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[This post was suggested by my Patreon backer Ryan (yes, the same Ryan– this is how random number generators work, people). A random backer at the $5/month or more level is selected each month to suggest a post or story.]

Many people care about animal welfare: that is, they might stop eating meat or donate to charities which campaign for cage-free eggs, because they care about creatures that are generally less intelligent than humans. However, a lot of people who support animal welfare are pro-choice: they think it should be legal to kill fetuses, often because fetuses are less intelligent than born humans and thus matter less. That seems sort of strange.

I think there are three ways to harmonize pro-choice and pro-animal-welfare beliefs.

First, young fetuses are probably significantly less morally relevant than chickens or even crickets. A systemic review suggests that fetuses certainly cannot feel pain before 23 weeks, because their thalamocortical fibers have not developed yet, and evidence from electroencephalography suggests that they probably cannot feel pain before 30 weeks. Conversely, there is no scientific consensus on whether insects feel pain, and chickens certainly do experience pain. Pain matters not just because it’s a pretty significant source of disutility but because it’s relatively simple. If a fetus has not developed the ability to feel pain, it probably hasn’t developed other morally relevant capacities either, most of which are probably more complicated than feeling pain and would thus take longer to develop. 88% of abortions occur during the first trimester, which is well before the fetus has developed its capability to feel pain. Only a tiny percentage of abortions occur with a morally relevant fetus, and a much smaller percentage are for reasons other than life or health of the pregnant person or severe disability of the fetus, which most people think are okay reasons to abort.

Second, most consequentialist vegetarianisms are not about the right to life per se but instead about suffering. Many vegetarians believe it is okay to kill animals, but not okay to allow them to suffer. However, broiler chickens do not have lives that are worth living; therefore, one should avoid eating them in order to not create an incentive to create more broiler chickens. Fetuses, conversely, probably have pretty okay lives: they’re in a warm and safe environment, they are adequately fed, they generally don’t suffer from many diseases and they can enjoy pleasurable activities like listening to their parents’ voices, thumb-sucking, and masturbation. The only painful thing an aborted fetus is likely to experience is its death. Of course, given how short a fetus’s life is, its death makes up a pretty significant percentage of its life. However, it is possible to eliminate even this suffering. Fetal anesthesia has been developed, and laws in some states require its use during abortion, although usually far before the fetus is actually capable of feeling pain. It seems wise to me to require anesthesia to be used in third-trimester abortions (which, again, are a tiny percentage of abortions), assuming that there is no health risk to the pregnant person in doing so. Given that most third-trimester abortions are of wanted children, routine use of anesthetic may even provide some comfort to the mother.

Third, most vegetarians are not advocating for making meat illegal. We even think it’s okay to eat meat in certain serious situations: for instance, if you have an eating disorder triggered by vegetarianism, your diet is very limited due to a physical health condition, or you are averse to eating essentially all plant matter and if you became vegetarian you would wind up living on white bread and Skittles. And we certainly wouldn’t want to have a doctor or government board who’s in charge of deciding whether or not someone’s situation is grave enough to allow them to eat meat; that’s something the individual should decide for themselves. Even many vegetarians who believe that animals have a right to life believe that that right can be overridden by the welfare of a human being.

Imagine adopting a similar attitude towards fetuses. You don’t want abortion to be illegal. You think abortion is okay in certain serious situations: for instance, if you have a health condition aggravated by pregnancy, you’re carrying your rapist’s child, or you’re phobic of pregnancy. And you certainly wouldn’t want to have a doctor or a government board who’s in charge of deciding whether or not someone’s situation is grave enough to allow them to abort; that’s something the individual should decide for themselves.

Congratulations, you’re pro-choice! Certainly you have a complex and not unambiguous relationship with abortion, but so do many pro-choice people.

Of course, you might want to take steps to reduce abortion. For instance, one might want to make long-acting reversible contraception easier to access, so that people have fewer unintended pregnancies. One might want to accommodate parents better (both through government and workplace policy and through social support for parents), so that fewer people have abortions due to financial difficulties or the inability to be a single parent. One might ensure that birth parents have access to appropriate mental health support after their adoption and that open adoptions are legally enforceable, so that the grief of giving up one’s child for adoption can be minimized.

What you definitely don’t want to do is make abortion more difficult to get, because that means that pregnant people will get abortions later. The older a fetus is, the more likely that it is morally relevant. Thus, the entire strategy of the pro-life movement is unacceptable to a consequentialist who believes fetuses have a right to life.