Is “Pro-Choice Ethical Vegan” an Oxymoron?


In my last column here, I discussed the paradoxical nature of violent activism in the pursuit of nonviolent ends. In particular, the issue before us was whether a pro-life or pro-animal-rights activist could, logically and ethically, utilize violent methods for protecting vulnerable victims (animals and fetuses) from third-party violence. In this column, I take up a different paradox. The question here is whether it is morally consistent to be pro-choice on the abortion issue while simultaneously being an ethical vegan on the animal issue. Can a person defend the right to abortion without compromising her dedication to innocent life manifested in her commitment to ethical veganism?

Beating Hearts

In our book, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, Michael C. Dorf and I address some of the common puzzles, themes, and challenges that animate and confront both the pro-life and animal rights movements. Underlying the book is the potential for tension between the two movements. One can tell a coherent story, of which there are certainly adherents, such as Matthew Scully, in which one is opposed to gratuitous violence against living beings, including both human fetuses and nonhuman animals, and accordingly makes the choice to be both a pro-life activist and an ethical vegan, as Matthew Scully does. In general, however, these two movements contain little overlap. Anecdotal observations suggest that pro-life advocates tend not to have a commitment to animal rights or veganism and that vegans tend to be pro-choice rather than pro-life. One might regard this distance between the two movements as a puzzle, one that pro-life vegans must find frustrating and difficult to understand.

Changing Perspectives

As pro-choice vegans, Professor Dorf and I do believe that one can coherently take a pro-choice position on abortion while also living out a commitment to animal rights. But how? Our initial thought about this question was that if our reflections led us to conclude that one ought to be pro-life if one is to be a morally consistent vegan, then we were prepared to follow that route. As we gave the issues more thought, however, we realized that the analogy that drove our concern about inconsistency was potentially flawed or at least incomplete.

The analogy that most naturally arises in thinking about animal rights and fetal rights is that between the innocent and defenseless nonhuman animal—such as a cow on a kill line in a slaughterhouse, after her milk productivity has dropped to “unacceptable” levels—and the innocent and defenseless fetus (or embryo) waiting unsuspectingly to be removed from the safety of the womb and aborted inside the walls of a clinic. This analogy can be a compelling one, especially if we are considering the morality of abortion from the point of view of the pregnant woman. For her, the choice to terminate a pregnancy does involve the voluntary extraction and killing of a vulnerable embryo or fetus living inside her body. And as we elaborate in our book, this decision might, in some circumstances, be an unethical one, comparable to the decision to terminate the life of an innocent animal by consuming the flesh or bodily secretions of animals.

There is, however, another perspective from which to view the abortion dilemma. It is not just the case of a woman deciding whether to terminate or carry a pregnancy to term. It is also the case of a government (or nongovernmental actors) deciding whether to block the woman who wants to have an abortion, whether to make it difficult or impossible for her to terminate her pregnancy, or whether to allow the woman to carry out the choice that she has made. Stated differently, the abortion dilemma involves two primary actors with ethical obligations: the woman who wishes to terminate and the government (or powerful non-governmental actor(s)) that plans to stand in the woman’s way and prevent her from doing what she wishes to do.

Once we switch perspectives to the government, we realize that what the government is doing—in addition to attempting to rescue a fetus—is interfering in a substantial and highly intrusive fashion with a woman’s bodily integrity. The woman wishes to be free of an entity that is occupying the inside of her body, posing health risks to her, causing potentially great discomfort, and diverting the work of her bodily systems toward its own survival and growth. To stand in the way of her choice is to compel the woman to carry all of these burdens inside her body against her will. If the woman were carrying a parasite inside her body that was making her ill in some of the ways that pregnancy makes people ill, we would consider it outrageous for the government to block her from obtaining the medicine needed to stop the parasite from taking over her body.

Changing perspectives in this way allows us to attend to two relevant facts about the abortion dilemma that might have been obscured by the pure fetus/animal analogy. The first fact is that abortion is not simply an act of violence against a fetus or an embryo; it is also an act of ending the internal occupation of an unwilling Good Samaritan who wishes to be free of an intensely demanding physical status that is in important respects unique to pregnancy. Unlike someone who decides to eat a piece of dairy cheese or a hamburger, then, the woman who decides to terminate her pregnancy does not have an easy alternative option (like rice and beans or a delicious veggie burger) but must go through months of internal occupation and then the excruciating pain of labor or surgery. She must choose either to commit an act of violence or to be a Good Samaritan; she has no “bystander” option whereby she can fail to save the fetus but also refrain from doing anything violent to that fetus.

A second relevant fact that emerges when we change perspectives is that there is an analogy to be drawn not only between a fetus and a nonhuman animal but between an unhappily pregnant woman and a nonhuman animal. Female animals—especially those involved in producing reproductive “food” products like dairy yogurt, cheese, and milk, and ovulatory products like omelets and eggs—are subject to brutal and relentless reproductive servitude, pain, distress, and ultimately slaughter as part of the production process. This is one of the reasons that ovo-lacto vegetarianism so betrays the female animals. Likewise, when the government seeks to compel an unwilling woman to carry her pregnancy to term, despite her objections, it is forcibly placing her in the role of a reproductive slave. Like the dairy cow who has been forcibly impregnated, the pregnant woman who wishes to be “unpregnant” again—to restore her pre-pregnancy physical state—is subject to force that converts her from an autonomous individual into an involuntary incubator on behalf of the state. In thinking about the pro-life position, then, it is important to keep in mind the role of state (or non-governmental) physical coercion necessary to keeping a woman in a state of pregnancy against her will, a kind of coercion that mirrors what we do to animals to farm them for their flesh and especially for their secretions (like fluid breast milk).

To be sure, the level of coercion involved in animal farming is far more extensive and thorough than anything that a pro-life advocate would propose for pregnant women. For one thing, many of the pregnant women who wish to terminate their pregnancies initially became pregnant through consensual sex. Farmed animals, by contrast, virtually always become pregnant through a highly invasive process of forced insemination, a process that itself violates the intimate boundaries of the animal and can cause injury. For another thing, the pregnant woman who is forced to take her pregnancy to term generally has the option of keeping her baby and nursing him or her. This contrasts greatly with the fate of a dairy cow who gives birth and has her baby taken from her so that the calf’s rightful breast milk—his baby food—can be diverted to human use while the calf is slaughtered as veal.

Notwithstanding these differences, however, there is still tremendous coercion involved in keeping a woman pregnant against her will, given all of the physical impositions and internal burdens involved. The analogy between her and a farmed animal therefore comes to seem at least as plausible as the analogy between her fetus and the same farmed animal.

Procuring Death versus Ending Internal Occupation

To crystalize the mandatory Good Samaritan feature of compelled pregnancy, consider an important difference between two features of abortion: the killing of the fetus and the termination of the woman’s internal occupation. Prior to viability—the point at which the fetus can (at least in theory) survive outside the womb—terminating the woman’s pregnant status will have the inevitable consequence of also killing the fetus. Yet the right to bodily integrity that the woman asserts is most saliently a right to the first and not to the second. What this means is that if and when technology has progressed to the point that a woman can end her state of pregnancy without killing her fetus, her entitlement might rightly narrow to being able only to stop being pregnant but not to terminate the life of the fetus, particularly once the fetus has become a sentient being and therefore vested with its own entitlement to continue living free of violence. It is easy to conflate an interest in killing the fetus with an interest in ending one’s pregnancy so long as it is impossible to do one without also doing the other, but the two are conceptually distinct, and there is a much stronger case for the latter, a matter of restoring bodily integrity, than for the former, a matter of destroying an unwanted fetus or embryo.

Maybe Room for Compromise

Ultimately, I suspect that pro-life vegan individuals will remain so, notwithstanding the analogy I have drawn here between the pregnant woman and the animal. Sure, they will concede, much is required of the woman who carries a pregnancy to term, but what is truly required, at the core, is that she refrain from killing her baby. The pro-life advocate focuses on the violence of abortion, in other words, rather than on the “Good Samaritanship” of those who do not—or cannot—abort.

In answer to this point, I would offer the suggestion that perhaps we can cabin the overwhelming number of abortions that take place prior to fetal sentience—prior to the point at which a fetus is capable of having feelings like pleasure and pain, or emotions. Most women who choose to terminate their pregnancies do so early in the process, long before the fetus has begun to have subjective experiences and therefore long before the act of killing the fetus might rightly qualify as true “violence” against “someone” rather than something.

When we combine the woman’s interest in being free of a highly intrusive internal occupation with the fact that most aborted fetuses have not yet attained “sentience,”’ there is perhaps some room for consensus among pro-life and pro-choice advocates who can all agree that post-sentience (somewhere north of 23-30 weeks gestation) abortions raise serious ethical issues from the point of view of the woman contemplating a termination. To so recognize is not to agree that such abortion should be illegal (which pro-choice individuals would likely reject), but it is perhaps to agree that early abortions ought to be treated more generously than later ones and even that measures that delay abortion (perhaps to a point that crosses the sentience line) ought especially to be avoided.

  • Karen Dawn

    What a thoughtful article. Thank you! Compromise is desperately needed, here and in so many areas of society, and it is wonderful to see that noted. Sadly, instead we see unreasonable polarization. We have serious presidential candidates saying there should be no exceptions anywhere, even for the safety of the mother. On the other side we have those who reject that even women whose babies would have waiting lists of good homes desperate for them, should be asked to consider taking a fetus just a few more months to term rather than having having a late term abortion. There has to be a middle ground.

  • Marilynlov7

    I haven’t thought about that. And I had being a vegan down to even no leather garments.No tattoos. No fabric softners or perfumes. I know it will never be perfect until there is more transparency but I’d rather try than give up. No matter what side you are on; fetus being a person or not; animals have emotions or not….Bot:tom Line animals and the environment are important. I’m sorry humans have removed ourselves from nature making us unimportant. So less humans the better. We made our beds so some sort of population control is the price. Right now it can still be a choice. Besides the facts about abortions are the majority are for medical reasons, not a form of birth control. So it’ more of a pro medical option than choice. Even when it is used in the light of a accident, another unwanted child in the world. What wonderful life are you bringing that child into for? Adoption system is so broken. Pro lifers should do something more useful..fixing that system and adoption would replace abortion.

    • VeesaLee

      Where did you get the idea that most abortions are for medical reasons? That’s simply untrue. Wildly untrue. The vast, overwhelming majority of abortions are for unintended but otherwise healthy pregnancies.

  • Mark Huffman

    The occupied by a parasite idea while intended to be viscerally compelling is essentially useless. If the fetus is in fact a person, whether it feels like a foreign occupation or not simply doesn’t matter. If it isn’t, then no one cares. So the only question is whether it’s a person or not.
    Colb uses “sentience” as her touchstone, but how she could ever actually prove that sentience is the objective measure of personhood, and that some other measure does not in fact exist, is currently impossible. That means the personhood status of a fetus is uncertain, which in turn means that making decisions that affect the existence of another living thing in reliance on it is truly reckless.

  • VeesaLee

    I’m a long time vegan as well as an atheist, feminist, and lots of other “ists” where a pro-choice stance is seen as the only sane position. However, as a woman who has had a miscarriage and given birth I can’t, with any basis in logic, say abortion is just “removing a clump of cells,” Because that’s just not true.

    How do those who will argue the sentient of insects or say they would carry head lice outside before they would kill them, and who understand the cognitive dissonance needed to eat and use animals, also refuse to even consider anything but abortion on demand?

  • Valerie Wilkins

    Sorry, I’m not buying the rationalization.
    No one KNOWS FOR SURE when the unborn become “sentienent”

  • Loretta Hale

    You simply can’t expect people to take you seriously about giving

    up something they believe is tasty, nutritious, economical, and natural
    (animal products), while you DEFEND a distressed pregnant women’s
    “choice” to kill her own (defenseless) unborn baby for social/economic
    All your “rationalizing” sounds just like it is–“rationalizing”.
    You think it is ok to kill for convenience (abortion), but you are telling
    the vast majority of the population that THEIR convenience killing
    (animal products) is NOT ok.
    I can only call it absurd when vegans cringe at the thought of killing
    a fish, but just don’t see a moral issue with killing a human unborn baby.