Content warning: explicit discussion of abortion and mentions of rape in this piece. This approach to a tricky topic is from an ethical/philosophical perspective, please do not read it if you feel that you may be negatively affected or upset by the issues considered.
One of the very few opinions that I don’t agree with and yet can understand to some extent is that of being pro-life. Pro-life means that you don’t agree with abortion. Some people who identify as pro-life may agree that abortion is acceptable in grave circumstances where the pregnancy or childbirth will bring harm to the mother*, and sometimes pro-life people agree that in the circumstance of pregnancy through being raped, an abortion is acceptable. Generally, though, pro-life people will tell you that abortion is the murder of an unborn child. It is often associated with, or endorsed by, religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church. For me, I can empathise with the desire to protect life and to protect those that are vulnerable. This, for me, is some of the appeal of veganism and so it is easy to draw parallels between the two ideas.
However, I myself am pro-choice. That means that I believe it is entirely up to a pregnant person whether or not they would like to have an abortion. I believe it should be legal and accessible to all. I would defend this view in near enough all circumstances. In 1971, 343 women* signed what is known as the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts” in order to declare that they had had an abortion, at a time where abortion was illegal in France. Its intention was to advocate for the decriminalisation of abortion by showing that people undergo abortions whether they are legal or not, and so the state ought to legalise the procedure in order to keep the procedure safe. Otherwise, people are forced to seek out underground practices that are not regulated or legitimate which can often leave to injury, if not death. According to the NHS website, 1 in 3 women* will have an abortion in their lifetime. This is just one reason that I am pro-choice. I want access for all to safe, clean, legitimate reproductive treatment.
Vegans, of course, campaign against the murder of animals. It is for this reason that some people question how a vegan can be anything but pro-life. If vegans are interested in protecting the lives of animals, and in preventing harm to animals, why aren’t they interested in the same for a foetus? Personally, I can understand that the idea of abortion is unpleasant, and that it seemingly contradicts with the vegan philosophy. People don’t get abortions for fun, though, you know? There are many reasons as to why somebody might have an abortion and, generally, it’s not something done after only light consideration. So, how can I justify abortion, but not the slaughter of animals? There are 2 important things to consider here.
- First of all: people should have the right to control their own body. If not, the condemnation of practices such as human trafficking and rape becomes inconsistent. Even in the case where we believe that an unborn foetus should have similar rights to human beings, surely the right to control your own body should trump the rights of the foetus. Even if we believe that it is wrong to have an abortion, we can surely agree that it is even more wrong to force somebody to be pregnant. It becomes the lesser of two evils in this case. We cannot treat people like baby machines. Furthermore, people do not impregnate themselves, and yet, they alone must deal with the largest consequences, that is, to grow a human being and to birth a human being. It is simply inhumane to force somebody to do these things if they do not want to, for whatever reason. Eating meat, however, is not done in order to preserve the right to your own body. This defence therefore does not apply to eating meat (and dairy etc).
- Secondly: How, as a vegan, can I maintain that we should not hurt animals, yet, allow for the abortion of a foetus? It’s simple. It is largely supported by scientists that a foetus cannot feel pain until the third trimester, that is, after the 24 week cut off point for a standard termination. This claim has been made by many, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG). The foetal nervous system is not yet sophisticated enough to carry pain signals. In fact, the ACOG also claims that it is not until 30 weeks that there is evidence of brain activity, that the foetus is “awake”. Whereas, we know that farmed animals, hatched or born, have working nervous systems and so the neurons that transmit pain signals work perfectly, in most cases. We know that farmed animals are conscious beings.
So, I can understand and empathise with the intent of somebody that is pro-life to prevent harm from coming to another being, but it is not a harm that is entirely comparable to creating, raising, and killing animals simply to exploit and eat them. It is important, also, not to overlook that much pro-life campaigning comes from a place of misogyny. Controlling the reproductive rights of women* and their access to healthcare is a way to control – and condemn – female sexuality. It is also often rooted in scaremongering and the distribution of false or sensationalised information. In the UK, the maximum stage where abortion is allowed is at 24 weeks. Most abortions in England, Wales, and Scotland are carried out before this point. Only certain circumstances allow for a termination following this stage, such as a situation where the mother’s* life is at risk. Despite this fact, some pro-life campaigners will share images of late stage terminations and imply that this is the same for all cases in order to make people feel guilty, which is simply deplorable. I do not empathise with nor understand any of this behaviour.
To conclude, it is possible to be both vegan and pro-choice consistently if you consider the right to control your own body as more important. It is not that my belief in allowing others to live, and allowing them to live free from harm, is overlooked here, it is simply that one right overrides the other in this circumstance. For lack of a better comparison, if you had a parasite infestation such as a tapeworm, I would not expect you to allow it to live inside of you, despite my usual protection of animals. The right to control your own body is more important. Furthermore, in standard cases, it is reasonable to believe that a termination does not cause pain to a foetus. We also did not intentionally create a foetus simply to terminate it (contrary to animal farming). Finally, since abortions are a common procedure, whether it is protected by the law or not, we ought to ensure that it can be carried out as safely as possible in order to protect the lives of the pregnant people themselves, who certainly do have the right to life.
*I have attempted to avoid cisnormative language where possible. However, remaining references to women are paraphrased from secondary sources and refer to the wider scope of discourse regarding reproductive rights. Please note that some men have wombs, and some women do not.