“What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era” (Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians 146).
Sometimes, I feel uncomfortable with the way that my arguments in favour of vegan living seem to mirror the arguments of anti-abortionists. The tactics used by animal rights proponents often look like those used by people protesting a person’s right to obtain a legal and safe abortion (I use “person” to signal that not only women can get pregnant [e.g. ftm people with a functioning uterus]): graphic posters; sometimes disruptive or even violent tactics; loud and shouting voices; an unwavering commitment to a viewpoint; an apparent unwillingness to engage with those who disagree. I have even thought about the similarities between the images of a slaughtered pig and an aborted fetus and second-guessed whether I should be handing out pamphlets or putting up posters using such imagery. Many anti-abortionists / anti-choicers are aware of this conundrum, and have been quick to accuse prochoice vegans of hypocrisy, often gleefully.
In the midst of these frustrating politics, public intellectuals have produced some thoughtful work trying to offer ways for vegans to feel ok about supporting abortion (there is also lots of unthoughtful work circulating, as usual).
Even the best analyses, however, ask me to conclude that my veganism is probably incommensurable with my support for abortion (and especially my conviction that abortion is always a better alternative to introducing yet another greedy human life to this dying planet), at least in some areas where determining whether animal life is more valuable than human life, or vice versa, is an impossible task. Is this really the only conclusion that we can come to, or are we asking the wrong types of questions?
Much of the popular reasoning in the “pro-choice vegan” debate tends to focus on the object in question: the nonhuman animal and the fetus. This typically involves comparing an animal’s capacity for suffering with a fetus’s, which means deciding just how much suffering occurs during slaughter compared to the suffering caused by abortions (which, of course, varies according to the point at which the doctor and pregnant person decide to terminate the pregnancy, pointing us towards questions about at which point a fetus becomes a person). In Bite Size Vegan’s excellent blog and companion video, “Is Abortion Vegan? The Pro-Choice Dilemma,” for example, she claims that the difference between the well-established sentience of cows, pigs, chickens, etc., and the questionable sentience of a human fetus is “without doubt the most striking divergence” between vegan and anti-abortion viewpoints.
I contend, however, that using a line of thinking that reconciles veganism with support for abortion based on capacity for suffering produces an argument that simply reproduces hegemonic, entrenched ways of thinking about the debate. In other words, such an argument is always already limited by its own discursive and ideological constraints.
We must first admit that even if we could definitively determine just how much one animal suffers over another, the degree to which we let the conclusion that we come to guide our actions will inevitably rely on flimsy moral reasoning. If we could chart just how much an animal suffers on a chart (from 1 to 10, say) at what point will our society cease to tolerate the suffering? We could come up with a policy that says that suffering at a 4 or above is unacceptable, but such a policy would still be arbitrary. And none of this takes into account the fact that our ability to measure animal suffering is limited by our positions. As confused and infinitely compromised human subjects, we do not even know the nature of our own suffering, never mind knowing the nature of the suffering of others. The same goes for our ability to judge the personhood of a fetus. But even without the limits of our own perception, we would be naïve to advocate for action based on knowledge in the current ‘post-factual’ era, where science-based conclusions have almost no influence in many camps.
This is not to say that animals up for slaughter and unwanted human fetuses do not suffer, but we can’t make high-stake arguments based on what amounts to the worst kind of guesswork. So what would a better mode of analysis look like? Well, rather than trying to decide of how much suffering an animal is capable, we need to think about the problem from a different perspective, in order to show that vegan activism is not equal to anti-abortion activism. I want to suggest that the difference lies in the consequences of individuals abstaining from the act in question.
In the case of veganism, what is the consequence of someone choosing not to purchase, eat, and wear animal products? By extension, what is the consequence of everyone in the world choosing not to breed (rape), steal the babies of, keep captive, and kill other sentient beings? For one, the environmental benefits of a vegan world have been well-established (e.g. the famously under-publicized UN report from 2010 recommending a vegan diet for an overpopulated planet), but this is a factor that supports a limited type of argument. Following the mode of the argument that I’m proposing, all we have to do is compare a world without animal agriculture to a world with animal agriculture (mass slaughter; unsustainable environmental practices; government subsidies to support failing and irrelevant industries; widescale human illness, with the medical costs entailed by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.) In other words, this argument doesn’t say that veganism is objectively super healthy and therefore the best choice; rather, it points out that the consequences of not consuming animals and their byproducts is not objectively worse than the consequences of eating them (either for the health of the person doing the eating, nor for the animals who are violated for such products). This mode of thinking offers a much more stable position to argue from.
So what happens when we use the same type of argument to think about abortion? In this case, we don’t exactly have to compare the sacrifice that the pregnant person makes by allowing the pregnancy to go to term, versus the sacrifice that an unborn fetus unvoluntarily makes. Instead, we can ask, What happens if a pregnant person does not have an abortion, and how does it compare to the effects of her having one? If a person is unable to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, they must carry it to term, thereby altering their body forever, making themselves vulnerable to losing their job, tying them to the person who did the inseminating, who the pregnant person might not want a relationship with, submitting them to various financial obligations that they might not be able to fulfill (it’ll cost them lots of money, in other words). And this is before the baby is even born. If they give the baby up for adoption, at best, their life is forever altered by the presence of a blood relative with whom they will have a very complicated relationship; more likely is that they will be forced to endure the emotional trauma of surrendering their new born baby to a total stranger. And many new mothers are simply incapable of giving up their baby, and are thereby forced to support a human life, regardless of whether they actually have the means (after all, they had reasons to not want the pregnancy in the first place).
This scenario, of course, only envisions pregnancies that go as planned. For a pregnant person who wishes to terminate a high-risk pregnancy, not having an abortion is a matter of life and death. However, we can’t determine that such pregnant people suffer more from not having access to abortion; indeed, such a proposal veers into the slippery territory that my argument steers us away from. Rather, we need only compare the nature of the consequences of having an abortion versus not having an abortion.
Ok, so if the vegan argument can be extended for thinking about world systems, what about abortion? What are the consequences of a world in which abortion is not an option? We know what happens: to be blunt, overpopulation and the ecological and economic disaster that it entails, widespread self-mutilation, and not to mention the innumerable consequences of an increasingly oppressive patriarchy.
Clearly, both cases do rely on some degree of moralizing, but the form that the argument takes is important: it relies on a critical assessment of how revoking the practice in question would impact the lives of individuals, rather than making a judgement based on an arbitrary standard of suffering. This line of thinking is also useful for disputing other common objections that ethical vegans encounter, such as the tenuous claim that eating meat is “natural,” that ‘humane’ slaughter is somehow better (or even possible), or that animal agriculture supports the economy (an argument that companies are increasingly bringing out, in response to increased awareness about the conditions under which animals trapped in the machinery of the agriculture industry exist).
Of course, the effectiveness of this thinking depends on how well it works on the ground. The next time you get into a debate about the ethics of being vegan and supporting abortion, try to talk about it from a different perspective. That’s how we learn to think differently, and ultimately see the world through new eyes.