Blog for Choice Day 2010:
Trusting Women, Honoring Dr. Tiller
I wrote the bulk of this post last June, in the days and weeks following the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Initially – and still – intended as part of a series called “Killing in the Name of,” this piece attempts to reconcile my pro-choice and vegan beliefs, which as it turns out, isn’t a difficult task at all. Harder still is defending some of the “terrorist” tactics employed by the animal rights movement while condemning similar tactics when used in service a “pro-life” agenda. It’s an emotional and confusing endeavor, and one I’m still working on. If ever I do figure it all out, I’ll post Part 2 of this series.
In the meantime, I’d like to share my thoughts “On being a pro-choice vegan” as part of today’s Blog for Choice Day (5th annual, bitches!). It doesn’t exactly fit with this year’s theme, but seeing as “Trusting Women” was chosen in honor of Dr. Tiller, I think it’s appropriate anyhow. If you disagree, hop on over to Animal Rights & Anti-Oppression; my post there follows the assignment to a “t” (“v”?).
“Killing in the Name of”: Introduction
My apologies for the brief blogular absence. I’ve got a ton of posts lined up in the queue, but my attention has turned elsewhere – from animal rights to reproductive rights (which aren’t completely unrelated) – since the murder of Dr. George Tiller on Sunday.
News of Dr. Tiller’s death came like a kick in the gut. The last time an abortion doctor was murdered was in 1998; I was only 20 at the time, and somewhat apolitical. Even though Dr. Barnett Slepian’s murder occurred not far from my hometown, I really can’t recall what I felt – if anything – at the news. But now – now I know better. Dr. Tiller’s murder, far from an isolated crime committed against a single individual, was intended to terrorize abortion providers and reproductive health clinics all over the United States. Doctors and clinics that provide vital health care, primarily to women. Scared women, marginalized women, women in need, women with nowhere else to go. To this end, it was an atrocity perpetrated against women everywhere, women who want nothing more than control over their own lives – and bodies. Women who simply want to be regarded and treated as fully human.
Dr. Tiller was one of a handful of doctors who perform abortions in the later term of pregnancy (whereas “late term” defies definition, and may mean anything from 3 to 6 months on). He saved countless women’s lives, even in the face of unrelenting threats and danger, including an assassination attempt and the bombing of his clinic. Dr. Tiller was a hero – a hero who became a martyr. It’s difficult to describe, but Dr. Tiller’s murder – and all the anti-choice rhetoric that’s littered the media since – well, it’s hit me. Hard. It feels like women are under siege, our very bodily sovereignty up for grabs.* We’re so, so much worse off without him.
Of course, our collective loss pales in comparison to the loss suffered by his family, which includes his wife, 4 children and 10 grandchildren. My heart bleeds for them.
Naturally, many on the left have labeled this an act of domestic terrorism, and criticized the media and government for not doing so. They also point to the extreme right wing rhetoric that inflamed passions against abortion providers, implicating it in the murder. Scott Roeder may have pulled the trigger, the reasoning goes, but pundits and anti-abortion crusaders put the gun in his hand.
All of which has brought to the fore related issues with which I’ve been grappling for quite some time, particularly those involving parallels between the animal rights and anti-choice movements. For example, while animal rights “terrorists” have never killed a human, they do engage in campaigns of harassment and intimidation against individuals involved in animal exploitation – campaigns that are uncomfortably similar to the forms of “protest” carried out by “pro-lifers” against abortion providers. While animal rights activists are deemed the #1 domestic terrorist threat, anti-abortion groups (not-so-)curiously slip under the radar. And yet, is the answer to label them “terrorists” – or to rethink the very definition of “terrorism”?
Fetal Rights vs. Animal Rights
While it may escape the layperson, at their core, the animal rights and anti-abortion movements share little in common. “Pro-lifers,” who purport to be “pro-life,” are nothing of the sort, while the animal rights philosophy elucidates an ethic that’s truly respectful of all life.
As Ryan notes in “Anti-Abortion and Animal Rights Terrorists,” the anti-abortion movement is largely rooted in religion – including its patriarchal dominance of women. We mustn’t “kill babies,” say “pro-lifers,” because they have “souls,” are “gifts from God” (or an “irresponsible” – read: slutty – woman’s punishment for having sex/being raped; take your pick), and/or miniature humans. To anti-choicers, a seven-day-old blastocyst – or even the day-old fertilized but not-yet implanted egg – deserves the same – nay, greater! – rights than the fully formed, adult woman in which it exists, simply by virtue of its parentage.
While an embryo or fetus does possess human DNA, it doesn’t start to resemble a “little person” until well into the pregnancy; we begin as tiny clumps of 70-100 cells called blastocysts, spend 8 weeks as embryos, and then undergo six more months of fetal development prior to birth. During much of this time, we lack many of the brain functions that make us…well, functioning humans. PZ Myers points out that fetuses cannot even feel (sense) pain until at least the 25th week of gestation, for example.
Thus, anti-choicers have a difficult time pointing to one single criteria which marks an embryo as “human” (what is “human,” anyway?) and thus deserving of basic human rights. Sentience – the ability to feel pain and suffer – is often cited as an argument against “late term abortion,” yet the lack of sentience in earlier stages certainly doesn’t prevent anti-choicers from railing against all abortions. (And indeed, even birth control, including but not limited to that which might prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.) A “soul” is necessarily a religious concept – therefore, “ensoulment” might prohibit you from having an abortion, but as a religious belief, it’s not something you can push on the rest of us via legislation. Remember, we live in a secular country that guarantees freedom of – and from – religion; just as I cannot prohibit you from believing in ensoulment at conception, no matter how stupid a concept I find it, you cannot force me to abide by it.
But what of sentience? As an animal rights advocate, certainly a fetus’s capacity to suffer and feel pain means that I must include it in my sphere of compassion and afford it the same right to life I extend to nonhuman animals? In order to avoid hypocrisy, shouldn’t I support a ban on abortion after the 25th week or so? Well, no. Here’s why.
For lack of a better term, I believe that all sentient beings – not just humans – have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – as long as one being’s pursuit of happiness does not infringe on another being’s right to life or liberty. And no, this doesn’t mean that I want to extend suffrage to dogs, any more than I want to extend it to three-year-old children. One’s (civil) liberties rely upon one’s ability to exercise them, and thus are species-dependent. An entirely different matter are (human) rights – those most basic of rights which we extend to all humans, regardless of age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, etc. Animal rights advocates wish to extend certain basic protections – e.g., the right to live free from enslavement and exploitation – currently enjoyed by humans to nonhuman animals. A chimp has no interest in voting, however, she does have an interest in not being kidnapped from her family, shipped to a research facility overseas, subjected to gruesome experiments, and “retired” to a roadside zoo once she’s no longer needed. In short, all beings have a right to live, and to live free from exploitation. (Or, to phrase this in less masculine terms, we should treat our fellow earth-dwellers with respect and compassion – the way we’d like to be treated. Causing another being to suffer unnecessarily is not compassionate.) “My” cat is no more my property, or a means to an end, than “my” child.
Pregnancies present a unique case wherein the “right” of the fetus to live is diametrically opposed to the woman’s right to bodily sovereignty. Frankly, I can’t think of a more basic freedom than the ability to decide what – if anything – resides in one’s own body. In this case, the woman’s right trumps any “rights” the fetus or embryo may have; doubly so when you consider that, in the early stages of pregnancy, the blastocyst/embryo/fetus hardly resembles a human baby, is lacking in cognitive function, and would die outside the mother’s womb. Strictly speaking, the embryo/fetus is a parasite, wholly dependent on the mother’s organs and life force for survival. I’d no more force a woman to carry and birth a fetus against her will, than I’d force a man to live with a six-pound tapeworm in his intestine.
Nor would I force parents to donate blood, bone marrow, organs or other “expendable” body parts to children in need. While I may believe that it’s morally incumbent upon them do so, legislation requiring that they do so would strip them of sovereignty over their very bodies; and to this heathen vegan feminist, if you can’t control your body, your very being – you are anything but “free.” Put another way, parents shouldn’t have less of a right to bodily autonomy than non-parents, simply because they engaged in sex resulting in offspring. One doesn’t sign away control over one’s own body upon parenting children. It matters not if the offspring is a developing fetus or a 19-year-old kid.
Interestingly, I’ve yet to hear a “pro-lifer” advocate for forced organ donation, even though their arguments in favor of forced birth logically lead to this conclusion, namely, that by having sex and creating a fetus (which grows into a baby which grows into a child), parents are responsible for sustaining that being’s physical well-being, no matter how much this may encroach on the parent’s body. (Not-so-) curiously, this logic is only employed when it’s the bodies of women/mothers which are being hijacked. But why should relinquishing one’s body and its organs – so long as it does not kill you** – end with birth? “You created this child,” the logic goes, “now it’s your responsibility to sustain it.” And yet, this burden is only hoisted on the bodies of those carrying would-be babies – a population which is necessarily 100% female. At its core, the movement to legislate pro-life beliefs is misogynist.***
Furthermore, for all their wailing about THE BAYBEEZ!, anti-choicers do little to actually, practically reduce the need for/number of abortions – the most effective method being to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. Such strategies include comprehensive sexual education and affordable and widely available contraception, including Plan B. Yet, anti-choicers usually stand opposed to each of these: they tend to support abstinence-only education, agitate for their “right” to deny women contraception via conscience clauses, and mischaracterize Plan B (which prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg, thus preventing pregnancy) as an “abortifacient.” In fact, the extreme, vocal religious right faction of the “pro-life” movement is intent on outlawing not just abortion, but contraception as well, in order to force today’s “liberated” women back where they belong – in the home, barefoot, pregnant and uneducated, subservient to God and their Husbands.
If “pro-lifers” were really as pro-life as they claim to be then, in cases where women do find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, certainly the pro-lifers, being so pro-life and all, help her to obtain an abortion as early as possible in the pregnancy, so that the being she’s aborting is less likely to feel pain and suffer…right? Rhetorical question, natch. (Lol ur nayevetay!)
Which brings us to cases of “late term” abortion – the kind provided by the late Dr. Tiller. Most of these abortions are performed out of medical necessity, when the life or health of the mother and/or fetus is endangered. Many of these pregnancies were planned and wanted, and it’s only with great despair and desperation – and at the urging of a physician – that the mother turns to abortion. Few women carry a fetus for five or six months and then “suddenly” decide that they no longer wish to have a baby.
On the contrary; the seemingly “reasonable” roadblocks thrown in front of women seeking abortions (such as mandatory counseling and ultrasounds and spousal and parental consent), not to mention the dearth of abortion providers, mean that women, encountering difficulty in obtaining an abortion, must push the date further and further back. Of the relatively small percentage of women who seek medically unnecessary late(r)-term abortions, many do so because they were unable – vs. unwilling – to obtain abortions earlier in their pregnancies. The simplest way to reduce the number of late-term abortions, again, is to make contraception and abortion affordable and available. The “pro-life” movement’s failure – nay, active opposition – to do so makes them anything but. In the case of late-term abortions, where they’d rather see both mother and fetus suffer – and possibly die – together, it makes them absolutely anti-woman, anti-child, anti-human – anti-life. (And, um, that’s not even taking into account their dietary habits.)
On being a pro-choice vegan.
Animal abolitionists, in contrast, tend to be a more ethically consistent lot (emphasis on tend to). While animal rights philosophy is both nuanced and diverse (and given that this is an animal rights blog, aimed at animal rights activists, I don’t think it’s necessary to delve into the details), for me it boils down to the following:
Is unnecessary suffering bad?
Can nonhuman animals suffer?
Does my immediate survival directly depend on using or harming an animal?
As the answers almost always amount to “yes,” “yes,” and “no,” I believe that it’s almost always unacceptable to “use” nonhuman animals as if they are resources or a means to an end. An animal’s species membership is no more relevant to this discussion that his sex, gender, color, breed, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, etc. What counts is sentience, and if an animal is sentient, he has the same interest in avoiding suffering as you and I. As the supposedly “evolved” and “superior” species, we should recognize and abide by this.
In granting nonhuman animals the right to live free from human exploitation, I’m not taking rights (or compassion) from humans, rather, I’m extending rights to animals. (Animal advocates are no more about subjugating humans than feminists are about subjugating men.) Again returning to Ryan’s post, a human has a right to eat what she needs to survive – she doesn’t, however, have a right to kill and eat another animal (human or non) if there’s a non-sentient alternative food source available.
Admittedly, individual animal advocates (and I have been one) differ in their application of this philosophy to both human and nonhuman animals. For instance, the above argument seems to me to rule out the death penalty, as executing a criminal, no matter his crime, is not necessary to my survival (or the survival of society as a whole). He’s already been caught and imprisoned; his execution amounts to retribution, not self-defense, and is therefore inconsistent with the animal rights ethic laid out above.
With few exceptions, you’ll also find that animal rights philosophy rests largely on reason, logic, compassion and justness, as opposed to the religious fanaticism and misogyny that drives the anti-choice movement. Animal exploiters may not agree with our conclusions, but we do base them on evidence and observation, something which cannot be said of “pro-lifers.”
Of course, there’s also the issue of “killing” fetuses, which I’ve tackled above. In a perfect world, abortions would be safe, legal, rare – and performed as early as possible in the pregnancy. But absent that, I still don’t believe that whatever “right to life” a fetus may have trumps the right of a woman to live free of exploitation – and yes, the unwanted use of her body is tantamount to exploitation. When two very basic rights are in conflict, it’s every animal for herself. For what it’s worth, I also support the reproductive rights of cows, gorillas, pigs, mice, chickens, and bats. If a chimpanzee was capable of self-inducing an abortion – or of expressing her desire for one – I’d be the first to march on Capital Hill for her right to abort her nonhuman fetus.
As many animal advocates fall on the liberal end of the spectrum, no doubt a large segment of us support sex ed, contraception, higher education, religious freedom, women’s equality – and all the other shiny stuff that helps to make abortion as safe, legal, rare and early as is possible. Do you?
I am pro-choice, and a vegan.
These values are not mutually exclusive.
Only a meat-eating misogynist would argue otherwise.
While the bulk of this post was written quickly, off-the-cuff and without referring to any specific books, articles, etc., I relied heavily upon Cristina Page’s How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex (which I recently read and reviewed) for the sections on the anti-choice movement and reproductive rights. Much of my general knowledge vis-à-vis reproductive rights and religion comes from years spent consuming feminist media and lurking on feminist and atheist blogs. Likewise, my views on terrorism have been shaped by years spent engaged in animal rights activism, as well as Steve Best and Anthony J. Nocella II’s introductory chapter in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals.
* I tried to describe the feeling of knowing that a sizable and vocal minority wants to subjugate your body and will to that of another being to my husband by referencing the Alien franchise: try to imagine, if you will, the idea of an alien squatting in your body, of not wanting it there but being unable to eject it, and of knowing that, in time, it’ll rip right through your guts and burst out your chest. Now imagine that there’s a cure, but scientists refuse to administer it, as they’ve fetishized the alien to such a degree that they’ve granted him more rights than you. And btw, did I mention that this indignity is only visited upon men, simply because they had the misfortune of being born men? And oh yeah, something like 80% of the scientists are women – howdya like them apples?
** That said, some extreme anti-choicers think women should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, even if it does kill her.
*** Please note that I refer specifically to those who would force their pro-life beliefs on others (i.e., are pro-life and anti-choice), as opposed to those who consider themselves pro-life but believe that abortion should remain legal and with few restrictions for others (pro-choice pro-lifers).
Photo credits, top to bottom
Trust Women: Blog for Choice Day 2010 logo courtesy NARAL.
George Tiller: Pro-choice Martyr – CC image via Flickr user Liza Sabater.
cuffed fallopians – CC image via Flickr user arimoore.
Anti-abortion Leaders: 77% of anti-abortion leaders are men. 100% of them will never be pregnancy. CC image via Flicr user smiteme.
Pregnant Toque Macaque: Pregnant macaque in the Berlin Zoo. She seemed so heavy that she could barely move. CC image via Flickr user Sebastian Niedlich.
Brave survivors of the Midwest floods: A mother and her piglets find refuge at Farm Sanctuary. Image via Farm Sanctuary on Flickr.
Brave survivors of the Midwest floods: A mother pig peers beyond the camera. She and her babies are safe from the dinner plate at Farm Sanctuary. Image via Farm Sanctuary on Flickr.
Rows of farrowing crates: Breeding sows live in metal crates which are lined up in rows. CC image via Farm Sanctuary on Flickr.
Since reproductive rights doesn’t seem to be a topic that’s commonly addressed in the vegan/animal advocacy community, I’ve decided to start a list of further reading on the topic. Pro-choice vegans? Fuck yeah!
- Soycrates on Abortion
- 2011-03-23 – Nathan J. Winograd: The Great Abortion Non-Debate
- 2010-12-20 – ProChoice Gal @ abortion gang: My Pro-Choice Veganism
- 2010-01-22 – Kelly Garbato @ Animal Rights & AntiOppression: Blog for Choice Day: On “trusting women” (all women)