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Welfarism versus Abolitionism

Welfarism typically focuses on animals’ entitlements not to be subjected to unnecessary harm, not to be treated cruelly or callously, and most generally, to have their welfare interests taken seriously. Animals’ rights to be treated humanely, however, are couched in terms of their appropriate service to humans, in that constraints on particular forms of treatment derive from a foundational acceptance of animals’ resource and property status. When it comes to animals’ reproductive capacities and behaviors, then, it is unsurprising that welfarists take the appropriateness of full human control for granted as well. The reproduction of all domestic animals is heavily regulated, and for companion animals, this typically means endorsing sterilization wherever “appropriate” breeding programs are not in place. Yet, as previously noted, mainstream methods of sterilization are associated with significant risks as well as potential health benefits; for instance, castration in male dogs significantly increases risks of several types of cancer (Palmer, Corr, and Sandoe 2012, 158-59). Routine sterilization is therefore not easily justified through appeal to individual health considerations. Conversely, common welfarist reasons in favor of sterilization tend to rely on impoverished accounts of animal agency and human accountability. These reasons include making the animal less prone to undesired behaviors (and therefore more likely to be adopted, kept, and well cared for), reducing companion animal overpopulation, and reducing frustration in individual animals (who would not be able to fulfill every desire to reproduce). Only the last reason elides an instrumentalizing view of companion animals.

In sum, spay and neuter programs are not generally enacted for the good of the sterilized animals themselves. Perhaps this is already explicit; welfarist campaigns have made it plain that reasons to sterilize concern the “pet population”—and not, as many owners may have mistakenly surmised, your pet (nor, in most cases, any individual pets at all). Jean Harvey’s claim that the “welfare with safeguards”9 model surreptitiously encourages a view of animals as resources—in the companion animal case, of affection, entertainment, and general human well-being— also applies to the case of companion animal reproduction. Companion animals’ potential interests will always fall short of being worthy of protection when other countervailing considerations, particularly those pertaining to human interests, are presented.

Self-identified animal rights defenders, on the other hand, may reasonably be expected to fervently defend companion animals’ individual rights to freedom from human infringement on basic functions like reproduction. While respecting individual rights does not in principle comprise respecting a right to bring new beings into existence, prohibiting reproduction as a matter of course, through highly invasive measures no less, seems clearly at odds with a strong animal rights position. It is generally taken for granted that individuals have at least a negative right to reproduce, in the sense of not having their reproductive activities infringed on.

Yet some of the most ardent animal rights supporters insist that it is at least permissible, if not obligatory, to prevent companion animals from reproducing. Gary Francione claims that “The recognition that animals have a right not to be treated as the property of humans would most certainly mean that we should stop bringing domesticated nonhumans into existence, and this would include dogs and cats... . Sterilization programs, although not ideal, are consistent with the abolitionist approach” (2010, 79-80). This endorsement of sterilization is deeply puzzling. For one, as strong animal rights defenders and devoted anti-speciesists, abolitionists frequently invoke the (unfortunately named) argument from marginal cases (AMC) to show how protecting the interests of all humans with inviolable rights rationally requires similar protection for nonhumans with similar interests.10 Restricting entitlements to protection on the basis of species alone relies on a morally arbitrary distinction to justify differential treatment in relevantly similar contexts. Yet on the issue of reproduction, publicly proclaimed abolitionists apparently demonstrate a rare agreement with welfarists, whose claims they otherwise tend to dismiss as toothless if not outright counterproductive. Why is this ?

Abolitionists’ support for companion animal sterilization rides on the idea that holding a right presumes having a relevant interest. Domestic animals, abolitionists argue, do not have an interest in continuing their existence as a kind:11 while the pervasively exploitative and often brutal systems of animal use and animals’ legal property status are to blame for their ongoing wrongful treatment, remedying that injustice will fail to transform domestic animals into the sorts of beings who have an interest in perpetuating their existence. Their lives are deemed essentially unlivable because of the severely and inexorably dependent character of domestic animal life—even the best-off companion animals are deeply unfortunate creatures.12

Those who call for the deliberate extinction of the animals whose lives could be most radically improved by the very emancipatory measures abolitionists support can be referred to as “extinctionists.” According to extinctionists such as Leila Fusfeld, sterilization becomes not merely permissible but obligatory in light of domestic animals’ essential defectiveness: “The right to a true freedom from enslavement equates to a right not to be brought into existence” (2007, 262). Extinctionists claim that animal rights advocates cannot coherently endorse animal rights to bodily integrity and sexual freedom because the appropriateness of bestowing such rights hinges on the subjects’ relevant interests. While its denigration of animal lives is both implausible and morally troubling, the extinctionist proposal retains the virtue of acknowledging the self-interested motives undergirding that familiar and palatable welfarist call to “spay and neuter your pets” in the context of supporting ongoing use of companion and other domestic animals. Nevertheless, and most pertinent here, extinctionism can only be made sense of with a deluded understanding of both what would be possible if domestic animal emancipation from property status were to be achieved, and the nature of cooperative relationships and their multiple realizations in interdependent society.

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