Pain-Capable Abortion Bans

More than three decades ago, I went to visit a friend who was hospitalized at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. On the way from the parking lot to her room, I encountered a group of animal rights activists protesting the use of animals in medical research. To this day I vividly remember the chant they repeated again and again: “A cat is a rat is a dog is a boy.” Operating on a hunch, I couldn’t resist asking about their viewpoint on abortion. As I suspected, the group was decidedly pro-choice, connecting their acceptance of abortion with the problem of over-population. Even at the time, I thought it strange that someone could be against animal research for medical benefit but for abortion. Thirty years later, I still think it strange.

A few weeks ago South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed a law that bans abortion at or after 20 weeks. Undoubtedly, the pro-choice camp will be up in arms against the law. Arkansas and other states have passed similar “pain-capable” abortion laws that remain stymied in judicial review.

Two reasons often set forth for prohibiting abortions at and after 20-weeks are the fetus’ resemblance to an infant and the fetus’ capacity to feel pain. I wish to make one point regarding the latter criterion. Specifically, I contend that one cannot be for animal rights and, at the same time, be against laws that prohibit abortions at the at the development stage of sentience.

For animal rights proponents, the launching point of their argument for animal equality and their opposition to “speciesism” is that non-human animals are capable of feeling pain like human animals, and thus, should not be discriminated against but rather accorded equal consideration. By their logic, animal rights—including the right not to be killed—flow out of the animals’ capacity to feel pain. This was the point of the animal rights protesters at NIH decades ago.

If one accepts the logic of animal rights, then shouldn’t he or she be against abortion at the point at which fetuses are capable of feeling pain? Even if one has a low view of the value of the embryonic/fetal human being in the womb, doesn’t he or she have to admit that at a certain stage in fetal development they are at minimum “pain-capable animals”? If so, don’t they have the right not to be killed?

Critiquing this key argument of the animal rights movement is not my present aim. Rather, I’m simply pointing out that it is logically inconsistent to be for animal rights and against laws that limit abortions at the point fetuses can feel pain. Thus, animal rights proponents should not be against “pain-capable” abortion laws. They cannot accord rights to pain-capable non-human animals and deny them to pain-capable human fetuses.

Of course, from the pro-life perspective, pain capability is an arbitrary threshold, since this perspective bases its opposition to abortion on the inherent value of the embryonic/fetal human being from the earliest moments of existence. Obviously, pro-choice proponents do not accept this high view of the value of embryonic/fetal human beings. However, I’ve run across a great number of people like the protestors at NIH who see themselves as promoters of both “abortion rights” and “animal rights.” It would be progress if they could come to see that prohibiting abortions at the point of pain capability is reasonable and is consistent with the logic they use to justify animal rights. For the pro-life camp, this would represent only a minimal victory. However, at the present time when some seek to defend “post-birth abortion” (i.e. infanticide), it would at least be a step in the right direction.

Pro-Life Equals Pro-Animal

There is some buzz being generated within the political and religious blogosphere these days about animal welfare issues, and it is standing out because of its appeal to an unusual audience of perceived kindred spirits. It makes the argument that “pro-lifers” are the intellectual and spiritual brethren of “pro-animal” advocates. To some this would seem an interesting, if somewhat opaque, syllogism, perhaps akin to Knights of Columbus who are also Master Gardeners.

But it has some intellectually-serious proponents. I must admit to being a fan of one of them, Matthew Scully, a former political speechwriter for figures including George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, in large measure because his writing is eloquent and compelling. I’m a sucker for both, and I freely confess that I would be a model of Stockholm syndrome for anyone making an argument in such a way as Mr. Scully typically does. I have to tread cautiously when I read people whom I like stylistically so as not to be easily persuaded by their prose alone.

So Mr. Scully has posted an intellectually rigorous and rather long post in the National Review Online entitled “Pro-life, Pro-Animal,” which links the issues of respect for human life and the welfare of animals. He starts off well-enough, with an argument that I can support in the context acquitting responsible animal stewardship as a hazard to the notion of human dignity:

“Far from presenting any threat to human dignity, animals and their moral claims upon us — the basic obligation never to be cruel, not just the option to be kind when it suits our purposes — are a constant hindrance to human presumption. What is the mark of that special status of ours, anyway, if not precisely the ability to be just instead of merely dominant, to be the creature of conscience and bring mercy into the world? A loving concern for humanity that stops there, instead of spreading outward in a sense of fellowship and active respect toward ‘our companions in creation,’ to borrow a lovely phrase from Pope Benedict, is too close to self-worship, and bad things come of it.”

I agree with this; human dignity is affirmed, not threatened, when we reflect the compassionate God in whose image we are made. The animals over which we have been granted dominion, in the Judeo-Christian conception at least, offer abundant opportunites to display the full measure of our humanity as stewards of God’s creation.

Where I part company with my erudite friend begins when he starts to wander into the weeds of anti-scientism. I am insulated in small animal practice, a practice filled with animals that are pets and where I am able to totally ignore the fact that the meat my patients and I eat is not harvested from “steak trees” but involves the death of animals to get it. Understood. But I have also spent time on the “kill floor” of a slaughterhouse, and I have colleagues who are intellectually-serious and ethically-motivated as they fulfill their oaths in family farms and within large commercial operations alike. They use moral reasoning as they care for their porcine and bovine patients. Veterinarians are grudging philosophers, generally a sort with a practical bent and a love for scientific proofs. But we are often moral idealists, ones that use the science of animal behavior and physiology to undergird our practice. It is science that recognizes that most livestock don’t lead a charmed life in most environments, that there are dangers in seemingly-idyllic settings, and that safety is an appropriate motivator for their appropriate care. This is why a statement like this from Scully is so difficult to take:

“No matter what new perversion of animal husbandry the industry might devise, it can always count on the sign-off of friendly veterinarians, as true to their oath (“to promote animal health and welfare, to relieve animal suffering”) as Dr. Gosnell was to the Hippocratic oath.”

This is an ad hominem attack and, sadly, reveals a growing divergence between livestock veterinarians and groups like the Humane Society for The United States, formerly natural allies. There are bad characters in the food animal industry, without a doubt. Scully paints a picture in his piece of some of the bad ones, and reminds us of the worst practices in some of the large-scale food operations. Yet the idea that all veterinarians involved in this industry (for Scully doesn’t narrow down his condemnation) are morally-equivalent to the reprehensible abortionist Kermit Gosnell loses me rhetorically from then on. No thinking anti-abortion advocate considers all those who perform abortions to be the equivalent of a Gosnell, despite a profound dislike of their work. To paint livestock veterinarians with the same brush as a convicted murderer is offensive, and careless in its symbolism.

He notes, as he references other authors that are making the case for moral equivalency between the pro-life cause and vegetarianism (or, less dramatically, the pro-animal cause), that “author Mary Eberstadt writes that factory farming and similar abuses of the animal world are ‘simultaneously morally urgent and widely ignored by many people, including and inexplicably by many well-meaning but hitherto under-informed Christians.’” On this I suspect he is mostly right (as, then, is she) and Christians need to better engage the issue before a watching world. I am hopeful that we can be in agreement where they have good points and criticize them when their arguments seem to fall short. There is much to be mined in both areas.

One Welfare

Among the hats I wear is my “participate in organized veterinary medicine” hat, which currently involves my role as Vice President of my state Veterinary Medical Association. In a recent board meeting, we identified and strategized goals for the year. With each passing year, I find my own ambitions for the association become somewhat less sweeping, tempered by realism and some battle-weariness. But veterinarians are generally an idealistic lot, and so we often dream big dreams. Our “breakout” sessions start to tackle these things, breaking our idealism into manageable heaps. One such group, in which I participated, was dedicated to issues of animal welfare. A member of our team was a public health veterinarian, which meant he was quite bright and terribly earnest, and was inclined to read the more cerebral, “big issues” sections of our journals, while we practitioners were skipping over those to read up on the best ways to treat chronic urinary tract infections or mast cell tumors. Based on his reading of a commentary published in the February 1, 2013 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), he felt our best move was to advocate for a “one welfare” concept that was elaborated by the authors of that article, Tristan Colonius, DVM and Rosemary Earley, DVM. Even though I hadn’t read it, and therefore didn’t quite know what he meant, I intuitively and wholeheartedly supported that effort.

Fortunately (and, perhaps, uncharacteristically) I think my intuition was right. The authors derive their idea from the “one health” concept that has been used in epidemiology and public health circles. The latter they define as acknowledging “the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health and the necessity for an interdisciplinary approach in these fields.” “One welfare,” by distinction, reflects a confluence of the otherwise distinct disciplines of animal, human and public welfare. At first glance, this would raise the eyebrows of those of us who wish to champion human dignity as a distinct reflection of the Divine Creator in embodied humanity. Do these welfare disciplines represent moral equivalencies? But I think in reality it addresses the inter-connectedness of life on Earth, and the consequences that arise when we seek to improve the welfare of one “group” while disregarding another. This reflection can occur while still defending human dignity.

To stress the impact of grouping human, social, and animal welfare under one umbrella, the authors cite the statistic that, “at the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, humans and domesticated animals comprised approximately 0.1% of the vertebrate mass on land. Today, that figure is closer to 98%.” For better or worse, humans and domesticated animals run this place, and so we are inextricably linked with the ecological health of the planet we inhabit. Increased globalization means that the choices of one nation will impact multiple others. The authors further acknowledge that the “known and supposed tradeoffs in human and animal welfare create contentious problems.” Indeed.

The idea of animal welfare is not particularly controversial, with most veterinarians cheerily using the language of welfare and avoiding the more unpalatable notions of rights and liberation. Much surprised are we to discover that disciples of Peter Singer and Tom Regan have seemed to stealthily integrate themselves into the various animal welfare forums and literature while we weren’t looking. An idea of “one welfare,” frankly, helps ground the more radical elements within this group. In my own sphere, I deplore the numbers of animals that are surrendered to animal shelters when cute puppies grow up to be big dogs, or manageable behavioral issues cause pet owners to give up without a second thought. But I also realize that not every pet is adoptable and that public health is ill-served by packs of stray dogs roaming about, or that human and environmental well-being suffers when colonies of feral cats decimate songbird populations. It is humans that can impact animal welfare, and humans alone, so to ignore our own welfare while working to improve that of domesticated animals is foolhardy. It’s also impractical to animals. It might be wonderful to have all our meat originate from “free-range” sources, but there is nowhere close to the pasture land available on Earth to meet the needs of the increasingly meat-hungry population of the world. Horse-slaughter, whereby horse meat could be sold to receptive markets in France, is now gone from the United States, a victim of troubling aesthetics. A concomitant increase in the population of starving and abandoned horses has accompanied this ostensible act of kindness. A focus on animal welfare in a vacuum creates myriad consequences, some adverse to the very animals whose welfare we seek; a “one welfare” approach tempers this.

But human welfare may also be interpreted as complete satisfaction of human desire, however wrong that interpretation. Our desires to eat so much meat, well beyond what has ever been seen historically, has led to profound deforestation to create grazing space, and has increased levels of greenhouse gases. It is well-noted that flatulent cattle may have a more deleterious effect on our environment than American SUVs. Industrialized and suburbanized, prosperous nations are now so far removed from the sources of our food that we don’t give a second thought to how or where it was produced, or the welfare of the animals who give their lives as food for us. I have spoken before of the awesome powers and responsibilities God grants human beings in the “dominion” mandate over animals. Our welfare, personal and public, must not neglect the welfare of these animals, but must balance the consequences of our choices on the welfare of all.

So much of what we do with animals and our environment speak to us as human beings, and to the human condition. That, and some cautions associated with the “one welfare” concept, is something that I will explore, Lord-willing, in a next blog entry.

Why Dr. Kevorkian Was No Hero…and I Often Am

Admittedly that title is provocative. In a sense, both the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian and I could be considered to be in the business of euthanasia (though I hope I will someday be remembered for far more), but the species of our patients differs. And that, as they say, makes all the difference in the world.

A few weeks ago, I reflected upon how euthanasia of my animal patients offers a glimpse into the debate over human euthanasia, and what trends may be portended by this ethically-accepted practice for animals if starts to become more widely-accepted when applied to humans. But why the distinction? Why do we look at this difficult but necessary part of a veterinarian’s work as a genuinely humane way to end animal pain and suffering but have such qualms about applying it to people? Perhaps it could be found in Leon Kass’s “moral wisdom of repugnance” or good old natural law? A few of my thoughts.

First, even the most strident of animal rights advocates could find that the technological and logical capabilities of human beings compel them to exert some superiority over non-human animals, if only to relieve pain when we see it. If animals have rights, others (specifically humans, who have the wherewithal to act upon them) have responsibilities to those animals. Even those like me, who find little practical use in using the language of rights for animals, can recognize the awesome powers human beings have for good and evil over the natural world, and thereby derive a responsibility to tend to the pain of those animals that cannot provide for themselves. Intellectually we have a hard time believing that we can legally take the lives of healthy animals for food or clothing (even if vegetarians dislike its practice) and yet have no authority to euthanize the gravely ill and dying. While the acceptable criteria for animal euthanasia may well differ (some veterinarians will not euthanize pets that have behavioral problems but are otherwise healthy, for example, whereas others will do so if a pet owner is just “tired of” their pet—that’s a subject for another time), it is well-respected as part of the veterinarian’s principal duty to “relieve animal suffering” as our oath states, and appears well within the ethical bounds of being a good and moral person. I read a piece by another veterinarian today that felt like our oath should well be extended to state “relief of animal AND HUMAN suffering,” as the process of slow pet death can be so poisonous to the human family enduring it. There is a certain restoration of wholeness that comes from the removal of that pain and perceived suffering in a creature that cannot understand it nor benefit from it (see my comments below). When people are given the freedom to address their pet’s AND their family’s quality of life issues, the relief is palpable. Though not ultimately my decision, I can ethically apply the “best interests” standard to both my patients and the human family and recommend euthanasia based on all applicable factors. For a physician to apply those same standards would be alarming.

Second, and obviously, I am not a “people doctor.” The medicine certainly overlaps substantially, but I have heard no one who realistically wishes to merge the professions. I’ve mentioned before that the Hippocratic Oath is primarily focused on healing disease, not relieving suffering, and euthanasia directly violates that. It is a primary reason (though not the only one) that the Oath is under such assault now. Whether we look at the Judeo-Christian view of anthropology as humanity made in the image of God or the secular idea that our species is distinguished by higher capacities than other species, there is an inarguable “otherness” to human beings. We have courts to help ensure justice, but certainly do not expect even brainy animals like dolphins and chimpanzees to do the same. Our fearsome capabilities to exert justice on one another limit, in civilized society at least, the role for taking the lives of other human beings to the domain of the state. As a veterinarian, I don’t need the courts to help me decide if the patient’s “time” has come, because I am acting entirely within ethical bounds and my own professional oath. For a physician, charged with doing all she can to heal disease in a patient, to usurp the role that legitimately belongs to the government and work to end a life is a horror, regardless of whether or not it is carried out in the name of compassion.

Third, the “otherness” of humans carries into the dying process itself. While facing the approach of death can, perhaps counter-intuitively, be a time of growth and transformation for human beings, a time to heal relationships and face eternity, there is nothing to suggest that such things happen in animals. I can find no redemptive purpose in prolongation of life in a moribund pet for the animal itself, but have observed that very thing in the death of a relative of mine, albeit a rather distant relative and as viewed via Facebook, as he very slowly died from cancer. His bad days were bad indeed, but his good days offered him and his family great joy as they treasured the sunsets and the breezes, enjoying the few days left on this Earth and gathering in what it meant for life after death. The privilege of dying with his family surrounding him, to themselves be able to impute his brave submission to a death that they might someday face, would have disappeared had a physician helped to sacrifice his life on an altar of compassion. That’s part of why our oaths are different, and why I can be a hero and why Dr. Kevorkian was decidedly not, even as we ostensibly carry out the same task.

Additional Thoughts on Sentience

Last week, I offered my opinion—a less-than-complementary one—on the decision of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) to make a position statement that includes “the concept of animals as sentient beings.” My critique was based on the difficulty of assessing degrees of sentience in a very wide range of animals, making the broadness of the statement look like shabby ethical work, and its implicit agenda, avoiding direct mention of animal rights while using a term that is loaded with portent for the issuance of rights, perhaps indecipherable from the rights of human beings (a committed “anti-speciesist” like Peter Singer could be practically giddy!). Now to unpack that a bit…

There is no doubt that non-human animals display varying levels of sentience (just as human beings can, incidentally—try offering a no-anesthesia circumcision to anyone but a newborn baby boy). They have varying capacities for emotions and pain perception, based on varying levels of mental sophistication. One comment on my earlier post correctly stated that sentience is a capacity, and while capacity is a very poor way to measure the moral worth of humans, it may be one of many very fine ways to assess the moral status of non-human animals. But the “bright line” of separation must remain.

Even in the absence of a theological doctrine of humanity, the idea that human beings are moral agents and that a non-human animal, even if appropriately granted a substantial degree of moral status, is incapable of being a moral agent is significant. This is where a designation of “sentience” suffers from being both too broad and too narrow at the same time. In the first sense, it offers some implausibility. What about the practical implications of AAHA’s statement? Is animal slaughter humane enough, or should animals that we use for food be anesthetized beforehand? If I meet a grizzly on the path, should I have every expectation that his sentience means that we can work out a mutually-beneficial arrangement for our flourishing as we go our separate ways? In the second sense, that of narrowness, the intrinsic value of my humanity may, ironically, be diminished. Is my compassion for animals more a reflection of their power, their rights if you will, or a mark of my humanity? The California Veterinary Medical Association welfare guidelines issued in 2004 identified animals as “sentient beings with wants and needs.” Okay, fine. So how do we avoid a stalemate with humans who seem to have “wants and needs,” too, and often can make more articulate cases for them that even a well-socialized terrier? We are focusing on moral objects and not moral agents here, and not much can get done that way.

I would have been far more supportive of a position statement that was anthropological in nature, even as it included language that addressed the varying levels of sentience that animals may have. It is a practical reality that humane treatment for animals will arise from moral agents, humans alone, who realize that their Creator has made them to be wise stewards over creation, especially the vulnerable of their own species and the animals who share the Earth and much of the architecture of nervous systems with them.

Here’s what AAHA should have written, in my (clearly) less-than-humble-opinion:

“Because human beings have the unique role of moral agency and the awesome responsibility to ensure the welfare and flourishing of their own species, as well as the entirety of nature and the animals that we keep as companions and livestock and that inhabit the Earth we must wisely steward, we should take seriously the ability of animals to experience pain and other criteria associated with sentience in its various degrees among the wide range of neurological and mental sophistication that animals represent. It is this unique role that necessitates that humans should provide for physical and behavioral welfare to animals to the greatest degree possible, while minimizing pain and distress.”

Sentience

While issues of animal rights and animal liberation have been hotly-debated in the public square and in philosophic discussions, national veterinary associations have walked on eggshells for decades, wanting to speak on issues of animal welfare, where consensus is far easier. Until recently. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), which is a group that represents 16,000 veterinarians as members and more than 5,500 veterinary practices, stepped into the fray this past fall with a position statement that stakes out a strong statement on the moral status of animals. It marks the first time that a national veterinary medical group has done so. But it does not use the words “rights” or even “moral status,” but, rather, addresses “sentience.” In the words of AAHA, animals are “feeling, sensing beings capable of sentiency.”

This statement comes from an organization for which I generally have great respect, one that focuses on small animal (generally pet) practice, where I do my work, and which has logistical and philosophical differences with large animal, particularly food animal, practice. They know how all of veterinary medicine is the same, and in what ways its various forms must necessarily differ. They have advocated for a higher standard of care for small animal practices and have genuinely helped advance the profession’s view of pain management and compassionate handling. But I am not alone in my bafflement of their decision to use a word pregnant with meaning, like “sentiency,” in the association’s official statement.

Specifically, the statement says, “The American Animal Hospital Association supports the concept of animals as sentient beings. Sentiency is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious or to have subjective experiences. Biological science as well as common sense supports the fact that the animals that share our lives are feeling, sensing beings that deserve thoughtful high-quality care. The care that is offered should provide for the animal’s physical and behavioral welfare and strive to minimize pain, distress and suffering for the animal.”

This definition of sentiency is fairly standard (it’s what Wikipedia opens with, for example). But it is confusing on a few levels as well. First, as others have noted, how do we define “animals”? The Executive Director says it should be interpreted as referring to companion animals, like dogs and cats, since that is the focus of AAHA’s efforts. But it doesn’t say that, and even “companion animals” include creatures that range from geckos and box turtles to mice and scorpions. This is sloppy work for a position statement that seeks to be both ground-breaking and (not too) comprehensive.

Second, sentiency is loaded with ethical and theological baggage. I can argue with some success that my patients seem to display wide-ranging emotions, have an ability to feel pain based on physiologic measures that are comparable to human beings, and certainly have memories of past events that contribute to the behaviors they display at a given moment. I cannot tell you that they have a will, or a sense of purpose, or actually whether they can suffer in the full metaphysical or spiritual sense that we know human beings can suffer. I am not willing to deny that it is possible for higher animals to suffer or have more complex emotional and mental capabilities than most think, rather than our own interpretation of their actions and responses that may be little more than anthropomorphism (which may itself reflect a more sophisticated spin on a good Disney film), but I will not claim to know it. I have never felt an ounce of desire to hunt, probably not so much because of the potential fear and pain for the hunted animal, though I don’t like that, but rather because of what it will do to my own soul. Call it my own version of “liberal guilt,” it has less to do with the animals than me, and explains why I can eat meat with little sadness even though it was once a living, breathing animal. For better (or likely worse) sentience may be translated “of human caliber.” And since we really only know our own kind, we must interpolate this to “animals.”

Finally, the clever use of “sentience” manages, at face value, to avoid the philosophical minefield of animal rights. But this is a Trojan horse. The great view of Peter’s Singer’s utilitarianism, the moral status of animals is equivalent to (or supersedes) humans based on ability to feel pain, is often distinguished from the more rights-based approach of someone like Tom Regan, where animals are “subjects-of-a-life,” biographical creatures. Sentience bridges the gap (artificial though it may be) and lends the credibility of organized veterinary medicine to both arguments. Sentience, as it will be popularly interpreted, will necessitate rights. I will gladly debate the moral status of animals, and work to see it addressed in my own work with state and national organizations. I am disappointed that the AAHA has taken the road they have, because I think it reflects both slipshod ethics and an emotional, sentimental path to what should have been an opportunity for an effective unity of philosophy and science.

Animal Rights – Part 3

So now that I have titled this whole series of blogs “Animal Rights,” and have already said that I don’t think the notion of rights for animals is very useful, I need to explain what I think is the better way to address animal welfare. I think it is entirely consistent within a Christian worldview to attribute a high moral status to animals (higher than the church has historically done) while stopping short of the establishment of rights. Much of this originates at the very beginning of Scripture, in Genesis 1:27 and 28. Here God has made clear that human beings are made in His image and grants them DOMINION over the Earth, including animals. It’s difficult to say which passages in Scripture have been most abused when put into practice, but this must be one of them. The idea of dominion has been used to justify wholesale destruction of the environment and cruel treatment of animals.

But the Hebrew word for “dominion” implies both power and responsibility. Andrew Linzey, a leading Christian supporter of animal rights, gets plenty wrong (in my estimation) in support of rights, but correctly says that human dominion is “inescapably fraught with moral responsibility.” God remains sovereign over creation, including animals, but we are His stewards. Animal cruelty is an affront to the God who has entrusted us to care for the animals He has placed in our lives.

Matthew Scully, an evangelical and former George W. Bush speechwriter who also famously penned Sarah Palin’s Vice Presidential nomination acceptance speech in 2008 (and, at this writing, will be co-author of Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech), wrote a provocative book entitled “Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.” In it he stops short of the extension of rights to animals, but makes the case that it is this very lack of rights that should make us all the more aware of our responsibility to look after their welfare:

“We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us. Animals are so easily overlooked, their interests so easily brushed aside. Whenever we humans enter the world, from our farms, to the local animal shelter to the African savanna, we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike.”

The idea of responsible stewardship of God’s animals, I think, should be foundational to an ethic for animals. We should care because God cares: the Mosaic Law makes special provisions for animals and they are (at least by implication) part of the new Heaven and new Earth at the time of the consummation of all things. Wise stewards will make responsible choices about the livestock humans use for food, clothing, and work, about the pets we have as companions, and about the wild animals in nature and confined in zoos and preserves.

Animal Rights – A Sidenote

The recent blog by Dr. Steve Phillips led me to deeper thought (and this excursus) on the idea of moral status and moral agency. While his comments reflected on the significance that blurring the two concepts has had on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, it also has important implications for the idea of animal rights. Dr. Phillips addresses the writings of Mary Anne Warren, whose Moral Status- Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things, dedicated many words to animals.

Warren, a professor at San Francisco State University until her death in 2010, was a champion of the abortion rights cause. But she was also deeply influenced by Peter Singer’s views on animal liberation. She managed to avoid the inevitable outcome that Singer’s views would necessitate, specifically abolitionism of all animal confinement and human use. She has written of a “sliding scale” concept of animal rights that “…depends in part upon their sentience and mental sophistication.” In other words, she seems to use the ability of animals as moral agents to determine their moral status. While it is arguable that even higher non-human primates could be capable of moral agency, the level of mental sophistication of non-human animals seems, intuitively, like a reasonable way to address their level of welfare. I may be entirely unenthusiastic if my son chooses to go deer hunting but fine with a fishing trip. Others might find my distinctions illogical based on their own views, and that is okay. There is an inherent subjectivity to the moral status of animals, because they are, at least in Christian thought, not created in the same fashion as human beings. I daresay that this is a pretty palatable view of animal welfare and is what most people think, without really thinking, when approached with the idea of animal rights. I have, in fact, based the moral status of animals on their capacities, an altogether reasonable thing in the world of animals, while I cannot logically consider them moral agents, which Warren would seem to do. This is where her failure to differentiate the concepts muddies things.

If I lack the biblical distinction of the imago Dei (image of God) that distinguishes humans from non-human animals, don’t differentiate moral agency from moral status, and want to be consistent in the idea of animals as having variable levels of moral status, then I am forced to look at capacity as the basis for this status for everyone. This is the insidious nature of granting rights to animals, even “lesser rights,” however those can be quantified. Absent the imago Dei, I lose intellectual credibility when I say all human beings have the same moral status, but vary in their moral agency, but non-human animals vary in their moral status, and cannot be considered moral agents at all.

How, then, do we intellectually make exceptions for human beings? On this basis, we can’t. At some point, we are forced to make the rights of the human that are not in end-stage dementia, the unborn, and the profoundly mentally-handicapped submit to those of the cognitively superior, to the animals of greater “mental sophistication.”

Dr. Phillips has done a great service in distinguishing the concepts of moral status and moral agency. Be wary of those, like Mary Anne Warren, that do not.

Animal Rights, Part 2

Do animals have rights? If so, what are those rights, and how do they differ from humans? Should a lake trout have the same rights as a dairy cow as a chimpanzee? I mentioned in my previous blog that Christians have found difficulty assigning rights to animals, though many offer reasons with which I disagree. Secularists like Peter Singer (who, as a utilitarian that eschews such language, uses the notion of “rights” only to be a part of the dialogue) and Tom Regan (who considers “normal mammalian animals aged one or more” as possessors of the same intrinsic rights as humans) mount strong offensives in the battle for animal rights. While some of their more “out-there” ideas are met with skepticism by even their supporters, I am convinced that their deeper arguments are winning in the court of popular opinion. Why is this?
Singer’s approach addresses animal PAIN. This issue troubled C.S. Lewis and can bring us to tears in effective television advertisements for the Humane Society of the United States. We hate pain, and we especially hate it when the victims are so innocent. Regan looks at animals as “subjects-of-a-life;” animals have psychological capacities for desires, memories, and other “human” characteristics. Urbanized Western culture, as it becomes more removed from animals as food (I still hold that the beef I buy in shrink-wrap from the grocery is somehow picked from a “meat tree”), associates animals with pets or even the animated animals of film. Never mind that these animals are essentially humans in all but physical form.
I just returned from the World Veterinary Dermatology Congress (yes, there is such an event) in Vancouver. A Swiss veterinarian noted that skin allergies are often more pronounced in North American dogs because there is a more innate neurosis in these pets, creating more reactivity to allergens. They itch more obsessively. Her comment that “these dogs are basically treated as human toddlers” reflects on the humanization that we instill on, AND IN, our pets. It is little wonder that appeals from a utilitarian like Singer that tug at our dislike of all pain, animal or human, and a deontologist like Regan, that says that “higher” animals are really quite like us psychologically, can hold such sway.
I like the rebuttals of people like the University of Michigan’s Carl Cohen, who cuts through much of the intellectual and emotional fog to say that animals are intrinsically different from humans on the basis of personhood, and for whom the idea of rights makes no sense. Rights are of no use to animals because they inhabit a different moral sphere. “To say that rats have rights is to apply the world of rats a concept that makes very good sense when applied to humans, but makes no sense at all when applied to rats.”
In a practical sense, extending the same rights to animals as we extend to humans diminishes both. It means that animal husbandry cannot legitimately exist and that a cougar that attacks a hiker ought to defend her actions in court. Even the efforts of extraordinarily bright and sensitive Christian theologians to use the language of “limited rights” are probably misplaced. I am a proponent of assigning a strong moral status to the animals God has created; I don’t find the language of rights terribly helpful in doing so.

Animal Rights, Part I

I find it rather curious that in my line of work, as a veterinarian in small-animal clinical practice, I have very few conversations that tackle the issue of the rights of my animal patients. Maybe it’s because much of the legal landscape dictates the relationship we have with pets: I am still my dog’s “owner.” Harm that comes to a pet can lead to damages based entirely on the “replacement value” of the pet, not due to pain and suffering, or other subjective factors. Property rights, not moral rights, are where the law speaks.
As I have tried to draw my own conclusions on what rights, if any, animals may have, I largely read books with which I disagree, much to my dismay. Chief among these, of course, are the writings of Peter Singer. His notion of “speciesism,” a pejorative term that equates differentiation of value between humans and non-human animals (heretofore I’ll just call them “animals”) to be a great moral evil akin to racism and sexism, would seem to many to be a crackpot theory from an irrelevant, ivory tower philosophy professor. But the utilitarian idea espoused in Singer’s landmark Animal Liberation that equates the level of moral consideration of an individual, human or animal to be commensurate with the level of pain the creature may feel is probably more accepted in Western society than many of us realize. An entire branch of sociological study is dedicated to the “human-animal bond.” That bond is significant, and often a very positive force for human mental health and animal welfare. But we may have a greater emotional connection with a beloved pet than a dying relative, and unwittingly afford them moral status based on this emotional bond. More troubling, Singer’s radicalism is (surprisingly) fast becoming mainstream as the inherent dignity of human beings is undermined by ethical relativism and limitless personal autonomy.
But, as with many things, the reflexive response is unsatisfying as well. Christians who recoil at the subjugation of human dignity at the altar of animal liberation fail to understand our relationship to the animals God has created (and, indeed, all of creation) by misunderstanding Scripture. Much abuse can be heaped upon the Genesis 1:28 “dominion” mandate. In their view, the moral status of animals is utilitarian, but not Peter Singer’s utilitarianism. Animals were placed here for us, and we should enjoy what they provide for us without much concern for them beyond that.
But that, too, fails to understand the message of “dominion.” We are given power over animals, but that is fraught with responsibility as stewards of creatures that God takes very seriously. Some authors, prominent among them Robert Wennberg, go to lengths to find rights for animals in the Bible, particularly the right not to be eaten as human food. Ultimately, they struggle to find strong scriptural support, rely on extrabiblical sources, and don’t address in a practical way what “dominion” means .
I’ve become convinced that an effective view toward animal rights (one that really holds water) is based on a stewardship ethic that can only be found in Christian thought as put forth in Scripture. This will take some unpacking, and I will attempt to do that over a few blogs.