Ask a Philosopher, Part Seven: Abortion

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Ask a Philosopher, Part Seven: Abortion

Robert Johnson is a British ethicist and moral philosopher. He is the author of Rational Morality: A Science Of Right And Wrong and commissioning editor of Ockham Publishing. He has kindly agreed to allow us to pester him with questions relevant to veganism. For this bonus instalment, we opened a Pandora’s box of controversy.

In my experience, most vegans are pro-life when it comes to animals, but that sentiment is not often extended to human pregnancy. I think, anyway; we don’t seem to be talking about it much at all. It’s only come up once that I can remember, in a tweet directed at @rvgn_org (amongst others):

At the time we gave an off-the-cuff response explaining that veganism is (at least for us) a practice of trying to reduce the suffering we cause to sentient animals – and foetuses (especially at stages earlier than 30 weeks, when the majority of abortions take place) don’t seem to fall into that category*. In retrospect, that doesn’t seem like a very complete answer.

Abortion is a pretty volatile and controversial subject that happens to be an intersection of philosophical, religious and scientific thought. Many people consider it a complex problem, while a minority of others consider the solution so transparently obvious that it’s frustrating when the rest of the world don’t see it, or won’t take action. If that dichotomy of thought sounds familiar you, you’re not alone. To help understand the issues, we’ve drafted in an expert.

PMF: So, Rob: If vegans are so concerned with saving lives, then why isn’t the default vegan position on abortion pro-life?


RJ: It’s another interesting one, isn’t it. Firstly, let’s unpick the idea of ‘pro-life’. In US politics that term is a hot potato, but it isn’t rationally defined very well. It’s incredibly ambiguous, and the word ‘life’ is used for any foetus at any stage. That’s an accurate definition in only one very set, biological category; a foetus (in all but the last few stage or so) is ‘alive’ in the same way a plant is, in that it grows and thrives in certain situations (i.e., the womb). But ethical vegans tend to draw a line between ‘sentient’ and ‘non-sentient’, not ‘organically developmental’ and ‘non-organically developmental’. Different vegans believe different things, but in general it tends not to be about avoiding the abuse of organic properties, so much as avoiding the suffering of conscious individuals. That’s a massive difference.

That’s also the rational thing to believe: pulling a plant up is not inherently harmful, for the same reason that stopping the growth of a few human cells isn’t. Just because the cells are forming the early shape of a human baby, and inside a human body, rather than forming a stem and flower from a bulb, doesn’t change the fact; if there is no conscious life within that organic compound, it’s just an organic compound. And an organic compound is no more able to suffer or experience pain than an inorganic compound. A plant is equal to a rock in terms of suffering. Sentience is the relevant difference. Similarly, responding to stimulus is not one and the same as sentience.

This is why championing the cause of ‘pro-choice’ is important. That organic compound within the womb takes a long time to develop consciousness – and thus to hold sentience. But the woman, whose womb it is, is conscious the whole time. If she is suffering, or being tortured by carrying a baby she doesn’t want – or worse still, doesn’t want the pain or suffering of child birth – then that is something we should take seriously. And given that we have the medical knowledge to help get those cells out of her, we err greatly by denying her the right to do so.

There’s no difference between a foetus in the earlier stages and semen, in rational terms. Cells are cells. So we should be pro-choice in abortion for the same reasons we are pro-choice about whether men want to carry ejaculated semen around in their pocket all day. Sure, give them the choice to carry it around, it might form something meaningful (if you’ve got an ice pack in there, it might create a baby one day). But, apart from some arguably primitive catholic communities, we don’t make men worship their own semen, so we shouldn’t make women worship the cells forming inside them either.

Plenty of vegans disagree. I’ve known a fair few back when I was more involved in the activist community. Unsurprisingly, these ‘pro-life’ vegans I knew tended to be from Christian families, or were often Sunday church attenders. It’s great that we live in a society where people can hold absurd views, like this. It’s just not so great they want to hold them. The use of religion to justify views which cause suffering to women is one of the reasons I oppose religion as a moral matter, whether it has led someone to veganism or not. I like the saying ‘even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in awhile’. Religion might lead to some moral decisions, or it might not; it’s not a good method of consistent truth finding, as it makes claims based on the beliefs of mythical figures. To be entirely ‘pro-life’, if you’re vegan for religious reasons, is entirely consistent. But that’s only because you can more or less do what you want if you justify it by reference to the will of someone who either doesn’t exist, else is conveniently uncontactable.

There is of course an important topic in all of this; that is, when does a foetus switch from a set of cells to a conscious individual? No-one has the exact answer to that. We know that the moment an egg merges with a sperm is not it. We know that when it starts to significantly grow isn’t it either – we know that you need much more than a few cells, even in fairly complex structures, to have consciousness. It may be that, realistically, some extremely premature babies are not even sentient yet. It’s feasible that you can grow organic compounds in various settings without sentience being present, and it might well happen with organic pre-humans.

That actually seems likely, as it appears sensible to suppose that brains don’t just go from ‘cells’ to ‘brain’ in a single second of its formation. Rather it’s likely a gradual process where it goes from something akin to the organic compound of a growing plant, to something like a very primitive human brain, but without it functioning fully, to something that can experience suffering. It’s very possible that a pre-human being could survive in artificial wombs, or on its own in the early stages of life, without any meaningful type of sentience being present. Indeed, an important point to consider is this: doesn’t it seem evolutionarily unnecessary for foetuses to be sentient for so long whilst still in the womb?

That statement doesn’t provide any meaningful evidence either way, but it does ask that you question your assumptions about at what point foetuses become sentient. Sentience was a necessary development for creatures to better exploit their surroundings, and so to increase the chances of passing on their genes. It seems odd that it would appear too long before birth (though it’s sensible to assume it must start to develop at some point before birth). The important issue then becomes a matter of: is the early form of sentience which a baby is experiencing, really equal to any suffering the mother might have of its growth? Probably not, at least until the very last stages. And even then I’m not convinced.

The case of sentience in foetuses is really something we would need to be discussing with brain development experts, though; people with a background in understanding the philosophy as well as the neuro-psychology. Whilst the examples I give are rational possibilities, and interesting to consider, the exact point at which we can say sentience appears is something better informed through neuroscience. But that is what’s important to most vegans: sentience. Not organic matter and not arbitrary, biological definitions of ‘life’.

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