C. S. Lewis loved the animal kingdom. In his space trilogy, he missed no opportunity to demonstrate his profound distaste for animal cruelty. As Lewis scholar Gerald Root has examined, he often linked such cruelty to evil characters—such as Professor Weston, a vivisectionist described in the books as “the unman.” In the Chronicles of Narnia series, Lewis illustrated how mistreating animals often leads to mistreating human beings. Recall that in The Magician’s Nephew, the callous Uncle Andrew's grotesque experiments on guinea pigs are a prelude to his experiments on the children Digory and Polly.
In his 1947 essay “Vivisection,” Lewis explored the difference between sentience and consciousness and the differences between animals and human beings. From both a philosophical and theological standpoint, Lewis believed that human beings have a responsibility toward animals. He insisted that inflicting pain requires justification, and that if the person inflicting the pain has no plausible justification, it becomes an evil act.
Lewis was clear that cruelty to human beings is an inevitable corollary when you are cruel to animals. Such unhindered cruelty, he wrote, marks “a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements. In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We chose the jungle and must abide by our choice.”
It would surely trouble Lewis to know that although our society has been moving in the right direction when it comes to animal cruelty, it has failed to make this connection between what we do to other species and what we do to our own. In the U.K., the House of Lords is debating legislation designed to prevent animal cruelty: the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. If enacted, the bill would formally recognize animals as sentient beings, and create an Animal Sentience Committee to evaluate policy changes regarding animal welfare.
If only all humans enjoyed similar defenses in English law. Alas, unborn children in the U.K. are left without such protections. When I inquired whether some of the bill's safeguards might be extended to unborn homo sapiens, I was told that the bill had been cast in such a way as to prevent this.
There is a great discrepancy between how our laws treat animals and how they treat unborn human beings. For instance, the recent Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act stipulates that animal fetuses must be killed in “humane” ways, but no parallel legal provision exists for human fetuses.
As Lewis recognized in “Vivisection,” the sentience of animals is a complex and controversial scientific topic. He argued that if you are in doubt, then you should err on the side of caution and prudence. Of course, we know far more now about animal sentience than we knew in 1947. But that new knowledge pales in significance when compared with what science has taught us about life in the womb since 1947.
Last year, I took part in an inquiry into fetal pain organized by eighteen parliamentarians from both Houses. We found that recent studies strongly suggest that unborn children may feel pain much earlier than previously thought. In an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, researchers say there is now “good evidence” that the brain and nervous system, which start developing at 12 weeks’ gestation, permit the unborn baby to feel pain. One of the researchers is a “pro-choice” British pain expert who used to think there was no chance that unborn babies could feel pain before 24 weeks. He too is now erring on the side of caution.
However, in the U.K., babies undergoing abortion at 20 weeks’ gestation “via surgical dilatation and evacuation”—described by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists as “where the foetus is removed in fragments”—are not provided with pain relief. Neither are babies aborted after 22 weeks through “foeticide, where potassium chloride is injected into the heart to cause immediate cardiac arrest.” Human Rights Watch has highlighted that potassium chloride is “excruciatingly painful if administered […] without proper anaesthesia.”
In 2018, Ross Clark, writing in The Spectator, observed that “A Martian looking at us from the outside might well conclude that it is a committee of animals which sets the terms of our political debate.” I have often remarked that when an animal arrives at Westminster’s Carriage Gates holding a placard saying “Save the Human Race,” we might wake up to the illogical nature of some of our attitudes and laws.
Those who criticize such laws risk being de-platformed or pushed into political no-man’s-land. This silencing of debate has led from illogic to ignorance. A 2013 YouGov Poll found that a shocking 17 percent of British people do not believe that human beings are alive until birth. Perhaps, given the brutal reality of abortion, they do not wish to consider the implications of the opposite being true. And government policy seems to imply the same.
I have met people who claim to be great champions of animal rights, and yet are vehemently in favor of abortion—including some who are trying to amend the law to allow abortion in all circumstances right up to birth. We rightly celebrate when charity is offered to animals who suffer from a particular injury or disability, yet we allow abortion up to birth for human beings with any kind of disability, including cleft lip, cleft palate, or club foot—to say nothing of Down syndrome. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticized Britain’s discriminatory permissions for disability-selective abortions and has suggested legislation must be amended. But don’t hold your breath and expect the U.K. to do this any time soon. We have come perilously close to self-hatred—hatred of our own species.
As Lewis once wrote, every day we have to choose between “becoming a creature of splendid glory or one of unthinkable horror,” and those “who keep silence hurt more.”
Lord David Alton is a member of the House of Lords of the United Kingdom.
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