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Politics and Passions - Winter 1995-96

Part 37

An informal meeting between members of Feminists for Life (FFL) and Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR) in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Movements with a Similar Agenda

  1. The right-to-life agenda sounds egalitarian in terms of human rights: all humans have a right to life, and to deny rights to a particular class of humans on an arbitrary criterion such as race, gender, class, handicap, viability, developmental status, IQ, etc. is discrimination.

    Right-to-lifers refer to this as a "quality of life" standard.

  2. The animal rights movement puts forth an equally egalitarian agenda: all animals have a right to life and liberty. This challenges the traditional right-to-life ethic of membership in the human race as a criterion for personhood as just another form of discrimination: All ethical systems impose some kind of a "quality of life" standard.
  3. Both movements consider their cause a form of secular social progress, like the abolition of human slavery or the emancipation of women.
  4. Both movements compare themselves to the abolitionists who sought to end human slavery.
  5. Both movements see themselves extending human rights to a disenfranchised class of beings.
  6. Both movements claim to be speaking on behalf of a minority group unable to defend themselves from oppression.
  7. Both movements compare the mass destruction of the human unborn and the mass slaughter of animals to the Holocaust.
  8. Recognizing the rights of another class of beings limits our freedoms and our choices, and requires a change in our personal lifestyle. The abolition of human slavery is a good example of this.
  9. Both movements appear to be imposing their own personal moral convictions upon the rest of our secular society.
  10. Both movements have components that engage in nonviolent civil disobedience and both have their militant factions. Both have picketed the homes of physicians who either experiment upon animals or perform abortions.
  11. Both movements are usually depicted in the popular news media as extremists fanatics, terrorists, etc. who violate the law.
  12. Both movements have their intelligentsia: moral philosophers, physicians, clergymen, legal counsel, etc.
  13. Both movements cite studies that violence towards an oppressed class of beings paves the way for worse forms of violence in society -- this is known as the "slippery slope." The term was coined by British writer Malcolm Muggeridge, a "prolife vegetarian."
  14. Both movements speak of respecting life and compassion.
  15. Both speak of depersonalization: the unborn become "tissue" and animals become "things" or objects of human exploitation and consumption. The depersonalization of women is significant in this regard: the assembly-line nature of modern abortion clinics depersonalizes women in much the same way factory farming depersonalizes animals.
  16. A literal interpretation of the Constitution would mean there is no absolute right to individual or marital privacy, and this would allow the government to intervene not just in cases of abortion to protect the life of the unborn, but in all forms of birth control (Griswold vs. Connecticut).

    Taking this philosophy to its logical conclusion, we could easily ban all feminine hygiene products (technological innovations which have also given women a great deal of freedom and mobility).

    One of the reasons the left wing opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 is because such a literalist interpretation of the Constitution would deny rights to many non-citizens.

    Abortion opponents argue that although the 14th Amendment refers to persons as citizens born or naturalized, it has generally come to mean all human beings--otherwise one could justify killing illegal aliens at the border.

    "Other nations caught with us in space and time" is the phrase used by animal rights activists to describe other sentient species. If illegal immigrants--who are not citizens and (like embassies in foreign countries)--have fundamental rights such as life, why not other animals as well?

  17. Both movements are thinking of a Constitutional Amendment to extend rights to animals and the unborn respectively.

The early American feminists -- Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Lucy Stone, etc. were in favor of "women’s rights and vegetarianism." The early American feminists also opposed abortion as violence and as a tool of the patriarchy.

The Feminist Connection

  1. FFL compares the idea that the unborn is merely the property of its mother to the old idea that women were once the property of their husbands. According to FFL, abortion is a form of violence women are forced to turn to in a patriarchal society -- a society insensitive to the needs of a new mother.
  2. FAR similarly compares the way human animals oppress nonhuman animals to the way the patriarchy oppresses women -- rejecting status quo thinking that nonhuman animals are the property of human animals.

    In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams notes that throughout human history, beginning with the hunter-gatherer tribes, meat has been associated with male violence and masculinity, people with power, the aristocracy, etc.

    Meat is associated with male virility, whereas vegetable and nonmeat foods are viewed as women’s food. "Meat is a symbol of patriarchy" writes Adams bluntly. She cites a fictional illustration from Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America. Miss Scott, a vegetarian, is invited to a NATO general’s house for Thanksgiving. Her refusal of turkey angers the general.

    According to Adams, "Male belligerence in this area is not limited to fictional military men. Men who batter women have often used the absence of meat as a pretext for violence against women."

  3. Adams compares "The Rape of Animals" to "the Butchering of Women," as well as "Sexual Violence and Meat Eating." She quotes the organizer of a "Bunny Bop" in which rabbits are killed by clubs, feet, stones, etc. as saying, "What would all these rabbit hunters be doing if they weren’t letting off all this steam? I’ll tell you what they'd be doing. They’d be drinking and carousing and beating their wives."
  4. Both movements (FFL and FAR) have a common agenda on feminist issues: opposition to sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, the feminization of poverty, lack of affordable childcare or healthcare, wage differences, the diversion of resources from social services to the military industrial complex, etc.

The Feminists for Animal Rights newsletter (Vol. VI, Nos. 1-2, 1991) for example, cites EarthSave as stating that taxpayer subsidies to the livestock industry in California for 1991 totaled $24 million, while the yearly budget for child welfare was only $125,000.


Possible Topics for Discussion

Sex-selective abortions.

Polls have found more women than men opposed to abortion. The vegetarian and animal rights movements also tend to have a greater proportion of women than men. Women are more likely to become vegetarian than men. Carol J. Adams notes that meat is associated with masculinity and vegetarianism is often equated with being effeminate.

It would be interesting to see what kind of abortion laws we might have and what kind of laws we would have regarding animal welfare and rights if women had more of a voice in the political process. Giving women greater access to and empowerment in the political process is an important topic.

Thomas Taylor, a distinguished Cambridge philosopher tried to refute Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Riqhts of Women (1792) by demonstrating that if women could be given liberation, then animals could be given liberation, too. And since this is "absurd" it must be equally "absurd" to give women liberation.

We find an identical line of thought in American society in terms of extending rights to the unborn: "Not even close. If you believe it’s wrong to eat meat, should your morality be imposed upon everyone else?" What if both practices are equally unethical?

The human right-to-life ethic calls for the protection of human life at every stage of development. There is a natural tendency for us as humans to think in terms of our own anthropomorphic prejudices.

Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) said, "These are still our children. And we still love these children. And after these babies are born we are not going to disband these children from their families, because these are other lives, they are and I think these children have a right to live. And I think these mothers have a right to support them in a decent way."

Ingrid Newkirk, Executive Director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, similarly observed:

"If a building were burning and a baby baboon, a baby rat, and a baby child were inside, I'm sure I would save the child. But if the baboon mother went into the building, I'm sure she would take out the infant baboon.

"It’s just that there is an instinct to save yourself first, then your immediate family, your countrymen, and on to your species. But we have to recognize and reject the self-interest that erects these barriers and try to recognize the rights of others who happen not to be exactly like ourselves."

Social progress in the past centuries has been based upon this kind of anthropomorphic thinking. "All men are created equal" once referred only to white, male property owners. It has since been expanded to include women and minorities.

The animal rights movement challenges this anthropomorphic thinking by taking it one step further: Why should our concepts of ethics and rights end with the human species?

FFL activists might want to ask FAR activists why they insist the public make changes in their personal lifestyle to recognize the rights of animals, but not our own children.

FAR activists might counter: this is speciesism.

Cardinal John Heenan wrote in 1970:

"Animals...have very positive rights because they are God’s creatures. If we have to speak with absolute accuracy, we must say that God has the right to have all His creatures treated with respect...Only the perverted are guilty of deliberate cruelty to animals or, indeed, to children."

And which requires a greater change in lifestyle--becoming vegetarian or vegan and cruelty-free or becoming a parent, especially given the opposition to contraception by many right-to-lifers?

Both FFL and FAR activists might agree that insensitivity towards new mothers and their needs on the part of the patriarchy is responsible for this dilemma. There is also the question of respect for women as persons, rather than as objects. Individual sentient life begins at fertilization, but how to protect that life without violating the privacy, autonomy, and civil liberties of the new mother?

The right to privacy is not absolute. If parents are molesting a child, for example, government "intrusion" is warranted. Children have rights. Do the prenatal have rights? Do animals have rights? And can a society claiming to respect either the lives of the unborn or the lives of animals equally respect women as persons enough to value their privacy and personal autonomy and trust them to respect the lives and rights of others without taking extreme measures in this regard?

This should lead to some interesting discussion...

Go on to: Part 38: Anti-Vivisection
Return to: The Next Distraction

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