Can human rights activists and animal rights activists agree?

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Cornell law professors Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf have a piece comparing the pro-life movement with the animal rights cause, examining whether either is hypocritical for not embracing the other. And while the piece starts off more evenhanded than the usual fare on our alleged hypocrisy, it still makes a number of flawed points that make pro-lifers’ ground seem weaker than it really is. The authors write:

[H]ow can people who would ban the destruction of even a one-celled human zygote — an entity as simple as an amoeba and possessing no more consciousness than a fingernail or a strand of hair — eat and use the flesh, skin, and secretions of feeling creatures like cows, pigs, and chickens whose lives were filled with unspeakable suffering, ended only by horrific deaths?

First, refreshingly, their answer to their opening question is not a knee-jerk attack but an acknowledgment that the difference is rooted in real philosophical disagreements, not mere negligence:

Each kind of activism challenges conventional views about the moral relevance of membership in the human species. People in the pro-life movement regard humanity as a sufficient condition for moral rights; animal-rights advocates reject the notion that humanity is a necessary condition for moral rights. Seen in this way, the mystery dissolves. There is so little overlap between the movements because each asserts what the other denies.

They next gently chide pro-choice animal rights activists for neglecting that their own logic—that sentience, or the ability to experience things like pleasure or pain, is the basis for moral rights—“implies that at least some abortions are immoral.” But throughout the rest of the piece, they leave the distinct impression that it’s pro-lifers, and pro-lifers alone, who need to rethink things.

Pro-lifers take issue with sentience as the deciding factor, arguing instead that our rights are solely dependent on our status as humans, a species fundamentally unique as evidenced by our capacity for morality and rational thought. The authors acknowledge that, but curiously don’t dispute it—save for a condescending line that “perhaps” our position comes from “religious reasons” or thinking abortion “is a waste of the precious gift of life.” If they acknowledged that our position is rooted in philosophy and reason we could have an interesting exchange about it, but they seem uninterested in that.


Instead, their point in bringing it up is to suggest pro-lifers are undermining ourselves with incremental legislation:

To be sure, the emphasis on fetal pain may be best understood as an effort to appeal to those elements of the general public who do not hold strong pro-life views, but that tactical choice is itself telling. Like laws that forbid so-called “partial-birth abortion” and other late-term abortions, laws forbidding the abortion of “pain capable” fetuses trade on the widely shared moral intuition that abortion is wrong only (or especially) insofar as it harms someone who can suffer.

Frankly, I’ve never understood how writers fail to see a problem with answering their own question yet treating it like it’s still unresolved in the same breath. If you admit that it’s straightforward strategy to appeal to those only willing to meet you halfway, then there’s nothing “telling” left. Political compromise is not a new concept.

Worse, Colb and Dorf then revisit their earlier observation about animal-rights activists who need to admit that some abortions extinguish the very sentience they recognize—and decide they don’t need to change after all:

True, from an animal-rights perspective, the abortion of a sentient fetus will sometimes be immoral, as when a woman simply waits until late in pregnancy to decide that she does not want to bear a child. But even then, it does not follow that an immoral abortion should necessarily be illegal as well.

This statement does absolutely nothing to get animal rights activists off the hook, because we could just as easily say “it does not follow that immoral treatment of animals should necessarily be illegal as well.” Did they forget they were talking about activists for animal rights, not people who merely suggest marginally nicer pet treatment?

From there, we get pure nonsense. They argue banning abortion would be unfeasible, citing the failed prohibition of alcohol—never mind that while no law is enforced with 100% effectiveness, Prohibition did substantially cut alcohol use, just as banning abortion would. They argue “it may be appropriate to commit the matter to individual conscience” only to admit in the next breath the difference between immoral speech and ending a life.

And most absurdly, they invoke the bogus bodily autonomy argument, as if forcing a woman to give birth is equivalent to “appropriat[ing] the bodies of cows and hens for the benefit of the people who will eventually eat the dairy and egg products.” Is that the comparison you really want to go with? The benefit of foods people like but could do without vs. the benefit of a child not needlessly dying? (And by the way: no, harvesting eggs are not chicken abortions. Yes, that occasionally needs clearing up.)

Finally, the authors make one final observation that inadvertently helps to clarify the difference between the two causes. While pondering whether either side should pursue “regulatory measures that do not fundamentally challenge the status quo,” they note that animal-rights activists “compromise” when “seeking welfare measures like larger cages that tacitly accept that using animals’ flesh and secretions may not be objectionable in itself.”

Left unmentioned is that most people on both sides generally support regulations against cruelty to animals—without believing they have rights or are equivalent to humans. It is precisely because they aren’t humans, with our unique nature as moral and rational beings, that it is appropriate to regulate their treatment through incremental assessment of sentience and value judgments such as greater good. Applying such criteria to people would lead to horrifying slippery slopes.

We would not only resolve all the points of contention Colb and Dorf bring up, but alleviate so much of the suffering the culture of abortion wreaks on this country, if only we took this simple truth to heart: Both human and animals may have value, but it is a vastly different kind of value.

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