Picture credit: Getty

Why do we prioritise animals over pre-born babies?

The Government’s animal sentience bill makes a mockery of infant rights

Last month the government introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill and today, it will have its second reading in the Lords. The aim of the bill is simple: a new watchdog will be established to scrutinise government policy and sniff out any domestic agenda that doesn’t take adequate account of the needs and interests of hamsters, cats, dogs and all other vertebrate animals. If MPs deem it prudent, the committee will produce a report, make recommendations, and the Secretary of State will have three months to reply.

This is the latest proposal, very much in vogue with the current government, in a whole range of legislation intended to bolster protections for animals. It’s no accident that the environmental campaigner Lord Goldsmith, who is very influential in Downing Street, has been chosen to steer this bill through the Lords. But whilst it’s right that laws protect animals from the harm done by the hands of human beings, there are two glaring ironies which should be addressed.

First, this new bill, with its intention to require all policies to be examined for their effect on animals, reminds me of another government initiative from a few years ago called the “Family Test” which was much the same idea, except for humans. The family test was supposed to be applied by all government departments to make sure domestic policies do not negatively undermine family life, which, call me old fashioned, I happen to think is quite important. The problem is, Ministers just ignore it. Research by the Centre for Social Justice in 2019 found that no government department could provide a definitive answer to how many times the test had actually been applied to policy.

In Ireland they’re making it a legal requirement for an unborn child be given pain relief

In the years since it came into force, family breakdown, with all the vast consequences it brings, has reached astronomically high levels. Not only does this cost the country tens of billions of pounds, it also ruins life chances and contributes to educational inequality and poverty. So before MPs start assessing whether government policy properly considers the rights of rabbits and dogs, perhaps they should regard the impact of policy on people? I’m all for hugging huskies but I’d prefer to do it once we have started properly implementing David Cameron’s Family Test. Otherwise what chance is there for the new “Animal Test”?

Second, and much more disturbingly, the Animal Welfare Bill implies that the feelings of animals matter more to politicians than the feelings of preborn babies. It builds on existing legislation — the 1986 Animal Welfare Act — which enshrined protections for all vertebrate animal foetuses subjected to research from two thirds gestation. Under the law as it stands, animals are afforded more legal protection detailing the place and way they can be experimented on and killed than in the law governing the treatment preborn human beings: the Abortion Act 1967.

This should shock us, not least because there is growing evidence that abortion causes pain to the unborn baby. Some of the latest research indicates that preborn babies may feel some sort of pain from as early as 12 weeks. Only last year, the APPG for Pro-Life issues published a report arguing that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) needed to update its guidance in line with the latest evidence. Something is surely wrong when our laws protect preborn animals but not preborn babies.

Meanwhile in Ireland, a bill has been introduced in the lower house of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) which will make it a legal requirement that an unborn child be given pain relief during a late-term abortion. Speaking at the introduction of the Bill, an Irish parliamentarian made this salient point: “It’s extraordinary to think that Ireland’s Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 obliges vets to give pain relief to an animal during any procedure that may cause it suffering or distress, yet no such provision exists in law for unborn babies during late-term abortions”.

We need to hear this same argument being made at Westminster. By all means pass the Animal Sentience Bill. But only if we can have a Human Life Sentience Bill as well. If we are to be a civilised society, we need to give preborn babies legal safeguards from pain. We may be a nation of animal-lovers but defy the abortion lobby to argue that human beings are worthy of less protection than animals.

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