On Fetuses and Farms

I have, on occasion, heard arguments to the effect that if one is a pro-choice vegan, then one is being inconsistent. I’ve had arguments somewhat like this with a family member in fact, which I’m not sure got anywhere. This argument isn’t super common in my experience, because most people who are pro-choice are not vegan, indeed very few people are vegan, so it’s not a very interesting argument in the context of the mainstream culture war. It is however the case, in my experience, that most vegans are pro-choice, and conservatives, for independent reasons, tend to loathe vegans. I am a pro-choice vegan myself, but I have rarely given this argument much dedicated attention. I know why I believe each thing, and already fully expect conservatives to hate a great deal of what I stand for, or if not hate, at least deeply disagree with it. Given this, the view of theirs that two of my ethical views are inconsistent might just be chalked up to being another point I disagree with conservatives on, no more deserving of my dedicated attention than other points of disagreement.

What has pushed me to write up something more dedicated is the increasing attention the issue of abortion has gotten, for obvious reasons, in the last few months. Considering the sensitivity of this topic right now, it might be a mistake for me to try to write something like this at all. Even though it renewed my interest, maybe I would have been better served waiting a few months. But… my god, the takes I have seen. I think what really got to me the most recently was this episode of the rationalist podcast The Bayesian Conspiracy, a podcast I often enjoy listening to for casual and interesting banter on topics of very idiosyncratic interest to me. In this episode, Eneasz Brodski made a parallel argument from the opposite direction. When confronted about his controversial defense of infanticide in a previous episode, he says that his views are consistent, because he doesn’t assign moral weight to non-persons, and that those who do, like pro-lifers, really ought to be vegans.

… God dammit guys, we just went over this. Guess that’s a point for objection four to the argument from marginal cases. I’m not totally sure what to do with a moral view like this. Personhood might change what sorts of things are in a being’s interest, but it seems primitively obvious to me that it is a terrible, terrible basis for determining moral patienthood to begin with. Given that his view seems basically consistent to me I suppose I’m at the point where I wouldn’t even point to a concrete dilemma to argue for my side, so much as the more positive sentientist thought experiments from part five. It sounds fine to not care about some beings for whom life can be better or worse, until you seriously consider being a being for whom that life could go better or worse, and realize that you are in any position to consider this exclusion only because of a convenient and morally irrelevant accident of your birth. Brodski’s point unsettled me for more reasons than just this however.

For one thing I am persistently bothered by what I see as a common mode of culture war discourse that looks like “how could (other side) support both (thing) and (different thing with one superficially similar consideration)”, which can almost always (and sometimes is) trivially reversed. “How can Republicans call themselves ‘pro-life’ but support the death penalty?”; “How could Democrats oppose killing murderers but support killing innocent unborn babies?”. Insofar as you view both sides as agreeing on these accusations from different directions, the only consistent people are those who break with the party line on at least one issue (which those who use these styles of argument rarely do in my experience), like the pro-life anti-capital-punishment folks, which I guess does pattern match a particular sort of Christian Democrat one rarely sees in mainstream US politics. Insofar as the accused/accuser disagrees, that is because at least one, and probably both accusations are transparently way oversimplified.

I can add this to my long list of reasons I dislike moral/political discourse surrounding the idea of hypocrisy. My dedicated post on the issue is barely the tip of the iceberg. That said, to an extent I agree that most people who oppose animal rights generally don’t have a consistent principled reason for doing so that can’t be severely challenged with a marginal cases style argument. A marginal cases style argument like, for example, those that appeal to the interests of infants. The truth is, I wish more conservatives were vegan (or more to the point, that more pro-life people were vegan) just as they perhaps wish that more vegans were pro-life, and I believe that my arguments are better.

At the end of the day, what this makes me feel isn’t a sense of indignity at the hypocrisy of pro-life people, but a certain amount of unusual sympathy for them, relative to people defending other causes I oppose to a similar degree. Pro-lifers, like vegans, see the moral circle of others as being too small. This is sometimes merely implicit, for instance in the idea that one could not be pro-choice if one really viewed fetuses as moral patients, or more explicit, for instance because of the non-trivial portion of pro-choice people who don’t count fetuses as moral patients at all (like Brodski). In a way, I feel more kinship with pro-lifers than with people like Brodski who I think have decided a large swath of morally important beings aren’t even part of the equation at all. I will always prefer sticking with half-correct inconsistency to moving to the consistent, all-wrong position.

For my own part, I assign many fetuses, certainly by some point in pregnancy when I believe the mother should still have the choice to abort, moral patienthood. When I was younger I didn’t (my views on abortion have changed a few times over the course of my life). This was because I basically believed that fetuses weren’t sentient, not in the relevant sense at least. Imagine someone who has never had any experiences, has no memories, and is in a deep sleep. Does this person have conscious experience? I now find the question more difficult than I once did because of memory issues, but the answer that was once quite intuitive to me was “no”. The sleeper has nothing to dream about, and is unconscious to the world outside. Even if there is the hardware for consciousness, it is still essentially a blank slate. The fetus becomes a moral patient once they are born, because this is when they “wake up”.

I think this was a rather overconfident assumption on many levels, not least that I don’t actually understand much about what it is like to be a fetus in the womb, and whether “deep sleep” broken only at birth, is anything like the relevant comparison at all, but also because I am no longer so sure, as I mentioned, that deep sleep of this sort entails no relevant experiences either. Perhaps two points are even more damning for this older view of mine.

First of all, confidence. If there is a reasonable chance that something is a moral patient, one ought to treat it like it is, to some extent at least, a moral patient. Recall my shooting-up-a-possibly-abandoned-apartment example from my last post. The other reason is that even if nothing good or bad is happening to a being, that doesn’t mean that nothing good or bad can be done to the being. Most obviously, the fetus being born and waking up in my example gives it experiences, and turns it into a moral patient, so giving birth to the fetus can do good and bad things to the fetus. Abortion may act the same way. I don’t know how painful or painless the procedure is, or if it operates in a way that might not even “wake up” the fetus, but compared to the relatively calm environment the fetus is usually in, abortion is a comparatively more extreme event, one that might simultaneously turn the fetus into a moral patient and be good or bad for it, like birth.

This is all, I think, an important starting assumption. That the reason I am pro-choice is not that I think aborted fetuses are never moral patients. I suspect in many cases they are. I am pro-choice for largely the same bodily autonomy reasons that many or most pro-choice activists are. This was most influentially stated in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”. In particular, the “violinist” thought experiment has been highly influential, in which one imagines waking up hooked up to a comatose violinist, who was seriously injured in an accident, and then hooked up to you in your sleep by classical music fans to keep him alive. Even if all that is needed is nine months of recovery, are you permitted to choose to be actively unplugged from the violinist, killing him?

As Thomson herself was at pains to discuss, there are plenty of complications connecting this to various cases of abortion, which I feel rarely make it into the contemporary discussion. Most obviously, this thought experiment might show both more and less than it needs to. More than it needs to because it is not clear that fetuses actually do have all of the same interests/rights as fully grown adult humans, even if they are moral patients, many arguments about the harms that come from things like death might not apply to them at all. And it might prove less than it needs because the violinist argument in particular seems to only directly parallel abortions in cases of rape, and intuitions about the case would change if the parallel was different (Thomson addresses more typical, non-rape cases elsewhere in the paper with less famous arguments, like her “people seeds”).

Perhaps the best parallel, incorporating all of these differences while keeping the autonomy issue the same, would be the following. Imagine that there is a swimming hole near a village, which is one of the most popular pleasures of this village and an important cultural part of life, and there are no other pools reachable by this village. In this pool, there are a variety of parasitic creatures. One in particular is a type of amphibian that tries to lay its eggs in hosts, like humans. The parasite, if it catches a human host, sets up shop in the host’s intestines, where it develops for a matter of months, during this time causing illness, mood swings, and bloating that makes most work during the later parts of this time impractical. It is eventually excreted, but due to its size usually causes physical trauma and tearing on the way out, and if effective pain killers aren’t used, will induce one of the worst pains known to humans in the process. After the parasite is expelled, the former hosts often experience bouts of severe depression.

As the parasite develops, it doesn’t reach the mental sophistication of a human, but gradually becomes more and more sophisticated until it is at the level of a newborn infant by the time it is expelled (not atypical, pigs appear to be no less mentally sophisticated than newborn humans). The parasite, when it is developing, is unable to understand or choose its position, or to leave alive. It is completely innocent. When swimming in the hole naked, there is a fairly strong chance of becoming infected, not most likely, but double-digit percent. There is a swimsuit that protects one almost perfectly from infection, but fails a fraction of a percent of the time. Is it permissible for villagers infected by this parasite to have it killed and removed? Does this depend on whether the villager was thrown into the pool involuntarily, or can prove they swam with a suit on, or at what point in the infection this choice is raised?

I think many pro-lifers might object to this comparison, and say that the fact that the human version will develop into an adult human, or the fact that the life in question is itself human, or the idea that it has an immortal soul, or the idea that the pregnant woman has special obligations as a mother, or something, makes a decisive difference between the cases. I don’t intend to go through these possibilities here, they are differences one could easily appeal to although I think none of them is decisively important, but notice that, crucially, none of these appeal to something that is parallel to the animal rights case. This example just does seem to be the relevant animal rights comparison, if you insist on making the comparison as some sort of “own” of the pro-choice vegans, and it just seems to me perfectly intuitive that most ethical vegans would be permissive about killing and removing the parasite in this case, as I would be. This does not in the least imply that they would be alright with hunting and killing, or experimenting on, or putting this creature on a factory farm, once it is born.

But once again, I want to concede some conservative points, because I don’t think they are the only ones at fault in this discussion. And more interestingly, I think certain animal rights debates can be made relevant to abortion debates, even if not in the way conservatives making this argument assume. To start, I feel that many liberals take a pro-choice position on abortion to automatically entail, for example, the permissibility of stem cell research. I think this is generally a category mistake. As many liberals will be at pains to point out, the key issue to abortion is about autonomy, not whether fetuses have rights. In the stem cell research case, there is no such bodily autonomy consideration. The relevant animal rights comparison really is to research on lab animals. The key reason I still uncomplicatedly support stem cell research is that it happens at such an early stage, that I am comfortable saying that the cells are not moral patients. Undifferentiated stem cells seem to me to have no edge for our consideration over a test tube of red blood cells. I care more about a fully grown rat than a vial of blood, and likewise I care more about a lab rat than an undifferentiated zygote. If this was the necessary bar on abortion however, I would only support it at the earlier stages. This is why the presumption that the pro-choice position entails permissiveness about stem cell research irritates me. The two are different issues on at least two crucial dimensions, to the point where considerations in one case help very little with the other. The connection, on most plausible accounts, is superficial.

It is worth highlighting some other distinctions that I think get left out of contemporary discussions as well, and which I think emerge from being pro-choice but viewing fetuses by a certain point in pregnancy as being moral patients. A first point is that it seems like research into less painful forms of abortion would be morally good. I think almost no one supports research like this, because pro-choice people generally don’t think about the wellbeing of the fetus at all, and would consider it conceding too much to start, and pro-life people see it as an unacceptable compromise when we should be stopping abortion altogether. I believe both approaches to be mistaken.

The issue that is relevant to the pro-choice position is one of autonomy, if one can serve the interests of the fetus to at least some extent without interfering with this autonomy, you have a strong moral reason to do so. This is why so many think infanticide is wrong but very late term abortion isn’t, and it’s also why you have a strong moral reason to try to minimize the suffering caused to aborted fetuses even as you abort them. As for the pro-life side, I simply think this is a harmful form of purism in general. So long as you are roping us vegans into this, we have had a lively internal debate on a very parallel issue, roughly between the “welfarist” and “abolitionist” camps.

Both agree that we ought to eliminate factory farming if possible (and how far to go after this often but not always differs between the two camps), but the welfarist camp, characterized by for instance The Humane League, is strongly in favor of working with companies to improve living and slaughter conditions for factory farmed animals today. The abolitionist camp on the other hand, characterized by for instance Gary Francione, views this as a dangerous compromise that will merely delay the end of factory farming further. This is a difficult topic to research, but what research has been done appears to show no reason to believe the abolitionist moral hazard line. Given this, it appears to be a simple matter of keeping clean hands at the expense of those you are trying to help with no guaranteed or even likely long-term benefit. I believe the pro-life movement should try to learn from this as well. I doubt higher welfare standard will increase the number of abortions, and it will certainly be better for the fetuses. Refusing to support research on this topic looks like a suspiciously hand-cleaning move of no value to those you ostensibly care about.

A final point I wish to discuss, that emerges from a pro-choice position that considers many fetuses moral patients, is that abortion might not be merely morally neutral, even if it should be permitted. It may sound judgmental to many contemporary pro-choicers to say that not having an abortion would be doing a good thing, but once again this nuance traces all the way back to Thomson’s paper, where she regularly said that doing something like staying connected to the violinist would be “frightfully nice”, even if it isn’t a demand of justice. I do not believe in supererogation, so in theory this distinction is irrelevant to me, but it also makes the choice less than unique. Considering the incredible bodily invasiveness and risks of carrying a fetus to term, doing so for altruistic reasons seems like the sort of thing that ought to get you viewed, to some extent, as a MacFarquharian moral saint on par with signing up to participate in a human challenge trial, or donating one’s kidney to a stranger. That is, keeping the fetus only seems morally obligatory in the same sense that these things are morally obligatory. To most people, not at all, to the rest, not uniquely or in a way that justifies state coercion.

Further thoughts on how utilitarianism specifically deals with the ethics of abortion beyond this can be found in Richard Yetter Chappell’s post on the topic, which I mostly agree with, though I think more points both in favor of and against his position would need to be raised for me to feel the subject had been giving a fully satisfying treatment. Doing so is well beyond the scope of this piece however, I want to focus on the ethics of abortion as it relates to animal rights.

Just as, it seems to me, one does something good at great cost to oneself in keeping an unwanted pregnancy for the sake of the fetus, it seems as though there are cases, rare and unverifiable to the point of policy irrelevance, where someone might do something very seriously wrong by having an abortion. These are, in particular, cases when one gets pregnant with the intention of getting an abortion later. I think that if this happens at a very early stage (the morning after pill for instance) no wrong is done even then, as the fetus is not a moral patient. However, if we accept that there is a point at which the fetus becomes a moral patient while in the womb, it seems as though someone doesn’t merely do something akin to not donating a kidney if one decides to get pregnant with the plan to carry the fetus for eight months, and then get an abortion.

This seems like a very strange intention, I can think of no realistic circumstances under which a normal person would do this, indeed as the aforementioned Bayesian Conspiracy episode mentioned, most late term abortions are due to last minute complications in an otherwise wanted pregnancy, otherwise the fetus would not be carried this long at all, and are tragic for the mother as well. Still, for the purposes of this post I want to concede as much of the pro-life position as I can, and I think I can meet pro-life thought here at least, that one cannot act justly when getting an abortion in all conceivable cases. If we allow that the fetus is a moral patient, it might be that the mother’s interest is still overriding in all typical cases, but while this seems enough for policy, it is not a blank check for ethics.

If someone, for example, gets pregnant with the plan of getting a late term abortion as a sort of way to try out the experience of pregnancy, or to protest abortion restrictions, then one is at that point thinking far too little of the fetus, as a being with some claim on morality. This again leads to an interesting opportunity to connect the issue to animal rights debates, because I think it is possible that someone might try to defend abortion in even these cases with an appeal parallel to the logic of the larder. If the mother did not get pregnant, the fetus would not even have the short life that they did, surely it could not be bad for them for the mother to plan to get pregnant in order to have an abortion.

I have basically the same problems with this argument that I have with the logic of the larder in animal agriculture cases. For one thing I find it dubious that aborted fetuses lead net positive lives. Early abortion before the fetus can experience anything seem to trivially produce neutral lives (and I also suspect it is itself morally neutral), later term fetuses seem like they would have mostly unremarkable, minimal, or non-existent experiences for most of their lives, and the most dramatic event that happens to them is the abortion itself, which plausibly causes at least some suffering. For another thing, one needs an argument about why not only bringing the fetus into existence with the plan to abort is permissible, but that the separate choice to in fact follow through and abort is also permissible. Whether or not there is a way of spelling this out in principle, I am highly uncomfortable with using this as an all purpose excuse to create lives for the purpose of your arbitrary use and abuse and then following through on it, a concern of mine with the standard logic of the larder argument as well.

Even this may not seem perfectly intuitive. We can return to the thought experiment from earlier, do we think it is morally permissible to swim in this pool in order to become parasitically infected for some minor personal benefit, with the plan to then kill the parasite before it gets expelled? I think that, in fact, the answer is generally no, this fails to adequately respect the interests of the creature, but neither do I think that it is overdetermined that every vegan would agree with this.

So, looking back, what picture am I left with? I think that pro-life people are generally wrong in the policy prescriptions they infer from the moral status of fetuses, but I think that many pro-choice voices wind up confused and dismissive of important moral considerations. Many pro-choice people simply think fetuses have no moral importance, but in my experience most simply think bodily autonomy is the overriding consideration in these cases. You’ll notice that pro-choice protests are populated by signs about “mind your own uterus”, not signs about how “fetuses don’t even have a biographical sense of personal history” or something. Given this, I am concerned by how little thought is given to fetuses by this camp in general. The types of considerations I previously mentioned, such as the value of studying which abortion procedures might cause more or less suffering, or the positive moral value of keeping a fetus, are not things you will find taken seriously in pro-choice circles, indeed I suspect they will all sound mildly heretical, despite compatibility with the typical favored arguments.

What I try to take away from this investigation is that, while conservative commentators who accuse pro-choice vegans are wrong, there are certain resonances between veganism and concern for fetuses. At the very least, it seems as though the fact that being vegan isn’t mildly predictive of being pro-life and being pro-life isn’t mildly predictive of being vegan, is a little hard to explain without reference to the influence of partisan battle lines. As Eneasz Brodski and others like him evidence, there is, at the very least, a coherent picture of moral patienthood that rules out either moral veganism or being pro-life, and so being either pro-life or vegan is evidence that one does not have this reason against the other position, even if the best position ultimately is more nuanced than a common moral circle suggests (as I believe). I hope our moral circle expands to include all conscious creatures, whether they are human or not, and whether they have been born yet or not. I believe that starting with the correct moral circle is a necessary component of even having the moral discussion on the right terms. I also believe that this perspective will ultimately vindicate the pro-choice vegan position.

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