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.