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Opinion How much cruelty is a pork chop worth?

A hog inside a holding pen at a farm near Elliott, Iowa, in December 2021. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

“Out of sight, out of mind” has served humans well in the modern meat market, where neatly packaged animal parts protect us from the inhumane realities of industrialized animal “production.”

Once seen, the methods of procurement cannot be unseen, and we’re forced to make a choice: Do we shrug and buy meat that has been created inhumanely, or do we demand that industry adapt a means of production to reflect a moral people?

This is essentially the question the Supreme Court must entertain in a case filed by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation, two lobbying groups, in response to a 2018 California law (Proposition 12) banning the sale of meat and eggs within the state from animals raised in extreme confinement.

The pork lobby, seemingly aiming for the hearts of anti-Californiacs across the country, claims that because it buys most of its pork from other states, the industry would have to reinvent itself just for California. Nice try. I’d think most Americans everywhere would be relieved to know such practices were discontinued. Besides, the Center for a Humane Economy reports that about 34 percent of pork production is accomplished without the use of gestation crates.

Let me explain what the rest of the pork industry is trying to protect: Five-hundred-pound pregnant sows are confined in a metal crate sized to fit their bodies. For 16 weeks of gestation, the sows can’t turn around or stretch their legs. When they’re ready to give birth, the pigs are taken to the “Farrowing Barn” for a week to 10 days where they deliver their tiny progeny. The piglets scramble through another confined space to suckle their mothers, who are soon returned to the Gestation Barn for another round of 16-week torture.

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And so it goes for about eight litters, if the sow makes it that long, after which her miserable life on Earth is put to an end.

Is a pork chop worth all that?

The summary above comes from Matthew Scully, a former senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush, whose 2002 book, “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy,” documented the plight of gestating sows and foreshadowed the argument in an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case that will be argued next week. Such practices, sadly, continue. In addition to Scully, the brief is co-written by two other prominent conservative thinkers — Notre Dame law professor O. Carter Snead, who is also director of the university’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and journalist Mary Eberstadt, a senior research fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute.

These three public thinkers approached the issue from a philosophical/ethical/theological perspective, tracing the human race’s evolving relationship with our fellow creatures, from Aristotle through the various faith traditions to today’s animal welfare movements. Their premise — and conclusion — is that man’s dominion over animals is precisely why we owe them protection from cruelty and suffering.

The pork industry has its own slate of powerful friends, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the pharmaceutical industry and producers of foie gras — goose or duck liver cruelly created by force-feeding the animals to fatten their livers.

Their legal argument focuses on what’s known as the “dormant commerce clause,” or the implied prohibition in the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause against states passing legislation that excessively interferes with interstate commerce.

Given that about two-thirds of pork production in this country employs gestational crates and that some producers would no doubt be financially burdened by having to dispense with them, the industry’s argument has surface appeal. But key players, including Tyson Foods, have conceded that they can supply all of California’s needs with existing crate-free capacity. Independent economists, in a separate pleading to the court, have concluded the impact on the industry to be negligible.

Also, the dormant commerce clause provides an exception for moral imperatives.

Pigs obviously aren’t the same as widgets or computer chips. They are living creatures whose treatment, in fact, poses a moral conflict for a majority (63 percent) of Californians. Thus, the arguments advanced by Scully, Snead and Eberstadt could be pivotal. As the three made clear in their brief, there is centuries-old moral precedent that human beings should shield animals from suffering. Not that one animal deserves more protection than another, but research cited in the brief has shown that pigs are as social and intelligent as dogs or dolphins. We would never avert our eyes from dogs being treated the way pregnant pigs are.

Thus, the justices that make up the high court’s conservative majority have a rare opportunity to align themselves not only with their liberal counterparts but with some of history’s greatest ethicists and philosophers. The law provides a way to end a ruthless means of food production. In the process, they would be helping create a humane economy while also reminding us that our human — and humane — bonds are stronger than financial incentives or arguments of inconvenience.

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