The possibility of legal rights for prenatal children is in the news a lot these days, with the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion quashing Roe vs. Wade and Family planning c. Casey.
It would be an incredible victory for pro-life activists, who have spent half a century reminding us that, although hidden, the prenatal human being has all sorts of significant traits. A four-chambered heart pumps the child’s blood in the sixth week. The mother’s voice and the father’s voice are first recognized in the womb. Prenatal children jump and react to music. Etc.
While these traits help draw our attention to the humanity of the prenatal child, they are not what ultimately matters for the moral and legal status of the child.
The human being has an inherent and inalienable value because God created us with a nature that reflects his image and his likeness. We carry this image and likeness from the moment our egg is fertilized in our mother’s womb until our natural death.
Other animals lack the kind of intrinsic dignity that comes from being created in the “imago Dei” (“image of God”). This does not mean that they have no value, or that they are mere things or objects that we can use as we wish.
Non-human animals do not belong to us, but to God. In the first chapter of Genesis, God declares animals “good” in themselves, apart from human beings. In Genesis 2, God brings animals to Adam, not to use them for food and clothing, but because it is not good for him to be alone.
God’s purpose and will for a particular animal is reflected in the traits with which he creates them.
Elephants, for example, form strong family bonds. Years later, elephants will return to where a family member died, much like humans visiting the graves of their loved ones. Elephants also show signs of self-awareness. “Happy”, an Asian elephant from the Bronx Zoo, would be the first to recognize his own face in a mirror..
Citing these and other sophisticated traits, a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project fought for the zoo to release Happy to live on a reserve. After a string of defeats in lower courts, the New York Supreme Court recently accepted to hear the call of the group.
The group argues that Happy is, essentially, a kind of non-human person, that she demonstrates traits of autonomy, the ability to make decisions about how she wants to live her life.
Catholic theologians have long been skeptical of this way of thinking about the person. I led a group of Catholic theologians who deposited a friend of the court record in support of Happy’s case. We agree that Happy should be freed, but our moral perspective is very different from that of the Nonhuman Rights Project.
The real question is “if Happy is the kind of creature that can be locked away and used as a mere means to an end,” we said. Our response is that “forcibly locking ‘Happy in the Zoo’ fundamentally misunderstands both (1) the kind of creature God created Happy to be and (2) our moral responsibility to act in the name of Kingdom rule. peace of God”.
I urge anyone interested in what the Catholic Church teaches about our moral obligations to animals to read complete file.
We have to take care of creation, but we cannot accept the idea that non-human animals have rights like those we grant to human beings. This would have catastrophic and cascading implications. And after? Cases brought on behalf of bodies of water?
Do not laugh. In February, “Lake Mary Jane‘, a central Florida body of water, filed a lawsuit to protect itself from being ‘injured.’ Specifically, environmental activists filed suit on behalf of the lake.
When discussing moral and legal status claims in class, I will often ask my students if it makes sense to them that something inanimate, like a stalactite or a large work of art, could be harmed. It’s the same question here: in what way can a lake be damaged?
We know that animals can be hurt because they are created by God, they have a purpose in his creation, and we can see when they are thriving or when they are not. When we are dealing with non-animal objects in nature – rocks, lakes, a work of art – it is much less clear that we are talking about the moral status of the objects themselves.
In the case of Lake Mary Jane, activists seem less concerned with causing “harm” to the lake itself and more concerned with protecting their own interests in the lake. “It is high time to recognize that we depend on nature and that the continuous destruction of nature must stop,” said the leader of the group.
These are important ecological concerns that the Catholic faithful must take seriously. But when it comes to lakes and other inanimate objects, our concerns shift from the good of the object to the good of human beings and other animate creatures with respect to the larger ecological world.
To be clear: even the most sophisticated non-human animal is not worth as much as the least developed prenatal human being. But we can protect both at the same time.
Prenatal children and non-human animals are populations that have no voice and are subjected to terrible violence. They are both victims of what Pope Francis calls our “culture of use and throwaway”.
Treating both as the types of beings God created calls us to transform society – to resist the throwaway culture and to welcome unborn children and members of the animal kingdom with a spirit of hospitality and encounter.