Being pro-life and vegan puts me in an extreme minority. Only 39% of Americans identify as pro-life, and 3% identify as vegan. While there is no data on people who are both pro-life and vegan, general intuition and anecdotal evidence suggest that to be a small minority because veganism and pro-life concerns are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in the US. Nonetheless, given that both movements concern defense of life, we ought to speak up for the powerless even when we are in the extreme minority. Furthermore, because I had held erroneous views on these issues for a long time, I am grateful to those who brought me to truth by presenting reasonable arguments. This gratitude, along with the desire for justice, energizes me to speak about pro-life concerns and veganism.
Plenty of ink has been spilled on discussing the morality of abortion. An in-depth discussion of the topic can be found among numerous Catholic apologists such as Trent Horn and Stephanie Gray. Similarly, but at a much lesser level, philosophers have made arguments against eating meat. My primary argument on the latter topic, which I have previously discussed on the Jesuit Post, is that it is unloving to kill animals when one can easily lead a healthy life without killing animals. While there is more that can be said on both topics, in this essay I will instead focus on why and how one must engage with others on these issues.
Having minority beliefs is not problematic when one can keep those beliefs private. For instance, if you prefer strawberry jam on your avocado toast, you are not obliged to evangelize about your rare culinary preference. However, when it comes to pro-life concerns and animal rights issues, one cannot accept a you-do-you approach that is a hallmark of contemporary moral beliefs. These are life and death issues, in which the voiceless victims are killed almost always unnecessarily. In rare cases, abortion may be the only option to save the life of the mother, or meat may be the sole source of nutrition for a remote community. Besides those situations in which killing may be justified, Catholic Social Teaching and common human decency move us to speak up on behalf of victims of unnecessary violence. If we were to see a dog or a child getting beaten in the street, we would attempt to stop the violence or at least call for help. We would not let the perpetrator continue the abuse by assuming that he has good reasons for his behavior. While we would not owe anything to the victim, justice in the Catholic sense requires us to care about the well-being of all, irrespective of what we owe them on a transactional basis.
Consequently, Catholics are obliged to stand up for the victims of abortion and animal slaughter even when we are not involved in the violence. Speaking up is easier said than done because we loathe being ostracized by the majority who do not share our views on the sacredness of life. However, if one truly thinks it is wrong to kill animals purely for pleasure or to terminate human fetuses for insignificant reasons, then one cannot sit on the fence because life is at stake here. As we approach the holiday season of gatherings and long dinners, it is helpful to reflect on our duties towards defending the voiceless victims of violence in our society.
The Truth will set you free
Assuming that we have discerned the truth through prayer and reason, we need to know what to do with that moral truth. First, we need to believe in Jesus’ promise that knowing “the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). There is tremendous freedom in knowing that truth is outside of us, and so an acceptance or rejection of truth by our interlocutors is unconnected to our reputation and self-worth. Even though our society claims that everyone can make their own truths, we still agree that objective moral truths such as the wrongness of murder exist. The value of life seems to be a self-evident truth. Our goal, then, as truth speakers is merely to speak the truth in a reasonable and loving manner. Additionally, Jesus commands those who have ears to hear (Mt 11:15). Once she hears the truth, the hearer of the truth needs to do her discernment through prayer and reason and thus, arrive at truth herself.
Sometimes, we do not operate in such a logical manner in discussions on contentious topics. Instead, we tend to choose ignorance when the truth makes moral claims in our lives. In such cases, the will overcomes the intellect, blissfully keeping the person ignorant and free from making difficult moral decisions. Such people can know, but do not desire to know the truth.
Love wills the good
In the situations when logic is impenetrable, we need to operate out of a place of love and empathy. Imagine the conversation to be an encounter with a soul. Saint Peter exhorts us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Pt 3:15) Empathy is the first step toward gentleness. I remind myself that I was pro-choice and non-vegan for most of my adult life. I grew up with views that seemed normal and true to me, and so was a victim of my ignorance and partisanship. While I see the errors in my views in hindsight and find them to be repugnant, the Catechism helps me realize that I may not have been fully responsible for my erroneous ways. According to the Catechism, “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.” All of these contributed to my misguided past beliefs and as a result, I can forgive my past self and be kind to those who are on the journey toward truth. Once I notice how my past errors were not entirely my fault, I am able to give the same benefit of the doubt to those who presently engage in or support violence to voiceless victims.
Furthermore, when we operate out of a place of love, we dialogue with people not because we want to win an argument, but because we will the good for them. Not every argument needs to turn into a verbal boxing bout. The second greatest commandment, love your neighbor, makes demands upon us because love is an action toward others. Matthew Kelly writes in Perfectly Yourself, “To love someone means that from time to time you will be required by that love to tell someone something that they would rather not hear.” Questioning someone’s belief system, especially with the goal of uprooting ignorance, is not a sign of hate or judgment. Instead, helping someone shun violence through dialogue is an act of love towards both the perpetrator and the victim because violence harms both, the victim and the perpetrator.
Finally, we need to remember that people are more than their pro-choice views and meat-eating habits. There is an inherent goodness within us because we are created in the image and likeness of God. People are pro-choice not because they are evil, but because they seek good things such as freedom, health, professional excellence, financial stability, etc or because they fear abuse by partners or stigma by society. People eat meat not because they delight in torturing animals, but because they want to experience the pleasures of food or because they mistakenly think that animal products are necessary for good health. And most importantly, pro-choice persons and meat-eaters can be genuinely loving people in other areas of their life.
Hope in God’s plan
Sometimes, standing up for issues that have little support among friends and family can seem like a hopeless cause. In those bleak moments, I remind myself that I changed my mind as an adult when people presented good arguments to me in a respectful manner. I become pro-life in my mid 20’s before I joined the Jesuits when a friend patiently answered all my objections to the pro-life cause. I became vegan after I had joined the Jesuits, when a non-Christian freshman at Saint Louis University, questioned my participation in unnecessary violence toward animals. Though I have only a vague recollection of the exact conversations, I know that the seeds of truth were planted by others, and they were nurtured by God’s grace over the following years. In the same way, I live in the hope that God works in our hearts in His time, and that He uses me as an instrument to spread the message of non-violence.
The Way ahead
Speaking up for the voiceless is a tough task compared to engaging in small talk about the weather and traffic. When defending animals and the unborn, I have been labeled as self-righteous, opinionated, preachy, judgmental, and condescending. Going against the flow requires commitment and strength that comes from “a spirit (not) of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” (2 Tm 1:7) So, we ought to pray for strength to overcome feelings of hopelessness and fear that come with broaching difficult topics.
We ought to persevere because our actions matter. Loren Eiseley reminds us of this in an evocative story about starfish dying on the seashore. When we see thousands of starfish dying on the seashore, we cannot save all of them. But if we throw one of them back, we would make a difference to that one starfish. And perhaps, others will see our actions and join in the mission of saving the other starfish on the beach. We can change the world for the better in small ways, and we hope that others will join us as well.
Lastly, I remind myself to be humble. After all, since I have changed my mind previously, I may change my mind again. A quotation commonly attributed to John Maynard Keynes asks, “when facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” We must not be afraid to update our beliefs when presented with new evidence. In our life journeys, we will come across new evidence and ideas about human biology and animal sentience. While truth is absolute and unchanging, our access to and understanding of it may change over time. And, at the risk of being perceived as a flip-flopper, I believe that it is acceptable to change our views as we gain new insights about the world around us.
Ultimately, being pro-life and vegan is about love for God and all His creatures in all stages of life. Life is too precious of a gift to be destroyed by senseless violence. In this difficult task of speaking up for the voiceless, we can remember that Jesus has promised us that the merciful will be shown mercy, and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness will be granted the kingdom of heaven.
Correction on February 27, 2023
The author apologizes for causing confusion by stating that “abortion may be the only option to save the life of the mother” in the third paragraph of this essay. This is not the official position of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church states that while abortion (a direct, intentional termination of a fetus) is never acceptable, sometimes a pregnant woman may undergo medical procedures that lead to the death of a fetus as a foreseen but unintended side effect. The Church’s teaching is based on the Principle of Double Effect explained by this essay: “The principle of double effect in the Church’s moral tradition teaches that one may perform a good action even if it is foreseen that a bad effect will arise only if four conditions are met: 1) The act itself must be good. 2) The only thing that one can intend is the good act, not the foreseen but unintended bad effect. 3) The good effect cannot arise from the bad effect; otherwise, one would do evil to achieve good. 4) The unintended but foreseen bad effect cannot be disproportionate to the good being performed.”
Thus, an abortion is never acceptable because the intention in an abortion is to terminate the fetus which violates the conditions laid down in the Principle of Double Effect, and consequently, is a grave evil. On the other hand, performing a salpingectomy to save the life of a woman with an ectopic pregnancy is acceptable. A discussion on the topic of salpingectomies can be found on page 65 of Stephanie Gray’s book Love Unleashes Life.
The overall argument of the essay remains the same: we ought to speak up and defend voiceless victims of unnecessary violence.