Beyond Britain's fox-hunting ban

In the United States, the Supreme Court has refused to overturn a ban on cockfighting in the state of Oklahoma. Only two states now allow the sport, New Mexico and Louisiana, and activists have set their sights on introducing bans there as well.

In Australia, pressure from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an international lobby group, has forced the wool industry to end the practice of mulesing, or removing wool-bearing skin from the sheep's backside. Lobbying by PETA has already forced leading US retailer Abercrombie & Fitch to ditch Australian wool products and the wool industry fears that other high-profile chains such as Gap or Benetton will follow.

As respect for vulnerable human life grows weaker, animals (or rather, their human proxies) grow more aggressive and violent.

But it was Britain that experienced the most dramatic change. Overturning centuries of tradition, the House of Commons voted to ban fox hunting. The issue has been a political football for a long time. In September 2002, 400,000 hunting supporters marched through London in one of the biggest protests in 150 years. But so determined was Tony Blair to see the bill passed that a 1949 law was dusted off to override opposition in the House of Lords, a strong-arm tactic which had only been used three times before.

If the ban survives a legal challenge and threats of massive civil disobedience from disgruntled huntsmen, the picture postcard view of British life will change forever. No more baying hounds in pursuit of a terrified fox. No more horns echoing in the autumn chill. No more scarlet-coated horsemen and women leaping railed fences.

This may not bring a tear to the eyes of readers who feel, with Oscar Wilde, that "the English country gentleman galloping after a fox [is] the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable". You might think that the ban is just cheap political horse-trading on Tony Blair's part -- a bone thrown to the left wing of the Labor Party in exchange for its glum acquiescence in his support for the war in Iraq -- but this happens every day in politics. You might think that the extinction of a superannuated sport affects only a fraction of the British electorate (who vote for the Tories anyway), so it doesn't matter.

But you would be wrong. When taken in conjunction with other strands in Blair's legislative program, the ban on fox-hunting is far more significant. Astonishingly, on the day before the bill was passed, the prime minister set forth his plans to make Britain the science capital of the world. "Stem cell research is just one example of a new area of science which has tremendous potential to improve quality of life and where the UK can lead the world," he burbled. And lest anyone mention ethics, he added sternly, "We will not stop this research."

It is strange that the media overlooked the irony: on Wednesday a government announced the destruction of embryos on an industrial scale for the sake of an unproven science and on Thursday it bent the law to save the lives of a few hundred chicken-stealing foxes. In fact, there is a direct relationship between the movement for animal rights and mistreatment of embryos. Drug testing on embryonic stem cells will become more necessary if fewer animals are available for it. A tectonic shift in ethical values is under way in Britain.

How could this happen in a country which prides itself as a beacon of Western culture?

The mainspring of the change is the breakdown of what it means to be a person. Formerly, only persons were deemed to have rights. But now the thread which linked human rights together in a coherent order has snapped. Determining personhood has become an exercise of political power: animals have some rights, embryos have virtually no rights, the full extent of the rights of the dying and seriously disabled are in dispute.

It might seem impossible for us to lose a sense of what it means to be a human being. But it's not. As the Australian poet James McAuley reflected, "If anyone thinks that this notion of the 'person', with all it implies, is something that comes automatically and universally, and does not have to be learned, and learned by heart, he has not understood his own civilization." The loss of this sense affects all of us. Muslim terrorism, which has turned the world upside down since September 11, is a war declared by extremists on infidel non-persons.

Ideas have consequences. Some people who have lost their ability to recognize humanity bomb trains, embassies and office blocks. Others made a hash of medical research policy. Blair's agenda illustrates this in spades. Alongside his push for embryo research, he is also tackling vandalism to animal research centers and threats to their employees by animal rights extremists. As respect for vulnerable human life grows weaker, animals (or rather, their human proxies) grow more aggressive and violent.

In fact, the very medical research which Blair wants to promote is being hemmed in by the growing strength of animal welfare groups. There is an acute shortage of primates nowadays, even though these are the only suitable animals for some types of research. Some grant proposals are being turned down simply because there are not enough animals to study. One sign of the shortage is that researchers, especially in the US, often have to perform successive independent studies on the same animals -- sometimes as often as six or seven times.

The Lancet, the world's leading medical journal, recently felt it necessary to plead that "the use of animals in medical research and safety testing is a vital part of the quest to improve human health... without animal testing there will be no new drugs for new or hard-to-treat diseases... Animal research is an essential part of compassionate humanistic endeavour."

It's an argument which makes perfect sense -- at least for everyone who acknowledges the unique dignity of every human being. But as the ability to discern that fades, we can expect both less respect for vulnerable human life and more encroachment upon medical research by animal rights activists.

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator. 


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