1. The abuse of female reproductive systems is the lynchpin of animal use by humans
The institutional abuse of female reproductive systems is critical to sustaining all current human use of animals. Not only does abusing the reproductive systems of female animals maintain a constant supply of animals for human use, females also often have additional roles relating to their reproductive systems which result in prolonged pain and suffering.
For example, considering animal agriculture, producing animals for meat is dependent on a constant supply of animals to slaughter and dismember into ‘food’. This relies upon a cycle of insemination (often artificial) / impregnation and gestation. Females are often forcibly inseminated by artificial means (manually by a human with the assistance of various contraptions to stop them moving or resisting) for a number of reasons, all based on human convenience: i) artificial insemination is often the only means for some animals to become impregnated because specific breeding practices or genetic manipulations to increase the animals’ utility for humans (often related to increased mass gain to give a higher yield of meat per animal) means that the animals can no longer reproduce naturally; and ii) to ‘improve’ efficiencies – artificial insemination is less ‘wasteful’ of sperm than natural conception and therefore the sperm ‘harvested’ from one male animal will ‘go further’ if artificial insemination is used. Furthermore, because of the generally increasing global consumption of meat and demand for animal products, the rate at which females are being inseminated is increasing.
Let’s look more closely at the treatment different types of female farmed animals receive, simply because they have useful (and functional) reproductive systems:
In the case of cows, gestating females are also often dairy cows and therefore immediately after birth, their calves are taken away from them. This leads to trauma for both the mother and the calf. Once her calf is taken away from her, her lactation caused by the pregnancy is taken advantage of and her milk is used for human consumption rather than for her own child. Dairy cows are usually required to give birth to at least one calf per year so that she can produce milk for 10 months of the year. She will also often be forcibly impregnated again within 3 months of having given birth. The cow will be pillaged until her body and reproductive system can no longer withstand the ravaging it has faced – when she can no longer bear children and thus bear milk, she will be slaughtered, often for meat production, and she will be replaced by another younger female whose reproductive system is functional and the cycle of abuse will continue. Furthermore, due to their reproductive systems being controlled by humans and since the advent of factory farming, dairy cows have been specifically bred to produce higher and higher yields of milk. The dairy industry likes to champion this as a win for animals as fewer animals need to be used to produce the same quantity of milk. However, the production of such unnaturally high levels of milk means that the cows cannot withstand more than three or four lactations and therefore cease to be ‘useful’ at about 5 or 6 years of age, many years before their natural lifespan of 20 or even 30 years of age.
The horror of this harnessing of the female reproductive system is not the only bad fate dairy cows suffer, they also have an increased risk of illness, lameness and infertility due to the conditions they are kept in for extended periods of time.
In much of the world, sows are confined to gestation crates for the duration of their pregnancy. Gestation crates are metal cages with bare concrete or slatted floors with no bedding which prevent the sow from being able to turn around, move or lie down comfortably. It is suggested that gestation crates are necessary to prevent sows from fighting; however, this use has patently not been necessary in countries where the crates have been banned, e.g. the UK. Despite gestation crates being banned in the UK, farrowing crates are still used. These are very similar metal cages which a sow is transferred to in order to give birth (farrow). Once her piglets are born, there is some space to the side of their mother for them to suckle; however, there are metal bars preventing the sow from moving too much and keeping her out of the area where her piglets are lying. Piglets are weaned from their mother many weeks before it would be natural to do so in order to ‘maximise’ efficiencies and speed up the whole process. The sow will be impregnated again shortly thereafter and the cycle will be repeated. Commercial sows are normally forced to produce two litters of piglets per year and therefore her body can normally only tolerate 3 years of breeding. Again, once her reproductive system cannot continue to be taken advantage of, she is slaughtered and then replaced.
Laying hens have also been bred to produce unnaturally high numbers of eggs. This means that their reproductive systems can normally only sustain this level of production for 12 months. Once a hen’s ‘productivity’ declines, she will also be slaughtered and replaced. Not only this, but laying hens are kept in conditions which do not afford them the space and conditions their natural existence would. In much of the world (although noting not the EU), hens are confined to battery cages. These are small, barren cages that typically house 10 hens. This means that each hen has space that is typically less than a piece of A4 paper and just enough height to stand up. These cages often have wire bases which can lead to foot deformities for the hens and are often also contained in a large building with only artificial light and ventilation; they will know no semblance of a natural life.
Alternatively, “enriched” cages can be used. These were developed for laying hens when battery cages were banned in the EU; however, these only provide a small amount of extra room for the hens and, whilst designed to allow the hens to express some of their natural behaviours they are actually quite ineffective at allowing this. These “enriched” cages have already been banned in Luxembourg and are being phased out in Austria and Germany. There are also so-called ‘higher welfare’ alternatives, such as: i) the barn system – where hens are kept on the floor space of a barn; ii) the aviary system – which is the barn system plus platforms or perches; iii) the free range system – where hens are housed in barns or aviaries but they also have day-time access to an outside range with vegetation; and iv) the organic system – which also provides free-range access with some additional space having to be provided in certified organic farms. In Europe, in the barn and aviary systems, the minimum space that needs to be provided is 1 square metre for every 9 hens. In the free-range system, hens must have a minimum of 4 square metres of outside space. In Soil Association certified organic systems, each hen must have a minimum of 10 square metres of outside space and the hens’ beaks must not be trimmed and EU organic regulations state that inside the shed a minimum space of 6 hens per square metre must be provided. Even in the most ‘welfare friendly’ laying ‘system’, hens are provided far less space both inside the barn/shed and outside (if that option is even provided) than their natural existence would afford them.
The conditions in which laying hens are kept and the fact that they have been bred to produce extremely high yields of eggs means that they are susceptible to a number of health problems in their short lives. For example, laying hens often get osteoporosis because the production of a large number of eggs depletes their calcium stores meaning that their bones become brittle and are susceptible to fracturing. The restricted movement caused by their caged conditions can also contribute to osteoporosis. Hens also risk losing their feathers from damage due to rubbing the sides of their cages and pecking from other hens because of the overcrowded conditions. In an attempt to prevent this pecking, hens usually are ‘de-beaked’, i.e. they have a portion of their beak removed without anaesthesia; this in itself is a painful experience but can also have lasting effects on the hens’ ability to feed and drink properly.
All of this, simply because their reproductive systems are of value to humans. Such unrestrained reproductive dominance, brings to the fore wider questions regarding the role of women and their value being associated only with their reproductive abilities. It is clear that were female ‘farm’ animals unable to produce young, eggs, or milk, they would be dispensed with immediately. Such institutionalised behaviour only serves to reinforce the notion that a woman’s worth (regardless of species) is related to her ability and desire to procreate.
2. The objectification of animals means that women are ‘animalised’ as a means of subjugation and degradation
The animalising of women is meant to undermine their status as animals receive far less recognition or consideration than human beings. In law, animals are treated as objects that can be owned as property and therefore equating women with animals is a means of objectification and asserting a subservient status. Humans generally seek to deny their own animality or animal nature – we categorise ourselves as separate from and above ‘animals’, i.e. all other species beyond homo sapiens. There is a pervasive view that we humans have managed to rise above our animality, we are not driven by natural urges as we seem to suggest other animals are. However, animalisation is used as a pernicious tool to separate certain sub-sets of homo sapiensaway from humanity, to objectify them and include them in the animal category, and to exclude them from moral concern or consideration.
Human women can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that they should distance themselves from animals because of this sex-based animalisation which underpins the sexist behaviour towards them. However, this really does not solve the problem; it merely perpetuates a way of thinking which deems it acceptable to use irrelevant criteria as a differentiator and as a means to dominate and demean. As a woman, to distance yourself from the plight of animals (and other marginalised groups), serves only to reinforce the behaviours and thought structures that allow sexism to persist.
3. The mere notion that humans are better than animals legitimises false hierarchies
The existence of speciesism, the view that humans are morally superior to animals, puts in place a false hierarchy, namely that some beings are better than others. This false hierarchical thinking is what underpins sexist ideology, and indeed other forms of oppression based on morally irrelevant criteria. In order to challenge sex-based discrimination, we need to challenge all thinking and societal structures which uphold the erection of false hierarchies. We cannot expect the treatment of women to improve when we are trying to demand such change within the confines of a system which situates false hierarchical thinking at its core. The historical roots of such hierarchical thinking need to be unpicked and we need to reframe our notions of worth to include those historically marginalised for reasons which are not relevant today. We cannot do with whilst speciesism is baked into the fabric of humans’ lives.
It cannot be right as a feminist to support equality for women and to support reproductive freedom for women for only one species. It cannot be right to fight against the objectification and control of human women whilst supporting a pervasive industry which profiteers off of the reproductive systems of females of different species. Feminism and veganism go hand in hand; I cannot claim to be a feminist and accept the disadvantageous treatment of women of a different species for my own convenience. It cannot be possible to endorse attitudes and social structures which reinforce notions of superiority and inferiority and expect meaningful change for certain sub-sets of marginalised groups. Sexism, like speciesism, speaks of deeper, historically ingrained inequities which need to be reconsidered and reframed for the present day.
Note – the cow featured in the headline photograph is a rescued farmed animal at vegan animal sanctuary, Brook Farm Animal Sanctuary – http://www.bfas.org.uk.