Animal Advocacy and Abortion

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." [1]

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." [2] 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 [3] ), 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." [4]

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...." [5] 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." [6] 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." [7]

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 on abortion.

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..." [8]

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 a life. [9] How can we determine when a creature is a subject of a life? With other-than-human animals, criteria include neuronal development and complex behavior. [10] 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 pregnancy. [11] Regan himself advocates extending rights to "viable human fetuses" giving them "the benefit of the doubt". [12] Hence, Regan's Animal Rights viewpoint is highly compatible with a pro-choice viewpoint. [13]

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." [14]

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." [15]

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". [16] (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 informs another's." [17] (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." [18] For Adams and others, abortion highlights the way in which our society dominates both women and animals, objectifying them as "natural resources". [19]

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 relationship.

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. [20]


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.

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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.

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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.

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4. Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, p. 237.

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5. Clark, Internet private-list message.

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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 Ahimsa.)

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7. McCarthy, "On Peace, Justice, and the American Way," p. 9.

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8. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, p. 243.

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9. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, pp. 276-280.

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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, Oxford, 1989).

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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.

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12. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, pp. 319-320.

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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 self-determination.

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14. Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 151.

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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.)

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16. Merle Hoffman and Carol Adams, "Do Feminists Need to Liberate Animals, Too?" On the Issues, vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 1995), pp. 18-21, 54-56.

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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".

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18. Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast, p. 58.

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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.

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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.

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