Sometimes my pro-life friends express bewilderment at how someone could advocate for animal rights — going so far as to become a vegetarian — while having no problem with killing unborn humans. That viewpoint used to make perfect sense to me. And while I certainly don’t agree with it now, I find it to be a intellectually consistent (if chilling) way to look at the world. If it’s of any interest to others, here is why I used to be a pro-choice vegetarian.
For me, being a pro-choice vegetarian was a direct result of my atheistic worldview.
The way I saw it, all life on earth is just chemical reactions, therefore the only thing that makes a human more valuable than, say, a gnat or a squirrel is that we’re more complex. One of the main signs of our complexity is our intelligence, so I began to associate evidence of intelligence with value. I don’t think I ever made a bold, conscious decision to adopt that viewpoint, it just seemed to be obviously true — for example, we don’t have a problem with killing a simple bug like a spider, but most of us would be opposed to killing a more advanced lifeform like a dog.
I would think of this sort of thing whenever I ate meat, imagining the fear the pig must have felt before it was slaughtered for my BLT sandwich. I did a little bit of research about modern-day slaughterhouses and was disgusted to hear about the suffering that these animals endured. I decided that I would no longer eat meat. In particular, I would avoid the meat of higher animals who were more aware of their own suffering such as pigs, cows and chickens. I did continue to eat fish (particularly shellfish), however, on the grounds that as less intelligent animals they didn’t experience the range of suffering that the higher animals did when they were killed.
Seeing the world through this atheistic idea that there is a spectrum of worthiness of life with the least intelligent creatures on one end and the most intelligent on the other, and that all life on earth was to be judged by this same standard, had chilling implications when it came to human life.
While I donated money to PETA and other animal rights organizations to help save pigs and cows, I also donated money to Planned Parenthood to support the abortion industry. I had not the slightest qualm about the idea of an early-stage abortion. On my spectrum of worthiness of life, young human fetuses were way to the left — right down there with mollusks and worms — because they could not display any intelligence. As I detailed more in this post, I could not imagine asking a woman to turn her life upside down and devalue herself for a lifeform that had all the value of a crustacean.
Occasionally, however, I would get a glimpse of the reality of just how cold my worldview really was. For example, one time in college I heard a professor make the statement that it would be more ethical to kill a newborn baby than a pig since pigs are more intelligent and aware of their surroundings. I scoffed at the absurdity of such a notion. Yet when I tried to argue with his position, I realized that he was actually using my worldview to justify his position.
Also in college, I heard a classmate (who had a reputation for doing a little too much LSD) make the statement that it would be more ethical to use severely mentally disabled humans as a food source instead of the higher animals since those humans are less intelligent. I thought it to be one of the most ridiculous, offensive, disgusting statements I’d ever heard. I was even able to come up with some defense about it being wrong because we’re evolved to protect members of our own species…but such a coldly scientific argument sounded somehow lame and hollow. There was absolutely nothing in the atheist lexicon that could articulate just how morally repugnant such an idea really was.
It wouldn’t be until years later, after my conversion to Christianity, that I realized that my heart had always known something that my head did not: that humans are infinitely valuable and dearly precious — every one of us, at any age, our ability to display intelligence notwithstanding. Somewhere inside, a part of me knew it all along, which is why I was so horrified at the professor’s and the classmate’s statements.
One of the many things that fell into place when I began studying Christianity was its view of the dignity of man. Reading sections in the Catechism about the inherent value of each and every human being was like reading an articulation of something that had been written on my heart all along. Through the Christian worldview I was able to maintain empathy for animals while understanding that human beings, who posses God-given eternal souls, are in an entirely different category than other lifeforms.
These days I have gone back to eating meat, although I still don’t eat pork and am trying to move our family toward only buying meat products from companies that treat their animals humanely. More and more I see the mentality creeping into our culture that intelligence = worthiness of life, that human life is no more valuable than intelligent animal life, and it frightens me. Because, as I know from personal experience, the fruits of that worldview are chilling indeed.