The animal rights activist group PETA seems to have its own “ethical” problem -- urging the sacrifice of human life rather than that of laboratory animals for medical research.
Amid this week's hullabaloo over embryonic stem cell (ESC) research, which culminated in President Bush's veto of a bill overriding his limitations on federal funding of such research, curiosity got the better of me and I wondered what PETA’s position, if any, might be regarding the controversy.
I assumed that PETA most likely opposed ESC research since it necessarily involves the sacrifice of animal lives as well as human embryos.
As it turns out, PETA supports ESC research as a way to end animal research. While PETA acknowledges that “unfortunately, the majority of stem cell research is done on animals,” PETA sees the research as having “the potential to end the vast majority of animal testing.”
That seems to be quite a compromise from PETA’s usual extreme positioning with respect to so-called “animal rights” – PETA’s web site avers that “Animals are not ours to exploit” and “Animals are not ours to experiment on.”
PETA’s extremist campaign du jour is the group’s pummeling of the U.S. government for focusing on evacuating people rather than pets from war-torn Beirut.
Given that even the proponents of ESC research acknowledge that any potential success is likely decades away – meaning that uncountable numbers of animals will be sacrificed in the name of ESC research – PETA’s position on ESC research seems more an exercise in political posturing rather than a sincere and ideologically-consistent position.
The big problem with PETA’s support of ESC research, of course, is that it sanctions the notion that human embryos are expendable in the pursuit of medical research. Taking PETA’s own logic to its extreme, PETA apparently believes that it’s okay to sacrifice human life in order to save an animal life.
Not only is such a view inconsistent with the world-view of most reasonable folks, it’s also inconsistent with the publicly expressed views of PETA chief Ingrid Newkirk, who once equated humans and animals in her remarkable phrase, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”
In PETA-think, all species are equal – begging the question, can one animal species be preferentially sacrificed to save another?
So why has PETA announced such a self-contradictory position on ESC research?
On one hand, I surmise that supporting ESC research is the politically expedient thing for PETA to do – especially if it wants to continue its necessary fundraising and high-profile campaigns featuring celebrities.
Given that PETA already opposes the use of animals in medical research – historically a crucial component of much lifesaving medical research – PETA can’t also oppose ESC research without being branded as being against medical research more generally. That’s not a very helpful position for attracting supporters, especially the Hollywood-types that often become spokespersons for various disease-related causes.
PETA’s support for ESC research also exploits society’s view of animals versus human embryos, at least as embodied in law. Animal cruelty can be prosecuted criminally – and if PETA had its way, even drinking cow’s milk would be a crime – while human embryos can be legally aborted on demand.
Therein lies the problem with PETA’s core philosophy – it exalts animal life, often in trivial ways, while simultaneously devaluing human life to the point where it’s worthless.
A current PETA campaign features faded-feminist Gloria Steinem’s demand that the National Institutes of Health “end the cruelty, fraud, and waste of NIH-funded experiments on animals purportedly conducted in the name of advancing women’s health.”
Putting aside Ms. Steinem’s well-known views on the rights (or lack thereof) of human embryos, I’m not quite sure how she expects research on women’s health issues to advance without using lab animals – especially during the decades we spend waiting for progress from the pipedream that is ESC research.