Species Impartiality

Species impartiality has recently gained currency in bioethics as a principle encouraging deeper appreciation for other planetary creatures, and thus has parallels with ethical principles in integrative medicine, including echoes of (medical) pluralism.

Consider this: A painting made by Congo the ape (or baboon) sold for a princely sum at a recent auction. The purchaser is quoted as saying that "owning a Congo is like owning a Picasso or Miro."

An article in Scientific American on the potential for suspended animation notes that experiments were made with a control group of normal squirrels and those going into hibernation. Probes were inserted into their brains, at which points the squirrels "were euthanised and their wounds explored."

We use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for killing, and we assume that it is ethically acceptable to kill other species (including mammals) for the benefit of "medical science."

In short, we kill other species in the name of science. We then hide this killing with the term euthanasia.

This nomenclature--euthanasia--appears to have replaced the term "sacrifice." In the old days, rats were "sacrificed." The language of religion was used in science to justify the involuntary asphyxiation, beheading, or dismemberment of the being. In even older days, infants were sacrificed to appease the gods, the thought being that this would enhance crop fertility and end cycles of soil impoverishment.

The whole scientific method is based on "moving up the chain" from animal studies to human studies; once the remedy is tested and proved effective on animals, we then feel comfortable enough about its safety to test and prove its effect on humans. We "sacrifice" or "euthanize" animals for that purpose.

The same Scientific American issue reported on another experiment in which monkeys were introduced to a "cash economy"--they learned to store up chips, noticing that these chips were of value to their human captors, and to distrust the first human "salesman" of food and save chips in exchange for a better deal from the second human "salesman." So monkeys can learn about investment and savings, and their motivations mirror those of the supposed "rational actor" in economics.

In one breath, our collective consciousness celebrates the art of Congo the ape, and we observe that monkeys, like us, not only share basic habits of social relations (such as grooming one another - read Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape) but also can share the cash economy. And in the next, we kill them for research.

The very same issue of Scientific American reported on controversy surrounding a Canadian who researched case studies of euthanasia in countries that legalized the practice. The researcher found many dubious practices both among medical and non-medical providers of euthanasia services, botched euthanasia attempts (resulting in more suffering), and lack of informed consent. As a result of the controversy, the researcher's Canadian university withdrew his funding and status, and he has been criticized and marginalized in academic circles.

Human euthanasia remains illegal - we are terrified of potential abuses, and of the power to end life - yet capital punishment is legal (we assume we have the right to take life if someone has committed a crime, but we do not allow someone who is suffering to transition from this life voluntarily) as is euthanasia of animals for research.

The Talmud prohibits taking a life under any circumstances, including to save a life, for "who is to say that another's blood is less red than yours?" The same red blood flows through animal research subjects; they breathe the same oxygen, and apparently, paint art as valid and valuable as ours, and even can participate in our cash economy.

We take their lives--why?--because we can. Because our species dominates, and because we interpret the mythological mandate to Adam of naming the animals as divine authority to control their fates.

My wife saw a film last night on child labor, which is illegal under international norms yet persists. Images of four-year-old children chained to desks with sewing machines. Again--why?--because we can. Because adults dominate the physically weaker children, threaten them with fists and beatings and technology (the steel chain) that lock the abuse in place.

Slavery persists. The adults think they "own" the children. Just as the researcher "owns" the "animal subjects" and can do with them as the researcher pleases, subject to research protocols and regulations (which apparently allow sacrifice or euthanasia, viewing the animal body as trash to be discarded once the experimental method has concluded).

But as Derreck Jensen points out in A Language Older than Words, a person does not "own" an animal any more than one can "own" land; rather, the two enter into relationship, a caring exchange, in that both become stewards the one to the other. It is this notion of exchange that is lacking - a shift is needed from the vertical to the horizontal, as has been said is so many metaphors: I-It to I-Thou.

And the body in most religious traditions is sacred, the "temple of God."

In a recent talk at a high-profile medical school, I heard a renowned physician express his fundamentalist viewpoint that "only man has a soul." The body of animals, therefore, does not partake in the sacredness of the human body. But animals ovulate, ejaculate, have physical and emotional processes similar to ours. And children delight in the company of the very same animals that serve as research subjects.

The universal language is compassion, transcending religions and philosophies. Yet so many religions and philosophies have stated this principle, and so few adherents embody it. From compassion, a new bioethics can flow, a new international relations, a new body politic steeped in the language of essence and remembrance of the godhood in all beings.

This shall replace the tyranny of those who have earthly power and abuse it - the collective mentality that sanctions such abuse.

Why does this compassion extend to pets but not all creatures?

No wonder the movie series Planet of the Apes holds such fascination: it expresses the role reversal, and shocks by showing what would happen if they - the apes, the animals, the research subjects - were in charge, and subjected mute humans to the same indignities. Science fiction, yes; tongue-in-cheek, doctrinal, subversive, yet deeply provocative; at the film's conclusion, Charleton Heston's character pounds his fist into the sand by the Statue of Liberty, exclaiming to humankind: "you blew it!"

Is this our fate? Have we "blown it" already? Or do we have the wisdom to liberate the apes now, to move past linguistic trickery of philosophical analysis (rationalization) and enter into I-Thou relationship with our fellow creatures, seeking (as we do with humans) their consent to enter into experimentation, and perhaps finding that they (as we) feel suffering, fear death, suffer trauma at having lives interrupted by a needle probing the skull and subsequent euthanasia (even if the research results were meticulously reported in a prestigious journal such as Nature), and that the squirrels prefer chasing nuts and enjoying the pleasures of association with their friends (and lovers) to ending up, quite prematurely in a biohazard box or dumpster.

Do ants have auric fields; do clones have souls; how do energetic perspectives affect the language of medical ethics? Read more about species impartiality in Future Medicine, about energetic perspectives in Beyond Complementary Medicine, and about an energetic lens on animal research in A Friend of All Faiths.