Nothing quite kills the mood at a dinner party like discussions of religion, politics, abortion, or veganism. So I thought it would be a bang-up idea if in THIS video, we discuss all four! (I don’t have much of a social life…)
Among the litany of objections to and arguments against veganism, from your standard “plants have feelings” and “but lions eat meat,” lies an area of discourse not so easily answered or discounted: the vegan stance on abortion. [tweet this]
The topics of abortion and veganism do share common ground. Both are decidedly polarizing issues quick to spark heated debate, [tweet this] have passionately outspoken individuals on either side of the issue, often utilize similar tactics within their outreach, education, and demonstrations, and involve a strong focus on the concepts of sentience, individuality, pain perception and consciousness.
Before we dive into this moralistic minefield, let me first state that I will not be settling the abortion debate in this video. Sorry to disappoint. What I will do is present the various arguments posed, along with perceived logical inconsistencies, and scientific insights. I will also be using the common terms of pro-life and pro-choice though I realize that either side has issues with these and have their own terminology. This is merely to simplify the rhetoric in order to address the topic at hand.
I’d like to add that there is no vegan consensus or official doctrine on abortion. Vegans, like the rest of the world’s population, hold very different beliefs outside of their refusal to participate in the exploitation of non-human animals. Views on abortion are often, but not always, heavily influenced by ones religious or spiritual practice and morals, which vary as wildly amongst vegans as non.
In fact the issue of whether abortion is even relevant to veganism itself is hotly debated. While the abortion issue is, at least from my personal experience, most often thrown out as a diversion tactic intended to invalidate veganism as a whole, there remain a few very real and valid intersections to explore.
The disconnect most often perceived within the veganism and abortion debate is the pro-choice vegan. [tweet this] Let’s start at the surface and the most basic argument against pro-choice veganism: if vegans are against killing, then we have to be against all killing. The fallacy in this position is what’s called a false dilemma, posing a black and white reality when ample grey exists.
Even most peace-loving pacifists would defend themselves against an attacker and find no moral fault in the death of a perpetrator during a true kill-or-be-killed situation.
On the other side of the coin lies the most basic defense for pro-choice veganism: abortion is dealing with a fetus in utero, of which the sentience, consciousness and pain perception continues to be hotly debated, while veganism deals with beings who are undeniably sentient, conscious, and pain-perceiving. However, as we will soon see, this oversimplification fails to account for countless complex nuances, though it is without doubt the most striking divergence, and one to take into account.
When we start delving deeper into the abortion debate, the lines begin to blur even further.
The ability of a fetus to feel pain is a primary argument of the pro-life camp. Seeing as how the prevention of pain and suffering is a pillar of vegan ethics as well, it would appear that pro-choice vegans are left with quite the conundrum. If, in fact, a fetus can feel pain, then the born vs. unborn moral distinction fails. The key word being “if.”
Here’s one of the places the abortion debate lacks the clarity of veganism. Scientists still do not agree on fetal pain perception. A 2005 meta-analysis concluded that, “fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”
The earliest estimate comes from Dr. Kanwaljeet S. Anand, something of an outlier in the field and oft-quoted by the pro-life cause. Anand proposes a window of 18-24 weeks, though he’s emphasized that, “fetal pain does not have much relevance for abortion, since most abortions are performed before the fetus is capable of experiencing pain,” with only 1.5% of abortions occurring after 20 weeks in the United States.
One element clouding the issue is the difference between nociception and pain, something I discuss more in-depth in my video “Do Fish Feel Pain.” In short, there can be reaction to potentially painful or harmful stimuli without the experience of pain, and nociceptors, which appear as early as 7 weeks, are not in and of themselves capable of relaying pain.
Of course, this uncertainty doesn’t exactly place pro-choice veganism in the clear. Many vegans believe that the ability of non-human animals to feel pain shouldn’t have to be scientifically proven to our satisfaction before we stop abusing them. Why conduct cruel studies when they make it glaringly obvious with crying out, trying to escape, flinching, struggling, and showing indicators of psychological stress? We should operate on the assumption that they can feel pain. So why then, does this courtesy not extend to a human fetus?
If pain alone were the issue, vegans would support the killing of unconscious animals and pro-lifers wouldn’t protest the abortion of fetuses prior to the development of pain perception. But both issues have additional layers, such as conscious awareness or sentience, and future life interests.
Vegans see the sentience of non-human animals, meaning their ability to feel, perceive and experience life subjectively, as a solid grounds for their protection. Often interchanged with “consciousness,” sentience in non-human animals is widely accepted among scientists, with over 2,500 studies and the release of an international Declaration of Consciousness in 2012.
Similar to the variances in pain-perception development, the certainty of sentience is lacking within the abortion debate. Still, as vegan activist Gary Yourofsky has stated, “sentience [isn’t] the only factor when deciding how we should treat other beings. (Even though trees, mountains, air and water are insentient life forces, I think they have a right NOT to be exploited and polluted and destroyed.)”
Where the argument against pro-choice veganism really gains some ground is the discussion of life potential. Vegans, including myself, often argue that even if we could somehow, someway actually kill a non-human animal without any pain or awareness, it would still be unethical as we could be choosing to end their life prematurely. We do not see such an action as our choice, as personal choice is no longer personal when it involves the welfare of another.
How, then, can a vegan possibly support the choice to abort the potential life of a human? The argument that the fetus is not aware of a future won’t stand unless vegans also condone the killing of animals who are unaware or unconscious at the time of death. So have we circled back to the born vs. unborn divide? Again this becomes hazy with the uncertainty of pain and sentience.
There exists an element of self-defense congruent with vegan ideals that can be applied to abortion in the cases of rape and incest or when the life of the mother is at stake. But what about abortion out of inconvenience or financial strain? Or sex-selective abortions wherein female fetuses are aborted due to male cultural preference, a practice most often associated with China and India, but prevalent in many other countries where males increasingly outnumber females. Is choosing to stop the potential life of a fetus for what could be termed one’s own comfort a parallel to meat eaters ending the lives of non-human animals for their own comfort?
Even more direct parallels exist. In my video “Is Lab Grown Meat Vegan,” I discussed the harvesting methods for bovine fetal serum, a growth medium used within a wide range of laboratory experiments, along with fetal pig and fetal sheep serums. Bovine fetal serum is obtained by piercing and draining the beating heart of fetal calves who’ve been cut from their mothers’ wombs in slaughterhouses.
This practice was understandably met with horror and disgust from vegan viewers and even non-vegans. Were any of these vegans pro-choice, would this reaction be an indication of dissonance or hypocrisy? The study I cited went on in length about the potential pain-perception of the bovine fetuses and referenced a general acceptance of 24 weeks for human fetus pain perception, and presented a figure of roughly 12 weeks, or 3 months for cows, who are more fully developed at birth than humans.
Again the variances in situation may create a buffer for the pro-choice vegan given that bovine fetuses must be at least 3 months old to provide enough serum and are often 6 months or older when put through this procedure without any anesthesia, well beyond the point of pain perception. Additionally, it’s readily evident that a human mother procuring an abortion differs dramatically from cutting a living fetus from the body of a mother cow slaughtered against her will in order to drain the heart for profit.
I would like to bring up another wrinkle. While vegans believe in the rights of non-human animals, the majority, from what I have found, which is by no means conclusive, do seem to support the spaying and neutering of companion animals. While this is most certainly a violation of their rights, it is not, as Gary Yourofsky has written, a cruel practice when performed properly. He, along with many activists, argues that since the domestication of dogs and cats will not be undone anytime soon, spaying and neutering is a better alternative than the current cruel and needless deaths of millions of abandoned, unwanted companion animals due to overbreeding.
Once again the parallel is by no means ideal, as our animal companions have no ability to make this choice for themselves, and spaying and neutering prevents a pregnancy while abortion ends one. I present this simply as an example of vegans being faced with an ethical ambiguity and supporting the restriction of animals’ reproductive rights.
At the more misanthropic end of the spectrum, since humanity continues to murder trillions of innocent beings every year, decimate the planet, and grow in population and demand for meat, could it be argued that stemming this proliferation at its root would actually be perfectly inline with vegan principles?
Any attempt to present a singular vegan view on abortion negates the diversity and variance of vegans themselves. Many vegans reject the aforementioned “animals vs. humans” dichotomy, seeing human and animal rights as inextricable – to be protected and fought for concurrently.
Something I personally find fascinating in this whole debate is the focus on whether vegans can be pro-choice. With all of the uncertainties inherent in fetal pain-perception and sentience and the absolute certainties of non-human animal c pain-perception and sentience it’s interesting that the more concrete question usually remains unasked: non-vegans be pro-life?
As I said in the opener, I’m not going to settle the abortion debate, or even the veganism and abortion debate. Even with my attempts at simplifications, it’s evident how complex this dialogue can easily become.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the debate in the comments below!
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Now go live vegan, be sure to show this video at your next dinner party, and I’ll see you soon.
➣ More “IS THIS VEGAN?” Series
➣ Do Fish Feel Pain? [more on nociception] ➣ Is Lab Meat Vegan? [bovine fetal issue] ➣ The REAL Environmental Cost [human impact] ➣ How Many Animals Do We Kill Every Year? [human impact] ➣ The Sh*t People Say To Vegans [objections parody] ➣ Plants Have Feelings!
➣ Do Animals Grieve?
➣ Are Tampons Vegan? [includes fetal serum usage]
CITATIONS [Full Bibliography of Works Consulted Below Citations]
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 “Expert Report of Kanwaljeet S. Anand, M.B.B.S., D.Phil.,” accessed April 8, 2016.
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Anand, K. J., and M. Maze. “Fetuses, Fentanyl, and the Stress Response: Signals from the Beginnings of Pain?” Anesthesiology 95, no. 4 (October 2001): 823–25.
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———. “Is Lab Grown Meat Vegan?” BiteSizeVegan.com, March 28, 2016. http://bitesizevegan.com/ethics-and-morality/do-fish-feel-pain/.
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