Is the animal-rights movement beginning to fracture? The evidence definitely points in that direction. Liberationists have been engaged recently in some nasty infighting over basic issues of ideology and the propriety of violent and intimidating protest tactics. Indeed, the antipathy among the various factions seems to have grown so intense that the animal-rights movement could soon segregate into antagonistic camps.
A shattering blow accelerating this potential disintegration may have just been struck — ironically, by Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, who is often called the godfather of animal rights because of the popularity of his 1975 book, Animal Liberation
. A primary goal of animal-rights advocacy is to end all use of animals in medical experiments. But this week, in a BBC documentary on animal research, Singer unexpectedly endorsed
the use of monkeys in a series of brain surgery experiments that culminated in the development of a promising treatment to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. When Tipu Aziz, the researcher who experimented on the monkeys, told Singer, “To date 40,000 people have been made better with this [procedure], and…I would guess only 100 monkeys were used at a few laboratories,” the bioethicist replied, “Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment.”
Supporting brain experiments on 100 monkeys to benefit 40,000 humans does not entail a break on Singer’s part with his overall utilitarian philosophy. Still, it is a far cry from Singer’s previous statements decrying animal experimentation. In his 1990 update of Animal Liberation, for example, Singer called medical research with animals an odious form of “speciesism” and urged that “the interests of animals” be “given equal consideration with similar interest of human beings.” The consequences of this paradigm shift, he wrote, would “mean the end of the vast industry of animal experimentation” and the replacement of animals in experiments with human volunteers. Singer’s judgment about animal research was unequivocal: “Surely,” he wrote, “one day our children’s children, reading about what was done in laboratories in the twentieth century, will feel the same sense of horror and incredulity at what otherwise civilized people could do that we now feel when we read about the atrocities of the Roman gladiatorial arenas or the eighteenth-century slave trade.”
The context in which Singer gave his blessing to primate research is also worth noting. Professor Aziz and his employer, Oxford University, have been targeted in a sustained campaign of harassment, threats, and intimidation by radical U.K. liberationists. (Aziz admits fearing for his life.) Indeed, Oxford’s plan to build a new primate testing laboratory unleashed from liberationists such a frenzy of terrorizing activities that they succeeded in driving construction workers away from the Oxford project in July 2004. Building was finally resumed last December, but even now construction workers wear masks when they arrive on site to avoid being identified and having their families targeted.
Throughout this ordeal, the Oxford protestors have insisted that animal research is essentially useless — a demonstrably false assertion that is nevertheless a central tenet of liberationist dogma. But now, with Peter Singer of all people agreeing with Aziz that his monkey experiments led directly to the alleviation of much human suffering, willful delusion and intentional deception are the only explanations for the liberationists’ dismissal of research.
So how will the story of Singer’s apostasy ultimately play out? I raised the issue with two committed activists who are on opposite sides of the animal liberation controversy: Gary Francione, a professor at Rutgers University Law School and an internationally famous vegan activist, and David Martosko, the director of research for the industry-financed Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization that has been very effective in opposing animal-rights activism.
Francione is one of the few admirable leaders of the animal-rights movement. He has integrity (for example, he acknowledges that animal testing does result in at least some human benefit), he is utterly committed to peaceful persuasion, and he believes in leadership by example, urging his supporters to lead fully vegan lifestyles as a way to convince the rest of us to accept the belief that “all sentient beings have a fundamental moral right not to be treated exclusively as a resource.”
Francione told me via e-mail that animal-rights/liberation activists had already split between those “who express their beliefs in a quiet and non-violent way in their daily lives through being vegan, doing animal rescues, etc,” and what he called “the movement,” consisting of large groups such as PETA, which he sees as “more of a cult than a political and social movement.” Since he sees Singer as being part of the latter category, he says, “It simply doesn’t matter what Singer said. He is the leader of the cult. I suspect that other than possibly causing [Ingrid] Newkirk [the head of PETA] to announce an ‘I’d rather go naked than have Parkinson’s’ campaign to further fill PETA’s coffers, and my getting hate mail from ‘animal rights’ people who think I am a heretic for criticizing Singer, nothing much will happen.”
Martosko sees things similarly, although he believes that Singer “will find himself a pariah in some animal-rights circles.” And indeed, a quick check of the blogosphere in the wake of Singer’s statement shows that the more radical minions of animal liberation are not in the least amused. For example, Arkangel: For Animal Liberation, a website that warns, “The contents of this website … should not be used to commit any criminal acts or harassment,” growled that Singer “talks rubbish and the sooner the notion that he has any place in the modern animal rights movement is dispelled the better.”
Major animal-rights groups will adjust to Singer’s support for primate research. Some will embrace Singer’s statement, according to Martosko, as evidence of a “moderate third way between the PETAs of the world and the biomedical researchers they secretly despise,” while others will oppose Singer as a way of ensuring access to liberationists’ bounteous contributions: “As long as there is money to be made,” Martosko told me, “PETA will adapt. Heck, they might even start protesting outside Singer’s Princeton office until he sees the ‘error of his ways.’”
I think Singer’s validation of monkey experimentation will actually make bigger waves. Francione’s bitterness — and he is not alone — speaks loudly of a movement already at odds with itself. And given Singer’s prominence, his pro-research statement will surely undermine the general liberationist meme that animal experimentation is useless, as well as cruel, and hence an equivalent evil to the research conducted by Mengele in the concentration camps. Better still, his apostasy should exacerbate the movement’s ongoing splintering, a development most earnestly to be wished. After all, the less effective animal-rights/liberation advocacy is, the less likely we will ever perceive human beings as merely another animal in the forest.
— Wesley J. Smith, a frequent contributor to NRO, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His website is www.wesleyjsmith.com.