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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The “Human Rights” of Chimpanzees

According to a recent article in the New York Times, a committee of the Spanish parliament last month voted to extend “limited rights to our closest biological relatives, the great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans,” in accordance with the precepts of the Great Ape Project. The proposal would make it illegal in Spain “to kill apes except in self-defense. Torture, including in medical experiments, and arbitrary imprisonment, including for circuses or films, would be forbidden.”

Other than the scattered voices of protest raised by Spain’s Catholic bishops, it seems that nobody is bothered by the cognitive dissonance that would ensue—namely, that under Spanish law, apes would have greater “human rights” than a human fetus. This is a topic that I have been mulling over for several months now, ever since I saw some animal rights protesters here in Münster whose signs said (in German), “Murderers have names and addresses,” referring, of course, to people in the fur industry. These signs provoked me to two thoughts: first, how is it logically valid to use a term (“murderer”), traditionally predicated on the taking of a human life, in regard to the taking of a non-human life? And second, if we are willing therefore to extend the application of “murder” to the taking of non-human life, then where does that leave the abortion doctor?

While this is, of course, a bit of generalization, I think it could nevertheless be generally observed that most ardent animal rights activists (e.g. the members of PETA), if questioned, would proclaim that their politics to fall to the left of center and that they are, in fact, pro-choice. The problem, of course, is immediately apparent: such an advocacy would have us treat chimpanzees and gorillas as more human than a human fetus. I will grant that the status of a human fetus as a human life is in dispute (however philosophically ridiculous such a dispute may be); but we can all at least agree that a human fetus will, if brought to term, be a real, live human being, whereas an ape, for all that studies have demonstrated of its “intelligence”, does not have the potential to become a human being (I speak here in terms of single lifespans—the debate over the evolution of homo sapiens from an ape-like common ancestor I leave, for the moment, to the side).

The protests of the Catholic bishops in Spain have primarily centered on the fact that there is a clear and unambiguous ontological distinction between humans and all other animals, namely, that humans have an eternal soul. Despite the firm philosophical (to leave aside the theological) foundation upon which such a conviction rests, many in today’s relativistic society will deny such a conviction, claiming it to be based purely on “religious opinion”, since its actual foundation in the natural law (philosophy quite independent of any revealed or “religious” truth) they deny just a strongly (never mind that such a philosohpher as Plato postulated the eternity of the soul).

I will, therefore, leave aside such an argument, for as much fun as it is to point out to people that to deny the natural law is to invalidate their very arguments of denial, there is in this case the much more potent concept enunciated above: a human fetus is at the very least still an organism of the species homo sapiens, while any type of great ape, fetal or full grown, is not. And yet, this proposed Spanish law would extend greater “human” rights to members of a lesser species than it does to members of our own species.

This is the primary logical conclusion of the proposed law. The practical conclusion should, in fact, be even more troubling to abortion supporters, as I have indicated above. If we are legally to extend to non-humans the same protections from intentional killing (would it be “animalicide”, or will we simply stop caring about cognitive dissonance and call it “homicide”?) as we offer to humans, then where does that leave the abortion debate? Given that we would now acknowledge the right to life of non-humans (or, as some seem to want to call the apes, “near-humans”), will supporters of abortion continue to deny the right to life of a human fetus? I confess that I am utterly baffled, but not in the least surprised, by the “logic” that would lead the government of Spain to do such a thing.

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