This week brought with it a strange convergence. The story of surreptitious Planned Parenthood videos that appeared to show a doctor haggling with potential buyers over prices for fetal body parts and the story of an American dentist killing Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe collided in an Internet frenzy of charges and countercharges over moral priorities.
Animal rights activists and anti-abortion advocates started criticizing each other for their misplaced outrage on social media. Then the debate moved onto a wider media stage.
Rush Limbaugh bemoaned the fact some would "cry over Cecil the lion but shrug off Planned Parenthood." Conservative media watchers claimed major networks covered Cecil the lion more in one day than they covered the Planned Parenthood story in two weeks. Even presidential candidate Marco Rubio chimed in, criticizing what he considered to be a disproportionate Cecil vs. Planned Parenthood reaction.
Media on the left quickly responded. Mother Jones called Limbaugh and Rubio "the same blend of crazy." Jill Filipovic, a lawyer and a former senior political writer at Cosmopolitan.com. tweeted, "Why yes I do think bribing someone & illegally killing a wild animal is worse than facilitating legal, life-saving medical research." Salon said that "desperate conservatives are trying another tactic to compel Americans to care about their little publicity stunt."
These kinds of reactions are a huge missed opportunity. The confluence of these two stories, instead of creating even more right/left polarization, could actually work in the opposite direction. They are an opportunity for understanding and even common ground.
Consider the views of those who care deeply about animal rights. What drives them? Animals are helpless creatures, often subject to terrible violence, and they cannot speak for themselves. Their dignity and value are quite inconvenient for those who want to exploit them, and their needs are pushed to the margins of our culture. Indeed, we are rarely forced to confront the dignity of animals, especially animals we eat. This is what drives the passion of activists in their attempts to speak for voiceless animals. And in their zeal to bring us face to face with animal suffering, tellingly, they regularly use undercover videos. These videos have been quite successful in bringing some terrible realities to light – for example, the conditions of chickens in the worst factory farms.
Anti-abortion activists are driven in similar ways. Prenatal children are also helpless and often subject to terrible violence. They obviously cannot speak for themselves. Their dignity and value are inconvenient for those who want abortion to be broadly legal and who want to use fetal tissue for research. They too are largely invisible, though this is changing because of ultrasound imagery and smartphone applications that can listen to a baby's heartbeat in the womb. Words like "fetus," "tissue" and "products of conception" help keep the reality of abortion at bay. But as we have now seen with the Planned Parenthood story, anti-abortion activists have also been successful in using undercover videos in bringing terrible reality to light – what in one setting is called the "products of conception" in another is a "baby bump," and the antiseptic "tissue" means functioning organs.
This is not to say the two issues are morally equivalent. They aren't. But the moral dispositions and motivations of animal rights and anti-abortion activists are actually quite similar. The lazy liberal/conservative binary currently coloring hyper-polarized American politics simply doesn't work.
Happily, more and more people are making this connection. Matthew Scully, once a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has come out in National Review as a pro-life, vegan conservative. Pope Francis also thinks about these two issues together. In his ecology encyclical Laudato Si, Francis laments a culture that "sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one's own immediate interests" and "treats others as mere objects." He says that we must resist practices of the "throwaway culture," practices that include buying and selling of animals for their fur and "eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted."
The reductive left-right battle positions assumed this week may not survive much longer, at least on these two issues. Millennials — understood as those who came of age in the first decade of the 2000s —lean more in the direction of Pope Francis than Fox News or Salon. One in five young people in Britain (ages 16 to 24) are on vegan or vegetarian diets, and 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. are disproportionately skeptical of medical research on animals. At the same time, millennials are more likely to be anti-abortion than their elders. According to National Journal, for instance, 52% of 18- to 29-year-olds support banning abortion beyond 20 weeks while only 44% of those over 50 support such a ban.
Instead of animal rights advocates and anti-abortion advocates snarkily dismissing each other, they might find that their similar values can start a sophisticated and useful moral debate. Everyone loses in the culture wars—especially the vulnerable and voiceless.
MORE FROM OPINION