What does the Spanish parliament have in common with Peter Singer, the Australian bioethicist? They both have high regard for the Great Ape, a family of primates that includes the gorilla, orangutan, and chimpanzee. Peter Singer, who gained notoriety for his 1975 book Animal Liberation, helped start the Great Ape Project with the goal of defending the rights of great apes: their right to life, their right not to be tortured, and the protection of their individual liberty.
The Spanish parliament apparently agrees. Recently their parliament resolved that gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos—the Great Apes—have a right to life and to freedom. Under the threat of criminal penalties, apes cannot be kept for circuses, movies, or even TV commercials.
The actions of the Spanish parliament echo the legal arguments of a growing cottage industry that includes journals devoted entirely to animal law. Their ambition? Personhood for the Great Ape. How should we think about their legal and moral claims?
First, the legal claim. The Constitution of the United States protects “persons” against deprivation of their right to life, liberty, or property without due process of law. “Personhood” matters. Over 30 years ago, the Supreme Court decided that the unborn child is not a “person,” and therefore did not have a right to life which the government was obliged to protect. You know that case—Roe v Wade—which opened the door to abortion on demand.
If the Great Ape is declared to be a person, then it would have legal rights and status superior to that of human, unborn children. This is not necessary to prevent cruelty to animals. Over 40 states make the abuse and torture of animals a felony.
Now, the moral claim. Peter Singer has argued that animals should be protected from suffering, that Great Apes have greater capacity to suffer than some disabled infants, and therefore a higher moral status.
As Christians, we know that our moral status is not based on whether or not we can experience pain and suffering. Nor is it granted to us by an ethicist or an act of parliament.
Our moral status, our dignity, is inherent. That means it is neither given nor earned, but an essential aspect of who we are as human beings.
Alone of all the species, humans are created in the image of God. We are the species He chose to carry His imprint.
It doesn’t depend on how smart we are, or our physical perfection. We have dignity because we exist. Not only did God create us, He became one of us, so that we might become like Him.
I am not justifying the torture of animals—a subject for another commentary. But I am saying that Spain and Peter Singer exhibit moral dyslexia by elevating animal rights, while neglecting the most defenseless among us: the unborn.