Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Abortion, Animals, & the Precautionary Principle

Anti-abortion people sometimes say we should "give fetuses the benefit of the doubt" when it comes to assessing their consciousness, sentience, and/or personhood. And so we should act as if they are conscious, sentient, and/or persons earlier in development than any stronger evidence would warrant, since maybe they really are conscious, sentient, and/or persons.

So they appeal to some version of a "precautionary principle," simply put, the idea that we should err on the side of "caution," to try to lessen the chances of wrongdoing.

Some problems or concerns about this "approach," so to speak are these:

  • there is no realistic or relevant chance that embryos and beginning fetuses are conscious, sentient, or persons; so, at best, applying a precautionary principle here could only apply to mid-pregnancy-developed fetuses or beyond, where there is a legitimate chance of consciousness, sentience, or /and personhood. Fortunately, pro-choice moderates agree on that; 
  • also, the "chances" that this (or any) application(s) of any precautionary principle to fetuses will be harmful or disrespectful to pregnant women must also be factored in: we need to be cautious in how policies and practices concerning embryos and fetuses might wrong women, or so implies the precautionary principle. Anti-abortion folks tend to ignore this: so they don't consider all the relevant chances of bad outcomes for all affected by any actions and policies. 
But, more interestingly, if someone thought that we should err on the side of "caution," to try to lessen the chances of wrongdoing, then they should be supportive of animal rights or, more generally, the claim that harming and disrespecting (conscious and sentient) animals is prima facie seriously wrong, meaning it's wrong to harm and disrespect animals unless there's a really good reason to do so (and finding their bodies to be tasty is not such a reason). 

Why is that? Because there's a relevant chance that such animals are persons or otherwise seriously wrong to treat in harmful ways. (There is no relevant chance about plants or microorganisms or rocks, etc.). The view that (some) animals are persons is not some "fringe" view: anyone who denies this is simply unaware of the philosophical and legal discussions of this topic. (And a theory of personhood that persons are conscious, psychologically-connected-over-time beings is a simpler and more intuitive explanation than the theory that persons are individuals that are the "kind" of being that's a rational being). Or they've never observed someone mourning the loss of an animal and thought about how we can only mourn the loss of beings that we consider persons or personlike. 

Applying the precautionary principle here requires taking theories of personhood that support claims to animal personhood seriously, since there's a significant chance that such theories are correct. The whole motivation for the precautionary principle is to lesson the chance of wrongdoing, and accepting a reasonable, but more expansive, conception of personhood here--which is then applied to animals--lessons those chances. 

Doing so would lead most anti-abortionists to their being something more like "consistently pro-life," and that label really fitting their position. So they should agree. 

@nathan.nobis Replying to @adirondackbose Being consistently cautious about fetuses, animals, & philosophical theories #abortion #prochoice #prolife #animalrights #philosophy #ethics ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis