Which Lives are you “Pro”?

Andrew Fenton and Letitia Meynell defend Richard Dawkins’ claim that “pro-life” ethics should also be “pro-animal”


In a recent tweet, Richard Dawkins claimed that it’s immoral to intentionally continue a pregnancy where the fetus has Down syndrome (though he has qualified his claim in a subsequent blog). Dawkins is probably responding, in part, to a current push by social conservatives to restrict abortion services in the UK, with a particular focus on late term abortions involving fetuses that are developing serious health problems.  But regardless of the context and the qualifications on his blog, his view reflects a simplistic and ableist understanding of the quality of life of individuals with Down syndrome, the ways that many folks with Down syndrome are valued by their families and communities, and what grounds are morally adequate for terminating pregnancies.

FarmAnimalsRather than engage with these important issues, we want to focus on Dawkins’ puzzling tweet, posted in response to various comments and challenges, that “Unless you are a vegan (most Pro-‘Lifers’ are not) you are in no position to object to abortion”. We think that there’s something right about this particular claim, namely that a morally consistent “pro-life” position should work to protect many animal lives, not just humans. Here’s why.

A “pro-life” ethics tends to make the following claims:

(i) human zygotes, embryos and fetuses are human beings;

(ii) all human beings have a right to life;

(iii) terminating (aborting) a pregnancy in such a way that it kills the zygote, embryo or fetus violates its right to life; and

(iv) it’s always wrong to violate a human being’s right to life.

Note two things: (a) the conflation of being a human and “a human being” and, given this conflation, (b) the importance placed on being a human. Though (a) is a serious mistake, we will look at (b) instead.

Is being a human morally important? Think about it this way: Imagine that life exists on some other planets (not such a leap of the imagination by the way). Imagine also that among these creatures there are those who resemble humans insofar as they have cultures, craft and use tools, form friendships, and build groups and communities that are maintained through social conventions. As they don’t share our evolutionary lineage, they won’t be human. They won’t even be primates or mammals. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we also regard them as morally important? Wouldn’t it be unjust not to? We think it would be unjust. This is also the assumption behind much science fiction, from the popular Star Trek and Star Wars franchises to such movies as I, Robot. In these imaginary contexts, the fact that characters like Spock, Chewbacca or Sonny aren’t human doesn’t matter morally.  The operating principle is a surprisingly simple but powerful one: like should be treated alike.

What are we tracking when we grant the possibility that there may be morally important non-human beings? It’s not their species that we are tracking, so what is it? We might point to similarities in our vulnerabilities to suffering, our lives faring well or badly from our respective perspectives, or the ways our deeply valued preferences (which confer significance on our lives) can be satisfied or frustrated. The specifics aren’t important, you decide. What is important is that you can appreciate how, by your own standards, any creature that fits your description should be as morally important as any human. Any other judgment would be arbitrary and unfair.

Let’s return to those who advocate a “pro-life” ethics. They must ask themselves: what is it about human zygotes, embryos and fetuses that justifies their moral importance? It’s not enough that they are humans. Is it that they are alive? Is it that they will become persons (whatever that might mean)? Is it that they can suffer or have lives that can fare well or badly from their perspective? Note that, whatever the answer, this will confer a right to life on any other creatures, from this planet or any other, with these qualities or characteristics (by a “pro-lifer’s” own standards).

This brings us back to Dawkins’ claim. If you’re a reflective “pro-lifer,” then how you regard other nonhuman beings matters. However you answered the earlier questions about morally important qualities or characteristics, it’s likely that many nonhuman animals will possess them. Consequently, they also possess a right to life.

Are you a vegetarian or vegan? If you’re not, you may well hold an objectionable moral view (either about human embryos/fetuses or about the nonhuman beings you eat). Before you can coherently say anything about the choices of others to terminate their pregnancies, you should get your own moral view straight.

Dawkins isn’t off the hook here. He values other humans too, even those who are not (yet) persons. So, who does he eat?


Andrew Fenton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy, California State University – Fresno

Letitia Meynell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Dalhousie University.

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