‘Animal rights’ vs. human rights

Sometimes sincere people concerned with protecting innocent human life will express sentiments along these lines: “Animal rights advocates are eager to protect all kinds of animal life, but seem to ignore the most important animal of all, the human animal. They are willing to save the whales, but abort the humans. Protecting animals can never be as important a task as protecting young humans from abortion, embryonic stem-cell research or other forms of experimentation.” Such a viewpoint, though fundamentally correct, should not be taken to signify that animal abuse in our society is an ethical issue that we can forget about. Rather, concern for exercising proper stewardship over animals ought to be a balanced part of a broader concern to avoid exploiting the vulnerable, wherever they are encountered.

The Catholic Church recognizes how man holds a special place in creation, while remaining an integral part of that creation. Made uniquely in God’s image and likeness, he still belongs to the animal kingdom. Feet on the ground, head looking up to the stars, man exercises a limited dominion over the world and over the remainder of creation, including the animal kingdom. He perennially faces the question of how to properly exercise that dominion, which is not an absolute right of domination over God’s creation. He is called to reasonably use, rather than abuse, the powers he has received.

To be precise, we should not speak of animal rights but of animal welfare. Animals do not have rights in the way that humans do. Animal welfare means that we recognize that animals can be used for reasonable purposes, but should not be abused.

I was recently invited to participate in a press conference on a particular form of animal abuse. Rows of TV cameras assembled at City Hall in downtown Chicago to hear a panel of speakers encourage city council members (and the mayor) to uphold a recently-passed ban on serving foie gras in Chicago restaurants. The production of foie gras involves the repetitive forced tube-feedings of ducks and geese. These animals have a pipe inserted into their throats to pump large quantities of food into their stomachs. This causes the animals (and especially their livers) to balloon to many times their normal size. From the enlarged livers, a delicacy in the form of a creamy patè can then be prepared for customers in upscale restaurants. As liver function and other organ systems become compromised, the bloated animals become diseased and experience considerable suffering.

I was asked to give a statement about the ethical concerns raised by the mistreatment and industrialization of these animals. Speaking alongside a Jewish rabbi, the president of the Humane Society, a representative from a group called Farm Sanctuary, and several others, I found myself in the midst of an unusual gathering of people from widely different political and religious perspectives. The experience reminded me of how the Catholic Church is uniquely poised to speak across many societal strata and participate in many interrelated levels of ethical exchange in our culture. In my comments, I stressed that the proper care and stewardship of animals should sensitize us not only to their weakness and vulnerability, but also to the vulnerability of our brother human beings.

Interestingly, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, once addressed the subject of foie gras explicitly during an interview with a journalist: “We cannot just do whatever we want with them. ... Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”

“Animals too,” he stressed, “are God’s creatures and even if they do not have the same direct relationship to God that man has, they are still creatures of His will, creatures we must respect as companions in creation.”

When I gave my statement at the press conference, I mentioned that when I had trained as a research scientist at Yale, I often had to deal with questions about research ethics, and about the use of animals in laboratory settings. I pointed out that while animals may be sacrificed or used humanely for legitimate purposes, such as obtaining food and clothing, or advancing serious scientific research, the use of animals to produce foie gras is clearly in another category altogether. It is neither a humane nor a reasonable use of animals.

The production of foie gras is instead oriented toward the satisfaction of a disordered desire, a disturbing desire to satisfy the human palate to the point of promoting serious animal mistreatment. Some old Catholic manualists might even advert to the term, “morose delectation” to describe the root problem of a disordered palate that promotes other disorders. Animals are an important part of God’s creation, and we must live in an ordered way with them, exercising a responsible stewardship of the gift that they really are. Even those animals used for legitimate purposes ought to be treated humanely with reasonable housing, care, food, companionship and pain control if needed.

Animals are a vulnerable part of creation, and that vulnerability should continually prompt us to examine our decisions on how we relate to them: Are we exercising a reasonable and ordered stewardship, or are we exploiting their vulnerability for selfish and disordered ends? To the extent that we are attentive to the weakness and vulnerability not only of our brother human beings, but even of our friends in the animal kingdom, we decide the sort of society we will become — either a society marked by respect, kindness and reason, or one that is marked by various forms of barbarism.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, Mass.,and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.