A review of the theological, philosophical, and physiological effects
of fasting across species, including both naturally occurring fasts
as well as those imposed by others for some means.
On behalf of United Poultry Concerns, I submitted the following
responses on 20 December 2000 to the North Carolina Cooperative
Extensive Service at the request of Dr. Kenneth Anderson and Dr.
Deana Jones, who wrote to me on 23 October 2000 that "In an attempt
to present current views on the issue [of fasting], we would like to
conduct a personal interview with you. Due to your accomplishments,
you have been identified as a concise voice with strong beliefs
pertaining to the philosophical or theological area of fasting
whether it is self-induced or in some cases forced. We would value
and welcome your insight and perspective on this topic."
The Review On Fasting is expected to be published as a single
document, including the responses of all contributors, within the
next year or so. In the meantime Dr. Anderson has granted permission
for United Poultry Concerns to post the following contribution by
Karen Davis to the forthcoming Review:
The theological, philosophical, and physiological effects of fasting
1. Based on your interpretation, how do you define fasting? To fast
means to abstain from all or certain foods. Fasting is a form of
behavior that proceeds from within an individual or a species as part
of a larger purpose or activity that is meaningful to that individual
or species. Examples in other species include hibernation, migration,
and the one-to-three-day period for a hen when her chicks are
hatching. In human beings, fasting is normally undertaken for
perceived health, ethical, or political benefits. Or one gets engaged
in an activity and forgets to eat. Fasting means to abstain from food
oneself. It does not mean to prevent another creature from eating.
2. In your opinion, is fasting a willful or unwillful act or both in
humans? Please provide examples if so inclined. Fasting is a willful
act in human beings when a person decides not to eat or to eat very
little in pursuit of a goal. One may belong to a group that requires
fasting in pursuit of a goal such as self-purification or the testing
of spiritual endurance or faith. In this case, the person chose to
join the group (willfully) that makes such demands on its members. To
choose to join and remain in the group is to willfully accept its
3. Do you view these examples as beneficial, providing no benefit, or
harmful to humans. I have no categorical answer. People such as Irish
nationalists have chosen to starve to death for political goals, so
biologically, fasting harmed them, though with respect to their
goals, it sustained them. Doubtless their fasting to death caused
suffering to those who loved them, at the same time that it benefited
people who were inspired by their endurance on behalf of their
values. Gandhi used fasting as a political strategy. Each time he
fasted, it was to achieve a particular goal. When the goal was
reached, Gandhi started eating again. I do not recall Gandhi ever
expressing disillusionment with fasting as he employed it. To him,
whatever harm fasting may have caused was superseded by the moral and
political benefits he sought and achieved by fasting.
Some people fast for health purposes. They do not eat, or they drink
only fruit juice, for several days or more to rid their bodies of
poisons. Those who practice fasting for health reasons either really
do help their body to stay healthy, or at least they feel better
emotionally as a result of, say, meeting a standard they have set for
themselves. In the sense that they feel better about themselves and
their health as a result of sustaining a fast, they are benefited.
A political harm that can result from fasting is breaking the fast
before you said you would. Since fasting originally means to "hold
firm and not be moved," it is important to hold (the) fast. Fasting
is too serious a Statement and too much of an undertaking to be
4. Do you consider fasting a willful or an unwillful act, or both, in
animals, excluding those in the commercial agricultural setting.
Fasting proceeds from within a creature or species. Fasting by
definition cannot be imposed on another. You fast yourself, but you
withhold food from or starve another. Preventing others from eating
who would otherwise choose to eat is to deprive them of food, and,
beyond a certain point, to starve them. Fasting is undertaken
"voluntarily," either in the sense of a conscious choice or in the
sense of a species-specific behavior pattern selected through
evolution. As noted in the article, "Animal Anorexias," in Science
(1980. 207:837-842), when animals fast in nature, fasting is part of
their being "engaged in other important activities that compete with
feeding." Hibernation in bears and in garter snakes is one example
among others of this kind of engagement.
1. In current commercial agriculture, husbandry practices may result
in periods of fasting. What is your view? In current, past, or future
agriculture, husbandry practices "may result in fasting" only in the
husbanders, and not even then, as phrased. For example, the
husbanders may decide to go on strike and not eat as part of the
strike. Use of the passive voice in posing this question is
disingenuous because husbandry practices do not passively "result in"
animals being deprived of sustenance. People in the agriculture
business make decisions and implement them. There is an agent; there
is agency. The husbander chooses to withhold food from the husbanded.
The husbander chooses the husbandry practices that may include
depriving the husbanded-the commercially used birds and mammals--of
food and / or water. The husbander chooses to work in or remain in a
business that deprives other creatures of sustenance against their
2. What animal husbandry practices are you aware of that result in
willful or unwillful fasting? With regard to "unwillful fasting,"
this phrase would apply in cases where an individual would prefer to
eat but whose social group, economic plight, or work deadline, for
example, constrains that individual to subordinate the desire or need
to eat to a more pressing commitment or demand: spiritual, political,
health, ethical, economic, work-related.
Husbandry practices that I am most familiar with in which sustenance
is deliberately withheld from animals are the withholding of food
from animals for, say, 12 hours before slaughter; the force molting
of birds; and skip-a-day feeding schedules imposed on broiler
(chicken, turkey, duck) breeder flocks. The poultry and egg
industries deprive birds of food to control and manipulate egg
production and mating and to reduce intestinal contents and splatter
in slaughtering operations.
3. Do you view these examples as beneficial, providing no benefit, or
harmful to the animals. Please explain your views. I view these
examples as harmful to the animals. Litter-raised birds have been
documented eating the litter in order to reduce the sensation of
hunger and to obtain nutrients their bodies crave. Hens in cages have
been documented pulling out the feathers of adjacent hens for the
same reasons. Broiler breeder flocks have been documented
compulsively pecking at spots on the floor and the males have been
documented displaying abnormal aggression toward the hens because of
hunger and because, deprived of opportunities to eat, they are
deprived of a satisfying activity in a situation from which they
cannot escape, and in which there is virtually nothing else for them
to do but eat and drink.
Unlike food-deprived animals, animals in nature do not develop immune
dysfunction, intestinal inflammation, and pathogen colonization as a
result of fasting that is part of their evolved repertoire of
behaviors. If animals in nature developed the pathologic changes that
have been scientifically documented in deliberately food-deprived
birds and mammals, they would not survive. A brooding hen infected
with ovarian Salmonella enteritidis, "severe intestinal infection"
(Holt et al, 1994. Poultry Science 73:1267), and behavioral
debilitation, all of which have been characterized in forced molted
hens in many studies, would not be able to perform her maternal
functions or to produce viable chicks. Naturally molting hens do not
stop eating and they do not lose 30 percent or more of their
bodyweight. To be deprived of food is to be deprived of nutrients and
of the time-consuming, comforting activity of eating which is
satisfying even without nutrients.
Fasting is self-and /or species-generated behavior. A brooding hen,
for example, is bodily and mentally engaged in a structured, holistic
activity that is meaningful for her and to her as a brooding hen.
Being in a condition of motherhood bears no resemblance to the
frightening experience of being arbitrarily deprived of food. We may
go for hours without eating while being absorbed in a project. This
is completely different from somebody locking us in our room without
food or the prospect of food. As the article, "Animal Anorexias,"
cited above, states, all the evidence indicates that "fasting is
physiologically different from starvation" (840). The evidence
indicates that fasting is psychologically different from starving, as
well. I believe there is a moral ecology as well as a physical
ecology to consider in our relationships with one another. In the
realm of moral ecology, taking away a fellow creature's food and
depriving him or her of the opportunity to get any, in order to
advance one's own cause, is an act of evil. It isn't an earthquake
"happening," however calamitous. It is a consciously intentional
human act, and this makes it both cruel and evil.
Karen Davis, PhD
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(Fasting: An Interview With Karen Davis)