The public relations staff of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) must think themselves very clever. Earlier this month, in an effort to grab the attention of Americans preparing to celebrate Memorial Day, the animal rights group barbequed a topless woman in downtown Houston on a fake grill adorned with the slogan, Meat Is Murder.
When I saw photos of the stunt, I thought to myself, If PETA are this worried about the murder of cows and pigs they must really get hot about the murder of innocent human babies. I supposed I wasnt the first person to have had the thought, but I was surprised to find an entire entry in the Frequently Asked Questions section of PETAs website:
PETA does not have a position on the abortion issue, because our focus as an organization is the alleviation of the suffering inflicted on nonhuman animals. There are people on both sides of the abortion issue in the animal rights movement, just as there are people on both sides of animal rights issues in the pro-life movement. And just as the pro-life movement has no official position on animal rights, neither does the animal rights movement have an official position on abortion.
I couldnt help but note the rhetorical switch in the second sentence, which begins with a reference to both sides of the abortion issue but ends with a pivot to the pro-life movement. No mention is made of the distribution of views on animal rights within the pro-choice movement. The author of this paragraph presumably thinks only one side of the abortion issue has anything to answer for; there is only one side from which PETA needs to distance itself.
This is telling in itself. For the people at PETA realize precisely that all humans are animals. That if theyre going to call the death of livestock murder, people will expect them to react at least as violently to the deliberate taking of unborn human life. Surely they do not think that children in the womb are nonentities entitled to none of the legal protections or moral considerations that PETA would extend to ducks, goats, and chickens?
While PETA appears to acknowledge an affinity between the pro-life and animal rights movements, there is in fact a profound difference. The pro-life movement makes a limited and narrow claim: all members of the human species deserve life. PETA, however, makes a much broader claim”that all animals deserve life and respect.
PETA unwittingly trips in its own wires here. The organization advocates extending rights and protections to nonhuman animals of the lowest order (they even sell a $12 humane bug catcher that is perfect for the compassionate person who wouldn’t hurt a fly), but explicitly takes no position on the protection of unborn humans. The obvious question, then, becomes: Is a fetus not an animal? With the current abortion debate no longer revolving around the question of when life begins but rather the question of precisely when legal protections should affix to a fetus, the pro-abortion crowd have ceded the minimal point that the unborn are at least animals, if not fully human.
This leaves PETA in a bind, and they appear to know it. Their defensive approach to the pro-life side betrays an understandable sensitivity to the charge that their concern for animals is not matched by a similar regard for their own species. In fact, a couple of years ago the group tried to hijack the term pro-life with plan to erect billboards in various cities reading, Pro-life? Go Vegan. In a 2010 press release, PETA vice president Bruce Friedrich was quoted saying, Everyone who is pro-life has the opportunity to show it every time he or she sits down to eat”by choosing a vegetarian diet.
I suspect this cognitive dissonance causes some quiet consternation among PETAs ranks, but that acknowledging it publicly might mean theyd have to give up their imagined moral leverage, and that theyd lose the support of significant celebrity and financial backers who dont want to follow their protect-everything impulse to its logical conclusion.
Asserting moral equivalency between a meat packing plant and a Planned Parenthood clinic is absurd. If the animal rights movement expects to have its moral claims taken at all seriously, it should make an effort to resolve these contradictions. If they do, I suspect they will reluctantly recognize the unacceptability of abortion rather than reject their own outlandish claims about the humane treatment of flies.
And that will be a lovely day for all of Gods creatures.
Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor who lives in New Canaan, CT. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHennessey.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .