy, in other words, inaction is not an option.

We can appreciate the unique moral quandary of unwanted pregnancy by imagining a science-fiction alternative universe. Suppose that in this alternative universe a scientist has invented an incubator that can house a developing embryo and fetus until the end of the 24th week of pregnancy. After 24 weeks, however, the fetus will die unless transferred into a woman’s uterus.

In this alternative universe, with a fetus living in such an incubator and approaching 24 weeks of age, the fetus’s mother would become like other non-pregnant women and men who face moral choices about whether to act harmfully, do nothing, or intervene to help. Like Cain, she could act affirmatively and harmfully by smothering the fetus in the incubator. Like Deborah 1, she could fail to intervene to help another by refusing to transfer the fetus into her body (with the result that the fetus dies in the incubator). Or, like Deborah 2, she could act affirmatively to save another, by voluntarily undergoing a transfer of the fetus from the incubator to her uterus and carrying him for roughly the next 16 weeks, undergoing the burdens of pregnancy and childbirth.

By considering this alternate universe, we can see that the real world does not offer a pregnant woman the moral options usually available to everyone else. The rest of us can avoid actively participating in killing when we choose not to donate a kidney, bone marrow, or even blood, as many of us routinely choose not to do. A pregnant woman cannot similarly avoid actively participating in killing her fetus by remaining a bystander.

If the pregnant woman does not kill her fetus, then she will have to carry and gestate that fetus inside her body and then undergo either labor and delivery or major surgery at the end. She must therefore select between committing affirmative violence, on the one hand, and acting as a Good Samaritan, on the other. These are the only alternatives.

To be sure, the pregnant woman ordinarily bears some responsibility for the predicament in which she finds herself. Barring cases of sexual assault, the woman’s voluntary decision to have sexual intercourse with a man played an essential role in bringing about the situation in which she must now choose between actively taking a life and actively enduring the physical burdens of pregnancy and childbirth. In that sense, the pregnant woman differs morally from a typical “bystander” who coincidentally happens upon a needy victim and either intervenes or fails to intervene.

Yet we cannot accurately say that simply by having sex, the pregnant woman takes on the obligation to carry a pregnancy to term. The reality is that having sex risks a pregnancy, but it does not invariably or even usually cause one. In any individual act of unprotected sexual intercourse, the odds of a pregnancy are quite low, on the order of 2-2.5%.[xvi] The odds are even lower among the many women who use contraception.[xvii]

Taking a relatively small risk of bringing about the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy is thus quite different from voluntarily consenting to an intimately demanding and burdensome 40-week relationship with a developing fetus, followed by labor and delivery. Most risky behavior in which a risk comes to fruition, moreover, still leaves intact a three-part choice: give affirmative aid; be a bystander (even if a somewhat more culpable bystander); or cause affirmative harm. In stark contrast, the woman who becomes pregnant lacks any semblance of the second option—however culpable or blameless—and must choose between committing violence, on the one hand, and playing the very demanding role of Good Samaritan, on the other.

Once we understand this quandary that pregnant women alone face, we can see why abortion is such a divisive issue. One side views the woman who terminates a pregnancy as no different from an ordinary killer. Perhaps she is even worse, in fact, because the victim is her own child. This side focuses on the woman’s affirmative act of violence in abortion and de-emphasizes the fact that her only alternative to that violence is to become a Good Samaritan, a major sacrifice of bodily integrity that we ordinarily do not demand of non-pregnant women or men, even when someone will die without the sacrifice. From the pro-life perspective, all that the pregnant woman must do is refrain from killing her fetus, just as the rest of us must refrain from actively killing other people. If the woman refuses to refrain, then she is as much a killer as Cain or Delilah is, in our earlier hypothetical example. The pro-life side, in other words, treats the woman who remains pregnant as a passive bystander to the fetus’s continuing survival.

The pro-choice side, by contrast, views a woman who has an abortion as very much like a man who fails to donate a needed organ or bone marrow to save another’s life. In this view, the pregnant woman is like Deborah 1, who decides not to help the dying Abel by donating a kidney. The pro-choice side focuses on the physiologically demanding and risky nature of pregnancy and birth and downplays the fact that abortion entails an affirmative act of violence, rather than a mere failure to come forward and provide life-saving assistance. The pro-choice side thereby treats having an abortion as the equivalent of being a bystander to the fetus’s death. This perspective is the flip-side of the pro-life tendency to downplay the Good Samaritan demands and burdens that choosing to remain pregnant will place on a woman’s body.

One reason that there is no simple solution to this impasse between pro-choice and pro-life visions is that the pregnant woman’s circumstances do not neatly fit the moral categories by which we regularly and intuitively judge people’s behavior. These categories provide for three morally distinct roles: the bad actors (Cain and Delilah), the bystanders (Bathsheba and Deborah 1), and the Good Samaritan (Deborah 2). Seeking the comfort of familiar categories, we are therefore inclined to pretend—in either one direction or the other—that these categories still apply and that having an abortion really is just an affirmative act of violence or that it really is just a failure to provide burdensome and risky life-saving assistance to someone in need. In truth, it is unavoidably both of these things at the same time.

We can choose to focus either on the direct violent action taken in having an abortion (the pro-life focus) or on the enormous physiological burdens involved in remaining pregnant (the pro-choice focus), but this selective focus does not alter the true complexity of the issue. As a consequence, although I am pro-choice, I acknowledge that someone could take a different position in the case of post-sentience abortions for reasons that are no less coherent and principled than my own.

The Ethical Vegan’s Dilemma

The reader may perhaps be wondering whether I believe, as I do in the case of abortion, that the consumption of animal products might be as defensible, principled, and coherent as the consumption of only vegan products.

The answer is no. Despite the violence entailed in abortion, the person who has an abortion is not comparable to the person who consumes animal products, for a number of reasons. First, someone who faces the dilemma of whether or not to consume an animal product will not play the role of the Good Samaritan, either way. Ethical vegans are not Good Samaritans, any more than Refrain (who refrained from killing Abel, despite the temptation) is a Good Samaritan. Both vegans and Refrain are simply refraining from participating in violence. Neither is acting affirmatively to save anyone.

Understandably, organizations that urge people to become vegan will sometimes say that a vegan “saves” 95 (or up to 198) animals per year.[xviii] Such numbers are presumably based on the number of animals’ deaths the vegan would have participated in causing if she had consumed animal products. It is exciting to imagine saving 95 (or up to 198) animals every year simply by eating different food and wearing different clothes.

Yet using the language of “saving” animals to describe vegans gives the misleading impression that if we consume animal products, we are simply bystanders who fail to rescue animals, comparable to Deborah 1 and other people who fail to donate blood, bone marrow, or a kidney that could save others’ lives. And such language suggests as well that when I eat rice and beans with sweet potato fries and sautéed spinach and garlic instead of pulled pork or turkey dumplings, I am actively rescuing an animal.

Unlike the pregnant woman (and unlike the organ donor), however, I do not take on intimate discomfort, pain, and risk by being vegan. Indeed, as we have seen, I am likely to find that I am healthier, slimmer, and physically more comfortable because I became vegan. In addition, the vegan has plentiful alternatives to animal products for delicious, nutritious food and other creature comforts. Vegans do not suffer pain and risk in virtue of being vegan.

Consider, by contrast, some of the ways in which being pregnant does impose serious and ongoing burdens and sacrifices on the pregnant woman for the duration of her pregnancy. A vegan does not gain an enormous amount of weight or have difficulty breathing at times because she is vegan, but both of these conditions are a routine part of pregnancy.[xix] Being vegan does not result in months-long trouble sleeping comfortably or an elevated risk of diabetes and hypertension, but being pregnant does. One does not lose calcium from one’s bones by being vegan, but one does by being pregnant, because the placenta will draw minerals from the woman’s body to meet the fetus’s needs. Being pregnant, unlike being vegan, involves having one’s body actively giving life support to another living being, a circumstance that, not surprisingly, carries significant health burdens and risks.

One can, of course, be a Good Samaritan for animals, just as one can be a Good Samaritan for humans. People who act affirmatively to rescue and save animals rightly belong in the category of Good Samaritans with respect to those animals. People who work at animal sanctuaries around the country contribute their time and energy to providing food, shelter, and safety to the tiny fraction of farmed animals who have been lucky enough to escape or to be rescued from farms and slaughterhouses before meeting their intended deaths there.[xx]

Similarly, many people offer their homes to animals in need, including homeless dogs and cats who previously lived in shelters or on the street. When people provide shelter to homeless animals and thereby save their lives, they deserve praise for doing so. Simply becoming vegan, however, is not an act of Good Samaritanism toward animals. My former colleague, and the author of numerous excellent books and articles about animal rights, Gary Francione, has accurately described becoming vegan as just meeting the “moral baseline” regarding animals.[xxi] Refusing to participate actively in inflicting suffering and death on animals is, in other words, only the least we can do for them. Indeed, it is not really “doing” anything for them. It is simply abstaining from doing terrible things to them.

It is easy in our current world to become confused about the three moral categories (of doing harm, doing nothing, and helping, respectively) when it comes to animals. One reason for this confusion may be the fact that many of the people who act as Good Samaritans for some animals by giving shelter to dogs or cats who would otherwise have been killed, simultaneously hurt other animals by consuming such items as flesh, dairy, or eggs. If we think about this in terms of a different group of victims, this mix of activities is analogous to a person who rescues children from pedophiles by day, only to return home by night and proceed to purchase and consume child-pornography. We would correctly understand such a person to be living a contradiction. But we often miss the contradiction when it comes to animal victims.

In reality, then, we have the same three options available when it comes to animal suffering that we have in virtually all cases of human suffering: (1) we can be Good Samaritans and act affirmatively to save lives, by intervening and sheltering those destined for slaughter; (2) we can be ethical vegan bystanders and refrain from participating in causing the suffering, though we do nothing to intervene and rescue its victims; or (3) we can actively participate in the killing, by consuming the output of animal farming.

As consumers, then, we are different from the pregnant woman, who must choose between playing the physically demanding, painful, and risky role of Good Samaritan for her developing baby, on the one hand, and affirmatively bringing about that baby’s death, on the other. That is why preventing a pregnant woman from committing violence against her fetus through abortion simultaneously and unavoidably compels her to endure pregnancy, labor, and delivery on the fetus’s behalf. And it is why, while I support the right of every sentient animal to remain free of human exploitation and violence, I remain pro-choice on abortion, even in the gut-wrenching minority of cases that occur after the fetus is sentient.[xxii] Being vegan does not require pain and risk or a compromise of bodily integrity, while being pregnant does. Whether or not to permit post-sentience abortions therefore poses a difficult question. Whether to demand slaughter for products we do not need to live and thrive does not.

Sherry Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University Law School, where she teaches courses in animal rights, evidence, and criminal procedure. She is a graduate of Columbia College and Harvard Law School, and a former law clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. Colb lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband, two daughters, and two mixed-breed dogs.

Published 2013 by Lantern Books, and available at www.lanternbooks.com.

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