In 20 or so years of political speechwriting, the only condition I have ever set down in advance of being hired is that I would never, under any circumstances, assist any candidate or officeholder in promoting the cause of abortion. Among employers in that time, the one I admired most was a Democrat: the late Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey, a great man and gallant champion of life who viewed abortion on demand as “the ultimate exploitation of the weak by the strong,” who considered his party’s all-in acceptance of abortion a tragic error, and who told me, long before Kermit Gosnell came along, about the filthy characters in it for the money.
In presidential speechwriting, during the first term of George W. Bush, my colleagues and I put special care into the “culture of life” theme, and I’ve sought to do the same in various campaigns going back to Bush-Quayle ’92. The abortion question, rightly a defining concern of modern conservatism, will always center on mercy for the child, who is just as we once were, on our way into the world, waiting to be born and needing to be loved. Let compassion for mother and child alike be the spirit, leaving anger and sanctimony to the other side, and a decisive majority of Americans — in both parties, in every age group, women and men alike — will always be with you. In Sarah Palin’s 2008 convention address, no words at all were needed on the subject: Just the sight of the governor and her infant son Trig, a child with Down syndrome, said it all. If there was any provocation in the text directed at the pro-abortion lobby, it was simply to call the child “a perfectly beautiful baby boy.” And when that is heard as a rebuke, you know your cause has serious problems.
This cursus honorum of pro-life commitment — and you could throw in a good many columns on the matter in National Review and elsewhere — is offered by way of asking readers, and especially those of shared conviction, to consider another moral concern, cruelty to animals, in the same merciful spirit. I kept thinking of the connection between abortion and extreme cruelty during the trial last April and May of Dr. Gosnell, the specialist in late-term abortions (right there in Governor Casey’s state) who is now in prison, because it was a case of people numbed to horrors that had become routine and normalized, and a case of euphemisms dragged into the light of day. Conservative commentators seized on the hypocrisy of pro-choice liberals, deriding all the cant and rationalization that the Left uses in defense of abortion, and finally shaming the major media — thanks above all to columnist Kirsten Powers, a Democrat — into covering the trial after weeks of silence. I completely agreed, but just wished that those same conservatives might think as clearly and forthrightly about other horrors and other euphemisms.
There’s quite a bit of both, to take just the example closest to home, in the modern animal factories we call farms. One could equally cite other routine forms of abuse inflicted on animals — for spectacles, for bloody recreation, or in the name of science — but this is the abuse that is the most widespread, and the most directly affected and sustained by the choices that you and I make. The factory farms — producing almost every animal product we see sold or advertised, in our country and most others — are places of immense and avoidable suffering. And though the moral stakes are not the same as with abortion, the moral habits are, relying in both cases on the averted gaze and a smothering of empathy.
We are cautioned in some quarters that a concern for animals — especially if carried to eccentric extremes like not eating them any more because the brutality involved is morally untenable — is somehow “anti-human,” coming at the expense of our human dignity and moral concern for one another. The point is lost on me, and least of all have I ever sensed any contradiction in being vegetarian (actually, if that’s not hardcore enough for you, vegan) and pro-life all at once. Come to think of it, I first learned about the “abortion rights” cause and about the ruthlessness of industrialized farming around the same time, at the age of 13 or 14, and my reaction to both was similar: You just don’t treat life that way. Look at pictures of the victims in each case, at the thing itself, and you know that whatever problems the people involved are facing, this cannot be the answer. Routine abortion and systematic cruelty are not merely bad things of the kind that happen in any society; they are really bad things that no just society can learn to live with. As complicated, personal, and emotional (oddly so, in the case of meat and the methods that produce it) as both issues can be, in all the years since, I have never heard a single compelling argument for why the unborn must die or why the animals must suffer.
“THE DEGRADING OF LIVING CREATURES”
It gets us nowhere to diminish animal welfare as a moral concern by changing the subject to instances of great human affliction, as if we cannot be expected to care about both, or as if those very afflictions are a constant preoccupation in our daily lives. Such answers are the first reflex of many people, amounting to the non sequitur “There is human suffering, therefore animal suffering is beneath my attention.” Or, less loftily, “I have better things to think about.” It reminds me of the pro-abortion line that if pro-lifers really care about children so much, why don’t we focus instead on broader social priorities like more funding for federal preschool and nutrition programs to serve our nation’s precious children after birth? High-sounding arguments don’t come easy when you’re defending either abortion or cruelty, and the problem in the latter case is that the animal suffering in question is usually at human hands, caused or relieved by us individually or through public policy. Compassion for animals doesn’t drain away some finite reserve of moral energy and idealism, to the detriment of human welfare, but surely adds to the supply. In any case it usually consists in simply not doing bad things to them, and in preventing wrongdoing by others. Cruelty issues like factory farming present specific moral choices. If we’re making the wrong ones, then to shift attention to other woes in the world is just as idle and evasive as when the abortion lobby tries it.
Animals have a moral dignity of their own, a point that nearly everyone, including even some people in cruel industries, will happily concede in unthreatening contexts — that is, when we’re not talking about actually doing something to protect animals and respect their dignity. There are moral truths concerning them, too, that are just as binding and absolute as any other, if we believe in moral truth at all. One could note, among other venerable authorities, the Catholic Catechism’s reminder that human kindness is “owed” to animals, and that it is “contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” I am not a churchgoer myself, but there is a special rigor to Catholic thinking that commands respect, and when The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies a “direct and essential sinfulness of cruelty to the animal world,” that’s not to be brushed off lightly. The offense is presumably greater when cruelty is commonplace and systematic — across the market “vertically integrated,” to borrow a term from agribusiness — making customers complicit.
Then there’s the natural-law tradition that informs much of conservative thought — the basic idea that we all have in common an essential nature that defines the conditions of our fulfillment and happiness, the end or good for which natural rights are the necessary means. This need only be applied to animals to remind us that all creatures have natures, capacities, and yearnings that define their own fulfillment, their creaturely happiness, the good for which they exist in a design larger than any schemes of human devising. Using our own defining capacities of reason and conscience, we can derive from natural law a few rough but at least non-arbitrary standards by which to judge right and wrong in our treatment of other creatures. “Unnatural,” in the treatment of animals, is practically a synonym for “cruel”: Wrong is anything that frustrates or perverts the essential nature of an animal, such as the projects of genetic engineers to make animals more compliant in the stress and misery of modern farming; right is conduct that respects the natures of animals, with a regard for their needs and inherent worth as living creatures, and allows for their expression. (A little more poetically: “All creatures sing their Creator’s praises, and are dear to Him for their own sakes.”) Cruelty in this way is not only a denial of the animal’s nature but a betrayal of our own, and, whatever our creed or philosophy, there is a simple route to the heart of the matter: Integrity, honor, humility, righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, charity — take each of these, or any other virtue we might aspire to, and try to square it with the abuse of an animal.
Pro-life Catholics, for their part, can find some stirring words on the subject in the very same sources they rely on for guidance about the inviolable dignity of human life. Pope Francis thought it important enough to speak, in his very first homily, of “respecting each of God’s creatures.” Pope Benedict XVI cautioned against “the degrading of living creatures to a commodity,” with reference to the “industrial use of animals.” And the great John Paul II, in Assisi early in his papacy, urged humanity to heed the example of St. Francis, “who looked upon creation with the eyes of one who could recognize in it the marvelous work of the hand of God. His solicitous care, not only towards men, but also towards animals, is a faithful echo of the love with which God in the beginning pronounced his ‘fiat’ which brought them into existence. We too are called to a similar attitude. . . . It is necessary and urgent that with the example of the little poor man of Assisi, one decides to abandon unadvisable forms of domination, the locking up of all creatures.”
Far from presenting any threat to human dignity, animals and their moral claims upon us — the basic obligation never to be cruel, not just the option to be kind when it suits our purposes — are a constant hindrance to human presumption. What is the mark of that special status of ours, anyway, if not precisely the ability to be just instead of merely dominant, to be the creature of conscience and bring mercy into the world? A loving concern for humanity that stops there, instead of spreading outward in a sense of fellowship and active respect toward “our companions in creation,” to borrow a lovely phrase from Pope Benedict, is too close to self-worship, and bad things come of it.
Animals are always getting in the way of prideful and willful people, who act as if all things exist for their pleasure and expect everything to yield to their designs and appetites, no matter how base or disordered. In that way, a dutiful regard for animal welfare helps keep us humble, as a natural check against all of mankind’s own endless fiats, much as the duty to put the interests of children first can steer adults and entire societies away from all kinds of destructive self-indulgence. No group bears a heavier duty of self-restraint toward other creatures than the people who farm them, and John Paul II, in a 2000 address, had a message specifically for modern agriculture: “Resist the temptations of productivity and profit that work to the detriment of nature. When you forget this principle, becoming tyrants and not custodians of the Earth, sooner or later the Earth rebels.”
Cruelty is less a vice in its own right than it is a cost exacted by other vices — greed and arrogance, just to start with. Victims of cruelty are the wreckage left by selfish desire. So often the easiest, most helpless victims are children and animals. Cruel people often quite sincerely protest a feeling of innocence, expecting to be judged by intention rather than by objective consequences — by what they prefer to think they’re doing, instead of what they are doing in reality. Wrongs get endlessly rationalized, power turns to tyranny, so that even Kermit Gosnell, somewhere in the back of his mind as he was killing infants who had survived abortion attempts, may have felt himself to be a faithful servant of Progress and Reproductive Choice, doing work the world approved of even if it preferred not to know all the details.
Every mega-farm and slaughterhouse operator, the servants of Productivity and Consumer Choice, can tell their own sorry story of how they are just trying to satisfy customers who insist on an outcome without thought to the means. No matter that great masses of living creatures are left to live a tortured existence for the sake of things we could do without, never knowing the least touch of human kindness, and, in the end, millions are even scalded or butchered alive: None of that is the intention of the enterprise. Almost nobody actually means to cause suffering. The intention is merely to meet commercial demand for cheap meat, and, like late-term abortionists when they are suddenly exposed and held to account, the factory farmer’s defense always has the half-true ring of an aggrieved accomplice — in effect, “Isn’t this what you wanted?”
THE CULTURE OF CRUELTY
Abortion on demand and the cruelties of factory farming, in the more candid discussions about the reasons for both, are presented to us as necessary evils, essentially on grounds of pragmatism and economics. (There is even a similarity, at the depths of the depraved thinking that goes into both, in carefully couched attitudes of class, with dirty-shirt operators like Gosnell understood in certain circles to be useful in controlling the population of the poor, and the factory farms — harsh and distasteful as they are — useful in feeding and employing the poor.) Both industries are blunt, practical solutions to hard moral problems that the people who advocate them have despaired of dealing with in some gentler way. They’ve given up, and they won’t feel right about it until we give up too. We’ve got to be realistic, we’re told. Maybe in some ideal world every child could be wanted and loved and every creature treated compassionately, but it’s just not that way, here in the real world. Sometimes we just can’t afford to be humane, much as we’d all like to. So, get used to it. Try not to visualize so much. Just do what has to be done and put the rest out of mind. This is the m.o. of Planned Parenthood and other such groups, and it is the whole business model of factory farming.
Consider “mass-confinement” farming, the literal “locking up of all creatures” that John Paul II said it was “necessary and urgent” that we abandon — to little avail, if he was trying to get even Catholic moralists to listen up. This is a scheme of pork production hailed to this day within the industry as a wondrous cost-saver, improving the quality of life for producer and consumer alike. The very term would have stopped farmers of another day in their tracks, being so utterly foreign to a real farmer’s sense of limits and honor. Just one feature of an “intensive farming” system that is now the norm, mass confinement for pigs began in the 1960s with the inspiration of a corporate guy and former Democratic state senator in North Carolina named Wendell Murphy. Later associated with Smithfield Foods, today the world’s largest pork producer, Murphy figured out that if you put slatted flooring in sows’ stalls, so that their waste could fall beneath the structure and flow out to form lakes of excrement nearby, the creatures could just stay there endlessly. He eliminated the inconvenience that animals are, well, animate, and that by moving around they were burning off calories, which only added to labor costs and cut into profits.
This one contrivance removed any further need, practically speaking, for the pigs to go outside, to root and forage, care for their young, mix with one another, or otherwise enjoy, before their death, something resembling a life. With no laws to stop him, and political connections to help him, one supremely selfish man pronounced his own “fiat,” and for all of these creatures there was darkness. And, of course, the tighter the gestation crates, the more “production units” — mothers — could be packed in for maximum profit. So what if they can’t even turn around? “Science,” an industry spokesman has explained, “tells us that she [a sow] doesn’t even seem to know that she can’t turn.” Stuff the sows with vaccines and antibiotics to counteract the confinement-borne diseases that would otherwise kill them, feed their offspring growth hormones, so that “life” for the 350,000 or so pigs slaughtered every day just in our own country is six or seven months of mutilation and pain — and you’re talking real savings. “Science” doubtless proves they don’t even know about those miseries, either. (Keep farm animals in constant confinement and deprivation, in the priceless rationale of Wesley J. Smith, and they “cannot know what they are missing.”) Imagine, to borrow a comparison for sow crating from Temple Grandin, years in an economy-class plane seat — except on concrete, while being sick, atrophied, covered with sores and bruises, and alternately abused and ignored by the flight attendants — and you get the idea.
It’s all very “science-based,” and mass confinement worked out just great for Murphy, who retired a rich man in a spacious mansion (nothing like room to roam); great for contract farmers, who don’t have to worry any more about details like tending herds or basic veterinary care (high attrition being part of the model, just drag all the dead ones into the “cull pen”); and, above all, great for lovers of pork chops, bacon, and ham, who get more for less. There’s just the one downside that pig farms, in North Carolina and now the world over, resemble concentration camps, complete with barbed wire to keep away the curious, and consumers find it upsetting to hear what’s really going on at Murphy Family Farms, Happy Valley Farms, Smithfield Farms, and all the rest of these morally fraudulent enterprises with their countrified brand names. Years of reform efforts by the Humane Society of the United States and other groups have sought, with success here and there, to restore a modicum of mercy to the industry, and the pork producers’ associations fight at every turn because — maybe you guessed — there’s no “turning back the clock on modern agriculture.”
Other factory farmers had meanwhile been dispensing with similar inconveniences in similar fashion, with the very modern outlook that they’re going to do the worst to the animals anyway, in killing them, so what does it really matter what happens before then? A quarter-million chickens might fill a single facility, with more scenes of privation and squalor even as factory farmers still boast of their “flocks” — which are tended, as all across livestock agriculture, by unskilled and often illegal workers who are held in almost as little regard as the animals. In like manner, cattle blood is fed to calves as a replacement for mother’s milk, so that humans can drink the milk, and the rendered remains of herbivores are fed to other herbivores — more cost-savers, never mind cannibalism, infectious agents, and other bright-line barriers of nature that would have caught the attention of any sane person not caught up in the culture of cruelty. “Downers” — dairy cows and other farm animals too sick or lame even to walk to their own death — for years have been beaten, prodded, and lifted or dragged to slaughter by bulldozers, and it still happens in disregard of minimal regulatory safeguards. How dare they slow down the line? “A cow’s a piece of machinery,” as one industrial dairy farmer expresses the spirit. “If it’s broke, we try to fix it, and if we can’t, it gets replaced.”
With all the nervous evasion of apologists for abortion after Dr. Gosnell’s fetal slaughterhouse was revealed, factory farmers say of such cruelties, when the scenes are captured on film, that these are “extreme cases,” not at all representative of normal standards. But there are no standards; such minimal regulations as apply go unenforced, and the extreme in both industries is the essence of the enterprise, above all in the treatment of new life. Hundreds of millions of male chicks, of no use to the egg farmers because they can’t lay eggs or grow fast enough to be sold for meat, are hatched into the world every year with only “instantaneous euthanasia” awaiting them, meaning a conveyer-belt ride, alive and fully conscious, into the grinder. This is considered an acceptable cost of egg production, and the practice, we’re assured, is “supported by the animal veterinary and scientific community,” which itself has been corrupted by the money and influence of agribusiness. No matter what new perversion of animal husbandry the industry might devise, it can always count on the sign-off of friendly veterinarians, as true to their oath (“to promote animal health and welfare, to relieve animal suffering”) as Dr. Gosnell was to the Hippocratic oath.
Among its other wisdom about empathy for animals, Catholic teaching here advises: “We are bound to act toward them in a manner comfortable to their nature.” And even in our secular age, one is hard put to think of any principle of Christian moral conduct so thoroughly or casually disregarded. That single injunction, were it actually applied, would go a long way toward ridding us of cruelty in general and especially of the factory farm. There, as in the abortion clinic, every good instinct of humanity, every alarm that nature can sound, says, “Don’t do this.” But on it goes, all of this and more, and least of all can pieties about mankind’s unique moral stature be used to cover the offense and discourage reform — as if our august status means that other creatures are nothing, or that we humans are just too “exceptional” to be bothered.
“PROTECTING CONSUMER CHOICE”
Radical cruelty by some inspires radical kindness in others. There are so many vegetarians and vegans already today — along with millions who refuse, at least, to buy factory-farm products — only because livestock farming in our time is so abhorrent. It is true, as author Mary Eberstadt writes, that factory farming and similar abuses of the animal world are “simultaneously morally urgent and widely ignored by many people, including and inexplicably by many well-meaning but hitherto under-informed Christians.” There is, she observes, “a practiced desire to remain ignorant of those things about which we wish not to know,” a temptation that pro-lifers should be the first to recognize. But this, too, is changing, among people of all ages, faiths, and backgrounds. A highly regarded thinker in conservative circles, Eberstadt offers these points in the foreword to an excellent new book by Fordham scholar Charles Camosy, For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action — signs that serious people are starting to address these things in a serious way.
Sometimes the most subversive standards are the ones that we ourselves profess, and here defenders of the unborn need only think of their own most universal ideas and moral guideposts: The restraint of the strong toward the weak. The compassionate society. Broadening the circle of protection. The prior claims of life — “the things that are,” in a phrase of John Paul II’s. The Culture of Life. “Choose life.” Honoring the Lord of Life. Which of these, when we turn to grievous animal suffering at human hands, counsels doing nothing? Which would make a fitting inscription over the gates of a factory farm or modern slaughterhouse? I can think of only one pro-life catchphrase — the Culture of Death — that would look just right.
Factory farming amounts to a complete subordination of animal life to human convenience, the reduction of thinking, feeling beings to commodities only and of their fate, no matter how horrific, to a calculation of pure self-interest. And it is not by chance that the abortion culture and the culture of cruelty came about at the same time. They are products of the same mindset and hardness of heart. They involve wretched things we don’t even want to think about. They rely on concealment of fact, denial, bluff, and euphemism, because it can take just a moment of real reflection — informed conscience — to undo years of propaganda.
To escape judgment, in the insular world that cruelty creates, both interests spend a lot of time and money working on their image, relying on eerily similar contortions in science, law, and language. And for all their truculence, the propaganda of both convey a deep insecurity, always straining for just the right pitch of mainstream respectability, and settling on the same formula of smarm, appeals to self-regard, and false indignation over encroachments on privacy. The fur industry has for years played up personal choice, freedom, and rights to market its entirely frivolous products, and lately factory-farming interests have picked up the theme. Here’s Rick Berman, a Washington, D.C., operator who runs various civic-sounding, tax-exempt front groups for animal-use industries: “Everyone should have the right to make his or her own choices about what to eat and drink. . . . We respect your personal choices, and we expect the same in return.”
The main front group is the Center for Consumer Freedom, a “non-profit” outfit devoted to “protecting consumer choice” (from those anti-choice “radical vegans”), and along with the pro-choice pablum Berman has lately provided yet another refinement of phrasing. Industry dogma holds that what looks so mean and ruthless in our modern farms is actually, as a fellow from Smithfield once put it to me, all “for their own good.” In that spirit, advises Berman & Company, forget all that nasty stuff you’ve heard about sows condemned to pitiless confinement in gestation crates. Think of them as “maternity pens,” and what could be wrong with that?
A sense of entitlement is critical to the effort. Crude self-interest in both cases has to present itself as morally superior, sanctified by the act of making Personal Choices, so that self-denial and altruism are somehow made to seem in error. The trick is to celebrate choice while creating the illusion that one really has no options at all.
My favorite examples where animal welfare is concerned are the celebrity chefs, always good for comic relief when they pronounce on weighty matters, typically with meditations on the Larger Meaning of Meat: joie de vivre, tradition, family bonds, holidays, conviviality, and all those other good and wholesome things that, we are supposed to believe, all suddenly vanish forever without flesh on the table. As Anthony Bourdain, host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations, put it a few years ago in a CNN debate with Jonathan Safran Foer about the ethics of eating meat: “What about pleasure? I mean, for God’s sake, man — pleasure! . . . Sitting together at a table and enjoying meat — isn’t deliciousness important? Isn’t it really important?”
We vegans, of course, don’t have families or tables or happy times together over meals, but sit joylessly alone subsisting on roots, leaves, and crusts of bread, breaking the silence only with our wails of outrage and resentment toward a world that doesn’t understand. It is a caricature that suits the self-satisfied, and nobody panders to it quite like Bourdain, though he does at least spare us the euphemisms. His show takes him around the world in search of ever more exotic fare, and though factory-farmed meat is beneath his standards (of deliciousness), the whole shtick is to give cruelty — any food that pleases him, obtained by whatever means — the feel of the hip and cool, with the militant gourmand’s usual hyperbole and exaggerated taunting of critics. He’s the edgy, restless, “deliciously depraved” truth teller of the kitchen who’s had it all, because “you only go around once” so grab what you can, a sort of Hugh Hefner of gluttony bidding us to follow along and get some too, defying those censorious types who would deny us our choices: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for: the pure enjoyment of food.”
Cuisine may differ from culture to culture, but the epicure is a universal type, and Bourdain is doing his all to shake that uncomely image. When your whole deal in life is the relentless quest for the perfect meal, you have to try very hard to make it appear to be about something bigger than that, picking fights with people who actually have ideas and convictions so that you seem to be a man engaged in the serious debates of our time, giving freedom and lifestyle choice a vigorous defense. You’d better “stand for” something, loudly and abrasively, because otherwise viewers will soon catch on to a libertine and a bully. The only question in Bourdain’s case is how to square the tough-guy persona with a pursuit so effete, and C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, offers a plausible explanation. Gluttony, Screwtape counsels the tempter, is far less a matter of quantity than of particularity, of having our every appetite pleased, and men are the ripest targets:
Males are best turned into gluttons with the help of their vanity. They ought to be made to think themselves very knowing about food, to pique themselves on having found the only restaurant in the town where steaks are “properly” cooked. What begins as vanity can then be gradually turned into habit. But, however you approach it, the great thing is to bring him into the state in which the denial of any one indulgence . . . “puts him out,” for then his charity, justice, and obedience are all at your mercy.
Bourdain and others say: Don’t worry about any of this. Be true to your appetites, and don’t let the fanatics get to you. It will be said of such people, at the end of their days, “They ate well,” or at least they ate whatever they damn well felt like eating. If that is your idea of a life well lived, then Anthony Bourdain is the cat to hang with.
The other path is to show freedom of choice by using it, no matter whether the rest of the crowd is heading that way; to consider bigger possibilities for our lives, seeing beyond the moral problems to a moral opportunity. It is usually the sign of sincere moral effort that it requires doing the harder thing, reexamining a habit or practice, giving something up — if only gradually, in the way of most such striving — regardless of the cynics and moral sloths always ready to tell us we don’t even need to try. That decision, one heart at a time unwilling to abide cruelty, will one day be seen, I suspect, as a natural next step for civilized humanity. If, as factory farmers tell us, “There is no other way,” as a matter of economics, to supply meat to a world of 7 billion, then maybe there is no other way than to give it up, and be free of it all, as a matter of conscience. Don’t pretend it’s all about something else, in any case. The fun, tradition, and togetherness go on without meat and animal products, only better for the knowledge that our pleasure is not extracted from a hidden world of pain. Why is the “killjoy” the one who wants to be generous, letting all creatures share in the happiness of life?
If thoughts of “pain” are what trouble you, “ag-science” can help there, too, with sober studies laboring to prove — usually by means of some god-awful pain experiment on a pig — that farm animals don’t experience pain or even fear. This is a dogma, as British philosopher Stephen R. L. Clarke has observed, that “has never satisfied anyone without something to gain.” But the experts haven’t given up — the grim influence of behaviorism has been just as insidious here as in the study of human beings — and still it is maintained that none of our fellow creatures really feel anything akin to human suffering, or for that matter human happiness. Rather, we are assured, with their squealing, bellowing, bleating, whimpering, and attempts at flight — “avoidance behavior” — animals just sort of “mimic” the pain-and-fear response.
Animal pain is “mere pain,” as the theorists have variously described it, something in the “hardwiring,” an unfelt, “pre-programmed” neurological reflex to “negative stimuli” that silly people still tend to “anthropomorphize” as the conscious experience of pain and fright, comparable to how you or I would feel if we were caged, beaten, and prodded onward toward violent death, seeing ahead of us what was happening to the others. No form of advanced barbarism comes without a patina of scientific sophistication, and where animal suffering is not denied outright, it is declared empirically unprovable, left vague in the literature with a “decide-for-yourself” air of resignation and a prohibition of questions or final conclusions. It is the same general branch of science that gave us those experts trotted out a generation ago to brush off as mere “reflex” or “spasm” — as a fellow creature was “undergoing demise” — the obvious signs of fetal pain in the documentary film The Silent Scream.
In their PR campaigns, it is the all-important mission of both lobbying groups to prevent images like those in that still-unanswerable documentary from getting out. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any two legal enterprises, at least in developed societies, that have more to fear from simple photographic images than abortion and factory farming. So in recent years livestock interests have leaned on legislators to make it a crime to take pictures of factory-farmed animals, and in some states they have already succeeded. Subjecting animals to agonies that would shock and outrage the public if we saw these scenes on film — that, we are told, is nobody else’s business. It’s not the cruelty that needs to be stopped — it’s those damned pictures.
They don’t want anyone coming near, least of all anyone with a camera, because when the pictures and videos get out, they never quite capture the industry as it sees itself. The whole routine of bluff and sanctimony doesn’t work any more, as people see for themselves what the choices really are. At public events and stockholder meetings, factory-farm executives from Tyson, ConAgra, Smithfield, and all the rest complain of being harassed by zealots and do-gooders holding up pictures of their victims, images often so heartbreaking that the news media won’t show them. Many of the men and women who see those pictures are changed by the experience, their conscience awakened, never again able to talk around the matter in polite generality or comfortable cliché, while others react in rage and bitterness at the “emotional pressure” of being asked even to look. Does any of this sound familiar?
Talk about “avoidance behavior.” Here we have two industries avoiding judgment by the same deceitful means. National Review’s Andrew McCarthy not long ago described a Colorado case in which “pro-abortion activists filed a lawsuit against anti-abortion protesters, claiming that the display of graphic images of first-term abortions amounted to an actionable nuisance.” “Imagine,” writes McCarthy, by way of comparison, “if we had told the anti-war Left that photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison could not be publicly displayed. You know, ‘We’ll just describe the whole thing as “enhanced detention” — or, maybe, “choice” — no need to get more graphic than that.’ How long do you suppose that would have been tolerated?”
It’s a great point, but there is an even better parallel, requiring no imagination at all. In dozens of states right now, a major American industry — as central to life as any can be — is trying to use the law to limit free speech and, with that, public knowledge of its routine inhumanity. And this suppression of evidence has been tolerated by the conservative press and by nearly every major media outlet. Outside of animal-welfare circles, it hasn’t received nearly the attention that such a scandalous abuse of power warrants, much as factory farming in general has spread across the earth with only occasional journalistic scrutiny.
Last May, when Smithfield Foods announced a pending acquisition by the Chinese meat company Shuanghai for some $4.7 billion, this was treated as big financial news, even rating a mention in Politico’s “Playbook.” Here is arguably the worst of the worst among American meat companies, whose animal dungeons I have seen for myself, now exporting the merciless systems that it pioneered — going abroad, in part, because demand for meat is declining here as more Americans cut down for reasons of health and morality. And all we get in the way of analysis is number-crunching and vague talk of “food safety” concerns, as if even those very concerns were not related to the brutality of both the Chinese company and Smithfield. There was an empty courtroom press section in the early weeks of the Gosnell trial; there is similar empty space in coverage of factory farming and like enterprises, awaiting reporters who will challenge cruelty and all of the corruption that comes with it.
The contortions in reason and law, for apologists of both abortion on demand and animal cruelty, likewise seek to place as much cognitive and emotional distance as possible between the choice and the consequences, typically with abstract constructs that painstakingly parcel out rights, allocate power, and invent whole new nouns to take the flesh and blood out of the picture. Mary Elizabeth Williams, reflecting in a Salon essay last January about a hypothetical mother and “the non-autonomous entity inside of her” — who is accorded rights only to have them “trumped” by autonomous Mom — is working the same philosophical ground as critics of the animal-protection cause, with their elaborate theories explaining why animals are “un-self-aware beings,” “non-rightholders,” “inappropriate objects of sympathy,” or something, anything, other than what they are by any standard of common-sense morality, and above all of Judaeo-Christian morality: powerless fellow creatures, formed of the same dust, to whom human beings have obligations of both charity and justice. In both lines of thought, escaping inconvenient duty is the aim, the strong “trumping” the weak and defenseless with all manner of precious distinctions and pretentious verbiage. And, for similar reasons, these arguments get complicated.
For instance, in an outstanding column on the Gosnell trial and all the euphemisms it blew away, National Review editor Rich Lowry got to the central problem: “His case is so discomfiting for liberals not only because it is such a stark picture of the seamy, money-grubbing side of abortion, but because it illustrates how slight the difference is between late-term abortion — or late-term ‘health’ — and what nearly everyone recognizes as a crime.” Ramesh Ponnuru, writing for Bloomberg News, made the similar point that unborn babies at the same stage of development, emerging from the womb or still inside, are in essence the same babies, and it’s pure caprice that the law protects one and not the other. “This distinction makes no sense to many people, who wonder why the location of this young human being should make such a large difference in whether he will live or die.” As Kirsten Powers summed it up: “That one is murder and the other is a legal procedure is morally irreconcilable.”
All true. But the rules of clear thinking and moral consistency — above all, the rule of treating natural equals equally — lose none of their validity when we turn to animals, even if the sins of cruelty are of a lesser order than violence to a baby just weeks or days away from birth. In the way of other slight differences and arbitrary distinctions in law that should leave us feeling uneasy, compare the treatment of farm animals to that of other animals protected, on the books at least, by cruelty statutes — protections that are themselves a fairly recent development in Western law.
If you were caught even once inflicting on a dog the punishments that are directed daily at factory-farmed pigs, you would be arrested and answer for that offense in a court of law; in many jurisdictions, the offense would carry a serious possibility of prison time. Dogs and pigs are entirely similar creatures, equals in every relevant way including their intelligence, emotional capacities, variations in personality, and experience of pain. Yet the one is protected from human wrongdoing and the other you may lawfully and profitably treat like garbage, with no regard whatever for that creature’s suffering or dignity. Comparable cruelty toward comparable animals makes you in the one case just another farmer and in the other case just another felon, as Michael Vick can attest.
This particular disjuncture between reality and law didn’t happen by chance. To avoid the massive inconvenience of calling things by their name in law, and acting accordingly, livestock interests years ago saw to it that in the collection of federal rules pertaining to commercially used animals – our Animal Welfare Act as amended several times since the Sixties — farm animals were specifically excluded from the very definition of animal. Just like that, with a few words in a statute and attendant regulations, an entire class of billions of creatures was cut off from any legal obligation to it and, as the industry hoped, from the shelter of human sympathy.
It is an echo of other raw acts of federal power, snatching “personhood” away from unborn children, and in a way this arbitrariness merely codifies an attitude that comes across in our everyday references to animals, an almost random use of personal and impersonal pronouns. “It” is the one exploited or discarded, “he” or “she” the one named and loved. People often do the same with the unborn, even in later stages when the gender is known. “She” or “he” is the one a parent will take care of, “it” the one that Planned Parenthood will take care of.
That legislative power play by the industry spared factory farmers the legal problems, but it doesn’t spare us the moral problems — problems that these very people, like the pro-abortion lobby, have only made more urgent by embedding them in law, exporting them to the world, and resisting, as a threat to Choice, even minimal limits. They tolerate no restrictions, whether it’s extreme cruelty or late-term abortions, for the same reason, too: because they know where the logic leads. The “slippery slope” that both fear we might descend leads, not to unreason, but to unequivocal truth. It is always wrong to deliberately take an innocent human life. And it is always wrong, everywhere and in every case, to abuse animal life. No person, and no thinking, feeling animal, either, is ever just “it.”
A good many people first awaken to the suffering of farm animals by noticing just such contradictions and connections — not only because animal cruelty is bad morals, but because it is also bad reasoning. The concept of “wanton cruelty,” traditionally used to distinguish unavoidable severity from gratuitous abuse, starts to fall apart as soon as you notice the capriciousness in so much of how we act and think about animals. All that factory farming has done — and, on a lesser scale, other animal-use industries — is to make wanton cruelty systematic, giving it the institutional feel of something orderly, rational, “normal,” and beyond question.
Why is it right or fair to pamper dogs (the lucky ones) and torture pigs? In some corners of the world they torture and eat both, and by what coherent standard can we tell those savage people that they’ve got it wrong? In the underground meat markets of Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea, as CNN reports, “a common belief is that stress and fear releases hormones that improve the taste of the meat, so the dogs are placed in stress cages that restrict their movement,” among many sufferings that end only when they “have their throats cut in front of other dogs who are awaiting the same fate.” If such practices are morally out of bounds, that’s news to American agribusiness.
It’s all just cultural preference, habit, and custom, as Asian connoisseurs of meat from dogs (or horses, monkeys, dolphins, whales, and on and on) will be quick to tell you. Morally, the differences between pigs and dogs, and between our treatment of them, are purely conventional, the technical term for meaningless. Appeals to convention may be well and good in matters of taste or social etiquette — there is no One True Way to greet guests or prepare party favors. But if we are being morally rigorous, then citing “custom” is just a tautology: We do it because we do it. In this case, you could switch the picture here in our own country all around — dogs to the abattoir, pigs on the couch — and convention and custom would be just as defensible. Or, more to the point, just as indefensible. We can be consistently kind or consistently cruel, but anything in between has the whiff of moral relativism, right and wrong decided by whim.
The ultimate relativism is surely to be an absolutist most of the time in matters of morality, as if the elementary and universal truth Cruelty to animals is wrong were uniquely permissive, the intrinsic evil in acts of cruelty somehow explained away by differences in culture, preferences in diet, or pressures of economics. If harming or killing, much less torturing, a given type of animal for a given reason is wrong, then it is wrong everywhere, in every instance. The wrongfulness of such conduct is an objective moral truth, obscured by subjective considerations but not changed in the least.
Being personally opposed to such a wrong, moreover, but unwilling to act on that view within one’s power to do so, is not a coherent position in this case, either. Nor is being fervently idealistic in defense of human life, but jaded and indifferent about animal life, a workable posture: Avoiding complicity in cruelty need not be as important as protecting human life to be important all the same, and efforts to diminish the wrong by comparison have the ring of an excuse. The morally consistent response to factory farming and all practices like it is to distance ourselves as far as possible, not from the victims, but from the wrongs; and to forbid in law, not the cameras, but the cruelty.
However we sort out the particular moral claims of this or that kind of creature, moreover, there is a more fundamental kind of consistency that all by itself orients us toward humane alternatives to cruelty in any form: to give consistent priority to moral values over material ones.
When an unborn child’s life is in the balance, moral values are held by pro-life advocates to be of greater importance than any material values — despite 40 years’ worth of social convention and legal precedent saying otherwise. It is presumed that no claims of convenience or financial advantage could come before justice and mercy — and, of course, with that principle comes a duty of charity to help mother and child alike.
Why wouldn’t the same general rule hold in the case of cruelly treated animals, moral considerations coming before material desires as a matter of course? Here again, being moral actors is mankind’s chief bragging point in contrast to the animal world in the first place (not to slight the capacity of some animals for grief, empathy, and even great courage). What sets us apart is our very capacity to know the difference between objective truth and subjective desire — to be governed by reason and conscience, instead of just impulse and appetite. Where better to display that defining quality than in our treatment of other creatures? If we are sincerely trying to do right by them, shouldn’t kindness and mercy always take priority over personal preference, convenience, and cost efficiency?
“Materialistic arguments always lose to moral arguments,” Arthur Brooks observed in a lecture about the future of free-market capitalism last year before the American Enterprise Institute. He might be right, but it all depends here on acknowledging that the products of cruelty are bereft of any moral legitimacy, based on human need, that might alter the nature of a moral wrong — a wrong spreading across the earth with demand for meat. If we take seriously the words of John Paul II, among others, about wrongful domination of the natural world, then what we are really dealing with in factory farming is vicious, boundless tyranny over other creatures, and to go along with it all, whether blithely or in willful disregard, is to be a sharer in the sin. To act as if thinking, feeling creatures can in good conscience be treated this way is to buy into lies and groupthink every bit as gullibly or self-deceptively as to accept that an eight-month-old fetus is anything less than a child. Any chance for real change in the market, and real reform in law to protect animals, depends on the willingness of good people to put principles first — tolerating, in their own moral choices, as little confusion as possible between need and desire. It’s one of those problems, admittedly, that, no matter which choice we make, can seem overwhelming — so sad to contemplate all that these creatures endure, so daunting to revise the assumptions and habits of years. Better, by my lights, to be overwhelmed by feelings of sympathy, to change what can be changed and know at least that we are trying.
There are, in contrast to abortion, no hard cases in factory farming to blur the issue. The goods derived from it, for both producer and consumer, are optional, replaceable, and trivial. Different goods and far better jobs (ask the slaughterhouse workers) have begun to replace those practices already, just one example of how a humane economy can overcome dull, morally lazy custom on the strength of free-market creativity. You can’t argue for meat and other animal products as if we still lived in the 1600s. Whatever claim of necessity might once have been asserted for the flesh of animals no longer applies in an age of abundant alternatives — and far healthier ones, as Bill Clinton and many other new vegans will testify, better foods that would be even more widely available were they not crowded out by the massive waste of cropland and water involved in meat production. Indeed the general destructiveness of modern meat production, to the natural world and to human health, should also lay waste to the idea of the vegan diet as some sort of moral luxury for privileged Westerners out of touch with the rest of the world’s problems. Cadry Nelson, an insightful writer to be found at CadrysKitchen.com, offers the perfect rebuttal to this attitude: “To those who would criticize vegans for being privileged, or out of touch, or self-involved, I have this to ask. When a person is in a position to make conscious food choices in the interest of reducing the suffering of all animals — both human and non-human — but doesn’t, who is more privileged really?”
Though I understand that a lot of folks don’t take well to hearing such talk about meat — they speak as if we all had some solemn duty to eat the stuff — the needlessness of it all is empirical fact. At a certain point we have to choose between cruelly made products and our integrity. And it becomes perverse after a while to try dressing up these unnecessary evils as somehow essential to life’s enjoyment or even as morally vital — a feature of “human thriving,” as one apologist for the industry likes to put it — especially if you presume at the same time to fault others for their weak “sentimentality” about animals. There is no Larger Meaning to meat, nothing high and noble behind all the suffering and slaughter. Arguments to that effect seek to confer dignity, not on human beings, but on unbridled human appetite. And sentimentality, so soft and self-directed, doesn’t get weaker than that. The grander the rationale for meat and other products of cruelty, the more distinctly one hears the roving chef’s cry of “pleasure, for God’s sake, man, pleasure!”
The way I look at it, however one works out the finer points of philosophy, most of us, including me, have enough sins of selfishness and indifference to answer for without adding one more to the account — in the case of complicity in cruelty, an error so readily avoided, if at times with a little hassle. You can’t get much closer to the dictionary definition of human selfishness than the attitude, courtesy of Anthony Bourdain, that life is “not worth living” unless it involves forcing truly unlivable lives on countless creatures who pose us no threat and have done us no harm. I want no part of it. Steering clear of meat and all the rest just seems the right and gracious thing to do, whether or not I have to do it. And I like to think I’d make the same choice even if I didn’t feel a particular concern for animals.
It doesn’t matter, after all, whether one feels the offense acutely, or feels much concern at all for other creatures, any more than one has to be fond of babies to place their interests above material concerns of convenience, economic advantage, or whatever else. To buy and consume animal products, knowing the suffering that lies behind them, is a compromise that leaves you, well, compromised. It’s a choice that can also cloud objective judgment about other forms of abuse to animals, because few are as bad as the one that the indifferent consumer has excused in his or her own conduct. Turning back to fellow pro-lifers, moreover, a resistance to cruelty-free alternatives — and, all the more, a disdain for them — doesn’t exactly enhance anyone’s moral credibility.
Citing the lesser gravity of cruelty to animals, as compared with the taking of a human life, only invites the question of why that lower offense cannot be avoided, that easier duty of kindness not fulfilled. If we shrug off so simple an obligation as not to live off the mistreatment of animals, buying into materialistic and utilitarian arguments — perhaps even leaving, as Screwtape perceived, charity and justice at the mercy of appetite — that undercuts one’s standing to comment on the much harder dilemmas of other people. A single harsh choice, made in panic or despair in a true crisis of conscience, is more understandable than a lifetime of ruthless choices casually made, with nothing more to tip the moral scale than a pork chop, bucket of chicken, or higher margin of profit. “Informed consent” is a test worth trying on ourselves, reluctant as so many are to learn how their food is made because they’re afraid that if they “know too much” it will force a change of heart and habit. In a society where every day so many people still choose to give money and support to companies that are guilty of the horrendous abuse of billions of fellow creatures, without a moment’s thought, “Who are you to judge?” is a fair question for pro-choicers to ask.
“STAND WITH WENDY!” OR “HERE FOR TRIG”?
You can take all of this and double it, if you consider yourself a conservative. On every count, a harsh domination over animals runs against the principles and spirit of the creed, above all our usual alertness to abuses of power and failures of personal responsibility. The idea of animal protection as a cause of the Left is wildly overstated, put about by livestock interests and other animal-use industries to scare mainstream America away, just as NARAL et al. want us to think of protecting the rights of the unborn as the crazy obsession of the Right. Some conservatives, usually affiliated with those industries, invoke our devotion to “personal liberty” in defense of modern “intensive farming” and other such practices. That’s the last principle I’d try using in their position. Who would venture to justify the bitter confinement of billions of fellow creatures? No one who truly appreciates a life of freedom.
And all of this works in reverse, of course. A good many people who take up the cause of animals would do well to question their own inconsistencies. One cannot credibly advance the claims of animal life while disregarding the claims of innocent human life. Though quite a few friends of mine involved in the welfare cause are also pro-life, it’s probably true that most men and women who champion animals, and witness for a better way by becoming vegetarian or vegan, count themselves proudly pro-choice. The problem is just as glaring, if not more dramatically so. Why on earth not extend your compassion to the unborn child?
I got a large helping of our vegan, animal-rights brand of sanctimony five years ago after my speechwriting collaboration with Sarah Palin. How could I, having written a book on the theme of animal protection, have anything to do with the wolf huntress of Alaska? For how many pieces of Koch Brothers silver had I sold out my animal friends? Such rank hypocrisy even the cock would be too disgusted to crow of my betrayal. It was a subject of indignant commentary here and there, and it was the rare detractor who could even imagine that the reason might have something to do with a shared belief in the rights of the unborn.
Some in the animal-protection movement mistake the cause for a part of the liberal progressive agenda (as if the Obama years have ushered in some golden era of cruelty-free living in America) and can be so wrapped up in that ideology as to ignore the most obvious of connections. In what moral universe does it makes sense to protect a wolf, pig, dog, or any other animal from needless suffering and violence, but not a human baby stirring in her mother’s womb? To their lasting credit, many animal activists post pictures on the Internet from factory farms, slaughterhouses, laboratories, and elsewhere, scenes so nightmarish at times that you have to study them for a moment before the horror of what’s unfolding becomes clear. How many of those same good people have ever brought themselves to look at pictures and films (even the ultrasonic and relatively endurable Silent Scream) showing what happens in an abortion, especially after the second or third month of fetal development, and to whom it happens? Different people are called to serve different causes, and if your vocation is to protect animals then no one is saying you have to sign up right away at National Right to Life. But if the creed is empathy for the weak, shouldn’t your sympathies at least lie in that direction?
I sure don’t think highly of executing packs of exhausted, terrified wolves from helicopters (“predator control,” as that euphemism goes, never mind the cowardly killers with the guns). But a person who advocates even that strikes me as somewhat more amenable to rational moral appeal than a candidate, and now a president, who has left on the record not a single word of sympathy for the victims of abortion — tens of millions since Roe v. Wade — nor ever supported the merest protection for unborn children. Even if you are a single-issue voter for animal causes, there is to this day no reason to support President Obama on that account. Neither he nor the Democratic leadership has ever displayed any particular concern for animals; the Justice Department under President Obama has actually helped the meat industry lately to nullify state anti-cruelty laws, and even wolf slaughter was expanded this year by the president’s interior secretary. And I have a theory about that: When a party’s moral energy is so consumed by “abortion rights,” with all the phony indignation and make-believe idealism we saw again this summer in the case of Texas state senator Wendy Davis — in defense of elective late-term abortion, “Stand with Wendy!” — there is not much left for causes of genuine altruism.
There were other considerations in the 2008 campaign, issues having nothing to do with abortion or cruelty, along with my enormous personal respect for Senator John McCain, whom I first met more than 30 years ago and who, after all, was at the top of the ticket. I worked for him as well, and it happens that Senator McCain has an exemplary record on both the life issue and animal welfare. So far as Palin was concerned, the life issue and a sense of friendship from the start were enough to go by. Liberals are supposed to believe in, above all, inclusiveness, and this was a candidate whose rallies and airport arrivals were often filled with hundreds of children and adults with disabilities of every kind, some in wheelchairs, doubtless many at their first such event. Had the Obama campaign inspired similar scenes, there would have been rumors in the press of healings and miracles. But they were there because of Sarah Palin, holding up signs saying “Here for Trig” because of the choice she had made — to love and be proud of her child — and the message that had sent to all of those with disabilities. When, in national politics, has any figure ever so movingly affirmed their equal place as citizens of our country? Read the letter that Palin wrote to her family when Trig (whose name, she says, in Norse means “True” and “Brave Victory”) was expected. Better than anything we ever produced together in 2008, that letter belongs in the literature of the very finest pro-life wisdom, testifying to the goodness of her youngest son’s life and to a greatness in her own character.
The pile of moose and deer antlers on the campaign plane, gifts bestowed on the candidate at every rural stop, did get to be a little much, and it’s true that when some conservatives speak of animal-related issues, a certain smug indifference can slip in that needs close watching — brushing off as an absurd imposition, for instance, the very idea of cruelty-free alternatives, or relishing opportunities to give offense to vegetarians and other people concerned about animals. They’re a little too comfortable thinking of those people as extreme and subversive — the same snobbish caricature made of pro-lifers by ideologues of the Left. And religious conservatives in particular — our “values voters” — would do well to take a closer look at the company they are keeping.
Representative Steve King of Iowa, for example, is a solid pro-life vote every time and, just as dependably, an apologist for animal cruelty. He typifies a certain way of looking at animals that manages to be both lofty in tone and morally obtuse in practice. An influential member of the House Agriculture Committee, the man has opposed any kind of leniency for farm animals, dogs in puppy mills or dog-fight rings, birds used by cockfighters, horses bound for slaughter plants, exotic wildlife slain by big-game trophy hunters, any creature at all. All the while, he uses his pro-life principles as a pretext for doing nothing on behalf of animals, in a version of the abortion–cruelty connection that other conservatives have also traded on. The idea is that since the law does not now grant full protection to the unborn, any attempt to protect animal life is an expression of profoundly misplaced priorities, subversive to the sanctity of human life, an affront to Man in all his glory. The result of this high-minded stance? Glorious man, made in the image of God, can go back to his dog-fighting, cock-fighting, chick-grinding, hog torture, wolf slaughter, and general abuse of the animal world without being held to account.
If it is possible to give pro-life principles a bad name, little tyrants like Steve King are the ones who can do it. They are making excuses, not arguments. They are friends of power, not of life, serving no cause except human arrogance — in the spirit of what Governor Bob Casey used to call the Imperial Self. By showing such contempt for the healthy majority of voters in both parties who care about animals, they aren’t doing the Republican party any favors, either.
You can see where public opinion lies nearly every time animal-protection measures are placed directly before the people in statewide ballot initiatives — they win — and whenever public officials support reforms in law, invariably with strong public approval. In Congress, for instance, animals for the last 30 years have had no more faithful friend than Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey, who has a perfect 100 percent Humane Society voting record to match his perfect National Right to Life record — including Smith’s recent co-sponsorship of a post-Gosnell reform to protect fetuses after 20 weeks, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Here is a pro-life champion worthy in every respect of that name, and, as he explained to me once, there is nothing complicated about caring simultaneously for the unborn child and the mistreated animal: “It’s the spirit of St. Francis.”
In New Mexico, likewise, Governor Susana Martinez has been battling for months to prevent a horse-slaughter plant from opening, a plant that the Obama administration has authorized. Doubtless Governor Martinez heard all the usual bluster from special pleaders in the livestock industry, all the ag-science BS and promises of political support. But perhaps because she is a former prosecutor, familiar with the creepy characters who show up in criminal courts on animal-abuse charges, she has the backbone and integrity to stand up against similar exploiters, who are no more respectable for having titles and wearing suits. And let every conservative do the same — rejecting “with detestation,” as C. S. Lewis put it, “that covert propaganda for cruelty which tries to drive mercy out of the world.”
“THE CAUSE OF THE WEAK”
I once ran some of these thoughts by Karl Rove, in Austin during the 2000 campaign, in a quick pitch for animal protection as an underrated and winning political issue, and, specifically, for a succinct animal-welfare plank in the convention platform that year: Large-scale cruelty is a matter of considerable moral and social consequence, just the sort of thing we compassionate conservatives should abhor — and “actively confront,” in the parlance of early Bush speeches — not to mention being entirely inconsistent with the kindly instincts of the candidate, a man also not given to euphemism. Indeed, one of the qualities I most admired in President Bush was a willingness at times to disregard the boundaries of conventional opinion, and to put matters in plain moral language regardless of who might feel uncomfortable or claim offense. We prided ourselves, in the speechwriting shop, in calling evil by its name, and not only the wickedness of terrorists, but also the cold and ruthless things done by others, like sex traffickers or reckless scientists, in the untended corners of civilized society.
So why not, I wondered, a statement of principle, somewhere in the vicinity of our pro-life credo, that the Republican party affirms that it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly, and that we are therefore, as a matter of policy, opposed to unadvisable forms of domination over the natural world? Using the Catholic formulation, exactly as our party does on the life issue, and echoing the moral language of John Paul II himself, how could we go wrong? The idea got the patient hearing of a forbearing friend, and as I withdrew, the Architect offered that while he didn’t quite follow me on the animal thing, “Hey, man, at least you’re thinking outside the box. I like that!”
Thinking just a little farther outside the box: We might consider the possibility that the abortion culture and the culture of cruelty are maladies of like origin, arising from the same callous and unreasoning spirit, and that the many millions of Americans opposed to them, uneasy as they might sometimes make us feel, give testimony to the good news that terrible injustices can be overcome. Far from being opposites, pro-life and pro-animal advocates serve kindred ideals, pointing to places where nearly every one of us knows that humanity can do better and that it’s important to try, in movements — whatever else one might say about them — that are about as free of self-interest as political movements come. So many of the ideological struggles that preoccupy us are really just one group clawing for control or advantage over another, and feeling wronged and aggrieved when it fails. And that’s all fine, as long as we don’t forget what a real wrong looks like, keeping vigilant patrol over the borders that safeguard an imperfect but just society against chilling savagery. Defenders of the unborn and of animals are so relentless because they see that fundamental boundaries have been breached. By refusing to look away, by acting in solidarity with the defenseless and forgotten, they represent two of the great moral causes of our day, and among the greatest opportunities to do good in this world.
Here, after all, we have single-issue voters waging perhaps the most passionate crusades in American life, sometimes against seemingly hopeless odds, millions of people refusing to drop two extremely uncomfortable subjects that many of those around them get really upset about. Still more to their credit, both causes also go beyond talk and idle moralizing, and often their mission centers on adoption: In the spirit of Mother Teresa, who said, If you don’t want your babies, “give them to me,” thousands of animal shelters and sanctuaries ask only to care for homeless or cruelly treated creatures. It should not be surprising to find that these two groups have important qualities in common. I know a lot of people in both the pro-life and animal-protection causes, and they remind me of one another, even though neither would necessarily take that as the compliment it is.
Works of theory by the animal-rights thinkers of the Seventies and Eighties, with a heavy dose of utilitarianism and “liberation,” alienated religious and cultural conservatives and vastly complicated what might have been a natural partnership, as Mary Eberstadt, a Catholic, observed a few years ago in First Things. Viewed in terms of their basic convictions and motivations, she writes, “the line connecting the dots between ‘we should respect animal life’ and ‘we should respect human life’ is far straighter than the line connecting vegetarianism to anti-life feminism or anti-humanist utilitarianism.” Both the animal-protection and pro-life endeavors arise, Eberstadt writes, from moral intuition of the best kind:
Most people who adopt a vegetarian or cruelty-free diet do not do so on the basis of the anti-humanist, anti-life ideas that prevail in academic thought. On the contrary, evidence abounds that most people change their dietary habits not because of carbon footprints or absent referents but through a very different process — acknowledging and acting on a moral intuition. This important point — overlooked, perhaps, precisely because it is so simple — is the moral key to a place where actual vegetarian lambs can easily be imagined resting alongside pro-life lions. . . . Any moral intuition powerful enough to cause second thoughts about a widely accepted practice — and to re-shape personal behavior accordingly — is an intuition that religious believers ordinarily take seriously indeed.
It is fitting that an eloquent pro-life woman, whose latest book analyzes the decline of religious faith in the West, should offer this insight. The whole animal-protection movement began, in Western societies, with the conscience of Christian reformers acting on just such intuition. Trace the lineage of venerable groups like Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — the RSPCA — or of its early American counterparts, and you’ll find that they began with the mission of abolishing slavery and protecting women and children from exploitation, challenging a few “widely accepted practices” of their own day, and branched out to animal welfare in what seemed to them, at least, an obvious extension of their vocation. Often these charities were founded by women, to shelter other women from users, louts, and bullies — the same types who also bring grief to animals. But there were heroic men, too, like the abolitionists William Wilberforce and Anthony Ashley-Cooper — convinced, as the latter wrote, “that God had called me to devote whatever advantages He might have bestowed upon me to the cause of the weak, the helpless, both man and beast, and those who had none to help them.”
Leaving aside the all-out conservative vegan credo that remains, of course, a tough sell for most people, why not at least this same spirit, in our time, of basic Judaeo-Christian compassion for animals, consistently upholding the dignity of human and animal life as different charges in the same calling? How could the defense of vulnerable humanity, and of the humane, be far apart? Both movements could go on as they are, doing their own work without much thought to one another, still less support and encouragement for one another, and still occupy vital and necessary ground in American politics. But in combination, if only as respectful friends and well-wishers, holding candidates and officeholders to high standards in defense of life and of animal welfare, and above all giving personal witness to both those values, the pro-life and pro-animal movements could do great things. Between advocates of the unborn and of brutalized creatures, as Eberstadt puts it, there is a straight line, a connection as natural as the love that young children themselves so often feel for animals, and deeper than the usual, pragmatic ties of politics: “The work of developing that bond could be done, and the benefit might be immense for both sides — like finding a few million friends that you never knew you had.”
Exactly as straight is the line connecting the attitude that some human beings may be disposed of as defective, unwanted, or otherwise undeserving of the breath of life, to the attitude that great multitudes of fellow creatures are unworthy of our empathy and respect, there only to be exploited as we desire. Challenge either attitude and you will encounter the same hardness of heart; you are drawing attention to the world’s discards, all the ones who get used or get in the way, kept off at a distance in unlighted places, and worldly people don’t like to hear about it. Thus the suspicion, hostility, and exasperated sighing to which pro-life and pro-animal activists are both accustomed, all for saying outright what nearly everyone knows to be true — about being decent and fair, and granting to others mercy as we would hope to receive it ourselves.
You can champion human life and scarcely notice the travails of lowly animals, or champion animal welfare and think nothing of the fate of the unborn, and still, by my measure, merit praise and gratitude for at least that much, for caring and trying where the need is great. Yet how much better to open our hearts to both, defending the innocent and powerless wherever they are, bringing to all creatures who have none to help them the love of their Creator, and by that example showing what it means to be pro-life all the way.
— Mr. Scully has been a speechwriter in each of the last six presidential general-election campaigns and was a special assistant to President George W. Bush. He is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.