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The Great Abortion Non-Debate

This essay first appeared in Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters. To learn more and/or purchase a copy, click here.


All across the United States, feral cat groups, rescue groups, and No Kill shelters are spaying and neutering animals, with the ultimate goal of reducing shelter intakes and killing. In fact, high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter is a core program of the No Kill Equation. Spay/neuter leads to fewer animals entering the shelter system, allowing more resources to be allocated toward saving lives. Other than leaving them alone, no-cost neutering for feral cats through a program of Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) is the key to keeping them out of shelters and reducing their numbers humanely.

The vast majority of these organizations, however, also spay pregnant females. In the process, the kittens or puppies are killed. So far, few have questioned the ethics of doing so. But that doesn’t mean that as a movement we shouldn’t. Those groups that have questioned it, and are uncomfortable with the practice, still defend doing so. According to the spay/neuter coordinator of one of the nation’s largest rescue organizations:

Trapping a feral mama and kittens later can be a challenge. People who use our low-cost program might not bring in the mama cat again and her kittens for spay/neuter. And we know that a cat can become pregnant again while nursing.

The coordinator went on to say that even without this problem, the ethics of spaying pregnant animals is a question better suited for the future: “When we save the already born animals, spaying pregnant animals will become unethical because the kittens or puppies will be guaranteed a home.”

As to the first excuse, the underpinning of the No Kill philosophy is that we would never end life when that life is not suffering, and—in light of the sanctuary and hospice care movements—even that latter principle is subject to debate. A pregnant animal should be offered sanctuary in a foster home, where she can give birth, raise and wean her litter, before she—and they—are adopted into loving homes (or, in the case of a feral mom, spayed and released back to her habitat). That is the only proper and ethical thing to do.

To accept the second rationalization, we have to believe that we can’t save them all. But we can, given that pet overpopulation is a myth: With 17 million Americans looking for three million available shelter animals, the calculus isn’t even close. Moreover, these are kittens and puppies, the most “adoptable” of animals.

We also have to believe that allowing these animals to live somehow displaces those already alive, a nexus that is tenuous, at best. In other words, the mere fact that a litter of kittens is born and homes are found does not mean an identical litter of kittens at the local shelter will be killed because of it. Such cause and effect can never be determined and, in fact, does not exist. Lack of homes is not why shelters kill puppies or kittens.

As I wrote in Redemption,

There are many reasons why shelters kill animals at this point in time, but pet overpopulation is not one of them. In the case of a small percentage of animals, the animals may be hopelessly sick or injured, or the dogs are so vicious that placing them would put adoptive families at risk.* Aside from this relatively small number of cases : shelters also kill for less merciful reasons.

They kill because they make the animals sick through sloppy cleaning and poor handling. They kill because they do not want to care for sick animals. They kill because they do not effectively use the Internet and the media to promote their pets. They kill because they think volunteers are more trouble than they are worth, even though those volunteers would help to eliminate the “need” for killing. They kill because they don’t want a foster care program. They kill because they are only open for adoption when people are at work and families have their children in school. They kill because they discourage visitors with their poor customer service. They kill because they do not help people overcome problems that can lead to increased impounds. They kill because they refuse to work with rescue groups. They kill because they haven’t embraced TNR for feral cats. They kill because they won’t socialize feral kittens. They kill because they don’t walk the dogs, which makes the dogs so highly stressed that they become “cage crazy.” They then kill them for being “cage crazy.” They kill because their shoddy tests allow them to claim the animals are “unadoptable.” They kill because their draconian laws empower them to kill.

Some kill because they are steeped in a culture of defeatism, or because they are under the thumb of regressive health or police department oversight. But they still kill. They never say, “we kill because we have accepted killing in lieu of having to put in place foster care, pet retention, volunteer, TNR, public relations, and other programs.” In short, they kill because they have failed to do what is necessary to stop killing.

Moreover, even while No Kill Advocates encourage spay/neuter, even while humane groups promote it, even while high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter is a central tenet of the No Kill Equation, this effort is a means to an end. It is not the goal itself. The goal is not “no more animals being born.” The goal is, and has always been, “no more animals being killed” (or, in the case of puppy mills, abused). Killing animals to prevent killing is not only a logical absurdity, it is patently unethical.

No matter what rationale is used to justify the killing, it can never be reconciled with the No Kill philosophy. In fact, proponents of “catch and kill” sheltering use “practical” arguments in favor of ending life all the time, such as “Killing dogs and cats is necessary because there are too many animals and not enough homes” or “Feral cats suffer on the streets and therefore killing is the compassionate option.” These are all arguments based on a calculus of life and death, the number of homes and the number of animals in shelters, and potential suffering. While such arguments are easy to dismiss because the calculus is all wrong, they are nonetheless arguments that advance expediency, over what is the right—and therefore, moral—thing to do.

Philosophically, advancing a practical over an ethical argument has long been the safe haven for those who want to justify untoward practices. Even accepting the sincerity of the claim, even if the practical calculus was correct, saving life that is not suffering is a timeless and absolute principle upon which responsible animal advocates must tailor their practices. Every action they take must be subservient to preserving life. More often, however, the practical calculus is wrong and at least historically, has been used to excuse atrocities.**

Indeed, the underpinning of the No Kill movement is that it goes beyond what is commonly assumed to be a practical necessity. It is, first and foremost, a movement of beliefs, of morality and ethics, of what our vision of compassion is now and for the future. Our success is a result of our philosophy dictating our actions and thereby prompting us to do better; to embrace more progressive, life-affirming methods of sheltering. Before many of us felt comfortable with the answer to questions of whether or not feral cats suffered on the street and whether or not No Kill was possible, we had already rejected mass killing. We had rejected practical explanations based on a “too many animals, not enough homes” calculus, or that a humane death was preferable to potential future suffering. Early in our advocacy, even if we did not know the practical alternative to killing in shelters, we knew that killing was wrong and we rejected it.

No Kill is, at its core, about the rights of, and responsibilities we have to individual animals. This tenet is summarized by one of the Guiding Principles of the U.S. No Kill Declaration:

Every animal in a shelter receives individual consideration, regardless of how many animals a shelter takes in, or whether such animals are healthy, underaged, elderly, sick, injured, traumatized, or feral.

But are No Kill and feral cat advocates living up to this principle? Our attitudes and practices regarding pregnant animals reveal a glaring contradiction. When we spay pregnant animals and the unborn kittens and puppies die, the fact that they are not yet born does not relieve our responsibility toward assuring their right to live. When we abort kittens and puppies, we are literally killing puppies and kittens.

If the kittens or puppies are viable, they must be individually killed, usually through an injection of sodium pentobarbital. Even when they are not, however, when a mother is spayed, the kittens or puppies die from anoxia (oxygen deprivation) due to lack of blood supply from the uterus once the vessels are clamped. They suffocate.

The hope is that they would be under anesthesia, just like the mother, so they would not be “aware.” However, since they are more resistant to anoxia than adults, they could theoretically start to recover from the anesthesia before they died. Granted, the recovery may last only a second or two; perhaps even a fraction of a second. Or it might not happen at all. But in the end, it does not really matter. Once dead, no one is aware of being dead—that is true by definition and is not the reason the act of killing is unethical. Killing robs an individual of their life, regardless of whether or not they are able to conceive of it beforehand. It is a violation of their most basic right.

In addition, unlike the human context, the issue is not clouded by cases of rape or incest, and there is no question about the mother’s choice because a dog or cat cannot consent. Literally speaking, we are trapping a mother against her will, cutting her open, and killing her offspring, and we claim to do so for her and their own good.

For a movement founded on the rights of the individual, ending the lives of unborn puppies and kittens is indefensible. Indeed, the more widespread No Kill becomes, the more we will find significant ethical dilemmas within our own practices and beliefs. Dilemmas that will challenge some of our deeply held convictions, which we may find—if we address them honestly—are still rooted in traditional apologia: killing for space, killing to prevent possible future suffering, killing as a population management tool: the unethical practices we thought we rejected when we challenged the status quo with our No Kill ideals. We have certainly come a long way as a movement, but we still have a long way to go.


* This killing is also being challenged by sanctuaries and hospice care groups, a movement that is also growing in scale and scope and which all compassionate people must embrace.

** For example, revisionist historians claim that, “Thomas Jefferson had slaves because he was a victim of his own time.” Many of Jefferson’s contemporaries, however, refused to participate in slavery on ethical grounds. But Jefferson did not, even as his words on the Declaration of Independence clearly illustrate he knew better. Even if everyone owned slaves and abolitionist viewpoints did not exist, however, the notion that owning slaves is wrong could be morally deduced from our shared human experience. So we should not excuse Jefferson’s conduct. Likewise, as No Kill advocates, we should obviously know and do better than condone the killing of unborn puppies and kittens based on “practical” arguments. Ethics will always trump the practical and the two are seldom so inexorably linked that an untoward action must follow some fixed practical imperative.