Colb and Dorf Symposium
Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights
Editor’s Note: The Boston University Law Review Annex presents our online symposium on Sherry F. Colb and Michael C. Dorf‘s Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights. Professor Colb is a professor of law and a Charles Hughes Evans Scholar at Cornell Law School, and is well-known for her scholarship on animal rights, sex equality, and her bi-weekly column on Justia’s Verdict. Professor Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell Law School and is well-known for his prolific scholarship, his bi-weekly column on Justia’s Verdict, and his blog Dorf on Law. This symposium comprises of blog-style posts that respond to issues raised in Professors Colb and Dorf’s book.
Situational Ethics and Veganism
Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf’s Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights is an essential work, exploring an unexpected overlap between two seemingly unrelated areas of ethics and the law. They make strong affirmative cases for the pro-choice and animal rights sides of those two respective debates, showing why it is possible – indeed, morally required – to believe simultaneously that abortion should not be banned and that consuming animal products is immoral.
Although their arguments are important on their own merits, it is useful to emphasize that this book is in a very real sense a riposte, an answer to an accusation that goes like this: Vegans cannot truly believe in their stated reason for refusing to participate in animal cruelty. If they did, they would also be anti-choice, because the same moral imperative that supposedly motivates vegans – revulsion at the thought of inflicting pain and death on beings that have feelings and that have the right to live their lives – would require vegans to reject abortion as well.
Anti-Abortion Pro-Lifers and Animal Protection Pro-Lifers Have a Golden Opportunity to Work Together
I’d like to begin by thanking Sherry and Michael for writing Beating Hearts. There are so many important overlaps between abortion and animal protection, and they inform each other in profound ways. For years Peter Singer was a voice in the public wilderness doing this—so it is very good to have their work pushing this kind of conversation forward.
It was reading Peter Singer which converted me to animal protection, though I would go on to find even more persuasive support for it in my own normative tradition: Roman Catholicism. (I wrote a book on this called For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.) I’ve been anti-abortion since I found out what abortion was, but I became a pro-life feminist when I learned about the history of abortion-rights activism.
The Value of Existence
One does not read Beating Hearts passively. I found myself agreeing often, disagreeing often, and sometimes doing both at the same time. Just as frequently, the book made me reexamine my views from a perspective I had not considered before. For example, prior to reading the book, I had not explored the basis for my belief that causing the death of a living being is a morally significant act. The authors (with a post-mortem assist from Epicurus) have seen to that deficiency. This forum seems an ideal place to push that discussion a bit further.
Locating identity over time is tricky and gets to the essence of personhood, which is central to both the abortion and animal rights debates. Why is painless killing morally wrong? Or, asked another way: On what basis can one claim an interest in continued existence? The answer depends on whether one believes that selfhood stays fixed from moment to moment or whether identity over time is merely an organizing principle and that each experienced instant is independent. The latter position was propounded most famously by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who argued that “Death is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.” Under Epicurus’ view, ceasing to exist has no consequence for the individual to whom it happens. Painlessly and instantaneously taking a life therefore has no moral relevance since the dead person simply ends from one moment to the next. Since the deceased no longer exists and did not suffer at the moment of death, no harm attaches to the act of killing.
Of Abortion and Animals: The Promise and Peril of Legal Rights
It is my pleasure to participate in a conversation about Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf’s Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights. Among its many virtues, the book beautifully delivers on a central premise: namely, that given the moral centrality of sentience, we can learn a great deal about animal rights by thinking about abortion, and vice versa. This is difficult, fraught terrain, a reality that Colb and Dorf candidly acknowledge. They treat their subjects with rigor, care and compassion.
I want to focus my remarks on the law side of the legality/morality divide that Colb and Dorf so deftly probe. On the one hand, the book tells a limits-of-law story, one that I find quite compelling. But the abortion/animal rights juxtaposition also helps us to think about the promise of law—and legal rights in particular—to promote social change under sub-optimal circumstances; that is, under circumstances involving a backdrop of deeply entrenched social hierarchies.
The Sentience Criterion
We are very grateful to the editors of the Boston University Law Review for organizing, and to Professors Buchanan, Camosy, Cassuto, and Tuerkheimer for participating in this online symposium on our book Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights. We are also deeply humbled by the too-kind praise that the contributors to the symposium bestow on our book. To avoid simply repeating what our interlocutors say more artfully than we can, in this essay, we focus mostly on areas of disagreement. However, we agree with a great many of the insightful observations that the symposium contributors elaborate, including some of the critical commentary. Had we read their analyses before the book went to press, no doubt it would have been better for the rethinking and revising they would have engendered.
Readers of this symposium issue who have not read Beating Hearts may find themselves in something like the position of a classics scholar trying to reconstruct the views of a pre-Socratic philosopher whose works are known only through fragments discussed by others. At best, one can hope for an incomplete understanding. Accordingly, we begin with a brief summary of the main ideas of our book.