Thanksgiving day has been integral in my development as a person. As I described in a previous post, a televised game of bowling, using frozen turkeys in lieu of bowling balls, was a catalyst to my decision not to eat turkey. It took over a decade before I became vegan but I got there. Later, I learned the racist roots of the holiday; a story much different than the one I had been taught as a child. Learning of this lie allowed me to begin questioning authority and the status quo. If my teachers and parents could lie to me, it was up to me to investigate important issues and make my own decisions. It pushed me on a path of advocacy for other humans and has led me to a working professionally in human rights.
Four years ago, on thanksgiving, I wrote my first post on this blog. Three years ago I began fasting during the day. Last year I fomented my own tradition along with fellow activists. Along with fasting we drop a banner that provides a URL where people can learn more about the holiday. Below is a video of my friends engaging in this activity last year, along with the text from website I created to help educate others about this day.
Whatever you are doing today, I hope you are thinking of all those who have been oppressed by the racism or speciesism. And whatever you do, however you spend the day, do not eat anyone. And do not sit silently by as others do.
The first thanksgiving feast was in the early 1600′s at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. After a harsh winter European settlers lost around half of their population. Those who survived did so because the Indigenous people in the area (a.k.a Native Americans) taught them how to farm. This first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the first successful harvest of the season for the European settlers. Thanksgiving has now become a time to gather with family, watch football, eat a lot, and relax. Today brings back fond memories of childhood for many of us, as we use the day to teach our own children family traditions and virtues of thankfulness. Though the day symbolizes positive things to many people, it is important to look at the roots of the holiday and to think deeply about the way we are celebrating.
After such generosity and a show of community, European settlers destroyed Indigenous populations. Indigenous people were systematically murdered, raped, enslaved, and forced off of the land where they lived. It started on the east coast with the original settlements like Plymouth Plantation, and it continued west as European settlers followed a dream of Manifest Destiny. The destruction of Indigenous populations has continued throughout U.S. history. A partial list of atrocities include: Conestoga Massacre, Gnadenhutten Massacre, Sand Creek Massacre, Camp Grant Massacre, Wounded Knee Massacre, Trail of Tears, The Reservation system, “The Reservation schools,” 1830 Indian Removal Act, Cointelpro infiltration of Red Power Movement.
European settlers, who later became the white land-holding citizens that established the U.S. political and legal systems, were spared by the generosity of Indigenous peoples. However, their returned the favor with colonization and the genocide of native populations, ways of life, and cultures. Today, Native Americans suffer inequalities in health, income, and education because the U.S. government continues to discriminate against them.
Thanksgiving is typically celebrated with a huge feast. The center of this feast is most often a turkey. An estimated forty five million turkeys are slaughtered for thanksgiving day in the United States alone each year. That is equivalent to the number of individual Skittles in 750,000 bags of Skittles.
Turkeys feel pain, have a desire to be free, and want to live for something other than to be killed for our consumption. In this way they are no different from humans or the cats and dogs that might live with you at home.
Almost every single one of the 45 MILLION turkeys who are killed for thanksgiving dinners endure the following:
- They are typically housed in crowded conditions with thousands of other turkeys, barely able to move
- Their toes and the tips of beaks are cut off without any pain medication
- Due to selective breeding, they grow so large at such a fast pace that their skeletons can’t support them and they have trouble standing
- Being hung by their feet, fully conscious, on a suspended moving rail that will take them to slaughter. The slaughter line moves so fast and corporations cut so many corners to save money, that many turkeys are fully conscious and alive when they are plunged into boiling water to be defeathered.
There is no need to buy turkeys and further support the factory farms when there are plenty of delicious meat-free proteins available to eat.
Here is turkey slaughterhouse:
Please think twice about why you celebrate thanksgiving and if it is even worth celebrating at all. The racist roots embedded in the day’s history are still alive today, and they can teach us a lot if we take the time to think things through. Racism remains prevalent in our culture and public policy continues to disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities. The U.S. government also continues to colonize other people and wage war on other cultures and nations.
Mass media has been terribly effective in teaching us that we can embody the proverbial American Dream by upholding senseless, truth-censoring traditions.
Although many of us cherish our non-human animal companions at home, we experience some sort of disconnect when it comes to the animals we eat. But just like your animals at home, turkeys feel pain, experience fear, and want freedom. Just like you, turkeys feel pain, experience fear, and want freedom.
Once we recognize the economic forces driving the massive commercialization of the Thanksgiving holiday we become better able to understand why the historical censorship is so heavy. Once we accept that “Thanksgiving” celebrates the massacre of Indigenous peoples, such an occasion is both marginalizing and absurd.
Please redefine the occasion for yourself and extend compassion to victims of slavery and slaughter. You do not need to eat turkeys; they were once living with their own dreams of happiness and freedom. In fact, you do not need the holiday at all to give thanks or to spend quality time with those you cherish. Knowledge is power, and living intentionally while applying new knowledge to your lifestyles is one of the most powerful things you can do.
Even within the vegan and animal liberation communities, principles surrounding family and fertility are not held consistently across species. To remain ideologically and, more importantly, ethically consistent, those who promote total liberation for all animals should not bear children. This can be accomplished either by remaining child free or by choosing to foster or adopt already-born children. The key arguments for childbearing as a valued step in the process of childrearing replicates several ethical and ideological imperatives against which animal liberation advocates argue. It supports biological arguments of superiority, creates unjustified boundaries to delineate hierarchies, values humans over other animals and the Earth, values humans with capital resources over humans in poverty, and neglects the needs of those children who are without families.
(Pro)natalism is a belief that promotes having children. This ideology is dominant and rarely questioned in most cultures. It is also rarely called out and referred to by name (when is the last time you heard a parent described him/herself as a pronatalist?). However, that which goes unnamed goes unquestioned. Feminist theorists such as Michael Kimmel have identified this trend in the maintenance of gender and race hierarchies—for example “man” refers to a white straight man and we know this because any other type of man must be labeled with a pronoun (black man, gay man, poor man, etc.). Melanie Joy has identified this in the case of maintaining meat-eating as a norm as well (she suggests calling meat-eaters “carnists” while I prefer Steve Best and Paul Watson’s term: necrovore). Similarly, I am suggesting we label the pronatalist position. How we do this productively is a topic for another essay as it opens up many new doors (e.g. is “breeders” simply a pejorative term that plays of sepeciesist ideology or is it an accurate label? Is “pronatalist” too esoteric to be effective? Etc.).
The point remains though that it is important to label the pronatalist position so that the pro-child lifestyle is seen as a lifestyle choice, not an expected stage in the life cycle. There is simultaneously a desperate need to normalize the child-free position as a viable and commendable option for those who have the privilege to make choices over their fertility.
Via agricultural and medical developments humans have done a wonderful job raising our population. However, the rate at which this is currently occurring is unsustainable. In 1650 there were about a half billion people in the world. In 1830 there were about a billion. That means it took almost 200 for the population to grow by a half billion people. The next billion people only took 100 years—in 1930 there were two billion people. By the end of the 20th century, just 70 years later the population had more than tripled to about six billion people. As we headed into the 21st century, it took only 12 years for the population to grow from six to seven billion people. There are now over seven billion people on this planet producing waste, urbanizing natural lands, growing food in an unsustainable manner, eating millions of animals daily, and destroying the Earth in other measurable and immeasurable ways.
A typical retort to arguments against reproduction that are concerned with overpopulation is that, in many western nations, overpopulation is not a problem. However, the problem of human overpopulation needs to be handled on a human level, not a national level. Nations are lands with constructed borders. Honoring those borders over the wellbeing of living others is a travesty and not a viable argument for procreation from a liberatory perspective.
People are people are people so while, in the US, the fertility rate (average number of births per woman) is 1.9, in Niger it is 7.1. When animal liberationists argue for spaying and neutering they do not consider some dogs or cats to have more of a “right” to breed than other dogs or cats. We don’t say feral cats have more pregnancies than house-cats so house cats shouldn’t be spayed. Instead, the entire species is viewed as at-risk and the idea that one cat would be left on the streets or killed in a shelter so another could be bred is unthinkable.
Overpopulation not only degrades the Earth, it takes needed land away from nonhuman animals. As the human population grows, the extinction of other animals and plants speeds up. Urban sprawl, introduction of non-native species, food preferences, and pollution all lead to the death of other animals, and at a rate leading to extinction for some. There are currently about 400 endangered species in the U.S. alone. Further, the proliferation of the human population means that more animals bred exclusively to be killed for their meat, skins, or other utilitarian anthropocentric purposes.
Human overpopulation also leads to an increase in inequalities among humans. As there are more people sharing fewer resources exploitation and the affirmation and solidification of current hierarchies of power and wealth are strengthened. More affluent countries have lower populations, less poverty, and more space for people. They accomplish this via the exploitation of other people and lands. For it is the privilege we have in the US that leads to the problems of poverty and a lack of reproductive health and control in some of the nations with the highest populations.
We allow others to remain impoverished, under-educated, and without access to adequate education (including about reproductive health and control) in order to feed our desire for inexpensive consumptive goods, all foods being available year round, and other luxuries. The cost of human overpopulation is a global crisis from an environmental perspective, a human rights perspective, and because there are abandoned and orphaned children who desperately need homes. Privilege is built on the disadvantage of others so we must act on our privilege responsibly. We may not be able to stop the daily onslaught of human murders that our government commits in other nations via military occupation, drone attacks, and other violence, but we can live more humbly, less selfishly, and more responsibly. Not procreating is one of many things we must do to achieve this objective.
Boundary construction goes beyond the aforementioned assertion of nation-state boundaries. Biological borders are asserted as well in pronatalist reasoning and the very same arguments animal liberationists argue against, such as biological superiority, are called upon to justify childbearing. These arguments rest their laurels on the same logics as arguments for eugenics, phrenology, and racism.
There are a number of arguments for having a biologically related child. One is that it is the natural urge of humans to procreate. I am not a biologist so I will not attempt to refute that, and I actually believe it to be true. However, the fact that we can do it or even that we are driven to do it does not make it right. Animal liberationists accept that desire alone is not an adequate ethical criteria for meat-eating, fur wearing, and using animals for entertainment; it should not be a justification for childbearing either. I have had myriad debates with people over whether our teeth are designed to eat meat. Debate as I might, in the end, I just don’t care. It is not okay to kill others for food when there are other options—no matter what our teeth look like—as we have the ability and privilege to make other choices. Biological arguments have been made for everything from the desire to rape to genocide. It doesn’t matter if there is an ounce of truth to any of it. It is simply not right and should be rejected. Humans must reject childbearing as well. Even if it is what we want to do it will lead to our extinction, and has already lead to the extinction an suffering of so many other animals.
Some advocate one-child families or one-child per person as a “replacement rate.” I, however, advocate no child or adopted-child families for those who have the privilege to choose. The one-child solution is easier to promote as it does satisfy another argument that I hear often that people should have one of their “own” children (even if they do adopt another child). Either because it just feels different, there is a desire to experience pregnancy, or to keep one’s genes in the gene pool.
The idea that we need to have our “own” babies, even while we assert control over the reproduction of other species is an anthropocentric position that is logically inconsistent with the claim that human and nonhuman animals deserve equal amounts of consideration. That inconsistency only exists because individuals interested in equality are still willing to reproduce hierarchies and inequalities insofar as they are the beneficiaries. As animal liberationists we must reject such arguments in favor of libratory politics that are inclusive of everyone’s needs. The Earth and human and nonhuman animals will all collectively benefit from a cessation of the current boom in human population and human dominion of the Earth.
This assertion of biological superiority is exactly what animal liberationists reject in arguments that pit the human species over other species. It is the same logic on which racism rests, it is the logical impetus behind eugenics. These arguments always assert a superiority, which can later become the justification for the oppression of others. It is inconsistent with a liberatory politics that rejects racism or sexism or other –isms built on very minor biological differences.
If you randomly selected any two fruit flies and compared their DNA, then randomly selected a human and a chimpanzee, there is likely to be more genetic variation between the fruitflies than the human and chimpanzee. Given biological realities such as this there is little reason for any person to assume his or her genes are so superior from another person that s/he will produce a “better” person. Notably, this “gene pool” argument, extended to its logical conclusion, would also suggest that anyone with any mental or physical deficits or any other trait not culturally valued should not procreate. And this would include most humans. So, while I reject the gene pool argument, it also pushes for humans to stop procreating.
This sort of biological boundary building is also what maintains species hierarchies. As animal liberationists work to shift the line of who “matters” to include all animals, we should not at the same time construct and promote intra-human biological borders. For this reason a particularly problematic argument for procreating from an animal liberation perspective is the argument that vegans must have babies because they are naturally more compassionate and they need to spread these genes. There is no room for vegan exceptionalism when pushing for equal consideration.
accepting privilege responsibly
“Privilege” is a word I have used a lot in this essay. I want to be clear— I am not advocating for these principles to be applied to all people everywhere. This is an argument relative to those with privilege—the privilege of education about reproductive health and the privilege of access to fertility control methods. We have the privilege of choice. We must use that wisely and advocate for that privilege for everyone.
I also do not advocate for policies to enforce or control the fertility of others as policies are instituted by nation states with the interest of only the elite in mind. For that reason policies surrounding fertility control and sexual health have historically been racist, sexist and classist—the Tuskegee Experiments in the early 1900’s, involuntary sterilization of women in Chicago in the 1970’s, the use of Norplant as a requirement of Parole release since the 1990’s, and the list goes on.
Policies about fertility and birth control will be racist and sexist and discriminatory in myriad ways because our notions of family and the pronatalist ideology in itself is entrenched with discriminatory politics. Having children becomes the lynchpin of various arguments for and against the full social incorporation of disadvantage groups. Poor and non-white mothers are lambasted for childbearing the wrong way (racist stereotype: group x, y, or z has too many (or any) children outside of “ideal” relationships…e.g. “welfare queen, breeders, etc.). And while this argument is rooted in stereotype it goes a long way to engender bias and discrimination. Even socially, people often feel the need to make note when Black or Latina women with children are married, as if that somehow justifies her worth. And these ideologies become fomented institutionally as well.
This culture’s pronatalist assumption has also led to the idea that having children is part of the debate over the legitimacy of homosexual couples, implying that these unions might not be valid otherwise. Many arguments for gay marriage are premised on arguments that homosexual couples can be just as productive as heterosexual couples by having and/ or raising kids. Arguments over the desire and ability to raise children are seen as the justification for the physical, emotional, and financial union between two people and the issue of equality and choice often remains underemphasized.
The answer is more education and the empowerment of women, not more policy instituted by the privileged. The countries that allow women the most education and the most access to fertility control are the countries with the lowest teen pregnancy and fertility rates. Let’s return to the US/ Niger comparison. In the US, 73% of women aged 15-49 use modern birth control methods, while in Niger only 5% of women use modern birth control methods. Notably, the literacy rate of women in the US is 99%, while in Niger it is only 15% for women. These literacy rates also highlight variable gender inequality as well, for in the US men and women have the same literacy rate while in Niger men have a literacy rate of 43%, more than twice that of women.
(FYI, I am not insinuating the US gives enough rights over reproduction… The Bush-era bans on comprehensive sex education and current assault on access to prophylactics in schools and to abortion services leave the US falling behind other Western countries—but way ahead of many nations—in terms of women’s reproductive rights).
there are other options
One great option is not having children—and not being ashamed of it. Generally, the option to remain child-free is not socially supported and when it is it tends to remain relegated to a sub-cultural space, exclusive to the child-free and functioning more as support groups or places of affirmation, rather than spaces where the intentionally childless can just exist. For example, a number of female authors and bloggers write on the topic, seeking to assert their worth outside of their womb. Some hetero-sexual couples celebrate being DINKs (dual income, no kids), bragging about luxuries such as late night social events and traveling that free time and extra money allow. And others consider themselves GINKs (green inclinations – no kids), promoting their child-free choice as an environmental responsibility. While these spaces may comfort the frontrunners of the child-free lifestyle, they highlight the way in which this a niche choice and how choosing not to have children becomes a defining characteristic of a person. A reconceptualization of social responsibility and family, particularly within libeartory politics, is desperately needed.
adopt. don’t shop.
Another option, which rejects child bearing but accepts childrearing is to foster or adopt children. This accommodates those who retain the idea that child-rearing is an important part of a fulfilled life. This option is also laudable, and may even be viewed as a responsibility for those with the appropriate emotional, temporal, and material resources, as it not only avoids childbearing but actually helps to ameliorate the social problem of children without permanent homes. There are currently 130,000 children in U.S. foster care facilities alone waiting for homes and an estimated 20,000 young adults age out of the system each year without being adopted.
Animal activists routinely make the argument that adoption of nonhuman animals is crucial for preventing the deaths of shelter animals. To hold this opinion in the cases of nonhuman animals but not in the case of human animals is ideologically inconsistent. A popular slogan among animal liberation activists is “Every dog bred is a shelter dog dead.” This translates to human animals as well. Put another way, every child born is an orphaned child neglected. And this neglect has a tangible negative impact on those individuals and on society at large. Children who grow up in state facilities are less likely to get jobs and when they do have lower earnings, may have higher arrest rates, higher teen pregnancy rates, and more difficulty maintaining healthy spousal relationships. There is a need for childrearing but not childbearing.
From this perspective the use of In vitro fertilization (IVF) and other fertility promoting methods is particularly vile and inappropriate. To lack the ability to bear a child and still choose to create new life over protecting and promoting those who are already alive and in need of homes is a travesty. Further, the culture surrounding IVF and other techniques reinforces various status hierarchies and inequalities that animal liberation activists should adamantly reject. Only those with money can afford them and typically those who need money become donors and surrogates. Further, the idea that at least one (and sometimes two) parent(s) must be biologically related is often the driving force behind such procedures; again asserting biological boundary building.
Importantly, there is institutional and cultural baggage that needs to be unpacked to make this option more viable for more people. First, the process to adopt children is often cumbersome and expensive and not everyone who is fit to raise a child is granted the legal right to adopt. And some not fit to raise children but with the appropriate funds can adopt nonetheless. However, this should not be an excuse to procreate. Institutional shifts should be demanded and promoted rather than simply using them as an excuse.
Animal liberationists would never suggest to someone who lives in an area where vegan options are limited to wait until it is easy to be vegan to stop eating animals. Likewise, we cannot wait until adoption is effortless to promote the cessation of childbearing among those with the privilege to make such choices. In the short term that may mean people who want children don’t get them, but that is a necessary sacrifice and those people must think outside of the box and add productively to children’s lives in other ways (e.g. fostering, teaching, mentoring, etc.).
Second, there is an imbalance between the number of white people who want to adopt and the number of children of color up for adoption. Currently most adopters (73%) are white though only 40% of children up for adoption are white. White people need to be willing to adopt nonwhite children and so a lot of racism needs to be unpacked on a cultural level to allow more multi-ethnic adoptions. In the meantime, animal liberationists should avoid playing into the system that privileges childbearing and shifts in adoption policy should be pursued—we can be some of the first to promote and fight for such adoptions.
your children will be murderers
Bottom line, there are already enough children in the world. There is no need to create more. Humans are the problem. There is no way for humans to reduce their negative impact to zero or to add so much benefit they cancel out the damage they do. Adding any single body to the overpopulated human species is a disservice. Adopting or fostering and intervening in the life of someone who would not otherwise have been exposed to a compassionate and vegan household is doing something good. Adding another human is not.
Even if you do everything right, your child will be a part of the problem. From the moment that the baby shower is thrown a child becomes a consumer. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), there are over 7.6 billion tons of disposable diapers discarded each year in US landfills alone. (As a side note, every parent-to-be I know who swore s/he would use cloth diapers, didn’t). Add to that all the paper towels, excessive clothing, products purchased for short term use, social funds funneled to children whose parents need financial assistance, and the list goes on.
Further, there is no guarantee you are raising a vegan human. Having vegan parents does not necessarily a vegan make. Animal liberationists should understand this well as so many of us have chosen life paths totally at odds with anything our own parents envisioned for us.
Even if the parent-child relationship is perfect and there is no meat-eating-for-the-sake-of-rebellion there will be sleepovers, school trips, and extended-family outings that will lead to meat-eating, dairy-consumption, trips to zoos and circuses, and any other number of abusive situations.
Why not raise a child who was already on this planet and likely going to eat meat with gusto and introduce her/him to a compassionate vegan lifestyle rather than create a new life? Why not privilege raising a child who was already on this planet and who needs you?
an afterthought: ideological extensions
This debate is not a simple one. Along with these issues come a variety of other questions about inequalities, relationships between human and nonhuman animals and questions about what “animal liberation” will ultimately mean for these relationships. I will not broach these topics in this essay but wish to leave you with this thought so that we might develop on it and grow with it moving forward:
Recognizing speciesism in fertility control also forces a critical look at the methods used to control fertility and calls into question the way that we assert fertility control over nonhuman animals. When seeking to change the reproduction of male companion and farm animals we castrate them, removing their genitals. This has the benefit for humans of also changing their behavior, because as their interest in sex declines and they become more docile household companions. Animal liberationists need to critically investigate the human-animal relationship and be willing to reinvestigate how we deal with the overpopulation of other animals, particularly if we are able to provide them more space and autonomy by getting our own population under control.
If you missed my last guest blog on Viva La Vegan, here it is!
Through slang terms, idioms, insults, and standardized grammatical constructs, language reflects current social inequalities. It is packed with the vestiges of a culture’s history of domination, exploitation, and discrimination. In this way, language not only reflects inequality but also has the potential to oppress. In using problematic language, we reinscribe abuses and inequalities. However, by simply not using such language, we can free our own words of exploitation, forcing others to confront these issues when they hear us speak.
In this post I will focus on how language oppresses (and how we can liberate that language) as it applies to nonhuman animals and speciesist ideology. Importantly though, as I will describe below, it is impossible to discuss speciesist language without also discussing racist and sexist language, as they are all interlinked by a prevailing structure of inequality that operates within most institutions, belief systems, governments, and cultures globally.
Language oppresses in various ways. In relation to animals, the most notable ways that language reinforces and solidifies inequality is through pronouns, the use of “mass terms,” inaccurate language, derogatory terms/insults, and culturally specific idioms and adages.
pronouns. One of the most obvious ways that the English language oppresses is through the de-sexing and objectification of animals with pronouns. Many of you have seen the wonderful advertisements to promote veganism, which show an image of a “farm animal” with copy that reads: “Someone not something.” This distinction between subject (someone) and object (something) is extremely important for changing the way that people think of nonhuman animals. It is in the objectification of other animals that we deny them sentience and personhood so that we may use their bodies for sport, transportation, entertainment, clothing, food, work, or whatever else we humans please.
This transformation of other animals from subject to object, happens quietly through the use of pronouns. Animals are “it,” not “he” or “she;” they are “that” and “which,” not “who” or “whom.” Rendering an animal sexless, classifying him or her as “it that” rather than “s/he who” takes away a crucial aspect of the way in which the English language identifies (human) subjects.
Making the shift to “s/he” rather than “it” is simple but very powerful. If you don’t know someone’s gender, just do what authors do when talking abstractly about humans—switch back and forth between he and she. Never use “that” or “which,” always use “who” or “whom.” This is a very easy thing to do in your speaking and writing and for many animal advocates it will likely feel good and become natural rather quickly. More important than its being easy, it will be noticed. Sentences will just feel “off” to listeners, as this is technically not “correct.” Your spell-check will try to correct you and if you write professionally your editors will, too. But as you persist in speaking accurately about nonhuman animals, people will notice and be forced to confront the issue in their own thinking.
mass terms. This objectification of other animals via language also occurs through what Carol J. Adams identifies as “false mass terms.” This phrase refers to the lumping together of many individuals into one undifferentiated group (“mass terms”), thereby erasing individuality and establishing an inaccurate (“false”) sense that all in the group are one in the same. One way to think of it is as an extreme stereotype or profiling.
As Adams explains in her article A War on Compassion: “Mass terms refer to things like water or colors; no matter how much of it there is or what type of container it is in, water is still water…Objects referred to by mass terms have no individuality, no uniqueness, no specificity, no particularity.” This is a problem, because, “…humans make someone who is a unique being and therefore not the appropriate referent of a mass term into something that is the appropriate referent of a mass term” (emphasis added).
The way this works in regard to animals is through the identification of classes of animals and species of animals as if it stands in for any individual animal, and such that any individual animal stands in for the whole group. For example, by making someone a “farm animal” we classify her as a type of animal that can be killed for food. Further we often identify animals by species, as if all in that species are the same. This also allows for us to abuse animals en masse for the purposes of food and clothing. It also allows for policies to be set in place that are not in the best interests of some animals. If any cheetah is one in the same as the next cheetah, then trapping and caging some of them for “education” or conservation efforts in zoos becomes acceptable. If each cheetah matters, though, kidnapping any cheetah would be (rightfully) unacceptable.
We use false mass terms when we rely on inaccurate binaries as well. The most prevalent and harmful is human/animal. This is an us/them construct, which establishes a hierarchy that asserts that anyone not like “us” is not as valued. It is nonsensical since humans are also animals, but by establishing all nonhuman animals as “them”, it masks the fact that we are similar to them and they to us; in this way what we do to them can more easily leave our consciousness.
False mass terms are just another way we thing-ify living others, thereby linguistically masking their value as individual living beings. When we use simply “animal” in our language rather than “other animal” or “nonhuman animal” we fall into this trap. By seeking to identify the individual nature of other animals in our language, we better serve our cause.
insults. Derogatory phrases reflect those whom a society devalues (either in the past or present) and highlights racist, classist, abilist and speciesist ideology. Phrases like lame and cunt are insults, as such they devalue those whom they are associated with—people with differently abled bodies and women, respectively.
Animals and animal-related phrases are often used as well to establish the devaluation of others. It is here that we can see how racism, sexism and speciesism are intertwined. Throughout US history, there are two things in common about whichever ethnic minority is being blamed for social problems. First, is that people in this group will be the ones doing the most labor, the hardest labor, and receiving the least pay or legal protection. Currently, these roles in the US are filled by Mexican immigrants (and similar others, i.e. Latinos) as well as by nonhuman animals (who certainly do the most labor and receive nothing in the way of compensation, not even having their lives spared).
Second, there will be derogatory terms linking individuals in this group to animals. African slaves were kidnapped and brought to the US from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. They worked, were tortured, murdered, and raped—all without pay. They were likened to monkeys in images and language, literally being called “monkey.” In the mid 1800’s Chinese immigrants were recruited in the US to build the Central Pacific Railroad. As they built infrastructure for the development of the Western US and the realization of a “manifest destiny,” they were likened to rats. They were portrayed as rats on trading cards and in advertisements, and they were said to be “like rats”—which stood in for meaning they were dirty, untrustworthy, and unintelligent. Today, Latinos are working in the least desirable jobs and if they are “illegal aliens” they often have no legal protections and are paid inhumane wages. Latina women are said to “breed” like dogs or rabbits, other slang includes “border bunny” (referring to illegal border crossings), pollo (Spanish word for “chicken”, what the border patrol calls Mexicans at the border), and mule (refers to drug mules, insinuating Latinos are drug dealers), to name a few.
Epitaphs to degrade women by likening them to animals also abound: women are sexualized (and objectified) through being likened to nonhuman animals (e.g. chick, fox, vixen). Annoying women are bitches or they “henpeck” their husbands or “brood” over their children. Unattractive women are cows. As Joan Dunayer highlights: “Likening women to nonhuman animals undermines respect for women because nonhuman animals generally receive less respect—far less.” She goes on: “Viewed through speciesism a nonhuman animal acquires a negative image. When metaphor then imposes that image on women they share its negativity.” This use of metaphor that relies on the assumed inferiority of nonhuman others, works to both insult the human target and degrade the moral status of other animals.
When you start paying attention, you may be shocked at just how prevalent “animal” insults are. By refusing to use these terms, and being vocal about why you do it, you not only refuse to propagate these abuses, but you can actually subvert the dominant ideologies that support multiple inequalities.
idioms. Idioms are culturally specific expressions and adages are short memorable phrases. Both are used as shorthand to express a message, a lesson, or a moral. “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” “kill two birds with one stone,” and “don’t’ look a gift horse in the mouth,” are all examples. These phrases often play on a culture’s understanding of animals as inferior, as property, or as existing to be used or killed by humans. It can be difficult to stop using them as they slip out easily and have utility as they are typically understood by the majority of a culture.
Idioms are one of my favorite ways to liberate language because the listener will always take notice and a lot can be expressed through these shifts. For example, “Free two birds with one key” is just as descriptive as “Kill two birds with one stone,” and it totally reorients the expectation of who birds are (individuals to live free vs. objects that are acceptable kill). Because the phrase harkens to the original idiom, the listener will call that old idiom into question as they consider the alternative you have provided.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has an amazing podcast on this topic, if you want to hear more. At the end of this post is a list of some possible replacements for old idioms and adages from various sources, including many of my friends and the cookbook Vegan Vittles. If you are ever in a pinch, though, you can check out this very clever, “Randomly-Generated Animal Friendly Idiom Editor” by Chris Marcum.
inaccurate language. Inaccurate language is normalized in such a way that it, in turn, serves to normalize the animal abuse itself. Slaughtered individuals are rendered into “food” and described as delicious or expensive or over-cooked or salty instead of as kind orplayful or tired or clever. People wear the skins of others and call it “fashion.” People are said to “own” companion animals. We call those who were killed for food “meat.” A hamburger not a cow. When people eat chicken or fish, the language is still inaccurate as these words are being used as a mass term, much like “racing animal” or “circus animal.” We need to stop using inaccurate terms to define the world we are living in. People will tell you that you are alienating yourself if you say things like, “Do you sell any jackets that are not made with cow skin?” But who cares? Animal exploitation and abuse is so normal precisely because it is not questioned.
In talking about disadvantage, sociologist Michael Kimmel tells us that “privilege is invisible.” What he is referencing is the fact that a man is a man is a man, unless he is a poor man, or a black man or a gay man. All “inferior” identities are described. As Melanie Joy points out in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, the same is true for vegetarians. She subverts this by labeling people who eat dead animals “carnists,” I borrow form Steve Best and call them necrovores.
When we label what we are seeing honestly we take the privilege of invisibility away. We re-center our own language to be compassionate, which calls out normalized cruelty to animals.
a daily practice. Every day language is used that plays off of the normalized nature of violence against animals. It is insidious but typically goes unnoted for the fact that it is so normal. Queering your lexicon means to deviate from what is expected or the normal in terms of the words you use to communicate. It is a beautiful personal act of daily resistance to animal exploitation. Liberating your language of animal abuse adds to the daily practice of veganism to establish a foundation of compassion from which advocacy and activism on behalf of other animals can begin.
|Speciesist Idiom/ Proverb||Cruelty-free replacement||
|There’s more than one fish in the sea.||There’s more than one leaf on the tree.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Kill two birds with one stone.||Free two birds with one key.||vegina|
|Slice two carrots with one knife.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Opening a can of worms.||Opening a can of spaghetti.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Land of milk and honey.||Land of sweet abundance.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.||Running around in circles.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|It’s raining cats and dogs.||It’s raining rice and beans.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|There’s no use crying over spilled milk.||It’s no use weeping over burned toast.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t put the cart before the horse.||Don’t slice the bread before it’s baked.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.||Don’t put all your vegetables in one soup.||Megan Wagner|
|Never put all your berries in one bowl.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Slippery as an eel.||Slippery as oil.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Packed in like sardines.||Packed in like pickles.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|On a wild goose chase.||Out chasing rainbows.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for life.||Give a man a bean and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to garden and you’ll feed him for life.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|It’s no use beating a dead horse.||It’s no use watering a dead rose.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|He that would fish must not mind getting wet.||He that would garden must not mind getting soiled.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|One man’s meat is another man’s poison.||One man’s treat is another man’s trouble.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Talk turkey.||Speak vegan.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.||You can’t make granola out of gravel||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|There’s more than one way to skin a cat.||There’s more than one way to peel a potato.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|There’s more than one way to cook/fry a piece of tofu.||Alicia Pell|
|There’s more than one way to catch a crook.||Rose Palmer|
|There’s more than one way to fool a furrier.||Robyn Hicks|
|You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.||You can’t make wine without crushing grapes.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Never fish in troubled waters.||Never fly a kite in a storm.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.||You can sow fertile seeds but you can’t make them sprout.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.||Don’t look for bugs in a flower bouquet.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.||You can catch more smiles with nice than nasty.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can’t get blood from a turnip.||You can’t get water from a stone.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can’t sell the cow and have the milk too.||You can’t sell the orchard and keep the apples too.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Ants in your pants.||Pepper in your pants.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.||Don’t count your bushels before they are reaped.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t count your beans before they sprout||Jovian Parry|
|Walking on eggshells.||Walking on broken glass.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You are no spring chicken.||You are no spring onion.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Neither fish nor foul.||Neither greens nor grains.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t let the cat out of the bag.||Keep it under your hat.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|He who steals a calf steals a cow.||He who crushes an acorn kills an oak.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.||A berry in the hand is worth two in the bush.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Kill not the goose that lays the golden eggs.||Don’t fell the tree that yields the sweetest fruit.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.||Sauce for the peach is sauce for the plum.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|A wolf in sheep’s clothing.||Dahmer in a nice suit||?|
|Bringing home the bacon.||Bringing home the Benjamins||Ryan Bethencourt|
|Get to the meat of the issue.||Get to the core of the issue.||Rose Palmer|
|If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas.||If you lie down with bankers, you get up with no heart.||Robyn Hicks|
On March 11th, 2012, U.S. army sergeant Robert Bales made headlines when he went on a killing spree in Kandahr, Afghanistan, killing 17 civilians. In another infamous military tragedy, military personnel working at Abu Ghraib routinely abused, tortured, raped, humiliated, and assaulted prisoners. Once exposed, 11 soldiers had charges brought against them, and a few were sentenced to some jail time. Earlier this year, six Butterball employees and one state agriculture official were arrested on charges of animal cruelty for abusing turkeys in factory farms. Preceding this, in September 2010, Billy Joe Gregg, Jr. received an eight-month prison sentence for savagely beating and torturing cows on Conklin Dairy Farm.
What all of these cases have in common is that a select few abusers took the fall for failed and violent institutions. Unfortunately, their punishments appeased most people, leaving a satisfaction that justice was somehow served or is being served. However, in letting these people take the fall and bear the burden of the guilt, a number of truths are masked and the violence is allowed to continue.
making the ordinary appear extraordinary
These prosecutions distract from the fact that these sorts of actions are normal within these institutions. It is the job of the military to systematically terrorize and kill others. Soldiers must learn to view the subjects of US imperialism as “enemies” and to deindividualize them. In seeing each individual as one and the same, it becomes feasible to kill them. That is what all armed conflict does, it strips the personhood from individuals and makes them a collective enemy so they can be detained, controlled, defeated, and killed. It makes sense that some people, trained to enact violence on others, cannot switch back and forth between when, where, how, and against who it is okay to use violence or to kill.
The cases discussed here were only addressed with symbolic reprimand because they could not be hidden from the public. They were punished not for what they did but for the fact the public found out about it. Rather than changing these institutions to prevent such atrocities, great lengths have been taken to prevent other public exposures. Whistle blowers such as Bradley Manning are punished for sharing military abuses publicly. Ag gag bills are popping up around the country, attempting to make it illegal to conduct undercover investigations on farms. (It was undercover investigations that exposed Conklin and Butterball).
The punishments doled out are tokens intended to appease and pacify us, while thousands of others are paid with or subsidized by our tax dollars to enact similar abuses on a daily basis, leaving billions tortured and murdered every year. Every time you pay your taxes, you pay for the tortured cows at Conklin, the prisoners held without charges and violently abused at Abu Ghraib, the millions of baby boy chickens thrown into grinders at meat packing plants, the environmental degradation of meat production, the murder and starvation of innocent civilians worldwide, and the list goes on. We pay taxes to maintain our privilege but our privilege comes with the exploitation, torture, and murder of others. And the people charged in the above-mentioned cases, are the people we pay to do this since we cannot bear to do it ourselves or to collectively do what it would really take to make it stop. When Abu Ghraib happens or Conklin Dairy Farm footage is released, we are forced to confront ourselves, and what is happening without our consent, but on our behalf. It is all too easy to accept the punishment of a few workers as a resolution to these problems. But these people are acting normally, within their circumstance.
Gregg was expected to subdue and move animals who weigh hundreds more pounds than he does. When they lie down he cannot move them. If he cannot move them he cannot get paid. His actions are unforgiveable, unexcuseable, unacceptable. However, given his constraints—the violent system in which he is entrenched, the fact that he kills hundreds of innocent beings on a normal day at work—his actions are not surprising. The system must be changed. To change the system, we need to keep our focus on the big picture and not be pacified with his prosecution. The supervisors who let him take the blame, the owners who profit off of mass murder in the first place, and the government who takes our tax dollars to subsidize this horrific industry—these too are the ones who need the be blamed.
While a few token Butterball employees took the fall for the abuses animals regularly and normally face in the factory farming system, the higher up the chain of command the less blame a person had. While some workers were fired, the government official who tipped the plant off as to when inspections would occur (allowing for these abuses to go unmonitored) received little more than a slap on the wrist (two weeks suspension from work, a year of probation). Then, in a laughable twist, Butterball was actually rewarded for a safe working environment shortly after when five awards for worker safety were handed out by the American Meat Industry. The chickens and turkeys in Butterball plants are the true proletariat, the real working class. In this context, a safety award for protecting workers is beyond laughable.
the villain is a victim
In our fervor to punish these abusers, we also forget that they are victims. In their punishment, their victimhood is erased; further masking the system that instigates these violent acts and benefits the powerful few at the expense of the majority.
Most of these people ended up in their jobs as a result of their disadvantage. (Not all of course—Bales used to be a stockbroker, though being sent on four wartime tours did, arguably, make him a victim). This landed them in these positions to start, and made them particularly vulnerable to the control of their employers and the system that fostered their violence. The US military targets young kids with few opportunities and positions the military as a way out of their neighborhoods, financial worries, and other struggles. It becomes a viable option for steady employment, travel, and education possibilities for those who grow up in circumstances where they are disadvantaged by their families, income, a bad neighborhood, inadequate schools, or mistakes made in their youth. Rich kids are simply less likely to become combat soldiers, or factory farm workers for that matter.
The combat soldier and factory farm worker are at the bottom rung in their industry. They do the hardest, most dangerous, and most violent work—and they take the least pay. They must victimize others for their paycheck, and that can (and should) make a person crazy. They are monsters for what they did, but they alone are not to blame; we can’t forget that or it will never stop.
The few who are punished serve as the fall guys to protect those who profit and benefit from these actions. The term scapegoat refers historically to animals who were literally cast out of cities and towns to symbolically carry the sins of the townspeople away. Fall guys are not as innocent as these scapegoats; unlike the scapegoat they did in fact commit horrific vicious unforgiveable acts. However, like the scapegoat, they are straddled with the burdens of others, who will be absolved of their responsibility as soon the fall guy is prosecuted. That is, unless we demand more than the prosecution of these few individuals.
If you train and pay someone to be a murder, she will be a murderer. If you monetarily reward someone based on his ability to conquer and kill others you will by necessity have someone who embraces violence and murder and who might strive to excel at it. Expecting these lessons to be enacted only when “the boss” says so is asking too much, particularly when there is often no logical justification for or discernable pattern to when and where the boundaries are, beyond the financial interests of a select few in power. “The boss” needs to be held accountable as well. In our hatred of these abusers our sights hone in on the fall guy, the most powerless among the abusers. We focus only on the ones who wielded the sword, not who gave them the weapon, trained them to use it, and placed them into psychologically traumatizing situations.
On another day, Bales might have received a medal for slaughtering human beings. Gree and the Butterball workers probably saw their superiors or coworkers viciously torturing animals as they did. I am not denying that these people have agency, that they are culpable for their violence, that they should not have done what they did, but I am calling attention to the fact that they did these things within systems where their actions were normalized and at times rewarded. We need to attack the system as well as the abuser.
All the abusers mentioned here deserve to be punished. And they deserve to be punished more harshly than they were. But that is just one screw loose in dismantling the machine of violence and oppression that these industries really are. The punished workers are expendable, unskilled, and replaceable to those in charge. Other workers have filled their place already and some are likely acting as they did. The machine will keep running. We need to remember that these injustices will continue to happen unless we start holding those in power—the ones who get to sit behind a desk and send others to do their killing—are held accountable and punished.
People profit off of a system where lives are rendered into objects, physically and ideologically. Lines are drawn between human and non-human, US-citizen and foreigners. We have constructed the boundaries of nationhood and species as if they are boundaries to our moral and ethical limits of care. However, they only exist to preserve systems of power and capital gain via institutions premised on violence and the success of the few at the expense of many. This system only works if the less privileged masses stay pacified blaming each other for the crimes of the powerful and never demanding that the real villains, the ones who drive this insanity but assume no risk, are held accountable.
A couple weeks ago marked the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. This Supreme Court ruling gave women in the US the ability to have legal abortion, within limits. As many celebrate the anniversary of this landmark court case decision the religious right and political conservatives are in the middle of an assault on women’s bodies, trying to strip away our rights to and control over our health, our bodies and our families.
What seems to be misunderstood by some, particularly in my cohort and younger, is that the Roe v. Wade does not mean women have a legal right to an abortion, specifically. Roe v. Wade is a legal precedent about how to interpret the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution regarding due process and the right to privacy between a woman and her doctor. Further, because it is a Supreme Court ruling, it is long and detailed and involves a lot of language that might become challenging in the future. For example, the ruling limits abortion to embryos/ fetuses that aren’t “viable”—as technology advances the very language in Roe v. Wade could make it obsolete as a protection for women’s right to choose how to control their fertility.
the risk is real
A number of liberals I have spoken to do not acknowledge or actively combat (though maybe it is just that they can’t truly fathom), that this is a real and urgent issue. There is a true attempt to criminalize abortion and other types of fertility control. It has gone under the radar to some degree because those running for office who promote such policies (ahem…the republican presidential hopefuls) are not talking about moral issues; they are talking about job creation and the economy. They keep scrutiny off of the moral and social control they want to impose on the bodies and in the lives of women and other minorities by keeping the focus on the economy.
In a recent article, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, highlights data from the Gutmacher Institute that underscore how drastic our situation is:
“[I]n 2011, state legislatures passed more than triple the number of anti-women’s health provisions than in 2010 — the highest ever. Twenty-four states enacted 92 new abortion restrictions last year, shattering the previous record of 34 adopted in 2005.”
Women my age have always had a right to privacy with their doctor, which feels like—and has been misconstrued as—the right to be able to choose having an abortion. When I discuss abortion with pro-choice people my age, instead of the discussion being about securing this right for all women, in the long-run, conversations are often about the decisions people would make in their personal lives. But, while the personal is political, the individual may not always be. Our sights need to turn back toward the bigger picture. We need to get out of our arm chairs and put on our riot gear because our rights, our liberty, our health, our wombs, our families, and our freedom are at risk. This is a real risk and this is an urgent matter.
inequality and mother-blaming
Woman in the US are living in a culture that already disadvantages women, especially mothers. Our society does not adequately support women financially, medically, psychologically, or socially—much less pregnant women, and especially not mothers. Financially, women are at a disadvantage in this society. Women make less money for the same work as men. The price of motherhood is even greater, with mothers incurring an average 3% wage penalty per year of absence for maternity leave or childrearing.
Even so, women are also expected to be the primary caregiver. A deadbeat dad might seem crappy, but he is not the type of villain that any woman who is not a perfect mother becomes. Women who do become mothers are often held to culturally impossible standards. Among the socially advantaged, mothers who work may be vilified as abandoning their children. At the same time, if a woman chooses not to work to be more available for her children she is seen as lazy, a social welfare pariah—unless, of course, she is independently wealthy or finds a partner to support her, stays home to rear her children, and is completely fulfilled (but not overly consumed) by this role. There is really no winning. Add to that the financial, emotional, and physical burden of pregnancy and motherhood. We treat these as personal issues so that those in power can refrain from providing social or fiscal support for childbearing. At the same time, our society judges women for their choices in their personal lives should they not be perfect pregnant women or perfect mothers.
It is in this context that women are expected to want to have children, even in situations when a pregnancy is unintended, unwanted, or unhealthy. We cannot force motherhood and childbearing if as a culture we don’t adequately support children or mothers.
anti-choice goals are anti-woman (and they also happen to lead to increased abortion rates)
Anti-choice goals are particularly insulting in light of the fact criminalizing abortion does not actually save lives or reduce abortion rates—if successful it will certainly kill more women and increase abortion rates. A reduction of abortion rates and women’s safety during abortions are tied to abortion being legal and accessible and women having access to and proper knowledge of contraception. As Susan A. Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute explains, abortion rates do not decrease when abortion in criminalized—criminalizing abortion just increases the rates of unsafe abortions. Rather, it decreases when contraceptives are used:
“[I]t is not the changes in abortion’s legal status that can explain the decreased abortion rate worldwide, since many more countries liberalized access to abortion than restricted it. Significantly, though, during this same period, contraceptive use worldwide increased and unintended pregnancy rates fell. Where contraceptive use increased the most, abortion rates dropped the most… Where contraceptive use is high, abortion can be legal and widely available, and still relatively rare. The lowest abortion rates in the world can be found in western and northern Europe, where abortion has been legal for decades but access to contraception is widespread.”
The anti-choice goal of criminalizing abortion results in more abortions and many women being forced into medical, familial, economic, and interpersonal situations that can be dangerous and even deadly. Promoting abortion restrictions is laughably unstrategic from the anti-choice perspective; it is not a way to help women, zygotes or fetuses.
Pro-choice activists are not “pro-abortion.” We would rather see sexual health education, access to birth control, and other health and family planning measures made available to preempt unwanted pregnancy in cases when women have a priori control. The only thing we currently have going for us is the hope that in the new insurance plan developed under the current administration, insured women should be able to get the birth control pill. However, anti-choice advocates and many of the conservatives currently in or vying for political power would also like to see even these choices outlawed.
personhood for who?
In an attempt to control the bodies and sexual activity of women, a number of conservative politicians are now pushing for Personhood Amendments. Personhood laws grant fertilized eggs personhood. In at least 22 states personhood proponents are working on some sort of effort to put a personhood amendment up to debate. These amendments highlight how immediate and aggressive the anti-choice threat really is.
Mississippi’s failed personhood amendment reads:
“Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.”
Personhood is being defined in such a way that the personhood of women is placed second to the personhood of a zygote. This could make it illegal to even use the birth control pill. No, I’m not joking. It failed in Mississippi, one of the stronger attempts for the amendment, but it did not fail by enough to feel comforted—just over half (55%) voted against the amendment. That means almost half of all voters either supported or simply did not care if a zygote—regardless of whether it is viable or not—has more rights than a person.
Personhood amendments define woman’s bodies as tools that can be regulated, subordinate to the potential life of a fetus. Under these laws, women can be legally liable for any injury to that fetus. In a culture of misogyny and mother-blaming, this is likely to open the floodgate to the persecution and prosecution of women who miscarry. That this regressive idea is even being entertained and put on the political agenda should be ringing the alarm bells—we need to acknowledge that these are attempts at regressive sex-based laws and take the threat seriously.
Many proposed definitions of personhood identify insemination as the start of “biological life.” This could arguably make some of the safest, most effect forms of birth control illegal because the pill and other hormonal birth controls do not prevent insemination, just the implantation of an egg into the uterus walls. I suspect that this is part of the plan, at least for the more insidious among anti-choice advocates; it’s a clear attempt to chip away at sexual choice and reinscribe outdated and sexist moral codes that tie women to sexual contact only in the confines of marriage and with the expectation of motherhood. Essentially, women are being told that if they want to have sex, they should be prepared to be mothers.
Personhood is currently up for a vote in the Oklahoma Senate and some Democratic senators highlighted its absurdity and sexist nature by placing men in the same position of blame and control as women. One senator wrote a bill making the sperm contributor financially liable for the resultant child. Another, Constance Johnson, added language making masturbation and other sex acts not intended to procreate illegal. The amendment she proposed states, “[A]ny action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” She says she did this because “The Personhood bill would potentially allow governmental intrusion into families’ personal lives by policing what happens to a woman’s eggs without any similar thought to what happens to a man’s sperm. My amendment seeks to draw attention to the absurdity, duplicity and lack of balance inherent in the policies of this state in regard to women.”
As previously discussed, women’s lives are saved and abortion rates decline when abortion is legal, there is access to trained abortion providers, and contraception is widely available. If personhood advocates could step away from their confused moral and religious dogmatism and sexist ideologies of control over women’s bodies and actually look at the real world data, they would need to acknowledge that the call for a personhood amendment is antithetical to their goals; particularly as it could criminalize access to contraception, the best preventative measure for unwanted pregnancy.
What pro-choice activists are fighting for is women’s right to control their own bodies, their own health and their own families. We are against a government, particularly one that is Eurocentric, male dominated, and organized and maintained by economically and socially advantaged people, having control of the bodies and choices of all women in their reproductive years. We cannot afford to wait until our rights are stripped from us and our persecution begins; we need to fight this now because it is real and it is happening.