Article: Is Abortion Vegan? (A Pro-Choice Vegan Perspective)

If you watched my recent interview on the fitness podcast, The Gymwits, you know I got asked a rather interesting question: Is abortion vegan?

This question was rather unexpected, meaning that at the time I (ironically) gave a rather conservative answer. The summary of this answer would be that abortion is a personal choice and not fundamentally anti-vegan.

I still stand by this view, but the discussion that Gymwits hosts, Ryan and Justin, had post-interview (which you can hear in the episode) did give me further pause for thought in terms of why some people may not consider abortion vegan.

Let’s get in to this question.
Content warning for the topic of abortion, and human animal/non-human animal suffering and pain.

A Lifestyle of Abundance (in More Ways Than One)

Veganism (in the ethical sense) is a united movement in only one regard. We seek, to take The Vegan Society’s definition verbatim ‘to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.’ But, outside of that, we are all wildly different individuals, from different background, circumstances, and political, cultural, and philosophical stances.

One vegan might be perfectly happy dining out with their omnivorous buddies, and happily promote meatless Mondays whereas another might have to/want to avoid omni dining occasions (finding them too distressing or physically nausea-inducing), and actively campaign for an all-vegan world. Another vegan might be a junk food loving fanatic – subsiding on nothing but Beef Pot Noodles, vegan cheese Pizza Hut, and the finest Oreo selection boxes – whereas their equally vegan friend advocates for a whole-foods plant-based diet, Dr. Michael Gregor style, and feels that the palm oil in Oreos means they’re not really vegan-friendly anyway.

My point being that even those who share an ethical vegan concern may still clash drastically on any topic, and abortion is one of those big political topics that everyone has an opinion on and nobody wants to touch…except for me apparently…and Justin.

So, let’s dive in to this.

The Sanctity of Life

Perhaps the strongest argument that one could bring against an ethical vegan when it comes to abortion is the paradoxical nature of wanting to avoid the death of non-human animals yet condoning the death of human fetuses. This, to some degree, plays into an often cited pro-life argument, namely the sanctity of life: an entity’s fundamental right to existence once they have been conceived.

From a glance this is tricky, because it’s true that vegans don’t want any individual to die – no matter how perceptibly intelligent, insignificant (let’s face it: we’re much more distressed at the idea of killing a dog than an ant), or questionably sentient that individual is. Life does matter, life always matters, and ethical vegans are pretty big on the whole loving life thing.

But Is ‘Life’ Alone The Focus of Ethical Veganism?

You may note that The Vegan Society’s definition doesn’t put emphasis on life but, more so, exploitation and cruelty – cruelty in this case often being considered subjecting animals to suffering or pain for our own personal gain. To quote Jeremy Bentham, way back in the 18th century:

The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?’

This fundamental focus on all individual’s built-in desire to live and to avoid suffering is the main motivator for many vegans, especially when the case for eating animal products in most well-developed modern societies usually pans down to taste, culture, or convenience – none of which, ethical vegans believe, can justify the mass suffering and killing of another individual’s life.

And, the hard truth is that under these circumstances vegans are sometimes okay with the death of some individuals, or perhaps even play an active role in it.

Take, for example, a beloved family pet that was reaching the end of its life and was in immeasurable and very perceptible pain. In such a situation most vegan pet owners (most owners in general) would probably make the hard decision to have that animal put to sleep. It is not an easy call by any means (I still hold the loss of my very first dog, Jade, who had to be euthanized near the end of her life), but the avoidance of unnecessary suffering and pain, in that circumstance, trumps the fundamental notion of ‘the sanctity of life’.

I suppose this argument could also be brought to the forefront when discussing veganism and human euthanasia too, but that’s a minefield for another day.

So, Pain Becomes The Focus In Veganism vs. Abortion…Right?

If veganism isn’t necessarily all pro-life all the time (plants are technically alive too, after all, but they don’t feel pain or just don’t care) then the question of ethical veganism and abortion would, reasonably, become one judged on its primary basis – namely pain and suffering. And, in this area, things get much more clear-cut at least from a scientific perspective.

Way back in 2005 an extensive clinical review was done on the fetal perception of pain, primarily in regards to some US state’s legislature requiring fetal anesthesia prior to termination, for fear of the fetus suffering during the process.

What they found was that, to quote the review:

Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.

More specifically, it is believed that a fetus lacks the capacity to feel pain until 27 weeks in to pregnancy.

This has since become the official stance of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and has not changed considerably since 2005 because the research itself has stayed pretty consistent.

In terms of fetal development the biological structures that would allow the body to physically feel pain are not even present until on average 24 weeks in to pregnancy, and from there the fetus still lacks the cognitive capacity to take those sensations and translate them in to distress, suffering, or any other perceptible concept.

In the US the maximum fetal development allowed for abortion is 24-26 weeks for most states. In the UK it is 24 weeks. In both of these instances the fetus would not be able to feel pain or suffering, even if left to the latest legal opportunity, creating no objective ethical conflict for vegans.

At least when it comes to pain.

Other Factors For Vegans (and People in General)

The above conclusion is a very clear-cut stance on veganism, abortion, and ethics, but (as well all know) abortion is never a purely objective issue and comes with many subjective, emotional, and social elements.

For vegans who a are religious, for example, there might be a strong belief in the sanctity of life, irregardless of pain or a creatures pre or post-birth state, meaning that abortion still seems fundamentally immoral to them.

Bring in the notion of spirituality and souls in general (a lot of vegans are spiritual) and suddenly you’re also left considering other elements of sentience and existence that science cannot objective measure or quantify in a moral framework.

Heck, can we really quantify morals anyway? There are many things we fundamentally agree upon but, when we break it all down, it’s all semantics: Communally agreed codes of conduct that shift and change alongside our own ever developing viewpoints. You know you’re pretty deep down the rabbit hole when you want to start bringing Derrida in to a debate.

Grounding things again, there’s also the suffering of those around a person that an ethical vegan might also consider: The other parent involved being of extreme concern. What is an ethical vegan to do if aborting a fetus might cause extreme suffering or pain to another individual? What if it causes it to many? And how does that measure up to their own potential suffering and pain if they were to bring to term a life they didn’t want?

Flipping things around, is an anti-abortion ethical vegan really being vegan if they force or pressure a person in to carrying to term a child that they do not want?

If (as pretty much most vegans believe) it is wrong to artificially inseminate an non-human animal (such as a cow or a pig) and then essentially force them in to a situation where they must give birth then how would pressuring a human who is audibly saying they want an abortion to bring a child to full term any different from a purely moral perspective?

What if that person was a victim of sexual assault, in an abusive relationship, in a social or economical situation where they felt that their child and/or themselves would be severely impacted if it were to come to full term? What if their were severe and dangerous physical/mental health issues involved, or a high chance that the child could be born into a life of extreme suffering or pain?

Surely, in such instances, the life of that individual, and their suffering, should be the point of concern? Especially, considering that one is living and breathing in the moment and the other is still developing its sense of pain, let alone self-preservation and perception.

…Right?

Possibly and Practicably 

This is where abortion becomes a tricky topic in any regard and also why I am pro-choice.

Quite frankly, what other people do when it comes to abortion is up to them and their decision is none of my business.

Abortion is never an easy choice, there is always going to be someone hurting, and grief, anger, and frustration from everyone involved is not only justifiable but also expected.

So, when it comes to this decision – one of the hardest ones a person can ever make in their life – I am always going to support the person going through it, regardless of their choice. This doesn’t mean I will always condone or understand a person’s reason for abortion, but I really don’t have to, because I’m not the one living it, so of course I will never truly know every emotion and thought that the individual involved had to experience to get to their ultimate choice.

It’s so very easy to talk about abortion and how we think we feel about it but so unfathomably difficult to actually feel or understand the mindset of someone considering abortion unless one were to live through it themselves. It’s also because of this that so many people find it easy to demonize (or, indeed, champion) abortion without giving true personal consideration to the people living through such a hard life choice.

It’s for this reasons that I want to finish this article by addressing any ethical vegans that are struggling with abortion vs. their vegan lifestyle/ethics right now:

If you feel like veganism is keeping you tied to an impossible situation then please remember that veganism is something that we do to the degree that is possible and practicable in our lives.

Veganism is about avoiding the pain and suffering of all animals – the human animal and yourself included.

Some choices in life are never clear cut. Some issues may never be smoothly resolved. But we live our lives, and live by our morals, to the best of our capabilities. We are not perfect and never will be.

I hope you find some solace and equanimity in this, no matter what you ultimately decide.

And, please, take care of yourself. x