The trivialization of compassion

Posted: May 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Thirty years ago, bioethicist Peter Singer wrote for the New York Review of Books a piece titled "Animal Liberation." With it, the animal-rights movement was born.

Singer wrote in the Guardian last week about his struggle against the prejudice of "species-ism," in calling for animal liberation he wanted to say that "just as we needed to overcome prejudices against black people, women and gays, so too we should strive to overcome our prejudices against non-human animals."

A new Gallup Poll suggests that the animal rights movement is gaining popularity: 25 percent of Americans polled agreed with the statement that "animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation," while 35 percent strongly or somewhat support a ban on medical research on laboratory animals.

OK. Just figure most of the "yes" respondents aren't the smartest pigs on the farm. They apparently hadn't figured out that if animals can claim the same rights as people, there would be no ranching and no meat on the table. (A Time/CNN poll found that 4 percent of Americans call themselves vegetarians, but 37 percent of those "vegetarians" had eaten red meat within the previous 24 hours.)

Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, has a kinder take on the poll results. When people say that they support equal rights for animals, she said, "they really mean that they want animals to be treated humanely" -- not equally.

Fair enough. This is a country that boasts countless cat books and legions of dog lovers. Most people don't believe in the gratuitous mistreatment of animals, because it's cruel. It's that simple.

The PR-geniuses at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a radical animal rights organization in Norfolk, Va., have harnessed Americans' laudable love of animals, however, to advance a philosophy that is hazardous to human health: the equal treatment of animals.

The allure is obvious -- there's a strong sense of purity in the animal-rights movement. As PETA styles it, the battle is between good people -- those who are sensitive to the pain of meek animals -- and bad people -- those who would defend using animals for food and research. At first blush, the animal lover seems more humane.

But listen more carefully, and the humanity fades. "When it comes to feelings like hunger, pain and thirst," PETA top dog Ingrid Newkirk told The New Yorker when asked about using animals for medical research, "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

It's odd how the PETA-philes defend animals, but oppose allowing humans to eat meat like the omnivores we are. Then again, there is a strong element of people-hating in the animal-rights' movement.

You can see it in Newkirk's rat-equals-boy statement. She also told The New Yorker that the world would be a better place without people.

Singer, the bioethicist, is even more cold-blooded. He advocates infanticide. "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all," Singer wrote. What's a "defective" infant? Let the parent decide.

Singer later explained to Reason magazine how his philosophy related to hemophiliac children or other disabled children who can be helped with medical technology: "If the consequences of keeping the baby alive are that you have to go to enormous trouble and spend hundreds of thou sands of dollars to keep it alive, then that's a morally different choice from if all you have to do is spend $20 a week, or whatever."

This is Singer's view of advanced morality: Thousands of human lives aren't worth hundreds of thousands of lab animals' lives, but one sick child isn't inherently worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Stanford University Medical Center neurobiologist William Newsome was not happy to hear about the Gallup Poll answers. "If such a ban on research with animals had been put in place, for example, in the year 1903, rather than 2003, everyone that any American knows with Type 1 diabetes would be dead now, every one that any American knows who has had open-heart surgery would not have had open-heart surgery, that many kinds of cancer, many common infections that are treated with antibiotics, would be deadly now."

Indeed, Trull's group has been under such fire for supporting research that saves human lives that it has launched a campaign to advertise how animal research is saving animals' lives.

Why? Because when Trull's association conducted research, it found that more people supported animal research to help animals than supported animal research to help humans.

It has come to this.