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.”
Or 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 wiki page gets interesting:
“There is currently no consensus regarding the definition of life.”
Yet, we all have an idea of what it is. And most of us 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 I think it is common enough that we have 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.
You could say that the root of that urge is kindness, a concern and consideration for others. It is a virtue in all human societies. It has been practiced I would assume 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, or 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. Some times 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 (As a side note, most of my historical references are from Wikipedia, which is not a primary source.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 that trying, I have noticed some parallels between the arguments for not 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 unlikely that someone somewhere has not put forth this parallel before. But I often get raging comments against things 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 yes 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, such as that 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 focusing on ethics:
- The biggest parallel is that most people care about both kinds of life (unborn human and animal for meat) even if they can’t agree on exactly how. 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 just 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 a note about it for a very long time.
- The second biggest parallel is where do we draw the line that this is a life that matters. That can be taken from the standpoint of ‘are they human-like enough?’ or ‘are they enough like “us”?’ In asking this, they then may enter or be close to the realm of people, which is where our morals actually exist. The question of where to draw the line tends to reach a point of subjective quandary where we don’t know at what point the life is important enough for it to be considered murder when it is taken. That’s usually based on how advanced the development is. The focus is generally on sentience – “the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjectively”. But it’s still hard to define. You don’t worry as much about killing a spider as you do a horse. And we’re 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, it being a mammal. Or the focus may be on affinity, the classic example being that dogs are eaten in some places outside the West when that is a no-no in the West. There are human tribes that will sometimes eat an animal, and at 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 and all life does, and that 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 develop 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. Making the decision of what to do with an unwanted pregnancy or actually killing an animal for food yourself might make you see things differently, if not change your mind. This is not to say that you will turn away from the act. It is just to say you are likely to see it differently. You might reconsider if it really needs to happen just a bit more, and so reduce how often or for what reason you would do it. There are hunters who understand the ‘sanctity of life’. 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 end things? Should we provide financially so that the mother or parent’s decision can change? Should the law make it equal murder? Should animals be eaten at all, or used for milk or clothes, or not raised in cages, or not be fed terribly, or just be eaten a little less or sourced sustainably to lessen the impact, or abuse legally punished? Does it 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. The society can’t agree on to what degree it should be sanctioned or behavior changed, in addition to in what circumstance.
- 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 something like a ‘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 that are against eating meat for a long time, out of kindness as mentioned before. And abortion has always been something to consider. They have always been hot-topics because they ask ever-present questions.
So, a lot of these factors sound eerily the same. Yet often people are 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 there are people who 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.
Another thought I had was, do people care about one more than the other? What have the social changes been like 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. People, globally, are increasingly choosing to eat less meat or modify their diet due to arguments against eating meat, either altogether or due to modern farming. Data on abortion from Statista is on the US, and 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 that they are for letting the woman decide, not necessarily in favor of the procedure. A little over half the US population does think it’s morally wrong although half would let the woman decide. (As a side note, I think it’s weird it’s defined as solely up to the woman.)
After I thought about all these parallels, I wanted to think about it from the opposite perspective and consider why the arguments are different:
- The obvious difference is that we have always mainly defined ethics as moral decision as it 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. You could say that we value intelligence and rank it. But not all humans are equally intelligent depending on age, development issues, and so on. Other animals that we eat could be considered as intelligent as some humans. 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 for why the arguments for pro-life and not eating meat were different. I would be interested in learning about more. I’m comparing the similarities, not actually arguing for either movement, at least that’s not what I’m doing right now. I just want to point out the parallels. Because it’s very interesting how people can see one but not the other, although I pointed out the main difference I see. And the inherent drama of where to draw the line is like watching a rotoscope detailing in constant motion. Do our ethics only extend to us? And what if the definition of us changes? After all, things that we never used to consider cruel because they were happening to ‘people’ other than us, now seem unethical because those ‘people’ are now ‘like us’. Whatever we are used to now seems obvious, but it’s not that fixed.
The reason these moral debates occur is that we have the ability and instinct to have them. This could be due to some metaphysical drive, or a biological one that we act out without fully understanding why. Life consumes life in this universe and the decision to modify how that’s done is based on our ability, as conscious and intelligent beings, to empathize and not take part. It is also based on how much it will cost us since we put ourselves first for the most part. But we have the power to change many things and define how we want 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 we 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. And they are not the same because we 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 we are grappling with, and, it really interests me.
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. And when I did think on them I wasn’t sure. And I do think that individual situations are complex.
Before working on this piece, I didn’t realize that being pro-choice means allowing the woman to choose. Not simply being against abortion, but being against it to the point of wanting to enshrine it in law is pro-life. The situation is a complex one to me. I think it’s wrong to have an abortion, but if I’m not 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 means that the life belongs to the parents. This seems like a continuation of a silent assumption in society, that children are considered un-independent property for long after birth, so it’s 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 us 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 wrong 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 eating meat being enshrined any time soon. I also don’t think it’s universally wrong in all contexts. I think it’s wrong because we can see that it could be more right, if that makes sense. I simply think as a species we’re not there yet and that it will happen over time. Deciding what steps to take, such as not killing directly or indirectly, farming humanely, not exploiting at all when there are other options, and untying that from the issue of domestication and bred dependence is complicated. Cetaceans are considered non-human persons in some countries already. And there are similar movements advocating for ‘non-human persons’ around the world. Whatever will happen is going to 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. I think there are battles people can choose to fight out of many, and eventually, the rest of society and maybe humanity may be persuaded. But I am sure there are things I do today that may be considered wrong a thousand years from now. This is not to say moral causes shouldn’t be fought for, but to say that it is complicated.
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/
Great ape personhood https://web.archive.org/web/20100203225450/http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_rose/20070802.html