Some people think being pro-choice is blatantly at odds with being vegan. If you’re against killing, you should be against all killing, right? Well… no. That would mean that if you’re in favor of some killing then you have to be in favor of all killing. If we’re going to be such sticklers for consistency, someone who is okay with killing in self defense would have to be just as okay with blowing up the entire world. 

So there isn’t necessarily a contradiction between being vegan and being pro-choice, but abortion can be an ideologically confusing issue for some vegans, and the reason for this is that not all vegans have identified their own premises. Some vegan rules are compatible with abortion, and some aren’t. The bad news for pro-choice vegans is that a pro-choice stance puts their objection to animal consumption on shiftier ground. 

Much of vegan ethics comes down to the concepts of sentience and interests. Vegans say plants don’t need to be protected from humans because plants don’t feel pain and aren’t aware of nor attached to their lives, and so plants (though alive and structured for survival) don’t have an interest in remaining intact or continuing to live. Animals, however, do feel pain and are attached to their lives in some way, and so they do have an interest in not being manhandled or killed. The key difference vegans often point to is a central nervous system, which animals tend to have and which plants lack.

It might seem, then, that an easy out for pro-choice vegans would be to say something like, “Fetuses aren’t sentient until they have developed a central nervous system, so there’s nothing contradictory about killing fetuses before the third trimester and being against the intentional killing of sentient animals.”

However, this creates problems for some ways that vegans argue against killing animals for food. In fact, this creates problems for the ways that most people argue against whatever kinds of killings they don’t like. That’s because it’s possible to kill sentient beings in ways that mimic the criteria that makes vegans okay with killing non-sentient lifeforms. If vegans don’t want to kill sentient beings because they can experience pain and have some kind of awareness of life and their interest in living, then all we have to do is kill these beings in a painless way, while they are unaware of their interests — like by blowing their heads off while they are sleeping or temporarily unconscious. Sentient creatures who are killed like this are no more aware of pain or the violation of their interests and future potential than any plant or fetus that we kill.

All that is left for vegans to say against this kind of killing is that the sentient beings who are killed in this manner still have future potential to enjoy life even if they are not currently aware of it, and we selfishly destroy that potential when we kill them. The problem with this is that it means we can’t kill fetuses either since they have future potential to enjoy life (and thus have “interests” in the vegan definition), even if they are not currently aware of it. Just like someone who is under anesthetic and asleep, gestating humans don’t realize they have potential to enjoy the future, but they have that potential nevertheless, and we take it away by killing them.

In short: if we can’t kill sentient beings because sentient beings feel pain, then we could kill them under anesthetic, or kill them so quickly they don’t have a chance to feel pain; this could potentially allow killing animals for food. If we can’t kill sentient beings because sentient beings have interests that they are aware of, then we could kill sentient beings at moments when they are not aware of their interests, like when they are asleep or otherwise unconscious, or maybe even just drugged up or distracted. This too could allow killing animals for food. But if we can’t kill beings with future interests even if they are not currently aware of these interests because this deprives them of whatever life has in store for them in the future, then we can’t kill fetuses because they have future potential even if they aren’t aware of it yet.

This seems to put pro-choice vegans in a bind.

Pro-choice vegans could try saying that the difference between fetuses who are temporarily unaware of their interests and unconscious animals who are temporarily unaware of their interests is that the unconscious animals were previously aware of their interests (while they were awake) and the fetuses have never been aware of their interests. They could insist that the future potential of a fetus is less important than the future potential of someone who was aware of their interests just a few hours ago (even if they aren’t at this moment). But the question this raises is… why? Why does this previous awareness count so much? If someone is in an irreversible coma and will never be aware of their interest in living again, does it matter that they previously had an interest in living? Does this previous awareness of interests somehow count more than the fetuses’ future awareness of interests? It’s hard to see how it could since we move forward in time rather than backward.

Fetuses and temporarily unconscious humans or nonhuman animals all have potential to enjoy life in the future that they are currently unaware of. The difference is our own perception of that potential. In other words, the difference is self-centered. For the most part, we are more attached to those who are born and who we know personally because we have a better idea of what they are like, how they contribute to our lives and where their own lives are going. A fetus is an abstraction with nothing but potential; they aren’t as deeply intertwined in our lives as the already born, and we don’t really know what their specific goals and ambitions are going to be. Nonhuman animals who are already born are less of an abstraction to pro-choice vegans than fetuses are to them, so these vegans find it less disturbing to kill a fetus than to kill an animal in a way that causes the animal no more distress than fetuses feel as they die.

But vegans don’t want to leave the argument hanging like this, because that would mean that meat eating is okay as long as meat eaters see nonhuman animals as abstractions and don’t feel disturbed at their deaths, which is how most meat eaters actually do feel. There is, however, one last strategy for pro-choice vegans to employ: they can lump abortion in with self-defense.  

Most vegans are okay with killing nonhuman animals when immediate human survival depends on it, even though they consider the animals to be “innocent”; pro-choice vegans can use similar arguments to defend abortion. This is a slam dunk when a woman’s life is definitely at stake, but most pro-choice vegans aren’t that strict. Vegans who are okay with abortion no matter how safe the pregnancy and delivery are expected to be can still make self-defense style arguments, but in doing so they’re stretching the definition of self-defense beyond immediate survival into quality of life terrain. And if you appeal to quality of life to defend the intentional killing of “innocent” fetuses when the mother’s life is not at risk, it becomes a lot harder to critique meat eaters who make quality of life appeals to defend killing “innocent” animals.

Pro-choice vegans can still claim that growing, delivering and raising a baby they don’t want — or even giving it up for adoption — causes mothers and their unwanted children more misery than a lifetime of veganism causes meat and cheese lovers. But there’s no way to actually test and measure which misery trumps which, so pro-choice vegans can’t completely dismiss meat eaters who say, “I love animal products and I’m not into most plant foods. Also, I feel better when I eat some animal fat and protein. I would be miserable if I had to live a lifetime as a vegan, so I’m okay with killing animals.” Pro-choice vegans would still want to say that the misery of unwanted pregnancy is nontrivial and the misery of a life without animal products is trivial, but how could they ever prove that? 

It becomes a murkier debate this way because pro-choice vegans are admitting that they are willing to intentionally end the lives of others in order to benefit their own lives, just like meat eaters do. The difference between pro-choice vegans and meat eaters is not about selfishness vs. selflessness, but rather about how much value each of us places on certain advantages for ourselves (not having children if we don’t want them, getting to eat animal products if we enjoy them) and whose lives and future potentials we are willing to sacrifice for these personal advantages.