The anti-choice/pro-birth argument usually revolves around some variation of the statement that DNA, chromosomes, or anything otherwise being in the group labeled “human” is all the reason necessary to declare something a full important being with value above and beyond all other living things. Sounds reasonable, but the argument is hollow and does not logically follow.
If pigs evolved a consciousness equitable to humans overnight, enabling speech, full self awareness, and abstract thinking, would their status relative to us still remain chattel simply because they aren’t humans with human DNA? Likewise, if intelligent aliens landed tomorrow, would we be justified in ignoring their full autonoetic consciousness and slaughtering them as food with no remorse? If a robot was created with full sentient awareness, emotions, and our level of cognitive fortitude (Data from late Star Trek TNG style), would it be fundamentally inferior to us?
The answer to all these questions is of course no. It is not our being humans that means anything. A human is not superior to a pig by virtue of being human any more than a pig is superior to a human by virtue of being a pig. That is a circular argument. What is important are the qualities a human possesses that a pig doesn’t that justify special moral consideration, not its categorical definition as that particular species. This blind focus that reproductive authoritarians place on human-ness hearkens to the theocratic roots of their arguments (even though they deny these roots to people they know won’t buy the theocratic argument). Theocrats believe God made us apart from animals as rightful superior subjugators of them.
Contrary to what theocrats claim, the qualities that make humans different and worthy of special moral consideration over other animals (yes, humans are animals) include but are not limited to sentience, higher consciousness, and a higher capacity to experience pain and suffering. Those qualities are not present in cats, dogs, cows, pigs, earthworms, lizards, or any other animal. At least, not at the level of sophistication observed in humans. Unfortunately for womb fascists, those qualities are also not present in human fetuses at any point during pregnancy.
Thus, if you aren’t against the slaughtering of pigs, cows, fish, or any other animal for consumption, you have absolutely no argument against abortion. So if anti-choicers think the qualities a fetus are sufficient to make abortion morally reprehensible, they better be going after the meat and livestock industries as veritable genocide.
For the record, I am neither anti-choice nor a vegetarian. I can, however, acknowledge the moral ambiguity present in eating meat. As soon as we can clone nutritionally similar tasty beef in labs I’ll probably advocate choosing such meat over conventional meat.
Evidence on neurology and sentience
Salihagić Kadić and Predojević (2012) report that fetuses lack the neural connections to sense anything approaching pain response until at the very least 26 weeks, more than 6 months of gestation. Derbyshire (2006) specifically says “The neural circuitry for pain in fetuses is immature. More importantly, the developmental processes necessary for the mindful experience of pain are not yet developed… Pain in fetuses are not supported by evidence. Legal or clinical mandates for interventions to prevent such pain are scientifically unsound and may expose women to inappropriate interventions, risks, and distress.” Reaffirming this Derbyshire (2008) says “We can be confident the fetus does not experience pain prior to about 23 weeks gestation because the neural circuitry for pain in the fetus is immature. More importantly the developmental processes necessary for experience are not yet developed in the fetus at any gestation before birth.”
So no, pain as experienced by adult humans, pigs, cats, cows, and such isn’t even close to being possible before birth; pain as a reflex is not achieved until around 6 months, the second trimester.
What about sentience? Sentience occurs much later than the ability to sense pain, and this is implicit in much what Derbyshire (2006; 2008) stated. Cochrane (2013) argues that “human rights [should] be reconceptualized as sentient rights. It [is] argued that all sentient creatures possess certain basic rights [that are deserved] on the basis that they possess interests. This gives an initial reason to think that the rights of all sentient creatures are to some extent alike.” If sentience is something we either have or don’t have, livestock have it, but if it is a spectrum (as any reasonable person sees it) humans are definitely well ahead of livestock in it. It is because of qualities such as sentience that humans can be thought of as special, not simply belonging to the human category.
People have a hard time not seeing sentience or consciousness as a black and white binary. Sentience isn’t that simple though. Your Dog can sense and feel more complex pain and consciousness than your Gerbil, your Gerbil can probably sense just a little more than your parakeet, your parakeet can definitely sense more than the ants in your child’s ant farm, and your ants can probably sense more than tardigrades. Such are the gradations of sentience/consciousness/pain-capacity.
Adult pigs, adult cows, adult dogs, adult cats, and one year-old human children all experience greater sentience/consciousness/pain-capacity than a fetus of a human, pig, cow, dog, or cat.
To be perfectly explicit about what I am saying:
NO, I am not saying pigs or other livestock have true sentience the way humans do.
NO, I am not comparing or equating grown sentient humans to livestock; I’m comparing embryos and and not-even-close-to-sentient fetuses to livestock with respect to very specific traits; neurological development and consciousness.
This argument isn’t necessary to defend abortion rights. The choice of the woman is more than a sufficient argument already. But the fact that the anti-choice pro-birth arguments fail on logical and neurological grounds like this post argues just make reproductive authoritarianism that much more untenable.
If you are tempted to say, “by that logic you could kill infants.” That is a continuum fallacy. My pro-choice argument is agnostic to infants. Just because one cannot name the exact point at which a human gains said special moral value that does not mean it can’t be said when a human definitely doesn’t have the qualities (when in the womb) and when they definitely do (a young child). Perhaps infanticide is permissible, perhaps it isn’t. Pointing out this grey area doesn’t detract from the initial argument. It would matter only if you’re trying to make an argument for or against infanticide, which I am not.
If you disagree with my argument, cite the premise you disagree with, or cite the place where you feel the logical arrhythmic does not reasonably follow. DO NOT simply make an appeal to emotion or a bad analogy that is not actually analogous to my argument. Opposition (or support) should be motivated by reason and evidence, not partisanship and sententious religious indignity.
- Cochrane, A. (2013). From human rights to sentient rights. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16(5), 655–675. https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2012.691235
- Derbyshire, S. W. (2008). Fetal Pain: Do We Know Enough to Do the Right Thing? Reproductive Health Matters, 16(31 SUPPL.), 117–126. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0968-8080(08)31370-6
- Derbyshire, S. W. G. (2006). Can fetuses feel pain? BMJ, 332(7546), 909–912. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7546.909
- Salihagić Kadić, A., & Predojević, M. (2012). Fetal neurophysiology according to gestational age. Seminars in Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, 17(5), 256–260. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.siny.2012.05.007