The Rhetorical Power of Pig Pain

[Content Note: Hostility to Reproductive Rights, Appropriation of Slavery and the Holocaust, Animal Cruelty]
[NB: Not only women have uteri, get pregnant, and/or have need of access to abortion.]

On Wednesday March 13, 2013 at approximately 4:42 am Central Standard Time, Richard Dawkins decided to weigh in on women's reproductive rights using his twitter account @RichardDawkins.

I want to point out that reproductive rights are actually a very relevant thing to weigh in on following two years of US states enacting record numbers of abortion restrictions in state legislatures in 2011 and 2012, and in light of the fact that later on that same Wednesday, a new pope who has compared abortion to the death penalty would be elected. And given that I'm writing from a political climate where too many supposedly-progressive men have been silent for far too long on the issue of women's reproductive rights, I think it's potentially a very good thing to have a famous left-leaning speaker and writer standing up on twitter for women's right to bodily autonomy.

Except for the tiny little problem that Richard Dawkins' opening position made it clear that this wasn't going to be a statement about women's right to bodily autonomy so much as it was going to be about why anti-abortionists are totes hypocrites if they eat pork sausage for breakfast.

Yeah. *that face*

(You can see the full tweet stream, with awesome commentary, courtesy of Znikki at Storify. I encourage you to read the whole thing, because it is particularly relevant that Znikki sent actual scientific studies to correct Dawkins' position and he ignored both her and the studies while responding to her husband.)

At the moment it's not really clear why Richard Dawkins choose when he did to weigh in on this issue, nor is it entirely clear why he felt that the entirety of his position could be summed up with the words "pig pain" as though that were some kind of magic answer to the war on women's reproductive rights. Rebecca Watson at SkepChick has noted that this is not the first time Richard Dawkins has linked abortion with pig pain: a video uploaded to YouTube in November 2011 shows Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer discussing food choices while in the, ahem, context of abortion rights, the Holocaust, and slavery in Thomas Jefferson's America.

But if I can set aside that huge mound of appropriation and false analogizing for the moment, I want to focus on why it is not good ally behavior to "defend" women's reproductive rights while simultaneously undermining the fuck out of them by upholding as a respected biologist a major tenet of the anti-abortionist position as valid even to the point of outweighing womens' rights well after that tenet has been scientifically debunked and while also asserting that a woman's right to bodily autonomy is an "absolutist" position that cannot be reconciled with "consequentialist" morality.

First of all, I want to get these terms out of the way, because I don't want any bullshit rules-lawyering clouding up this post. Dawkins is claiming to parse a difference between Absolutism (which believes that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of consequence or intent) and Consequentialism (which holds that it is the consequence of an action that makes it ultimately right or wrong). So the built-in troll defense for all of the above is that Dawkins didn't call pro-choice activists like myself "absolutists" as in extreme left-wingers but rather "absolutists" in the sense that we think women have a right to bodily autonomy because it is a basic human right instead of a contributing factor to the greater good. And that Dawkins' point of view is the consequentialist view of morality and therefore naturally disposed to come up with a different answer than the absolutists.

And that is wrong.

Richard Dawkins' statement that he thinks "fetal pain could outweigh woman's right to control her own body" is not the consequentialist side of the abortion debate. It's the "side" of the abortion debate that blatantly invisibles the woman involved in order to focus on the fetus inside her -- which is to say, it's the side of the abortion debate behind all those record numbers of abortion restrictions in US state legislatures. The actual consequentialist side of the abortion debate can very handily end up at the same place as the absolutist side as long as women aren't deliberately removed from consideration.

From a consequentialist standpoint, a woman's right to bodily autonomy outweighs fetal pain because we live in a society that does not force people to use their bodies to support others -- not their organs, not their bone marrow, not their blood, not their skin. We do not force people to sacrifice parts of their bodies to save others not because we don't care about a patient's pain, but because we recognize that bodily autonomy is an essential part of a functioning free society. To suggest that we ignore that and make an exception when it comes to forcing pregnant women carry a pregnancy to term suggests that we force pregnant women to submit to a violation of their rights that we impose on no one else. That's not consequentialism; it's hypocritical inconsistency.

From a consequentialist standpoint, a woman's right to bodily autonomy outweighs fetal pain not because the fetal pain is or is not arguably less important than pig pain, but because the fetal pain is demonstrably less than the woman's pain. Abortion is safer than childbirth. If Dawkins wishes to make the point that pain matters when discussing the morality of abortion and that relative pain is relative, then he should focus on the pain of the women carrying an unwanted and potentially unsafe pregnancy rather than invisibling that woman in order to focus on farm animals. To suggest that we once again effectively erase pregnant women from the discussion about the rights of pregnant women is to suggest that they are the least important entity in this on-going debate. That's not consequentialism; it's rank marginalization.

From a consequentialist standpoint, a woman's right to bodily autonomy outweighs fetal pain not because fetal pain is or is not less important than pig pain, but because fetal pain is a myth. Richard Dawkins is a biologist, a widely read author, and -- I feel safe hazarding this guess -- has at least as much free time and electronic resources available to him as are to me when it comes to looking up abortion facts online. If he wishes to make the point that pain matters when discussing the morality of abortion, then he could do the bare minimum of research necessary to discover whether or not the hypothetical fetal pain under discussion is even physically possible. Especially if he's going to then quantitatively measure it to the amount of pain a grown pig can feel under completely different circumstances. If we're going to unscientifically compare apples to watermelons in order to score rhetorical points, we can at least compare them in a way that suggests we've done a modicum of research. And if we -- and by "we" I mean "Richard Dawkins" -- do not invest that effort, then that's not consequentialism, either; it's mendacious demagoguery. 
At the end of the day, Richard Dawkins didn't speak out on twitter in favor of abortion rights and this wasn't an example of a well-meaning progressive man trying to stand in solidarity with women. Lip-service to a woman's right to bodily autonomy being "extremely important" aside, Richard Dawkins outright stated that he doesn't think a woman has an absolute right over her own body (because that's the absolutist position that his opponents follow) and that he thinks that a mythological phenomena that has been roundly debunked as untrue could potentially outweigh a woman's real and genuine pain. And what lukewarm support he supposedly offered to abortion activists wasn't based on a woman's right to safety and bodily autonomy, but was instead based on the rights extended to barnyard animals -- thereby implying that pigs are more important and of greater relevance in the war on women than actual women are.

No, what this actually was -- in my frank opinion -- is yet another example of Richard Dawkins blatantly appropriating the marginalization of women in order to score rhetorical points and generate attention for himself. As a gesture of solidarity for reproductive rights, his tweets fail; as a statement of support for women, his tweets are a travesty; as a gotcha argument against religious anti-abortionist meat-eaters, his tweets are easily defeated but satisfyingly (to him, I'm sure) smug; as click-bait to bring in the eyes and desperately attempt to maintain relevance, his tweets have achieved their purpose.

So thank you, Richard Dawkins, for so aptly demonstrating how to appropriate and commodify women and their rights in order to benefit yourself. And that's the funny thing about consequentialism: while I'm sure you think this particular consequence makes your appropriation of my rights a moral act, I personally think that the exact same consequence makes your actions pretty fucking immoral.

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