Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animals Rights (Book Summary)

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Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animals Rights By Sherry F. Colb and Michael C. Dorf (Hardcover; 264 Pages)

Brief Overview

Abortion and animal rights are two controversial issues.  They might not seem to cover much of the same ground, except for claims of hypocrisy.  For instance, (insert sneer), “you care for cows but not babies?”   Is there any common ground to be found?  Any moral consistency? 

The authors, who are pro-choice and vegans, think so.  Their dividing line is sentience, the ability to feel pain and have life experiences, which would apply at some point both to animals and fetuses.  Sentience is the line between a “thing” (like a rock) and a being with moral interests.  So, there is a significant overlap between the two movements.

Moral interests, however, are not necessarily veto points.  Abortion is not immoral, argues the authors, because of the interests of the pregnant person.  On the other hand, except for very limited instances (such as the use of animals to make vaccines), there are simply no similar interests to justify most usage of animals.  Tasting or looking good?  Not so much.

The book then talks about strategy.  Graphic imagery (pictures of fetuses or abused animals) on balance seems of limited value.  Violence is both immoral and pragmatically very questionable.  And, the authors are very wary about using limited animal welfare goals (such as better cages for chickens) that do little good and to them seem to mostly put a pretty face on animal abuse.

Many things are covered.  The authors, who teach for a living, steadily make their case with readers serving as their students.  Be on guard, however, that they are sometimes blunt about their subject matter.  No pictures, but certain verbal visuals will upset people.  

As Prof. Dorf noted in one interview, they are safe – they have tenure.  

Favorite Quote

By juxtaposing the considerations relevant to answering both ethical and tactical questions as they arise in context of both movements, we aim to broaden the conversation about both.

The authors discuss what they view is the proper moral path and how that applies to abortion and animal rights.  The second half uses the same approach regarding strategy.  They try to respectfully show how the two movements overlap.  They also optimistically hope to expand communication about issues that strongly divide society.  

Should I Read It?

The authors are open about their beliefs.  They support abortion rights and are vegans who strongly believe in animal rights.  The language in this book is sometimes blunt.  We are not just talking about cows not being called “meat.”  It’s “flesh, skin, and secretions.”

As someone who shares their overall beliefs, take this with a grain of salt, but I do think they are fair when discussing the issues here.  They set forth their positions, including the overall philosophy behind them.  Some readers will find some of what they say offensive, perhaps, including again the blunt language used at times.  Take this as a “trigger warning.” 

People interested in abortion and animal rights should not go to this book for an in-depth analysis of each of the issues.  There are many books out there that cover each in depth.  

The book also sometimes covers philosophical and legal analysis which might be too complex for some readers.  The authors are law professors. This book is not only for law students.  But, it is more detailed and complex than some general readers might wish.  

Taking such things into consideration, this is a good book to get a thumbnail sense of abortion and animal rights issues.  The authors cover a lot of ground, including basic concepts such as leading moral philosophical debates.  

As they work through the issues, the journey is informative and thought-provoking.   Even if you find yourself disagreeing at various points.  

Comprehensive Summary

Introduction: Two Movements, One Set of Issues 

The pro-life and animals rights movements both discuss the fundamentals of rights.  They come up with different results (humans and not just humans).  Both challenge conventional views.

[Recently, Prof. Colb discussed how she is now much less open to the term “pro-life.”]

The authors argue that moral arguments in a society with a range of views need to be based on reason, not differing subjective religious views.  Their moral approach is not just based on utilitarian (what causes the most happiness) views;  they support a rights-based approach.

The book is mostly an appeal to reason.  Nonetheless, emotions will factor in.  Emotions are a factor in our moral decision-making.  The subject matter is likely to raise emotional responses.  Also, the authors sometimes use verbal imagery (“secretions” or “servitude”) likely to as well.  

The authors are pro-choice and support animal rights.  These issues also involve various labels (including “pro-choice” and “pro-life”) that are not self-evident.  They touch upon this issue.

Part I: Ethics

The book touches upon some philosophical matters, but even the authors note they are not philosophers.  One useful thing to keep in mind is that “morality”  (right and wrong) and “ethics” (how we ought to live without certain societies) are somewhat different terms.  See here.  

1: Sentience or Species?

Humans are moral agents – that is, we are beings with moral duties to others.  

The “others” are living, sentient beings.  If we harm sentient beings, we better have a darn good reason.  We can do more, such as donating to actively help others, but this is the minimum.  

On some basic level, there is wide acceptance of this sentiment.  People generally accept we should not harm animals for trivial reasons.  “Harm” generally means to cause them pain.  

We might feel an obligation to give special attention to members of our family or country.  Nonetheless, we still have a moral obligation not to reach out and actively harm others.  

2. The Necessity Defense

Certain reasons are offered to treat non-human animals differently.  Some are religiously based, though religion can often be used to support animal rights.  Other to me basically amount to familiarity.  As noted by the authors, any “reason” offered appears a tad made up.  

At least in modern society, there is little “necessity” to harm animals, outside of the rare cases of them directly threatening our well-being (e.g., a rabid dog).  The best case scenario would be certain limited medical uses, though even those are often questionable.  

A being with moral interests should not be harmed without a very important reason.  A sentient fetus (there is much debate on when in the pregnancy sentience arises though a large segment of abortions involve non-sentient embryos and fetuses) has moral interests too.

Comment: I think the “necessity” argument for abortion is very important.  

There is a taboo in many societies, for instance, from eating certain animals (such as dogs) at any time, even if they die accidentally.  Respect for human life very well can equally apply to non-sentient humans.  Many opposed to abortion, after all, do believe that is warranted.  

The authors’ principles also lead them to argue that a person would have no right to simply destroy a sentient fetus if there was some ability to (I assume relatively painlessly) remove them from their body.  What if technology allows this for non-sentient fetuses? This also complicates abortions involving fetal abnormalities.  The fetus might be sentient.  

This makes the point of sentience and the breadth necessary very important.  How about a borderline case involving a delayed abortion (quite possible given various complications) of a rape victim?  The authors note moral choices factor in existing realities (a society where everyone is required to give up kidneys could be different), but such questions still arise.

3. Reproductive Servitude

The authors note that various abortions raise moral difficulties.  For instance, in a vacuum, it is troubling if an abortion is performed on a sentient fetus for purposes of sex selection.  This does not really happen in the United States, but it happens often in certain countries.  

The basic problem, in the view of the authors, regarding an abortion ban is that pregnancy is a form of servitude.  A servitude that selectively is assumed by some to be a woman’s duty.  

The harms of pregnancy are such that even if an abortion involves a sentient fetus, it is morally appropriate to allow abortion rights.  On the other hand, the use of cows as milk making machines (their children removed from them) harms them for trivial dietary preferences.  

4. Death vs. Suffering

This chapter examines the nature of existence.  Simple stuff.

Seriously, a basic assumption is that life itself is worthwhile.  It is unjust to simply kill people in their sleep, even if they will not expect it and assuming there are no afterlife complications.

The chapter discusses just what “experiences” are necessary for a being to have rights.  There is some effort to arbitrarily set the bar so high that only humans (or maybe a few animals) count.  This amounts to a sort of parlor game.  Generally, the experiences of the animals at stake here are advanced enough to matter.   

Comment: I did not find enough info on the experiences of sentient fetuses here to make a final judgment.  Some degree of pain does not appear to be too compelling, especially given that abortions are done to reduce a variety of burdens on individuals we clearly accept as persons. 

Part II: Movements

5. Strategy

The basic quandary addressed in this chapter is the value of limited goals as part of a long term effort to advance your cause.  

A basic difference here is the scope of the “problem.”  People consume and otherwise use animals daily.  Making abortion choices occur much less often.

The animal welfare approach is concerned with reducing harm to animals. This is a positive thing, but can be self-defeating if it assumes harm to animals (such those raised for food) is “necessary.”  The authors are very dubious about the value of spending time on very limited reductions of harm (such as better cages) to animals.  Focus on animal rights as a whole.

Limited efforts against abortion might to some extent also hurt the cause.  But, society at large are much more wary about abortion.  Bigger efforts against abortion also exist anyways.

6. Graphic Images

A picture is worth a thousand words.  

At least, pictures and images (such as signs of fetuses and abused animals) are powerful tools to communicate what many do not know and/or wish to think about.  We find certain things unpleasant and wish to hide them from view.  Images force us to face up to them.

A concern here is that at some point people will be desensitized if they see images enough times.  And, especially given the broad use of animal products, it will be of limited effect.  It might be best to use positive images of animals and an animal rights positive lifestyle instead.  

The value of graphic images and such things as promoting (or requiring) viewing of ultrasounds in the anti-abortion context is also unclear.  But, it seems to be somewhat more productive.

7.  Violence

The authors are morally against violence, but accept that there might be some net value when it is used in a cause.  Thus, the strategic value of violence is a matter of results.

Violence is particularly questionable since in both cases there is a range of ways available to reduce the supposed wrongs involved.  It is also often the case that the people committing violence are not even consistent.  A fur-wearing animal rights radical here is almost silly.

The authors also note that “pro-life” (my quotes) violence is much more a thing and a case can be made that it in various respects did harm the cause of abortion rights.  

Conclusion [Final Thoughts]

Animal rights exist in a world where the best approaches are imperfect. For instance, sterilizing dogs and cats cause certain harms, but the alternatives are worse.  

Abortion choices are also made in an imperfect world.  As with choices involving animals, there still are moral questions to be made, and some choices are better than others.  The authors suggest the best path for those against abortion is to help reduce the felt need for one.  

Points to Ponder

I will use this section to flag a couple things that I found curious.

The authors self-label as “vegans,” but the line set is sentience.  A single endnote notes that “vegans tend” to include some animals like “bivalves” (a curious technical term) as “non-food.”  

The authors argue this is more a matter of being extra careful as compared to saying consuming non-sentient animals are immoral.  I’m not sure that is true.  

Is this not worth a few pages of text given the possible range of animals at stake?  A range of “seafood” (putting aside fish) are involved here.  Also, bees and honey are a basic example.   Bees are “reasonably complex” (the line cited in the intro) animals; but is it moral to eat honey?

Their main concerns are cows, pigs, chickens, and the like.  Fish is only briefly cited.  This is understandable, but given the range of other animals used by humans, why not say more? 

The same applies to abortion.  When does sentience arise in fetuses?  And, what sort of experiences would a sentient fetus have?  This is briefly referenced, but again, we are talking about significant things here.  When do moral obligations kick in?  What is truly at stake? 

The “experiences” cited that seem to be clear, for instance, are of the sort where pigs or cats have basic relatable life experiences like feeling joy or caring for the young.  Some limited pain (which can arguably be dealt with by anesthesia) is not all that is involved.  

A short book covering a lot of ground makes choices.  Fair is fair, after all, since this review does not cover all the ground they did either. But, I think a bit more detail was warranted.  Some opponents of abortion might argue not enough was provided, for instance, about fetuses.    

About the Author

Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf are married with two daughters.  

Both were law clerks for Supreme Court justices significantly involved in cases involving abortion (Prof. Colb clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun; Prof. Dorf for Justice Anthony Kennedy).  Sherry Colb was law clerk when Justice Blackmun was involved in a significant religious dispute involving animal regulation; his separate opinion cited animal welfare concerns.  

Both co-authors are law professors at Cornell University, provide columns for Verdict/Justia, and blog at Dorf on Law.   This book is their only book together.

Sherry Colb also wrote:

  • Making Babies and Making Law
  • Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger and Other Questions People Ask Vegans

Michael Dorf also wrote:

  • On Reading the Constitution (with Laurence Tribe)
  • No Litmus Test: Law Versus Politics in the Twenty-First Century
  • Constitutional Law Stories (editor) 
  • The Oxford Introductions to U.S. Law: Constitutional Law (with Trevor Morrison) 

Is Beating Hearts a Reliable Source?

Both authors are long-time respected legal scholars with specific expertise in the subjects covered in the book.  They have examined these issues, including in a personal way (particularly animal rights issues from what I can tell), for many years.  

They also show their work with extensive endnotes.  The authors also separate their beliefs (at times strongly expressed) from what evidence and logic provide.  For instance, they are personally strongly against use of violence, but grant that its concrete value is contingent on the evidence.  I personally found such nuance a reason for finding their work useful.  

There is a lot of information covered in this book.  Some of it deals with subject matter that is open to much debate, with evidence interpreted in different ways.  Keep this in mind and do not take any information as “gospel.”  But, on the whole, I found it reliable.