The Morality of Shredding Baby Chicks–and What it Teaches Us About the Morality of Abortion

One of the lesser known and more brutal realities about the egg and chicken industry is the fate of baby roosters. Hens lay eggs; roosters don’t. Roosters are aggressive, difficult to care for and generally taste worse than hens. And only a handful of roosters are needed for adequate genetic diversity in breeding.

So what happens to all the roosters? In most cases, they are separated as chicks and shredded alive in giant crushing machines to tune of 200 million a year. Those that aren’t shredded are electrocuted or gassed. If you have the stomach to watch videos of this process (and you should), it’s clear the deaths are instantaneous–but the practice is also just short of barbaric in its cold, brutal efficiency particularly considering that the animals’ deaths don’t even serve a useful human purposes save by their extinction. A person who doesn’t shudder at the sight probably has something missing where their empathy center should be.

There is good news, though: German scientists have discovered a method of cheaply and efficiently determining the sex of a chicken embryo while still inside the egg. That in turn will allow the eggs to be destroyed (and/or even used for food and other uses) before the chicks hatch–probably even before the embryos are capable of feeling pain.

This is an excellent step forward both morally and scientifically. Most reasonable people understand that there is a big difference between the death of an aware hatched chick and that of a fertilized chicken embryo. We can understand the difference rationally, and we can also feel the difference instinctively in our gut. There are times that our visceral moral instincts betray us, but this is not one of those occasions.

You can probably see where this is heading. Opponents of human abortion argue that killing a fetus in the womb is morally equivalent to the infanticide of a baby born and living outside the womb. Religious opponents of abortion claim that God infuses even an 8-cell blastocyst with an immortal soul at the moment of conception–yet their gut moral instinct tends to betray them when confronted with the classic problem of whether they would save 1,000 test tube blastocysts from a burning building rather than a single live baby. When confronted with a reductio ad absurdum religious doctrine usually cedes ground to commonsense moral reasoning and ethical instincts.

More secular opponents of abortion avoid the “soul” and argue that at least once the fetus acquires human features that it is irrevocably human and therefore deserving of all the rights and protections granted to babies outside the womb.

But if that’s the case (and we ignore religious disputes concerning the souls of animals and humans), then the same would necessarily hold true of chicken embryos and baby chicks. If a human fetus is no different from a human baby, then a chicken embryo is no different from a baby chick–and the German advance is no advance at all. If we assume the stance of abortion opponents, the people who gave the German scientists the Felix Wankel prize for enhancing animal protection are merely fooling themselves as to their ethical achievement.

But most of us know that’s not the case. It’s much better, morally speaking, to destroy a fertilized chicken egg than to rip apart the body of a live chick. Just as we understand that it’s not remotely the same moral territory to destroy a tiny fetus as it is to kill a live baby.

Most of the progressive side of the abortion debate centers around the “choice” of the mother. That’s a problematic position because the mother’s “choice” should logically apply just as much at the end of the third trimester as it does at the beginning of the first–and most of us are fairly uncomfortable with that, as we tend to feel that an 8-month old unborn child deserves much greater protection than a 3-week old clump of human cells. Progressives using the “choice” argument then fall back defensively on the notion that most women far advanced in their pregnancy would never kill their unborn child for scurrilous reasons–a libertarian position of deregulated trust that progressives tend to eschew in nearly every other aspect of our political lives. Conservatives ruthlessly and effectively exploit the logical weakness of the “choice” position by using late-term abortion as a cudgel with which to attempt to ban all abortions. This moral quandary and logical dead end has led some abortion rights advocacy groups to move away from “choice” framing entirely.

I think that’s a good thing. The simple reality is that fetuses are not babies, just as fertilized chicken eggs are not baby chickens. If a third-term abortion is needed (and they are rare), a licensed and regulated doctor should ensure that a medically necessary reason exists for the procedure. The moral rights of a fetus do exist–but they do not override the right of a woman to make her own reproductive medical decisions–which is why it isn’t morally contradictory to charge the assailant of a pregnant woman with murder of the unborn fetus, even as we grant the legality of the mother to abort that fetus.

Most people understand and feel the moral difference–in humans as we do in chickens.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.