Sentience and Consent: An Askew Review of Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights

Sentience and Consent: An Askew Review of Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights
by Will Stockton

            What follows is an adventure in analytic philosophy.

            By way of responding to several of Sherry F. Colb and Michael’s C. Dorf’s arguments in Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights (Columbia University Press, 2016), I maintain that animals, both human and non-human, born and gestating, have a right to life, and that humans unjustifiably violate that right when eating, wearing, or testing products on animals, and in most cases when terminating a pregnancy. Colb and Dorf argue to the contrary that humans are not justified in eating, wearing, or testing products on animals, but that women are, in most cases, justified in terminating a pregnancy.

             My main assumptions here are two:

  1. We generally have a negative moral obligation to avoid harming sentient creatures – creatures who, at the very least, can experience pain. I say “generally” because there are exceptions. Most people would consider it morally permissible in emergency situations to inflict harm on a person in order to rescue them from a greater harm – to break their arm to pull them from a burning car, for example. Nonetheless, in the everyday course of events, we consider it wrong to harm sentient creatures without an overwhelmingly good reason to do so.Nonsentient forms of life and inanimate objects matter less or not at all, morally speaking, than sentient forms of life.
  2. Nonsentient beings and inanimate objects cannot feel pain, as they lack a brain and a nervous system. For this reason, few people consider it a moral travesty to cut flowers or break a rock. To be sure, many forms of nonsentient life have means of ensuring their own survival. Sunflowers turn their heads to the sun. Viruses camouflage themselves to avoid detection by the immune system. Nonetheless, there is little reason to believe that flora and viruses, any more than rocks, are sentient.

Colb and Dorf share these assumptions. They use the first to advance the claim that animals, as sentient creatures, have as much of a right to life as humans. Species difference does not determine one’s membership in the moral community. Sentience does. Therefore, no human is entitled to harm an animal for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. [1] They use the second assumption to argue that zygotes, blastocysts, embryos, and young (roughly first-trimester) fetuses have no right to life; like plants, viruses, and rocks, these zygotes, blastocysts, embryos, and young fetuses are not sentient. Colb and Dorf maintain that the abortion of sentient fetuses is more morally complicated. But they justify such abortions on the grounds of bodily autonomy; put simply, they hold that the mother’s interest in controlling her own body overrides the sentient fetus’s right to life.


[1] In formulating this obligation, Colb and Dorf rely heavily on the work of Gary Francione. See especially Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or Your Dog (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000). Francione’s work was also responsible for my conversion to veganism.

I find Colb and Dorf’s arguments for animal rights persuasive, but two of their arguments for abortion rights less so:

  1. Colb and Dorf do not sufficiently distinguish zygotes, blastocysts, embryos, and young fetuses as forms of life that are in the process of becoming sentient. As a result, they do not adequately address the claim that probable future sentience grounds a right to life.
  2. Colb and Dorf fail to distinguish our moral responsibility toward children from our moral responsibility toward adults. As a result, they advance an argument for second- and third-trimester abortions that would also justify infanticide. [2]

In this essay, I am concerned with moral questions about abortion and animal rights, not with legal questions. Nonetheless, I recognize that moral questions raise legal ones, even as it is not always, or even primarily, the function of the law to legislate morality. I recognize, too, the limits of the law’s ability to impose changes of perspective on moral issues. Finally, I recognize that legally prohibiting widely controversial goods and services often generates a black market for these goods and services that is more undesirable than the previously legal one. I do not attempt to address questions of law here. I will say only that I agree with Colb and Dorf that one may hold abortion to be immoral (like lying or adultery) but also rightly legal. But it does not seem to me that one may consistently hold that abortion is murder and also rightly legal. In its common usage, the term murder suggests legal impermissibility. If abortion is murder, the state has a strong prima fascia case for prohibiting it.

[2] A tertiary assumption of this essay would be that infanticide is wrong. I believe Colb and Dorf also share this assumption, as their argument regarding abortion does not engage the topic, and seems to posit that raising a newborn does not conflict with any right to bodily autonomy. At the same time, I realize that infanticide has its defendants. See, among others, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” Journal of Medical Ethics 39.5 (2013): 261-263; and Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). 

The Morality of Aborting Pre-Sentient Humans

On what grounds do most opponents of all abortion defend the right of the pre-sentient human to life? The answer cannot be its sentience. Zyggotes, blastocysts, embryos, and young fetuses do not possess sentience. Most often, the answer is these creatures’ humanity. Here is Colb and Dorf’s summation of the pro-life position:

          From the moment of conception, a zygote has a full complement of his
          or her unique DNA, the instructions that will enable the zygote
          to develop into a human baby, then a child and eventually an
          adult. Therefore, from conception, a unique human individual is
          present (25).

This summation seems accurate, and Colb and Dorf are correct to criticize its speciesism. The pro-life argument that “life begins at conception” turns away from sentience, consciousness, viability, and the like, and toward species (“human”), to ground that life’s membership in the moral community. In this section, I will leverage Colb and Dorf’s criticism of pro-life speciesism to counter that this membership also extends to pre-sentient humans in utero.

            Pro-choice philosophers differ on whether and when the fetus becomes both a “human” (a member of a species) and a “person” (a subject of legal and moral consideration). Many grant that the fetus is both a human and a person from the moment of conception, or soon after conception, and still argue that abortion is almost always justified. [3] Colb and Dorf make no such concession, however. They criticize the pro-life argument above for “trad[ing] on a crucial ambiguity in the meaning of the term ‘human’” (25). It is not clear, they claim, that a zygote is “a unique human individual.” All human cells contain DNA, yet no one thinks it a crime to shower away some skin cells or radiate cancer cells. Only a handful of religious fundamentalists still consider masturbation to be murder. Furthermore, with the use of modern cloning technology, each cell, by virtue of containing DNA, may be manipulated into producing “a human being”: one simply removes the cell’s nucleus and injects it into a denucleated egg cell. Colb and Dorf conclude that the “differences among various potential people – between zygotes, sperm cells, eggs, and ordinary body cells – are thus a matter of probabilities that they will become human beings, a matter of degree rather than kind” (26, emphasis added). They further conclude that such probabilities “are simply irrelevant to the question of whether the zygote is already a human being” (27). [4]

[3] See, most famously, Judith Jarvis Thompson’s A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.1 (1971): 47-66. See also David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 

[4] For the now classic formulation of the pro-life argument that abortion unjustly deprives an embryo of a potential future, see Dan Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” Journal of Philosophy 86.4 (1989): 183-202.

            Seeking a strong articulation of the position they critique, Colb and Dorf engage specifically with an essay by pro-life philosophers Patrick Lee and Robert George. [5] I will not reproduce Colb and Dorf’s long quotation from Lee and George. Suffice it to say that Lee and George characterize embryos as “whole human organisms” whose potential for development as humans far exceeds the potential of any other somatic cell. For Lee and George, embryos are also distinct from other somatic cells in the way that parts are distinct from wholes. Sperm, eggs, and other somatic cells “contribute constituents” to the human organism. The embryo, by contrast, is that human organism; it is “new, distinct, [and] self-integrating” being that will continue its development “given nothing more than a hospitable environment.” [6]

[5] Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, “The Stubborn Facts of Science: Human Embryos are Human Beings,” National Review Online (Jul 30, 2001), See also Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 2010).

[6] The “postmodern” objection is easily anticipated: Lee and George’s moral philosophy rests on a suspect metaphysics – an easily deconstructed distinction between parts and wholes, and a fragile assumption that human identity persists over time, such that the embryo is the same human being who will later be born, mature, and eventually die.[2] These objections may be correct, yet I would argue that they are morally irrelevant. We necessarily and routinely rely on a distinction between parts and wholes, as well as an assumption of identity over time, to determine differences in degrees of harm. It is one thing to cut off a person’s leg; to do so is to deprive her of a part. But to kill a person is to deprive her of her whole being. The harm done by both crimes is not ameliorated by metaphysical claims that “leg” and “person” are simply linguistic constructs that purport to fix an identity constantly in flux. 

            Colb and Dorf raise four objections to Lee and George’s pro-life argument. First, Colb and Dorf object that “the active work of pregnancy” vanishes in the description of the uterus as “a hospitable environment.” Lee and George ignore the argument that “abortion prohibitions are so burdensome precisely because pregnancy and childbirth are physically and psychologically demanding impositions” (28). Colb and Dorf are right, but it is not the case that all “physically and psychologically demanding impositions” on a mother automatically trump any presumptive right of the embryo to live. If violating that right constitutes murder, there are in strong reasons to hold that this right trumps the mother’s right to avoid these impositions. Strongest among these reasons is the fact that we generally do not consider personal hardships sufficient warrant for taking the life of another person.

            Second, Colb and Dorf read Lee and George as equating “a hospitable environment” with a lack of “deliberate intervention,” implying that embryos conceived through the process of in vitro fertilization would not be human. This interpretation is mistaken. The need of the embryo for “a hospitable environment” implies nothing about how the embryo reached that environment, whether through the process of sexual intercourse or in-vitro fertilization. Indeed, at the end of the article that Colb and Dorf critique, Lee and George write, “Human physical organisms come to be at conception, whether by a natural process or by lab technology.” They recognize that embyros are often created through deliberate medical intervention, and in claiming that those embryos still need a “hospitable environment” in which to grow, they are not contradicting themselves. [7]

[7] Lee and George do hold, however, that it is wrong to destroy embryos or blastocysts created in the process of IVF. Much to my discomfort, my argument here implies the same.

          Colb and Dorf stand on stronger ground with their third and fourth objections, both of which concern Lee and Goerge’s backdoor importation of sentience as the criterion for moral consideration. Lee and George do not deny the embryo’s lack of “present interests” (29). Colb and Dorf thus contend that Lee and George’s argument for protecting the life of the embryo rests on one of two problematic grounds. It may rest on a respect for life qua life, detached from any particular interests; but that seems not to be the case given Lee and George’s emphasis on the embryo’s status as human. More likely, it rests on the potential of the embryo to possess interests in the future, when it develops into a sentient being. Yet this foundation makes sentience, not humanity, the relevant criterion for membership in the moral community, with its due rights of protection. Colb and Dorf then proceed to note, in their fourth objection, that they “have found virtually no attempt whatsoever,” including in Lee and George’s work, “to defend the moral relevance of the fact that zygotes, embryos, and presentient fetuses belong to the human species.” The assumption that human belonging grounds moral relevance is most often circular: humans matter because they are humans.

          Lee and George’s claim that humans matter, even as embryos, because they are humans admits upon analysis that sentience, not species, actually motivates moral consideration. I agree with Lee and George, and with Colb and Dorf, that zygotes and embryos are whole human beings, not simply part of another human in the way a leg, arm, and kidney are. I also agree with Colb and Dorf that sentience, not species, grounds moral consideration. I do not agree, however, that Colb and Dorf’s argument fully undermines Lee and George’s argument that aborting a pre-sentient human is immoral. It seems easy enough to amend Lee and George’s claim such that the embryo’s relative potential to develop sentience reasonably grounds its right to life. Cloning technology has blurred the line between embryos and other somatic cells. Yet a blurred line is not an obliterated one.

          A simple probability equation will demonstrate the rationale for morally distinguishing embryos and other somatic cells. Assume that the probability of any given embryo becoming a sentient fetus is 40%. This probability is artificially low given the actual rate of miscarriages, which is somewhere between 15-20%, with most of those miscarriages occurring in the first trimester; but erring on the side of a low rate will scarcely undermine the mathematical point.  Now let us assume that the probability that any one of the roughly thirty-seven trillion somatic cells in a human body at any given time will become an embryo is near zero. [8] We will be generous again and set that probability at a mere one-trillionth of a percent. The relevant moral question here concerns not so much the likelihood of any given somatic cell becoming a human being, as Colb and Dorf presume. The relevant moral question is this: how much more likely is an embryo to become sentient than any other somatic cell is to become an embryo? Based on the numbers hypothesized here, the answer is forty trillion. Each embryo has forty trillion times better a chance of becoming a sentient fetus than any given somatic cell has of becoming an embryo. When Colb and Dorf respond to the pro-life argument from potential, they are right to criticize its speciesism. But the probability that an embryo will become sentient so vastly exceeds the potential of other somatic cells to become embryos that one is quite justified in distinguishing embryos from other cells as a matter of kinds.

[8] Sperm and eggs have more potential of course. The average male human body will generate many trillions of sperm over the course of its life, with average the ejaculation containing 180 million sperm. Yet we could run probability equations with sperm and reach the similar conclusion that each is far less likely to become an embryo than an embryo is to become sentient. Female human bodies contain one to two million eggs at birth, but only several hundred of these will develop into mature eggs. These eggs, which as biology would have it are not easily lost, thus have the greatest potential among all somatic cells for becoming embryos. 

          The right of an embryo to life despite its present lack of sentience can be seen if we compare the embryo to a person in a coma. This comparison is common in the philosophical literature on abortion, and it has many versions. Here I will address two. First, imagine that an adult, Karen, has fallen into a coma as the result of severe physical trauma. There is debate within the medical community about the extent to which people in comas can perceive stimuli, experience pain, or engage in anything resembling thought. But imagine, too, that Karen lacks each of these capacities. She is not currently sentient. Doctors nonetheless predict that she will emerge from the coma in a matter of months. Is it morally permissible for anyone to end Karen’s life while she is comatose? The answer is almost certainly no. Although Karen is not currently sentient, few doubt that her probable return to sentience obliges us to protect her life. To kill her while she is comatose would deprive her of a future in which she is sentient – a future in which she, unlike a rock or a virus, has an interest in living. We may extend the same principle of future interest to an embryo. Not yet sentient, the embryo nonetheless likely will be. Like Karen, the embryo likely will have an interest in living.

          When Colb and Dorf consider this comparison of an embryo to a person in a coma, they argue that the latter’s right to life rests on its previous endowment of sentience. In their words,

          past-but-revivable sentience makes someone a someone with an
          interest in continued existence, but a (non)being that has not ever been
          sentient is still only something, even if it could develop into someone
          in a relatively short time in a properly supportive environment. (107)

Colb and Dorf call this principle of differentiation a “moralized version of the endowment effect,” wherein the value of a good or a capacity is understood relative to its current or previous possession (111). I do not dispute the endowment effect as a psychological principle, only its moral application here. We may stipulate that Karen’s life is worth more to her than the life of the embryo is to the embryo. This embryo may well develop into a woman named Sarah, but as an embryo Sarah will not, in the process of developing, return to a sense of “Sarah” that she has previously had the capacity to fear losing. Sarah will not return, as will Karen, to a set of memories, emotions, attachments, or plans for the future. That is, Sarah will only slowly develop these things over the course of her life as a fetus, an infant, a child, an adolescent, and so on. Yet this gradual endowment of faculties and capacities does not compel the conclusion that Sarah, as an embryo, has no interest in living. Sarah has a high probability of becoming sentient, and this high probability grounds a reasonable understanding of her as currently someone rather than something, as a person with an interest in living rather than a someone without such interest.

            A second problem with Colb and Dorf’s moralized version of the endowment effect is that it provides justification for privileging the life of a toddler over that of a newborn, the life of a small child over a newborn, the live of a teenager over a small child, and the life of an adult over a teenager. In each case, the older of the pair is likely to have more robust forms of sentience, which develop beyond the mere ability to feel pain and come to include consciousness in all its various aspects that magnify pain and pleasure, the ability to suffer, the ability to plan for the future, and so on. Looking ahead to the next section, I will note that to take the moralized version of the endowment effect seriously is to conclude that the life of toddler, who can recognize herself in the mirror, is worth more than the life of a newborn who has yet to develop this ability. The life of a teenager who can deliberate over which college to attend and what to major in is worth more than the life of a toddler for whom the whole concept of time is still largely a mystery. In short, to take the moralized version of the endowment effect seriously is to risk the authorization of a crude utilitarian moral calculus, proportionally dividing the right to life amongst those who possess certain capacities and those who do not have them (yet).

          Slightly modifying the comparison of a comatose person to an embryo helps clarify the limits of Colb and Dorf’s moralized version of the endowment effect. Imagine now that Karen will most likely come out of her coma, but upon emerging from the coma she will have no memories of her previous self. [9] Her brain damage is so severe that she will have lost all of the cognitive and motor skills she previously developed. Reduced to the barest level of sentience, she will essentially be returned to a state of infancy. Is it now morally permissible to end Karen’s life while she is still comatose? I presume slightly more disagreement on the answer to this question. If Karen lacks knowledge of her previous endowment of sentience, some may argue that she is now no different from an embryo, and thus may be “terminated” by those who would otherwise have to care for her. Yet I wager that most people’s intuition still suggests the opposite. Even if she will awaken in a mental state of infancy, ending Karen’s life is still unjust. There are at least two reasons why this is so. First, we recognize that Karen, even while severely disabled, will still be a sentient individual, and we prefer to live in a world where the lives of sentient individuals, however disabled, are protected as such. Second, we are generally unwilling to determine for others whether their life is worth living. Such a decision should properly be Karen’s, to be made when she has the capacity to make it. 

          The same rationale applies to an embryo. [10] Sentience is a capacity, or a set of capacities, that develop from rudimentary to more robust forms. What matters morally is not so much their current or past possession, or even the degree of their possession, but the probability of their possession. When that probability is coupled with the right of self-determination – the right of a sentient being to determine whether his or her own life is worth living – one has a strong case that abortion, even prior to sentience, constitutes murder.

[9] I borrow this version of the coma analogy from Beckwith, Defending Life, 138.

[10] But does it? The analogy purports to establish two alike moral cases. But how common is it for a coma victim to emerge from a coma with the capacities of a newborn? I venture to say that it is rare, if not entirely unheard of. One might therefore object that I have set up a false comparison between a common situation (pregnancy) and a nonexistent one (a comatose person waking up with the capacities of a newborn). One might likewise object that we make a moral mistake if we extend our intuitions about situations that do not happen to those that do. Indeed, we ignore all of the other very real and very common conditions surrounding unwanted pregnancies that make abortion such a morally complicated issue.

I find these objections emotionally compelling, but ultimately not morally dispositive. For one thing, the philosophical literature on abortion is full of thought experiments, many of them involving a violinist to which the reader is involuntarily providing life support. (See Thompson, “A Defense of Abortion.”) The purpose of the coma victim analogy is simply to deduce a broad principle about the treatment of soon-to-be sentient life. To deduce this principle is not to ignore the other conditions surrounding unwanted pregnancies. It is simply to separate questions for the purpose of addressing them in turn: 1) Is it reasonable to understand the embryo as a creature with a right to life? 2) Do the difficulties of enduring an unwanted pregnancy override that right to life? 

Abortion and Infanticide

          In their defense of the embryo as human, Lee and George ignore the physical, psychological, and financial burdens that abortion prohibitions place on pregnant women. They ignore, too, the long history of denying women any choice over whether to conceive and bear children. Yet it is not clear why these factors morally override the fetus’s right to life. In this section, I argue that Colb and Dorf overcorrect for Lee and George’s omissions by morally prioritizing a woman’s consent to pregnancy. Colb and Dorf do not engage, much less refute, the pro-life argument that our moral obligations toward children differ from our moral obligations toward other adults. Consequently, Colb and Dorf provide an argument for abortion that also justifies infanticide.

            For Colb and Dorf, abortion is properly understood as a matter of self-defense, which both differentiates it from issues of animal use and justifies the right to abortion even in those cases where the fetus is sentient. They analogize an unwanted pregnancy to rape. [11] In both cases, women suffer an “internal occupation” that they have the presumptive right to end (89). To deny a woman the moral or legal right to terminate her pregnancy is to perpetuate “a kind of assault upon her body” (88).

          That said, Colb and Dorf know the analogy to be imperfect:

          [W]hat the pregnant woman does is aimed not simply at refusing to be
          intimately occupied, as it is in the case of self-defense against rape. . .
          Abortion of a sentient fetus kills an innocent being who appears to be
          entitled not to be attacked or killed, an entitlement that the sentient
          fetus has not forfeited in the way the (also sentient) rapist has.
          Moreover, if the pregnancy was the result of consensual sex, then the
          pregnant woman has played an active role in creating the
          circumstances in which the innocent sentient being grows inside her.
          We do not believe this fact is dispositive because an act of
          sex does not, in most cases, yield a pregnancy, and it therefore cannot
          really be called ‘consent’ to pregnancy. (89-90)

Like a cow, chicken, or fish, the fetus is a morally innocent, sentient creature with a right to life. In deciding whether or not to eat animals or wear their skin, we are morally obligated to respect this right, as these animals are not living inside or otherwise dependent upon our bodies. Pregnancy presents a distinct moral situation, however, because the fetus depends upon the woman’s body to live. If a pregnant woman has not consented to becoming and remaining pregnant, she has the right to end the life of the creature occupying her, regardless as to whether that creature is sentient.

[11] Eileen L. McDonagh pioneered this analogy in Breaking the Abortion Deadlock: From Choice to Consent (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

          Having criticized Lee and George’s speciesism, Colb and Dorf shift the ethical ground from questions about what counts as human to questions of consent and bodily autonomy. They claim that consenting to have sex does not mean consenting to get pregnant. Pregnancy only sometimes follows from sexual intercourse, including sexual intercourse without the use of contraception. Sexual intercourse and pregnancy must therefore be distinguished as separate activities to which one may or may not consent. Other pro-choice philosophers have drawn a series of analogies to help clarify this distinction. One does not consent to have one’s house burgled if one opens the window. [12] One does not consent to be sexually assaulted if one goes jogging at night in Central Park. [13] To accept a risk is to say “I know X might happen, but I do not want X to happen.” To consent is to say “I want X to happen.” The pro-life confusion of consent and risk-acceptance is compounded if the woman has taken precautions against pregnancy by using contraception or having her partner use contraception. In these cases, the woman has actively signaled that she does not want to get pregnant.

            There are different pro-life responses to this distinction between consenting to sexual intercourse and consenting to pregnancy. Francis Beckwith has argued, for instance, that it misrepresents the natural relationship between sex and pregnancy, the latter being the condition toward which the first is ordered. [14] Sex and pregnancy are more teleologically unified than opening a window and being burgled or going for a jog and being assaulted. There are problems with this particular response, however. By relying on a notion of “order,” Beckwith's argument seems implicitly religious. We might ask, “Ordered by whom?” God? Evolution? And if by evolution, so what? Why does evolution constitute a moral check on human behavior? Furthermore, not all forms of sex are ordered toward reproduction. There are plenty of ways to have sex – orally, anally, etc. – that do not risk bringing a needy and dependent human being into the world.

          A more persuasive pro-life response to the distinction between consenting to sexual intercourse and consenting to pregnancy is simply to say that this distinction is morally irrelevant. If we grant that the fetus has a right to life, the decision to kill it does not hinge on whether the sex that produced its life was consensual. One is morally obligated to carry the fetus to term – or at least until viability, when its care can be delegated to someone else – because the only other option is to kill it. By way of protesting this obligation, it will not suffice to make an argument for bodily autonomy, or to claim that the fetus’s right to life does not give it the right to use the body of the mother to sustain its life. It will not suffice, either, to cite the adverse impact of this obligation on women. Fetuses are not adults who can ask for or negotiate to use other people’s bodies. They do not develop inside male bodies – and if they did, the obligation not to kill them would be exactly the same. The fact is that all small humans, be they zygotes, embryos, fetuses, infants, toddlers, or small children, depend in very immediate ways on the body of another person to keep them alive. Without anyone to feed and shelter them, which is to say, without someone willing to devote some significant part of their bodily labor to their care, they will die. This fact makes human children morally distinct from most human adults. It also grounds a pro-life position broadly congruent with the vegan position on animal rights: sentient creatures, or creatures that will soon be sentient, have the right to be treated as ends in themselves. That principle prescribes that we humans do our best not to harm them. We do not eat animals even though they taste good and we find their skins fashionable. We do not leave newborns and small children to die. And if we find ourselves temporarily hosting a sentient creature inside our body, we endure the burdens of hosting unless the creature presents a risk to our life or is itself otherwise dying.

[12] Thompson, “A Defense of Abortion,” 58-59.

[13] McDonagh, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock, 49-50. See also David Boonin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 154-64.

[14] Beckwith, Defending Life, 180.

            Colb and Dorf observe that it is “difficult to argue convincingly that the moral status of a fetus or baby ought to turn on where in the birth canal it is located” (83). I agree. But it is more difficult to see how Colb and Dorf avoid precisely this kind of argument. Colb and Dorf acknowledge that a sentient fetus is a member of the moral community, but they argue that because the fetus lives inside the body of another, and is wholly dependent on that body to live, a pregnant woman ultimately has the right to end that fetus’s life “for whatever reason” (88). Why does the moral situation differ after birth, when the infant still depends on the body of another to live? If Lee and George ignore the burdens that pregnancy places on women, Colb and Dorf ignore the burdens that infants place on those best positioned, whether by choice or accident, to care for them. [15] They ignore the late-night feedings, the crying, the diaper changes, the vomiting, the limited mobility, the career losses and compromises, the often-tremendous expense of money and mental and physical energy – in general, the whole series of exhausting obligations that we morally expect caregivers to meet, no matter how burdensome these obligations become. Indeed, one’s bodily autonomy is usually even more severely compromised after the baby is born, such that the argument for bodily autonomy would more strongly authorize post-birth abortions.

          Yet we generally consider mere neglect of a newborn to be immoral. We consider it even more morally wrong for caregivers to murder children (whether “actively” by directly taking actions that kill them, or “passively” through neglect), notwithstanding the fact that not all caregivers consented to being caregivers. We impose these obligations because we recognize that the moral status of children makes consenting to their care important, but ultimately less important than their life. The problem with Colb and Dorf’s argument is that they do not distinguish obligations to children from obligations to other adults. As a result, the priority they place on consent unwittingly authorizes infanticide – a practice that I assume they would find morally abhorrent, although it is not clear why.

[15] As Beckwith notes, the pro-choice argument from consent and bodily autonomy assumes a radically minimalist view of our obligations toward others. This view “isolates the individual from other persons except as those relationships arise from the individual’s explicit choice” (175). The pro-life view presumes, more robustly, that “human beings are persons-in-community and have certain natural obligations as members of their community that arise from their roles as mother, father, citizen, child, and so on” (175-76). We may reasonably differ on what those “natural obligations” are, and on whether “natural” is even the right word to use. Nonetheless, we all seem to assume, at the very least, that mothers and fathers are obligated not to kill their children.



          Reviewing several of Sherry F. Colb and Michael C. Dorf’s arguments in favor of the right to abortion, I have maintained that embryos have a right to life as creatures who will most likely become sentient. I have also argued that prioritizing consent over both the fetus’s right to life and our obligations towards children unwittingly authorizes infanticide. From both arguments, I draw the conclusion that animal-rights-based veganism is broadly congruent with pro-life rather than pro-choice morality.


Will Stockton is Associate Professor of English at Clemson University. His books on Renaissance literature include Playing Dirty: Sexuality and Waste in Early Modern Comedy (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) and Members of His Body: Shakespeare, Paul, and a Theology of Nonmonogamy (Fordham University Press, 2017). As a poet, he is the author of Crush (Punctum Books, 2014) and Brimstone (Queer Young Cowboys, 2015). He edits the journal Early Modern Culture.