Must Pro-lifers Oppose Cruelty to Animals?

Matthew Scully has an excellent, challenging piece in National Review Online, in which he compares the anti-abortion cause to opposing cruelty toward animals (quite convincingly) and makes the case for veganism (not so much).

Catholic thought is embedded throughout Scully’s essay. Scully cites Vatican statements from the last three popes that affirm humanity’s responsibility to respect God’s creatures and reject their degradation and commodification. He cites Catholics Mary Eberstadt and Charlie Camosy (and Camosy’s new book For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action). He also contrasts Catholic Congressman Chris Smith, a champion of both unborn children and mistreated animals (not to mention a strong proponent of human rights) with Catholic Congressman Steve King, whom he describes as an apologist for animal cruelty, whose record on animal rights can only be considered morally revolting.

He makes a compelling case regarding the cruelties and horrors of factory farming, the complete disregard for the basic welfare of animals. The justifications for such cruelties seem to ring as hollow as the case for abortion on demand, and the parallels in the thought processes of those who favor avoiding what morality clearly demands are also clear. The argument is never that such actions are morally good, just that they are necessary for our material well-being.  He is correct that kindness and mercy (and the demands of justice and morality) should take priority over personal preference, convenience, and cost efficiency.  The case for greater government regulations against animal cruelty and a strong enforcement of such laws is strong and compelling, and pro-lifers and Catholics should be on the front lines of this fight.

But does that mean we should all embrace veganism? His case for veganism is far less compelling, as it fails to address two major problems that are not unrelated. First, it ignores the reality that human beings are naturally omnivores. This is beyond dispute and something that cannot simply be wished away. Second, it ignores the fact that many vegetarians, especially vegans and working-class vegetarians, suffer from nutritional deficiencies and health problems. Scully argues that there are healthier alternatives to meat and that veganism is not simply for the privileged, immediately after pointing to the example of Bill Clinton. Surely veganism would be a lot more feasible if we all had Bill Clinton’s resources, but the reality is that such a specialized diet requires both time and money, both of which are in short supply for many poor and middle-class Americans. While I do not think his case is compelling, I nevertheless admire his veganism as an ethical response to endemic cruelty.

Instead of veganism, perhaps the answer on the personal level is “selective consumerism” or “selective consumption,” the act of showing a greater concern for ensuring that what we purchase is made ethically (in this case, that the meat we consume is not the product of wanton cruelty). This too may take time, money, and perhaps require other sacrifices, but a more ethical participation in the market would seem to be a duty and can potentially shift the behavior of those interested in retaining their business.