In Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, Sherry F. Colb and Michael C. Dorf, two Cornell Law professors, rationalize their simultaneous support for animal rights and opposition to the rights of unborn humans. The authors, a man and a woman who live with their “two human daughters” and three “adopted” dogs, are decidedly pro-choice. They are also active members of the animal rights movement. They do recognize, however, that not all members of the animal rights movement share their pro-choice stance, and they cite an article by Mary Eberstadt as illustrating the pro-animal, pro-life position.
When it comes to animal rights, their beliefs are as radical as they get. In addition to opposing animal cruelty, a view that they acknowledge to be uncontroversial and shared by the majority of the population, they also believe all animal farming is a form of violence, even if the animals are given humane treatment. They believe it is immoral to eat meat, to consume eggs or milk, and to use leather, wool, or any other animal products. They hold that veganism is morally required, even for children.
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Throughout the book, they maintain that man is simply another animal enjoying no greater moral status, no uniqueness, only some differences in degree of evolution. The idea that no “crucial factual difference” or difference “in kind” exists between humans and animals—a claim that many contemporary anthropologists would dispute—leads Colb and Dorf to conclude that humans and animals are equal in moral status. Thus, they argue, neither human health nor life is more important than animal life.
What Is the Basis of Human Rights?
In order to reach the desired conclusion that abortion is morally permissible while animal use is not, the authors argue that membership in the human species is not the necessary condition for moral rights. Instead, they contend, sentience—the ability to feel pleasure and pain—should be the moral and legal basis for entitlements.
Although they are law professors, the authors seem to forget that the recognition of humanity alone as a basis for human rights entitlement has long been expressly recognized in international human rights instruments to which the United States is a party, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their reliance on sentience as the only moral criterion seems to be particularly inspired by utilitarianism, notably the writings of Peter Singer. They do not provide any legal justification for sentience as a legal standard, however, and reject fetal pain laws and partial-birth abortion bans, even though they could actually provide support for their own case in favor of sentience.
The rights of sentient animals, the authors argue, should only be limited by considerations of “necessity,” which they present as virtually nonexistent. They reject the idea that eating animal products is necessary for human health; they believe all dietary consumption of animal products is, instead, harmful. Animal medical experimentation, according to the authors, is also unnecessary. Even where an experiment on an animal might produce a breakthrough in the treatment of an otherwise untreatable human disease, it is, in their opinion, morally unacceptable in almost every instance because it uses the lives of other sentient beings “as instruments.”
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