This short article1 reminds us that antispeciesism is not about “respect for life” per se, but about respecting the interests of sentient beings, regardless of their species. The question then is simply: are (human) embryos or fetuses sentient? If so, how are they sentient? What then should we do?
The topic of abortion has already been addressed in Les Cahiers antispécistes, in an article by Carol J. Adams on feminism and animal liberation2. But we are still often asked, by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates, where we stand on this issue. The former group generally seems to hope, and the latter to fear, that we oppose abortion, probably because vegetarianism is frequently associated with the idea that all life is sacred and with “moral” asceticism (with the connotations of sexual puritanism often attributed to this word).
It is often assumed that the moment a person decides that the cows and chickens that are routinely killed without a second thought should actually have the right to live, this person also adopts the extreme (and in practice untenable) view that all life is inviolable. This assumption itself is the product of a profoundly speciesist perspective, but I will nevertheless analyse this topic seriously and outline a few of my thoughts.
Why I’m pro-choice
I will begin by explaining my personal views before returning to the connection between this issue and animal liberation.
I do not feel that plants, for example, have the right to live. Not because I disparage them at all, but because I don’t think they are sentient. In other words, as I see it, they’re unable to sense what happens to them3. If they do not take pleasure from being alive, feel any pain when they are cut or pulled from the ground, or lament the fact that they have to die, then I see no reason not to use them as I please – in particular by eating them.
I chose plants as an example to more clearly illustrate the difference between respecting life itself (growth and reproduction as unconscious phenomena), and respecting sentient life – in other words, believing that we should safeguard the interests of beings that have interests to be safeguarded.
And it is practically certain that human embryos4 are not sentient, at least not in the first 18 of the total 38 weeks of pregnancy, since their nervous system is initially absent and then only beginning to develop. Newborns, however, are sentient; the ability to feel therefore emerges at a certain point in the second half of pregnancy. Before that, as I see it, the being in question, which feels neither pleasure nor pain, hope nor fear, is no more morally significant than a blade of grass or a pebble.
Someone could of course reply that it’s a future sentient being and that its potential life should be considered inviolable. Or they might ask me how I would have liked it if my mother had aborted me.
Although I may find the idea of not existing unpleasant (none of us like to think too much about our own contingency), it makes no difference if I imagine this non-existence resulting from abortion, contraception, my parents’ abstinence or them never meeting. The only thing established once I was conceived that was not determined beforehand was my genetic baggage. Yet I don’t see how this alone was enough to transform a non-sentient organism without any history or plans for the future, but with this particular genetic code, into me, any more than I would consider an embryo cloned from my DNA, or a newly discovered identical twin brother to be me5.
In my view, an abortion in the first 18 weeks after conception, a period of time in which the embryo is probably not sentient, is similar to late contraception. I don’t mean that the decision to abort or not should be taken lightly, since it determines the existence or non-existence of a future sentient being, but this is also true of contraception of any kind or, for that matter, the absence of sexual relations that might lead to reproduction. I think that when making such a decision, a person should not only consider how much they desire to have a child but also factor in the happiness the child is likely to have, on the one hand, and global overpopulation on the other. But that’s another matter. In any case, people are not usually forced to have children, and I don’t see why we should force this upon a woman who wishes to abort any more than we would force it upon a priest who chooses celibacy.
If a woman wants an abortion, I think she should be able to have one without any restrictions, at least up until the 18th week after conception. And, given our social realities, everything should be done to make this easy and free of charge in cases where the cost would be an obstacle6.The simple argument that a woman should have the right to choose is often made to counter the pro-life position. But this is not enough without adding, as I have explained, that the embryo does not have any interests itself. Without this detail, the argument is devoid of substance, much like the argument “we have the right to eat meat” that some make when we suggest that animals have interests. And a problem does come in with late-term abortion, since during the second half of the pregnancy the foetus has acquired sentience, and with it an interest in at least not suffering.
The ideal situation would be to guarantee equal consideration for the interests of the mother and the foetus. In this type of case, I cannot hold as clearly defined a theoretical position as I do in cases where the embryo is not yet sentient. Without going into too much detail, and given the rather limited nature of a foetus’s interests, I nevertheless feel that in practice the best thing is to leave the decision to the woman in question7.
What could be done in any case, to safeguard the interests of an older foetus, is to ensure that it does not suffer when it is aborted. The speciesist blinkers that most people wear lead to arguments over the absurd question of whether the embryo is a human being. Depending how a person answers it, they will either declare its life to be sacred or deny it any moral significance. Both sides fail to take into consideration the only thing that really matters: the effective interests of beings that have interests, and in particular the embryo’s potential interest in not suffering. I do not know enough about abortion techniques to say anything more on this point, but I can imagine that proponents of animal liberation would want the interests of late-term human foetuses to be given the same weight as the interests of other animals. (Ease of access to early abortion can reduce the number of late-term abortions, which are also more difficult for the woman.)
Abortion and animal liberation
The pro-life position most commonly involves holding human embryos in high regard, attributing an inviolability and a sacred nature to them simply because they belong to our species. What those on the pro-life side want to protect is human life, whether sentient or not. This is the exact opposite of what animal liberation proponents believe.
As Carol Adams says8:
Speciesism is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the protestation about the fate of the human conceptus, while the sentience of other animals is declared morally irrelevant because they are not human. Some antiabortionists define meaningful life so broadly as to encompass a newly fertilized egg, yet so narrowly that fully grown animals with well-developed nervous systems and social sensibilities are excluded.
Those who are pro-life place great importance on fertilisation, which is what establishes an individual’s genetic make-up. For this reason, contraception is not viewed as murder, even by the devout Catholics who are opposed to it, but abortion is. For the pro-life camp, a being’s essence seems to lie in its genetic identity. To me this idea is absurd, because if our genome determines who we are, it does so in the same way that any other environmental factor does, and “what is innate” does not have a different status from “what is acquired”. But this idea is central to racism, sexism and speciesism alike. A person who promotes this idea is of course not necessarily racist, sexist or speciesist, but the animal liberation philosophy can more easily do without it than accommodate it.
And there are certainly people who oppose both abortion and the exploitation of animals. But their position strikes me as antithetical to the reasoning of the animal liberation philosophy.
David Olivier is co-founder of the magazine Les Cahiers antispécistes, of the Veggie Pride march and of the annual meetings called Les Estivales de la Question Animale. He is a theoretician and a grassroots egalitarian activist. Co-author of the Manifesto for the Abolition of Apartheid International. Holder of a PhD in fundamental physics, he is currently working on the idea that sentience can be explained by the properties of matter, a matter yet to be proven. His personal page: http://david.olivier.name/fr/david-olivier
- This article by David Olivier appeared in Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 9, January 1994, under the title “Avortement et libération animale” and was then used to support the realization of a leaflet, and then a wall poster entitled “Why we are for the freedom to abort”, printed in 15,000 copies by the Antispeciesist Federation of the time. The article was translated into English by Elisabeth Lyman (Proofreading: Holly James); it was also translated into Italian by Agnese Pignataro and published by Les Cahiers under the title “Aborto e liberazione animale”.
- “Anima, animus, animal” (Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 3, April 1992, pp. 11-14.), the French translation of Adams’ original English-language article of the same title published in the May/June 1991 issue of Ms. Magazine.
- Some arguments supporting the idea that plants are not sentient can be found in chapter 6 of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (New York: HarperCollins, 2002, first published in 1975), and in Yves Bonnardel’s article [in French], “Quelques réflexions au sujet de la sensibilité que certains attribuent aux plantes”, in Les Cahiers antispécistes issue no. 5 (December 1992), pp. 34-38.
- In the animal kingdom, the term “embryo” is used to describe an individual between conception and birth, especially at the beginning of its gestation (the first three months for humans), and “fœtus” is used once it has begun to take on a recognisable shape with a head, limbs and so on.
- It is worth noting that identical twins pose a problem for those who consider an embryo to be a human individual immediately upon fertilisation – it literally isn’t yet necessarily individual at this stage, since in the case of identical twins, the division doesn’t occur until a few days later. This embryo could potentially be divided infinitely. If abortion were murder, this potential for division would mean we would have to consider an infinite number of individuals to have been killed, which seems a bit absurd.
- French law authorises abortion only in the first 10 weeks [in 1994; 12 weeks in 2019]. This restriction is absurd and, combined with others, often has serious consequences. Other countries allow abortions much later in pregnancy.
- It can be argued that a being that is not aware of its existence over time can have an interest in not suffering, but cannot have an interest in not being killed. This what Singer says in Animal Liberation. He addresses this in greater depth in Practical Ethics (2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 1993). See also Karin Karcher’s article “Les animaux, la mort, et l’acte de tuer” [in French] and, in Les Cahiers antispécistes issue no. 4 (July 1992), pp. 5-12, “L’éthique appliquée” [in French translation], the transcription of a talk Peter Singer gave in Paris in 1991. My own position is identical to Singer’s in practice, although it comes from a different theoretical point of view (hedonistic utilitarianism).
- “Anima, animus, animal”, in the May/June 1991 issue of Ms. Magazine.