Why not broaden our awareness of suffering?
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.
This cursus honorum of pro-life commitment 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 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.
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, 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 anymore 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 hard-core 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 the two was similar: You just don’t treat life that way. 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.
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. 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, at St. Peter’s, 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 Saint Francis, whose “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?
Consider “mass confinement” farming, the literal “locking up of all creatures” that John Paul II said it was necessary and urgent that we abandon. Just one feature of an “intensive farming” system that is now the norm, mass confinement for pigs began in the 1960s when some devil 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 stay there endlessly, never knowing the feel of soil, the warmth of the sun, or the least touch of human kindness. And, of course, the tighter the gestation crates, the more “production units” — mothers — could be packed in for maximum profit. 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.
There’s just the one downside that pig farms, in North Carolina and now the world over, resemble concentration camps. 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 have meanwhile been dispensing with similar inconveniences in similar fashion. 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.” 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. “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. 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 conveyor-belt ride, alive and fully conscious, into the grinder. This is considered an acceptable cost of egg production–“standard practice,” as Associated Press was assured by an Iowa hatchery, “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 use my skills for . . . the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering”) as Dr. Gosnell was to the Hippocratic oath.
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 mind-set 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 conveys 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.”
If thoughts of pain are what trouble you, “ag-science” can help there, too, with sober studies laboring to prove that farm animals don’t experience pain or even fear. 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. 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?) 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.
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. Abortion advocates, with their talk of “fetal matter” and “non-autonomous entities,” are working the same philosophical ground as critics of the animal-protection cause, with their theories explaining why animals are “un-self-aware beings,” “non-rightholders,” or “inappropriate objects of sympathy.”
In a column on the Gosnell trial and all the euphemisms it blew away, 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.” As columnist 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. 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. 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.
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. 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 ways of treating them, are purely conventional, the technical term for meaningless. Appeals to convention may be well and good in matters of taste or social etiquette. But if we are being morally rigorous, then citing “custom” is 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.
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. 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. 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.
All of this reasoning works in reverse, of course. Though quite a few friends of mine involved in the animal-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? In what moral universe does it makes sense to protect a 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 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 calling is to speak for the voiceless, shouldn’t your sympathies at least tend in that direction?
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 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.”
It is fitting that an eloquent pro-life Christian woman should offer this insight. The whole animal-protection movement began, in Western societies, with the consciences 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 its early American counterparts and you’ll find that they began with the mission of abolishing slavery and protecting women and children from exploitation, 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 Judeo-Christian compassion for animals, to consistently uphold 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? 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. This piece is adapted from a longer essay published on October 7 at National Review Online.