Ethics of Abortion: The Hidden Connection Between Being Vegan and Pro-Life
Is the argument for not eating meat the same as the argument against abortion? Is going vegan and being pro-life one and the same? This comparative question is one I have found myself asking.
What is life? According to Wikipedia:
“Life is the characteristic that distinguishes organisms from inorganic substances and dead objects.”
It also says:
“Life is a characteristic that distinguishes physical entities that have biological processes, such as signaling and self-sustaining processes, from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased (they have died), or because they never had such functions and are classified as inanimate.”
But here’s where that Wikipedia page gets interesting:
“There is currently no consensus regarding the definition of life.”
Yet, everyone has an idea of what it is, and most have an urge to not kill. The universality of that urge is a bit of an assumption on my part because I could not find a term for it, like the “survival instinct” but something else. But it seems common enough that society has created laws surrounding the preservation of life and when it’s okay to kill, usually extending from the self outward in increasingly looser layers of kinship.
Kindness—a concern and consideration for others— is one explanation for the root of the urge not to kill. It is a virtue in all human societies. I would assume it’s been practiced for as long as the human species has existed. The origins of kindness can be approached from a metaphysical, abstract point of view such as spirituality. It can also be viewed from the perspective of evolutionary biology, where doing good to others provides social credit that comes back to you later and is useful as a cooperative survival strategy for every member of a tribe. Regardless, kindness is innate to humans, though it may be practiced selectively.
But kindness has also been extended beyond the tribe, and that urge to not kill has shown itself in the practice of extended kindness as a virtue. This came in the form of early scripture promoting some form of vegetarianism or advice against abortion except to save a life. This was not universal but often depended on the group or the social class. Sometimes it was legally enforced but most of the time it was not. (As a side note, most of my historical references are from Wikipedia, which is not a primary source. Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident in what I’m referencing. And as usual, there are references at the end.)
So there has always been the instinct to not hurt unnecessarily, and there has always been the conflict of what to do, with different peoples handling that conflict differently. I’m not sure there is a way to resolve this conflict. But I would propose, based on the aforementioned, that as a species we have been trying to resolve it for as long as we have been able to ponder on it.
And in pondering, I’ve noticed some parallels between arguing against eating meat or exploiting animal life and being pro-life or anti-abortion. Do they ever sound similar to you? I have seen the parallel for some time and I don’t think it’s a crazy one. Both debates can be hot topics, particularly for the people who are in favor of them. I have noticed it might be the case that a person agrees with the arguments in one context but not the other. It’s likely that someone somewhere has put forth this parallel before. But I often get raging comments against logical arguments that seem obvious to me. And it’s an interesting topic for me to dive into, especially when I think of the moral implications it has for society. It makes me think of how and why ethics change, and whether or not they are truly absolute. When I first started thinking about this comparison, I hadn’t heard it mentioned before by anyone else. And these thoughts here are independent of others’ opinions. But an Internet search showed me that people have thought about it. What follows are my thoughts on the matter.
I’d like to clarify that there are different kinds of arguments against both forms of ending life. I’ll be focusing on the ethical aspect because this is the most contentious point. This is as opposed to arguments based on health or economics, like eating less meat will make better use of farmland and crops, or having fewer babies means less over-pollution which will serve the greater good in the end. Potentially, you could draw parallels there too. But I’ll be focusing on ethics:
Parallels Between Being Vegan and Pro-Life
- The biggest parallel is that most people care about both kinds of life (unborn humans and animals) even if they can’t agree on the extent to which they care. They see certain actions as necessary due to socialization or circumstance. People consider arguments against the killing of animals or the unborn as some of the easiest arguments to garner sympathy for. They then decide how much it matters and have to take into context how other concerns stack up beside that sympathy. And as I said before, people have been concerned with it in scripture and law, enough to make note of it for a very long time.
- The second biggest parallel is where we draw the line about which lives matter. That can be taken from the standpoint of “are they human-like enough?” or “are they enough like ‘us’?” In asking these questions, the beings whose lives are in question may then be thought to enter or be close to the realm of people, which is where our morals actually exist. Where an individual draws the line tends to reach a point of subjective quandary where that person doesn’t know at what point the life is “important” enough for it to be considered murder when taken. Where it becomes murder is usually based on how advanced the development of a lifeform is, and the focus is generally on sentience—”the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjectively.” But it’s still hard to define. The average person doesn’t worry as much about killing a spider as they would a horse. People are always looking for evidence of sentience, which is a more recent exploration of ours, in order to decide what to do. The focus is also generally on how similar that life is to humans, based on physical response to pain. For example, a rat might be a bit difficult to kill because we understand its negative pain response as a fellow mammal. Or, the focus may be on affinity, the classic example being that dogs are eaten in some Eastern places when it’s a no-no in the West. Some human tribes will occasionally eat an animal yet other times befriend it. Thinking of a “fetus” being aborted versus a “baby” being aborted, either distances us from the act or brings us closer to the act of it as hurting some “being.” This is due to the wording even though a fetus can be almost a baby for a long time before birth.
- Both arguments bring up the issue of property. Who is responsible for the life of an animal or a child? Since we reproduce through genetics as all life does, and that life can be manipulated, does that give the “creator” the right to that life? A core argument surrounding many human rights is that each person owns the property of their own body. And this is what has been “extended” towards those we once considered outsiders to our tribe as we have developed as a species.
- Another parallel is that it depends on the situation, whether or not the act is okay, even if it’s not desirable. Not eating meat is considered a luxury by some that can only be afforded once one has the option to choose and one is no longer at the survival stage of meeting their needs. Abortion is almost always considered okay if the life of the mother is on the line. But for both, what is considered “on the line” or to be done for the sake of survival isn’t completely set in stone.
- People tend to change their opinions in the direct face of the event, especially when they see evidence. Seeing documentaries of the lives of factory-farmed animals can make an impact. Seeing footage of what happens inside the womb as a fetus retracts is different from talking about it. Deciding what to do with an unwanted pregnancy or actually killing an animal for food might make an individual see things differently, if not change their mind. This isn’t to say that everyone will turn away from the act. It’s just to say they’re likely to see it differently. They might reconsider if taking life really needs to happen just a bit more, and so reduce how often or for what reason they would do it. There are hunters who understand the “sanctity of life”, and there are times in history when parents kill to save their child from certain difficult life. But it may be then seen as a solemn act.
- There are a range of responses concerning the degree of appropriate action. At what trimester or stage is it early enough to abort a fetus? Should there be financial assistance so that the mother or parent’s decision can change? Should the law make abortion equal murder? Should animals be eaten at all, only used for milk or clothes, not raised in cages, not be fed terribly, be eaten a little less or sourced sustainably to lessen the impact, or make abuse legally punishable? Does kindness call for a strong reaction or a more “sensible” approach to new discoveries? There is usually conflict surrounding the law, though people are generally sympathetic. Society can’t agree on the degree to which abortion or the consumption of meat should be sanctioned or behavior changed, in addition to which circumstances are justifiable.
- Both topics are volatile. They polarize people. They ask us the hardest questions about life and death. They ask us to weigh Iife when all life ends. I would describe both as being some kind of “high ethics debate.” I thought that this piece should use the words pro-life and vegan in the titles because they are trigger words for many. Humanity has had groups who, out of kindness, have been against eating meat for a long time, and abortion has always been contested. They have always been hot topics because they ask ever-present questions.
A lot of these factors sound eerily the same, yet people are often in one camp but not the other. They can clearly see the “horror” of one thing but not the other. As I said, I didn’t spend time researching what other people thought. But a brief search showed many online debates where people shame others for being in one camp but not the other. And in these high ethics debates about morality and life, passions get really high for obvious reasons.
I also wondered if people cared about one more than the other. Have there been social changes in response to movements around them? It’s difficult to really measure because the impacts of many social movements are modern, even if groups have been for or against them in the past. The data would be biased towards the modern era. More people around the world are deciding to either reduce or remove meat consumption from their diet due to the arguments against it. Statista has US data on abortion, but it is difficult to obtain that kind of data in general because of the intimate nature of the topic. Based on Statista, the US population is almost evenly split between pro-life and pro-choice and has been since the 2000s. But pro-choice means they support letting the woman decide, not necessarily the procedure itself. A little over half the US population thinks abortion is morally wrong, but half would let the woman decide. (As a side note, I think it’s weird it’s defined as solely up to the woman.)
Differences Between Being Vegan and Pro-Life
After I thought about all these parallels, I wanted to consider the counterarguments and why they’re different:
- The obvious difference is that we have always mainly defined ethics as a moral decision that only affects humans. Plainly put, we don’t see non-human life as equal to human life, at least from a Judeo-Christian perspective, as man is made in God’s image. People also tend to value intelligence and rank it. But not all humans are equally intelligent depending on age, development issues, and so on. Some animals that people eat could be considered as intelligent as some humans (think in terms of age or mental development). So, the argument based on intelligence is a false justification, and it has been highlighted enough by other thinkers.
Other than that, I couldn’t really find other reasons why the arguments for pro-life and not eating meat were different. I would be interested in learning about more. At this point, I’m only comparing the similarities, not actually arguing for either movement. I just want to point out the parallels because it’s very interesting how people can see one but not the other. The inherent drama of where to draw the line is like watching a rotoscope detailing in constant motion. Do ethics only extend to humanity? What if the definition of “humanity” changes? After all, things that weren’t traditionally considered cruel because they were happening to “people” — not “us” — now seem unethical because those “people” are now “us.” What’s considered unethical now seems obvious, but it wasn’t always that way.
The reason these moral debates occur is that people have the ability and instinct to have them. This could be due to some metaphysical drive, or a biological one that’s acted out without fully understanding why. Life consumes life in this universe, and the decision to modify how that’s done is based on humanity’s ability as conscious and intelligent beings to empathize and not take part. It’s also based on how much it will cost not to take part since people tend to put themselves first. But each person has the power to change many things and define how he or she wants to act in the world.
Thinking about this topic also reminded me of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, which was one of my favorite books growing up. It had intelligent “Animals.” I wonder about the discoveries that humanity will make surrounding intelligence, and how that might affect modifying gene sets of other beings. All of this is currently off the table, formally, but it is already happening. Of course, that brings up the same questions of ethics, such as property and self-determination.
To answer the initial question, I would say that the arguments for being pro-life or adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle are similar but not the same. They are similar for the reasons I mentioned. They are different in that people generally classify human life and life outside of the human tribe differently. This was probably a necessity in some ways and still is for many people. But will those boundaries stay the same? This is a question that I think everyone grapples with, and it really interests me.
Some Afterthoughts on the Ethics:
This topic is interesting to me because I believe in both arguments. However, I didn’t think much about them for a very long time. When I did think about them, I wasn’t sure. I think that individual situations are complex.
Before working on this piece, I didn’t realize that being pro-choice meant allowing the woman to choose, and being pro-life meant opposing abortion to the point of wanting to enshrine it in law. The situation is a complex one to me. I think it’s wrong to have an abortion, but if I were in that situation, I don’t know what I would do. At the same time, why is an unborn baby considered the property of the mother? Why do the parents get to decide whether or not they live? That would mean that the life belongs to the parents. This seems like the continuation of a silent assumption in society, that children are considered dependent property for long after birth. For this reason, it seems like a much bigger problem than what happens before birth. Do the biological givers of life, the parents, have complete dominion over it? Do they get to play God? If there is no god to tell people what to do, then doesn’t someone have to play God?
The vegan question is less complicated for me, though I have drawn the similarities. I think it’s unethical to eat meat, yet I have done it for much of my life and would not get on anyone’s case about it. I don’t see any law banning the consumption of meat being enshrined any time soon. I also don’t think it’s universally wrong in all contexts. I think it’s unethical in most cases because we can see that it could be more right, if that makes sense. I simply think that, as a species, we’re not there yet, but it will happen over time. Deciding what steps to take, such as farming humanely, not exploiting when there are other options, and untying that from the issue of domestication and bred dependence, is complicated. Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are considered non-human persons in some countries already, and there are similar movements advocating for “non-human persons” around the world. Whatever happens will be a process, for both animals and the unborn.
I have my opinions, but I find it hard to morally enforce them on others. We can only ask these questions because we’ve reached the point where we have the leisure to ask these questions. People choose their battles, and eventually, the rest of society and maybe humanity may be persuaded to choose these ones. I am sure there are things I do today that may be considered wrong a thousand years from now. This isn’t to say moral causes shouldn’t be fought for, but morality is complicated.
Edited by Em Solis
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Wiki definitions of life – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_(disambiguation)
Kindness (practicing vegetarianism) including references in scripture – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindness#In_literature
Cooperation – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Co-operation_(evolution)
History of abortion law (mentions scripture) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_abortion, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_abortion_law_debate
Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked with intelligent Animals – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_(Maguire_novel)
Modifying intelligence-linked genes in animals – http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141001-why-supersmart-animals-are-coming, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/12/18306867/china-genetics-monkey-brain-intelligence
Cetaceans seen as non-human persons by governmental body http://ens-newswire.com/2013/05/20/india-bans-captive-dolphin-shows-as-morally-unacceptable/