Live From the Second World Conference on Bioethics and Animal Rights in Brazil

Elizabeth Bennett

DAY 1 Ola from the Second World Conference on Bioethics and Animal Rights.  First, I would like to say that I am very thankful that Pace Law School and the Center for Environmental Legal Studies provided me with the opportunity to attend this prestigious and world-renowned conference and for all of the conference organizers’ hard work and hospitality.  As the presentations I have attended thus far have been informative and thought-provoking for me, I will do my best to share my experience with you.

Upon arrival, a symphony was playing.  After introductions and honorariums, Professor David Cassuto of Pace Law School and Director of the Brazil-American Institute for Law and Environment (BAILE) spoke about current trends in environmental law and the animal world.  He discussed the intersection of animal and environmental law and how they often clash, despite the many common grounds upon which they merge.  He went on to discuss the legal framework for protecting animals, distinguishing between animal welfarists and animal rights activists, stating that animal welfarists wish for stronger laws, while animal rights activists believe that humans should not use animals at all.  He also pointed out that in the United States legal system, animals are property and the laws concerning animals regulate relationships between humans about animals.  He made an interesting comparison between the appropriateness of humans making laws on behalf of nonhuman animals and politicians enacting laws on our behalf without truly knowing us, what we desire, or how we would like to be protected.  This comparison comes as an interesting response to doubts about human ability and right to make laws about non-human animals when they do not completely understand what animals want or need.

Professor Cassuto also discussed whether animals can be considered “persons” under the law and how this would change the way we protect them.  This served as a great opening to the Conference, as many of the presentations that followed addressed these questions and dealt with similar issues. Next, Carlos Maria Romeo Casabona of Deusto University Bilbao in Spain spoke about “Bioethics and its Perspective in Contemporary Society.”  Although there was no English translation available for this presentation, I gathered that he was speaking about the evolution of bioethics and the use of animals in medicine throughout history. Professor Pamela Frasch of Lewis and Clark Law School then spoke on animal rights research, trends, animal law education, and the fabulous animal law programs Lewis and Clark offers.  She provided a hopeful outlook, as she discussed the growing concern for animal rights in the United States.  She posited that this was due, in part, to growing scientific data regarding the physical, emotional, and intellectual qualities of animals, the relationship between non-human animal abuse and the likelihood and rates of human physical abuse, and the strong relationships many humans have with their companion animals. In just the first night of the conference, I learned a lot and met many fantastic scholars, professors, and students.

DAY 2 Day two of the Second World Conference on Bioethics and Animal Rights was packed with esteemed speakers and a wealth of information. After various student presentations, Peter Singer of Princeton University spoke on “Climate Change as an Ethical Issue” via video conference.  He discussed the impacts of climate change, including food shortages, disease, sea level rise, and frequent storms.  He stressed that climate change is an international problem, which makes decisions regarding the ethical principles that should govern how we respond to the problem much more complex.  This becomes even more complex once one accounts for the varying contributions each country has had on climate change and differences in how countries are impacted and will be in the future.  Regardless, emitting greenhouse gases for unnecessary, luxury purposes is unethical due to the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Professor Singer focused on the high degree of wasted resources associated with livestock and dairy production, as compared to the production of other food sources.  This led to the point that where there are alternatives, meat is a luxury and the high emissions associated with its use should be seen as a luxury as well.  As long as people need to produce greenhouse gas emissions in order to survive, luxury emissions are unethical.  Therefore, meat consumption is morally wrong when it is not a necessity.  I found this to be a highly convincing argument against meat consumption and one that I feel many environmentalists should consider.

Professor David Favre from Michigan State University then spoke on “Legal Rights for Wildlife: An Application of Bioethics.”  He discussed the possibility of humans’ respectful use of animals and the power relationship that humans have with animals.  The power humans have over animals and the environment puts them in a place of responsibility.  Furthermore, while respectful use of animals is possible, large corporations are virtually incapable of respectful use because of their profit-driven format and lack of corporate “consciousness.”  This is one reason why factory farms create living conditions that are so far from a respectful use arrangement.  To have a respectful relationship, one must balance human and animal interests, which would likely include life, food, socialization, and sleep, among other things.  In examining the balance, it is important to consider the self-ownership and personhood status of the beings addressed, which is highly relevant to one’s ability to legally protect that being.  Related legal protections include government enforcement, which is weak, private enforcement, which is strong, and self-enforcement, which is preferred.  Self-enforcement would allow an animal to file suit as a plaintiff when wronged.

While, as most people concerned with the treatment of animals, I agree that self-enforcement is the best prospect for animal protection, I wonder who would decide and draw the line for respectful use.  This line would need to be drawn so that we would know what animals were wronged to the point where they could bring suits.  I know there would be a great deal of disagreement between animal rights and welfare activists and scholars over when an animal could successfully sue, but it could be possible to leave this up to the judiciary.  Overall, I found Professor Favre’s concept of human responsibilities to animals and the environment a great way to look at human-animal relationships in the legal arena. Day two was just as informative as day one, leaving me full of new ideas.  Day two concluded with a reception dinner and traditional Brazilian dancing at Yoko Restaurant, where the conference leaders and participants really made us feel at home and showed us a good time- including dancing lessons!

DAY 3 During Day three, I had the pleasure and privilege to see both Steven Wise and Kathy Hessler speak. Steven Wise presented on “The Nonhuman Rights Project: Three Years Closer to Fundamental Rights for Nonhuman Animals.”  I found this presentation particularly inspiring and helpful, as an aspiring environmental and animal rights lawyer, because of the practical manner through which Steven Wise approaches animal advocacy at the Nonhuman Rights Project.  Because the approach is practical and highly intelligent, it made me hopeful that judges may someday grant nonhuman animals the rights they deserve.  Professor Wise began by explaining that nonhuman animals are things in the law, they exist for the sake of legal persons, and they have no legal personhood.  As such, it is important to determine how we might transform nonhuman animals into legal persons- the main purpose of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

The array of professionals at the Nonhuman Rights Project research and formulate legal arguments that can be made to judges, using concepts that they already understand and use, in order to advocate toward a ruling in which traditionally human rights could be applied to nonhuman animals.  In examining human rights, Wise discovered that the main concepts involved are liberty (non-comparative rights), which we are entitled to because of our status and who we are, and equality (comparative rights), which we are entitled to because someone else has a given right, and since we are similar to that person in a particular way we are also entitled to that right.

The key issue for comparative rights, however, is that the two beings compared must be similar in a legally relevant way.  Two of the most fundamental human rights are bodily integrity (one cannot be touched without consent) and bodily liberty (one cannot be put into jail, one is free to move about).  Furthermore, autonomy, or the ability to make choices to live an intentional, purposeful life, is a sufficient condition upon which one should be granted these fundamental rights.  In an effort to show nonhuman animals deserve these rights, Wise first examined decisions where humans lacked autonomy, but were granted fundamental rights based on legal fictions.  Then, Wise discussed the minimum level of autonomy judges would accept and argued that for practical autonomy, a being must be mentally competent enough to want or desire, must be able to be conscious (although it is not a necessary condition), must be able to act intentionally to obtain a goal, and must have a sense of self.  It follows, that if one possesses these characteristics, they deserve rights to bodily integrity and liberty.  The further different from humans an animal is, the less sure we can be that they deserve these rights, and the less likely arguments for granting nonhuman animals these rights will win in court.  However, Wise also pointed out that a precautionary principle, as seen in environmental law, should be used here.  Applied here, the precautionary principle would mean that because treating an autonomous being as a thing is the worst thing we could possibly do, the burden of proof should shift to those who claim that the being is not autonomous, which would provide protection for beings until proven to lack autonomy.  As for equality (comparative rights), we must show that equality is important to our legal system and that similarities between some humans and nonhuman animals are legally relevant, more so than similarities between humans that have been found legally relevant by courts.  This model through which lawyers can approach arguing for nonhuman animal rights provides me with hope for the future of nonhuman animals. Professor Kathy Hessler’s presentation that followed, regarding philosophical, legal, and scientific concerns with animal testing, was highly informative to me because I had never fully investigated this topic and I was amazed at how inadequate and unhelpful animal testing has been.

Professor Hessler began by discussing the history of animal testing and explained how such testing is based on the assumption that it will benefit humans and that the benefit cannot be derived in any other way.  As it turns out, most animal testing is not beneficial to humans and the benefits sought could be derived in other ways that are entirely more efficient and humane.  For instance, I was amazed to hear that cancer drugs, which have passed animal tests, have a 95% failure rate when tested on humans.  Further, the failure rate for all therapies tested on humans is 89%.  Another great example of how animal tests failed, which Professor Hessler provided, was that 70% of the ingredients in coffee fail animal toxicity tests, aspirin fails toxicity tests on animals, yet cigarettes, which we know are highly harmful to humans, have never shown toxicity in animal models.  To address these failures, we must replace animal models with alternative models, refine the process to reduce pain, and refine the process to reduce the number and type of animal tests.

Professor Hessler noted that we should consider animals under the precautionary principle here as well.  Further, we should require alternative testing methods by law, fund them adequately, focus on outcomes, not just testing methodologies, mandate the release and sharing of data, increase transparency and accountability, determine the level of risk and uncertainty we are comfortable with, and create a mechanism through which humans can legally speak on the behalf of animals.  These suggestions are fantastic, but will certainly require a lot of work.  However, given the inadequacy and inhumanity involved with animal testing, it seems absurd that these goals have not already been accomplished.  The system clearly never worked as it is currently designed and that is not something of which most people are aware.  Though I always knew animal testing was wrought with extreme animal abuse, Professor Hessler’s presentation opened my eyes to the vast failures of animal testing that make this process so much more unacceptable. After attending the presentations thus far, I am excitedly awaiting the debate among international speakers to be held tomorrow!

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