Animal Rights vs Fetal Rights

» January 26th, 2014

A brain dead  Texas woman carrying a four-month fetus is being kept on life support in a Fort Worth hospital. This is being done against a court order (and the wishes of her family) on the grounds that the hospital must do everything in its power to protect the “unborn child.” (Story is here.)

This case obviously highlights the combative politics surrounding abortion in Texas and elsewhere. But what really grabs me the most about this situation–despite the obvious sadness of it all–is the quandary it poses for ethical vegans who support a woman’s right to choose while insisting that all unnecessary animal exploitation is morally wrong.

Under “normal” circumstances, this quandary is (more or less) resolvable: a woman’s choice whether or not to carry a fetus becomes a moral consideration that outweighs the fetus’ right to life. For many vegans, this right to bodily autonomy is an acceptable competing moral consideration against the fetus’ viability.

But in the case of the Texas woman, choice has been eliminated from the equation by complete mental incapacitation. She is now (as I understand her condition) a vessel being kept nominally alive by machines for the sole purpose of nurturing the fetus. To my knowledge, she feels no pain and, although cases such as this are rare, there have been instances where a fetus under such conditions has survived.

This is a tough one for anyone who is pro-choice and pro-animal rights. After all, to grant the family’s wish to take the woman off life support and kill the fetus would be to allow the unnecessary destruction of a (proto?) sentient being, an allowance that many vegans would not even accept for questionably sentient animals such as insects and oysters. To deny the family’s wish, on the other hand, is to align yourself with abortion foes who believe that a woman’s choice is irrelevant in determining the fate of her own fetus.


Update: this just in.



39 Responses to Animal Rights vs Fetal Rights

  1. mynamefluffy says:

    First of all, most abortions take place well before any viability is even possible, making the argument about the sentient nature of the unborn being a factor to consider vis-a-vis removing the personal and bodily autonomy of a grown woman. She is also a sentient being with a life, health needs, and a right to her physical person as guaranteed by the constitution. Unfortunately for that unborn child, his/her fate was determined the moment the mother had a stroke (or whatever it was). Her death means death for the fetus. If the fetus was at the age of viability, a delivery right away might have been possible, but since that is not the case, using a cadaver for an incubator is ghoulish and would seem to be contrary to some religious sensitivities – I mean, the Catholic Church is against in vitro but are they ok with growing a baby inside of a corpse? It is still an artificial entity- this poor woman is dead by every definition.

    Secondly, I think we need to be clear that many if not most “prolife” individuals are not pro-LIFE: they are pro-BIRTH. If they were truly prolife, they would support measures to improve education, heath care, decent wages, equal pay across genders, affordable BIRTH CONTROL (which they continue to act like is a sex pill for nymphomaniacs), appropriate sex education, stiffer penalties and better prosecution of sexual crimes, and drug addiction treatment, all of which make unintended pregnancies (and the subsequent procurement of abortion services) much less likely. They are all for forced pregnancy and birth – but they don’t seem to give 2 sh!ts about that life the second it leaves the womb.

    I find THAT to be a much bigger inconsistency than a vegan who supports a woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy.


    • Taylor says:

      Your points are not without merit, but they sidestep the issue raised by James. What the Catholic Church thinks about corpses as incubators and whether anti-abortion activists are sufficiently concerned about (after-birth) children tells us nothing about what a consistent vegan position on abortion might be.

      • mynamefluffy says:

        What I was trying to do was point out that the Cath. church and “prolife” activists BOTH have an inconsistency with regard to their ethics – they consistently choose an unborn being with unknown sentience over already-here, sentient people. I don’t believe I side stepped anything. Vegans are concerned about needlessly destroying the sentient life of any animal. Many would argue that a fetus, particularly before viability, when most abortions are performed, is part of the woman’s body and not a living being capable of sustaining life on its own if removed from the woman’s body. Therefore the ethical dilemma about killing a sentient being does not apply. After viability, when only the tiniest percentage of abortions are performed, is a bit of a stickier question ethically, but many would still argue that the life and health of mother outweigh the not-yet-born fetus/baby if such a decision is ever necessary. And in this particular case, the medical outcome is clear – this fetus in effect died when the mother died – its fate was sealed. If anyone in the medical community at that institution really believed that viability was possible, a delivery would have been done right away and the fetus placed in an incubator in the NICU. But instead, they are using this as a test case to further advance their control over a woman’s right to control her own body and medical decisions. No vegan is choosing to terminate this life. They both died when the mother had the blood clot and the hospital determined that a delivery was not possible/practical. ~Linda

        • mynamefluffy says:

          I will also add that many veterinarians will not perform a spay on a pregnant female, particularly if the pregnancy is advanced and the kittens are close to being born. So the idea of trying to preserve viable life often extends to non-human animals we well. Although I am sure that many prolife advocates would not have a care in the world about terminating THOSE lives. So who is more inconsistent then? I maintain that vegan ethics, even on this issue, are more consistent than those of others. ~Linda

  2. Caroline RH says:

    As a big animal rights supporter – and also pro-choice person – I don’t get the ethical dilemma. The idea is that ANIMALS should not be subjected to needless suffering. In this case, the woman is not suffering because she is brain dead. The fetus is not suffering because it’s not sentient, it’s not self-aware yet, at least in this case.

    • sharon says:

      totally agree Caroline RH – i am pro-choice, and ethical vegan – there is no dilemma here – the woman is dead, the fetus can’t survive independently… i am appalled they are keeping this woman’s body as an incubator – unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me though…

  3. Laura says:

    I’m in favor of gamma rays from “out there” sterilizing every possibly sentient life on this planet so we have NO more reproduction of lives subjected to horrible suffering and eventual death. That aside, I believe unborn babies are potentially highly sentient in some pre-birth ways we don’t understand, much as we don’t know the other secrets of life and what is behind & beyond all this. I think it’s cruel, slovenly and brutish to deliberately murder those lives; but that’s typical human behavior… watch footage of baby lambs being slaughtered! It’s a vicious cycle, needs to be “nuked”… veganism worldwide is that needed weapon: No “pro-life” anti-abortionists who eat slaughtered animals! No “pro-choice” abortion supporters who piously abstain from all animal products. We could be pro-life anti-abortionists who rightfully abstain from all animal products. But that would require thoughtfulness and sanity.

  4. Les Roberts says:

    The “thoughts” and “rules”of government, especially the one in Texas, go beyond intrusive, all the way to EVIL. The poor mother is now simply feeding trough, nothing else. I wonder if the fetus does NOT survive, the woman—probably still on life-support system despite her family’s wishes, will be charged with murder. Just wondering.

    I am a totally committed vegan.

  5. sdunne1989 says:

    I guess I take the view that whereas people and animals have preferences, fetuses (at least up to a certain point in their development) do not. I don’t think it’s a matter of a woman’s ‘right to choose’ outweighing the fetus’s ‘right to life.’ I don’t think beings that lack preferences have a ‘right to life,’ or else it’d be impossible to justify eating vegetables too.

    • James says:

      “Up to a certain point.” What point? Beings that lack preferences? I would say every being–plant or animal– has a preference to live rather than to die. What matters here is the capability to consciously experience suffering. That distinction eliminates plants but includes a surprising array of animal life, including (possibly) fetuses and humans who are often severely incapacitated.

      • sdunne1989 says:

        I guess I disagree that plants even have preferences (I fully agree that they cannot suffer). Having a preference would seem to require a mind –something we have very little evidence for in plants.

        I agree that suffering is an especially important preference to take into account, but I said ‘preferences’ in general because you simply can’t harm anything that doesn’t have preferences, whereas you can still harm a being that has preferences but lacks the capacity for suffering.

        I said “up to a certain point,” because the line for where a human fetus starts having preferences (for example, feeling pain or pleasure) is still a matter of scientific debate, and it may never be a settled matter. I think the rough consensus right now is that it can’t be drawn earlier than the formation of the thalimo-cortical connection, around the 26th week.

        • Mountain says:

          Plants form anesthetics when injured, network and share information with other plants, trade resources with other plants (and fungi!), and plan for the future. There’s little evidence that they have sentience or the ability to feel pain (but then why produce anesthetic compounds when injured?), but I think it’s pretty obvious they have preferences.

          • sdunne1989 says:

            Mountain, I think we had this same disagreement when it came to animals being ‘rational agents.’ Again, I disagree with your definition.

            Yes, plants have remarkably complex ‘behaviors’ that help further their own existence and by extension the existence of their genes. But preferences (i.e. thinking or feeling ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’) require a mind. Do you think that the sunflower turning to face the source of light, actually feels anything, or do you think such an adaptation would be superfluous and thus unlikely to arise or persist among sunflowers?

            Btw, if you’re referring to ethylene as an anesthetic, yes, it has pain-reducing properties in humans, but it has a large number of functions in plants, some relating to damage to the plant, some not.

          • Mountain says:

            The field of psychology use “preferences” the way you’re using it– explicit decision-making, with implications of liking or disliking. In any other context, it means what I mean by it– the behavior of choosing one thing over another, which doesn’t require any particular awareness. Your meaning could be referred to as “stated preferences,” whereas mine would be called “revealed preferences.” With humans, revealed preferences have far more predictive value than stated preferences. A simpler way of stating this truth is: “actions speak louder than words.”

            If you’ll re-read my comment, you’ll see that I didn’t claim plants have sentience or feelings. But they do have preferences, clearly revealed preferences. That doesn’t mean you have to extend moral consideration to plants– no more than sentience requires omnivores to extend moral consideration to animals– but you shouldn’t pretend these preferences don’t exist.

          • sdunne1989 says:

            Okay, two things:

            1) The way I’m using ‘preferences’ is the way it’s normally understood, and the primary dictionary definition (i.e. liking or not liking something in comparison with something else). But more importantly

            2) If you saw that James and I were just using different definitions, why not point that out instead of saying it’s ‘pretty obvious they have preferences’?

          • Mountain says:

            Cool story, bro.

            I said it’s pretty obvious they have preferences because it’s pretty obvious they have preferences.


            You can acknowledge the obvious or pretend it isn’t there. What’s your preference?

          • sdunne1989 says:

            So are we still using preferences in different senses?

            The plant in the article you posted does not ‘like’ its genetic relatives. It is not ‘choosing’ to avoid taking nutrients from them. If we’re using ‘preferences’ in the way I clearly was, it does not have them.

            The fact that scientists use teleological/anthropomorphic language in their explanations of phenomena doesn’t make those things literally true. Genes aren’t literally ‘selfish,’ and as I’m sure you realize, the plant in this article is not literally “politely restrain[ing] itself.”

            Again, if this was just a difference in the use of the term ‘preferences,’ why not just point that out?

          • Mountain says:

            “if this was just a difference in the use of the term ‘preferences,’ why not just point that out?”

            I did. As soon as it became clear that you were using the pointlessly anthropocentric meaning of “preferences” that psychology uses, I distinguished that use of the word from the way every other field uses it.

  6. John T. Maher says:

    Agential realism.

  7. If the woman isn’t viable on her own and, without the fetus, would have been removed from life support in her best interests as you stated, she should be removed from support. The whole business is artificial and not what would happen in nature. She is being prevented from leaving the earthly plane and moving on in her spiritual path. The pain being inflicted on her life and her loved ones transcends the rights of the fetus. Her best interests have been swept aside, and she is being harmed by those who want to control that which is not theirs to control. Sometimes people attempt to set aside their own guilt by thrusting it on others, in this case the mother. They are violating the laws of nature by keeping her alive and have done nothing to remove their own shortcomings which they do not want to see.

  8. michele says:

    moot . the body has been unplugged

  9. Rhys says:

    If we exclude religious reasons for being pro-life — “I’m pro-life because my God or religion says to be,” basically — I think certain arguments for veganism are more consistent with a pro-life view than a pro-choice view. But it depends on the particulars. For instance, someone who thinks humans should go extinct so that they stop harming animals should definitely be pro choice. Even though legal abortion isn’t nearly enough on its own to lead to human extinction, someone with this perspective might still sigh with relief at every abortion, because this stops the birth of a human who may have eaten animal products one day (even if born to vegan parents), and either way would certainly have caused harm to animals just by existing. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement takes this kind of perspective:

    However, if someone is vegan because they’re against killing, and if they’re against killing because this deprives an organism of positive future experiences, then it makes sense for this vegan to be pro-life — except in cases where it’s known that the mother will likely die if she carries the baby to term. That’s because a human fetus — even one that isn’t conscious yet or doesn’t feel pain — has positive future experiences in front of him or her that abortion takes away. Just as slaughter or hunting takes away the potential future positive experiences that a non-human animal might have had.

    Some pro-choice vegans who object to killing non-human animals because it takes away their future experiences try to make a distinction by saying that the animals we kill for food are already conscious of their lives before we take their lives away, whereas it seems that fetuses are not. But I don’t understand what a being having a current awareness of his or her own life has to do with the ethics of taking away that life’s future. The main relevance I see is that the animal being conscious means that he or she might fear slaughter, unlike the fetus who isn’t aware enough to know to fear abortion. But this just means we should take care to kill animals quickly, painlessly and unexpectedly, so that they are just as oblivious of their own deaths as a fetus is. (If we are to take the pro-choice perspective.)

    But for these pro-choice vegans, the difference seems to be that someone who is already born and self-aware usually has an interest in living — they’re already attached to life and will struggle to continue it. But why does that matter? They lose that interest and attachment the moment they die. Non-human animals who we kill are in no different a position than human fetuses that we kill: having no perspective whatsoever, to them it’s like they were never born. The lost future of a dead animal doesn’t bother that animal any more than the lost future of the fetus bothers the fetus. Whether they were conscious or not just before they died is irrelevant when what we’re talking about is lost future experiences.

    To make the point another way, consider someone who is knocked out and is in a temporary state of unconsciousness. This person is not any more attached to life than a fetus is, but since the coma is temporary, this person does have a potential future, just like a fetus does. Why then is it okay to kill the fetus, but not to kill this person in the coma and not to kill the non-human animal?

    • mynamefluffy says:


      It sounds like you are saying that a vegan ethic is very much oriented towards life, but a vegan who is pro choice should not be able to ethically object to a NH animal being killed as long as it is done quickly and painlessly.

      A few points:

      One important difference is that while most fetuses being aborted were not planned or desired by the mother, a NH animal killed for food was conceived (and usually quite violently), born, and kept alive for the express purpose of killing them later for human consumption. And as we all know, the life of a food animal is far from pleasant. They are confined, subject to procedures without anesthetic, raped (I believe the industry term is “inseminated”), overfed to ridiculous levels to make more “meat,” forced to take hormones and antibiotics, and ultimately killed, usually with great pain and distress. A fetus may or may not feel pain-certainly very early abortions involve a being that is not even developed to the point where pain perception is possible. Compare that to a fully grown, conscious, aware, sentient cow who knows she is about to be killed. In all of the above, very different scenarios.

      Killing of course deprives ANY being of future life, whether that is a fetus or a NH animal. But the thing to remember with a fetus is that it is attached to and part of the woman who is a sentient being and has rights to her life and future as well. A NH animal being killed is its own entity whose life is being snuffed out so someone can have a meal that they enjoy. A fetus is inside of and dependent on a woman who also has a life of her own and may have very compelling reasons to not have a child or even be pregnant. There are many situations, including medical, psychological, and cases of rape, where a full term pregnancy would be very detrimental to the woman and may even be deadly. What about HER right to her future?

      And regarding coma and persistent vegetative state patients, we all know it is wrong to cause pain to these individuals – no one is allowed to abuse these patients. And in many cases, the possibility exists that they could recover and have a future life. But in cases where it is determined medically that those odds are very low, the families are allowed to discontinue life support and allow a death to occur naturally – this is not killing but rather ceasing to artificially support that life. Again, a very different scenario than restraining and murdering a fully conscious animal so someone can eat it for dinner.


    • Taylor says:

      Rhys: You sound like you have been reading Don Marquis. Marquis says that depriving an individual of a future of value is what normally makes killing wrong. Marquis assumes abortion deprives a fetus of its future of value. But is the future of value that an abortion precludes in fact the fetus’s future of value? Read John Locke on personal identity and also Michael Tooley (“In Defense of Abortion and Infanticide”).

      Here are Marquis and Tooley discussing their views:

    • sdunne1989 says:

      I think I made this same point on Let Them Eat Meat one time –I think the unconscious person analogy is mistaken. A person in a state of unconsciousness still had a thought in the past “I want not to be killed because I want to experience the future,” so killing them violates a preference they had, even if they don’t have it in that exact moment. A fetus has had no such thought.

      Admittedly, this argument isn’t really of any help to animals, because although most appear to be able to anticipate future events, it seems like it’s a stretch to say they have a preference like “I want not to be killed because I want to experience the future.” But again, as I said above, animals at least have preferences, so they merit more consideration than human fetuses (though again, this might not be enough to guarantee them a right to life).

  10. Laura says:

    I see with the update you provided that the life support has been removed and the baby was allowed to die with the mother. I wonder what that was like for the baby, being about 5-6 months along. I don’t consider it an abortion issue, since abortion is deliberately killing a baby that would have been born. This baby could have possibly been saved at that age. He/she was allowed to possibly suffer before dying, but that may well be preferable to life here, especially since the baby is said to have had deformities where the gender couldn’t be determined. Perhaps the same soul will be born in good physical health to someone else? Who knows. I don’t believe in procreating so I’m no one to ask. The way people abuse, ruin and take animals’ lives as makes it hard for me to be passionate about the sacredness of human life. I wish things were very different.

  11. Elaine Brown says:

    Well, first, today, the judge allowed the husband to pull the plug.

    Second, it is the husband’s baby, too, and although the decision is always the woman’s when capacitated, but when not, it should be up to the husband.

    Third, humans have choice or should have, but animals in our world never have a choice unless wild and free which is being taken from those who are as we speak.

  12. Nick P says:

    There is no way, being intellectually honest, one can be pro animal rights and pro abortion. To end a baby’s life for non-life threatening reasons of the mother is counter to understanding and supporting the inherent value of all sentient life. I am pro life! I am pro ALL sentient life!!!!!

    • Elaine Brown says:

      All in ones opinion. A baby does not have a life until it is a baby. A fetus is not a baby. Life begins at birth. That is my opinion which is different from yours and neither of us can prove we are right.

      • Mountain says:

        So it’s okay to eat meat in utero? Sweet!

        • Elaine Brown says:

          Who eats meat in utero? What are you saying?

          • James says:

            I think Mountain’s point was that if you are going to draw such a sharp line between sentience and non-sentience, or “baby” and fetus, then you would, according to that distinction, be able to justify eating an animal fetus on moral grounds.

          • Mountain says:

            Kind of. My point, really, is that sentience doesn’t begin at birth. It develops somewhere between the 20th and 24th week of pregnancy.

            Point 1: any abortion before the 20th week doesn’t involve a sentient being, and therefore doesn’t violate vegan ethics.

            Point 2: any abortion after the 24th week kills a sentient being. If that doesn’t violate vegan ethics, then eating an unborn animal fetus doesn’t violate vegan ethics.

          • Elaine Brown says:

            As I said in the wrong place, Yuk, that is beyond gross.

  13. Charlie Talbert says:

    In her 2013 book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger – And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, Sherry Colb devotes a chapter to this issue. She is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University Law School.

    Here is her last paragraph in the chapter (seven):

    “As consumers, then, we are different from the pregnant woman, who must choose between playing the physically demanding, painful, and risky role of Good Samaritan for her developing baby, on the one hand, and affirmatively bringing about that baby’s death, on the other. That is why preventing a pregnant woman from committing violence against her fetus through abortion simultaneously and unavoidably compels her to endure pregnancy, labor and delivery on the fetus’s behalf. And it is why, while I support the right of every sentient animal to remain free of human exploitation and violence, I remain pro-choice on abortion, even in the gut-wrenching minority of cases that occur after the fetus is sentient. Being vegan does not require pain and risk or a compromise of bodily integrity, while being pregnant does. Whether or not to permit post-sentience abortions therefore poses a difficult question. Whether to demand slaughter for products we do not need to live and thrive does not.”

  14. It’s nice to say “I’m pro-life” but what kind of “life” is being promoted here? Does the term “pro-life” even apply? Whose life? What kind of life? Is life involved at all here when a brain dead woman is forced to incubate a non-viable fetus (and the the hospital acknowledged as much) so the hospital could avoid liability issues?

    That term is misapplied. The hospital’s stance (like so many “pro life” people, is pro-fetus—same as in other cases where the woman is not comatose, but fully healthy.

  15. Elaine Brown says:

    Yuk! That is beyond gross.

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