Caring for Animals as a Pro-Life Ethic
By Charles Camosy
Applying our principles consistently—including when it comes to violence against voiceless non-human animals—makes the pro-life movement more effective, not less. Especially with the people we most need to get on board. But I can imagine a critic saying: “It is one thing to give equal weight to human beings under threat from abortion and human beings under threat from gangs. Maybe we can get on board with that, but we could never get on board with giving the same kind of priority to non-human animals. Yes, we treat them badly, and maybe we should try to treat them better, but it is not the pro-life movement’s main concern. We have, as it were, bigger fish to fry.”
In responding to such a critic, we should first agree that human animals are more important than non-human animals, but also note just how close many of them are to us. Great apes use a 500-word vocabulary to express complex ideas, third order reflection, the love they have for their pets, and musings about anticipation of future holidays. Whales and elephants understand death and appear to engage in mourning rituals when someone close to them dies. Pigs are more social and intelligent than dogs and can even play simple video games.
But the majority of non-human animals, though perhaps more sophisticated than we care to know, are significantly lower on the hierarchy of being than are human beings. And we agree that issues which threaten the life of non-human animals are not as morally serious as issues which threaten the lives of human beings. But we focus on the evil of factory farms not only because they kill billions of vulnerable animals, but as the most important contributors to global climate change, they pose a grave threat to human beings. Even someone with no concern for the moral status of non-human animals at all should still refuse to support factory farms on that basis alone.
…we focus on the evil of factory farms not only because they kill billions of vulnerable animals, but as the most important contributors to global climate change, they pose a grave threat to human beings. Even someone with no concern for the moral status of non-human animals at all should still refuse to support factory farms on that basis alone.
But what about the very idea of concern for non-human animals in themselves? Does it belong in the pro-life movement?
Few active pro-lifers focus on a single issue. While almost all focus on abortion, nearly as many focus on euthanasia. A good number focus on human trafficking and the death penalty. Suppose a rare single-issue pro-lifer bucked the trend by arguing that it is inappropriate to focus on the relatively tiny number of deaths by euthanasia or the death penalty when compared to the 50-plus million killed via abortion in the United States since Roe v. Wade. Especially because prenatal children are innocent, cannot speak up in their own defense, and are killed without consent, these other issues—while important—don’t rise to the level of seriousness of abortion.
Other pro-lifers would agree that abortion is the gravest of life issues, but also note that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Their concern for life issues in not a zero-sum game. Pro-lifers of various stripes can be called to work on many different issues without weakening their abortion witness.
And again, broadening one’s pro-life stance often makes such witness stronger. The well-known pro-life conservative Mary Eberstadt, for instance, wrote an article for First Things titled, “Pro-Animal, Pro-Life.” In it she links concern for non-human animals with concern for prenatal children and abortion. Though she notes that for decades conservatives have bashed animal activists, Eberstadt says that arguments on behalf of non-human animals are not easily dismissed and can easily be connected to abortion. In a remarkable passage, she suggests that animal activists and pro-lifers “are strangers to one another for reasons of accident rather than essence, and they also, furthermore, have a natural bond in moral intuitionism that should make them allies.” No serious person who knows her public anti-abortion witness and activism believes Eberstadt is watering them down by writing this piece. Or that she was equating these two issues. Rather, as a serious pro-lifer, following her principles wherever they lead her, she became an even more authentic and powerful pro-life presence.
The concern for life issues in not a zero-sum game.
And Eberstadt is not the only Christian thinker to reflect seriously on the moral status of non-human animals. Giants in the Christian tradition like William Wilberforce and C.S. Lewis, for instance, took concern for animals more seriously that you may have realized. Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has joined other Evangelical leaders in assigning this issue serious moral and spiritual weight. Along with the faith outreach office of the Humane Society of the United States, I’ve convened a meeting of US Bishops to discuss theological and moral matters related to non-human animals. It is one of the hottest topics in academic Christian theology, regardless of political or theological bent.
Pro-lifers need to become a more consistent part of this conversation. Not just because we have much to contribute. Not just because it will offer strategic partnerships. But ultimately because this is where consistent application of our principles takes us.
Charles Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. His work on ethics and policy moves beyond stale and lazy arguments which artificially pit liberals and conservatives against each other. Instead, Camosy finds common ground by unpacking the real complexities of some of today’s most passionately debated issues. This excerpt is taken from his book, Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People, and is reprinted here by permission from New City Press.