Our elected representatives in Utah want to stretch the concept of personhood to human fetuses and, in the same moment, rejigger the law, with HB114, so that sick animals can’t be rescued from corporate trash cans.
By any measure, the piglets rescued from Circle Four Farms in 2017 were as alive as any human. But when it comes to non-humans, the only measure that seems to matter is taste. Roughly, 124 million pigs are killed every year in the United States (see animalclock.org). During the 50 years of Roe v. Wade, the National Right to Life Committee estimates that 63 million abortions took place. If our concern is life, one figure ought to shock us more than the other.
I know perfectly well I live in a country where pigs are property. Nobody disputes their aliveness, their sentience or intelligence, but legally they are things — and, in our country, things may be destroyed by their owners. There is long precedent for this practice.
As Hannah Arendt says in “The Human Condition,” the right to destroy property — beat it, cage it, toss it on the heap — is old as the Romans, at least. Even in 1838, in our land, it was not uncommon to see ads in the papers, such as this one placed in the Raleigh Standard: “Ranaway, a negro woman and two children; a few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face, I tried to make the letter M.” The owner, Mr. Micajah Ricks, felt so secure in this treatment of his so-called property that he advertised the fact. (See “American Slavery As It Is,” published 1839.)
Of course, the right to destroy has had its gainsayers. Chief Seattle argued that whatever man does to the web of life, he does to himself. Even the Christian Bible tells its followers: “they all have one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence over a beast: for all is vanity.”
Yet it would be pointless to insist the pig you ate yesterday, or will tomorrow, had a heartbeat, brain activity, problem-solving ability or the experiences of pain, terror, dreaming, friendship and love. Why? Because, you say, “Bacon is delicious”; “Life eats life”; “Is not the whole world a slaughterhouse?” Or perhaps you weigh Ecclesiastes against Genesis, with its gift of dominion and thus destruction. Perhaps complexity matters to you? The possession of a soul?
The belief in a soul is, upon analysis, the “life” in “pro-life.” U.S. anti-abortionists are not passionate about life per se. If they were, they would stop eating the corpses of animals. They would advocate for the billions who drown in trawl nets and are cast off as unmarketable. No, what they care about is something that cannot be measured—not like life and intelligence.
The anti-abortion movement is driven by worry for human souls, whereas the politics of animal rights are based upon doing no harm to living and intelligent beings as measured by the five senses and science.
Now, you could fairly ask, “Wait, have you not implied that vegans should oppose abortion, if their concern is life, which fetuses have?” That’s a fascinating line of inquiry, but it still centers humans in the larger web of life (besides demanding puritanism). By not eating meat, or simply by eating less meat, one saves more lives than by opposing human abortion. A plant-based diet is more “pro-life” than being anti-abortionist. Even if we agreed, that in some moral sense, animals’ lives are worth one percent of humans’, that would still be true.
Matthew Ivan Bennett is resident playwright of Plan-B Theatre Company. He’s written radio plays for KUER’s RadioWest and his poetry has appeared in Sugar House Review, Utah Life, and Western Humanities.