Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Does PETA's abortion view make sense?

In a piece published on, Thomas Glessner writes about the abortion view of PETA (the animal-rights organization).
On June 16 during an interview on CNBC President Obama swatted at and killed a fly. The matter was treated with good humor by most. I, for one, wanted to say "Nice shot Mr. President." However, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) felt differently and publicly chastised the President for his apparent cruelty to the insect.

"We support compassion for even the smallest animals," says Bruce Friedrich, VP for Policy at PETA. "We support giving insects the benefit of the doubt." Friedrich says PETA supports "brushing flies away rather than killing them." Later PETA sent to Obama a fly catching device that traps flies and then allows for their safe release back into nature.

Upon hearing of the compassion PETA has for the smallest of creatures I wondered what position they took on abortion. After all, if this organization believes in the protection of the lives of flies surely they would be adamantly opposed to the killing of the unborn. Hence, I immediately did a search on the Internet to find an answer to my question. I found out that PETA's compassion for unborn human babies falls far short of its compassion for flies.
PETA's position statement reads:
PETA does not have a position on the abortion issue, because our focus as an organization is the alleviation of the suffering inflicted on nonhuman animals. There are people on both sides of the abortion issue in the animal rights movement, just as there are people on both sides of animal rights issues in the pro-life movement. And just as the pro-life movement has no official position on animal rights, neither does the animal rights movement have an official position on abortion.
Glessner continues:
Now let me understand this clearly. To PETA the life of a fly deserves to be respected and must be treated with dignity, but the life of an unborn child subject to abortion is apparently of no concern. One can be a member of PETA and support the killing of the unborn as long as that person supports the right to life of a fly.

Even if one believes that humans are no more than a higher evolved form of animal life they must surely oppose the killing of unborn children if they oppose the killing of flies. But this logic escapes PETA.
PETA is implying, I think, that a consistent, committed animal rights activist (one committed to "giving insects the benefit of the doubt") may at the same time reasonably support the killing of unborn human beings.

Whether that's true depends on one's underlying view of what it is that makes a being valuable and deserving of moral respect. Many contemporary bio-ethicists (and most pro-choice philosophers) advocate what Wesley Smith calls "Personhood Theory," whereby an entity possesses worth and dignity (i.e., is a "person") by virtue of certain acquired properties or functions that are deemed morally relevant (e.g., self-awareness, ability to feel pain). Any being lacking the requisite properties (regardless of species) is disqualified from basic protection.

But even according to these functional criteria, a fully-developed fly likely would not qualify for more protection than an unborn human at most stages. So I agree with Glessner: It's hard to make sense of PETA's position.

Perhaps a more mainstream animal-rights advocate -- one with no problem killing flies -- could, relying on Personhood Theory (which, I must point out, is deeply flawed and contrary to the view of human value that undergirds the pro-life position), construct a consistent position supporting both protection for most (adult) animals and the right to kill the unborn human. But I think it's fair to say that PETA's position is not coherent.

I'll be discussing personhood and what makes humans valuable in an upcoming post in my Why Pro-Life? series.