Gary Francione is a leading figure in the animal rights movement, best known as the principal public advocate for the abolitionist approach to animal rights. Earlier this year, Francione began blogging at the aptly named Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, and he recently began an excellent series of FAQ posts about animal rights.
The abolitionist approach to animal rights is exactly what it sounds like: advocating the abolition of animal ownership, use, and exploitation. The abolitionist approach takes as it's foundation the notion that animals, as sentient beings capable of suffering, are not property. They should therefore be considered bearers of rights worthy of protection. As non-property, animals cannot be owned, which further means that they are not ours to use and exploit.
Most animal rights organizations would publicly agree with the abolition of animal use and exploitation as a long-term goal. The difference between these groups, such as PETA, and the abolitionists is that PETA believes that improvements in animal welfare, no matter how small, help bring about this goal. Abolitionists such as Francione believe that this is not the case.
The problem is that improvements in animal welfare, while certainly beneficial to the animals involved, actually make abolition less likely. Consider Burger King. The animals used in Burger King's products are tortured and mutilated for their entire lives, to say nothing of being killed needlessly because they happen to taste good. Under pressure from PETA and other groups, Burger King moved to make modest improvements in the treatment of animals. PETA publicly applauded these efforts, which undoubtedly slightly improved the lives of the animals involved. Does this do anything to reduce the demand for animal products, or to end the exploitation of animals? On the contrary, this merely made people who were squeamish about the treatment of animals for Burger King now feel comfortable again. With the stamp of approval from allegedly-radical PETA, consumers feel better about eating animals. Demand increases, and Burger King is more successful. Rather than making their stated goal of abolition more likely, making slaughter more "humane" does the opposite.
The difficulty with welfare reforms is that "humane slaughter" generally has a positive effect on animal product sales. It makes people feel good about buying the products. The only way to end the use of animals in a capitalist economy is to make their use unprofitable, and the congratulations offered by groups like PETA for welfare reforms only makes animal use more profitable.
Francione believes, and I am inclined to agree, that the only way to actually achieve the abolition goals of the animal rights movement is vegan evangelism. So long as people are comfortable eating animals, and using animals, there will continue to be a demand for animal exploitation, and no amount of welfare reform will ever reach the point of reforming that demand away. Instead of pressuring Burger King to torture animals slightly less before killing them, PETA should have been pressuring Burger King to stop torturing and killing animals.
People need to be aware and conscious of where their food comes from; most people are a bit disgusted when thinking about slaughterhouses when eating because most people instinctively know that the treatment of animals in them is disgusting. Mentally sanitizing the animal exploitation industries is no better than editing war footage to pretend it isn't bloody and painful.
The fact is that nobody needs to eat meat or use animal products, especially not in more developed countries such at the United States. There is no doubt that animals suffer in the production of meat and other products, and as this suffering is entirely unnecessary, based solely on whim, it is morally wrong for it to continue. Unnecessary infliction of suffering is always wrong.