Killing has dominated the news for the last few weeks. An angry debate has raged juxtaposing the harvesting of fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood abortionists with the trophy hunting of “Cecil” the Zimbabwean lion. Both stories provide fascinating insights into our society’s moral state.

Cecil was hunted—if luring a carnivore with a carcass can be called that—to obtain a triumphant photo and a head to mount on a wall. The kill cannot be justified from an animal welfare perspective, nor did it much (if at all) benefit the people involved. Cecil’s death was slow and painful. (After an arrow wounded him, it took forty hours to track him down and put him out of his misery.)

Trophy hunts were once the subjects of lore. But moral views have changed significantly since Theodor Roosevelt and Earnest Hemingway were considered valorous for hunting exotic animals. Today, there is, in general, greater empathy for animals, and most recoil at the thought of causing them pain. Thus, while a few may be able to justify turning animals like Cecil into trophies, most people (including me) are disgusted.

Of course, the animal rights crowd has gone to predictable extremes. The ever-radical PETA called for the hunter to be “preferably hanged.”

PETA seems to believe that killing Cecil was no different than murdering a human being.

But an animal can’t be murdered. Legally, murder is defined as a homicide, which this wasn’t. Even more important, we should never equate the killing of an animal, no matter how cruel the method, to murdering a human being. The evil of murder is far greater, and we must not diminish it by the inapt comparison.

There is one final piece of the Cecil imbroglio we need to consider: Why, precisely, were so many people so outraged at his killing? Humans respond very powerfully to visual imagery. Cecil was a magnificent specimen of a majestic animal—the mature male lion, king of the beasts. Had the now-despised trophy-seeking dentist hunted a wart hog instead, fewer would have cared.

The same impetus is, at least to some degree, responsible for the depth of outrage at the recent Planned Parenthood scandal. Consider how many anti–Planned Parenthood stories and social media posts were accompanied by sweet pictures of babies.

But human organ harvests are nothing new. Over the years, there have been multiple stories of born people being killed and reaped. In China, for example, Falun Gong and other political and criminal prisoners are widely thought to be tissue-typed and executed for their organs in the country’s odious black-market organ trade, recently reported to be worth $1 billion annually.

Where is the flaring outrage over that? People don’t support such crimes, to be sure, but the victims are anonymous. Of course, so are fetuses—but there are no “aww”-inducing images to stand in these people’s stead, which might explain why protests against the Chinese organ harvests have not gone viral like those decrying Planned Parenthood.

Based on the raw emotions expressed, one might conclude that killing Cecil was worse than harvesting fetuses, and both far more odious than killing born people for their organs. That is why we can’t rely solely on emotions for judging right and wrong.

But “the wisdom of repugnance” (a term coined by the splendid Leon Kass) certainly has its place. In this regard, consider how Planned Parenthood apologists defend fetal scavenging as providing an essential good for medical science—as if that were the only consideration. Indeed, if utilitarian benefit is all that matters, why not conduct experiments on living fetuses? Think about the scientific knowledge such research could provide!

Oh Wesley, we would never go that far! Yes, we would. In fact, we already have.

In the late 1960s, scientists openly experimented on living fetuses, even receiving federal funding for the work. These unethical studies were revisited in Pamela Winnick’s fine 2006 book, A Jealous God: Science’s Crusade Against Religion. One such experiment was described by Winnick: “A twenty-six-week-old fetus, weighing more than a pound, was obtained from a fourteen-year-old girl, presumably from a therapeutic abortion. Along with fourteen other fetuses, it was immersed in a liquid containing oxygen and kept alive a full five hours.” Appallingly, the researcher won the Foundation Prize Award from the American Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

When these experiments came to public light, there was an uproar—to the point that the NIH cut off further funding in 1974 after a concerted pressure campaign led by the Kennedy family. Would there be such universal condemnation today?

I doubt it. The experiments mostly took place before Roe v. Wade, when most people still believed that unborn life had significant moral meaning. Forty-two years and more than 50 million abortions have since withered our moral sensibilities; the Kennedys’ political party doesn’t seem to care that Planned Parenthood abortionists chirpily discussed facilitating organ harvests by “crushing” fetuses in a “less crunchy” manner.

Or maybe it is just a matter of numbers. Stalin famously quipped about his starving countrymen, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Perhaps in the twenty-first century, that aphorism also applies to lions—and to fetuses.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patient’s Rights Council.

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