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Georgetown joins Bambi-ization of law


Only under the cover of the fog of philosophical vagueness now obscuring our moral boundaries could the animal law movement hang up its shingle. This is New Age meets American law, or the Bambi-ization of America, whose dreamy advocates grant more rights and protection to animals than to infants in the womb.

This confusion is only abetted when a truly great Catholic university, such as Washington’s Georgetown, gives this New Age eruption the aura of a religious apparition by announcing animal law will soon be offered in its law school.

This move may only give comfort to the critics who claim, usually unfairly, that Georgetown has already diluted its Catholic identity.

Animal law, for the unfamiliar, is a “fledgling field” that attributes “rights” to animals and has instituted an array of legal actions to vindicate these in the courtroom. Lawyers active in this cause compare themselves to forebears who gallantly pioneered the causes of civil rights and the environment.

You make the call on whether Gary L. Francione of Rutgers University in New Jersey is the leading edge or the fuzzy rump of this specialty. He urges colleagues to file suit on behalf of gorillas, asserting “they should be declared to be ‘persons’ under the Constitution” with all the rights that document grants to human beings.

Only a period of great prosperity, with its high tolerance for general looniness in taking the wrong people and the wrong issues seriously -- think only of Tina Brown and her new magazine Talk -- could accept Francione’s idea that gorillas should be regarded as persons.

Such a contention is made at the same time other activists scoff at the notion the fetus, even in a highly developed state, should be granted the rights of a human person and the protection of the law.

Take the Massachusetts case of the killing of pet sheep by a neighbor’s dogs. Not a good thing, we agree, as would St. Francis and any good shepherd. Still, to persuade the court to award damages “for the loss of companionship” crosses the border of the preposterous. The winning lawyer explained -- sheepishly, we hope -- that their owners “let the sheep in the house and baked them muffins.” This, in the same country taking food stamps away from hungry people.

That a truly great Catholic university such as Georgetown, as The New York Times notes, should assist animal law in taking “an important step toward legitimacy” suggests somebody there is either inadvertent or unaware of the impact that the school’s seeming seal of approval bestows on such a distortion of the traditional Catholic philosophical and theological understanding of the distinction between human persons and animals.

That apparent approval, whether intended or not, validates the sentimental but self-serving grandiosity of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, one of whose lawyers, according to the Times, “spends her time studying precedents that could be used on behalf of animals, including the legal steps taken in the emancipation of slaves.”

A whiff of their self-congratulation lifts off the newspaper page from this claim that should outrage descendants of slaves as much as it mocks the great figures who used the law to overcome enslavement as a sacrilege against the human personhood of its victims and of its advocates.

We corrupt and defile our own natures, lessening our humanity, when we violate the rights of other humans or of the creatures and Earth in our charge. We condemn animal cruelty because of our failure to be human in our behavior. We need not grant animals personhood to defend them as part of creation put in our care.

Perhaps the real reason this field is being taken seriously is that, again according to the Times, “it is an area of legal practice that could be profitable.” Lawyers so motivated provide us with an example of how we humans fail to live up to our own dignity as persons when, out of mercenary reasons (read greed), we rationalize our gain as a way of doing good.

Then there is the lady lawyer from the defense fund who no longer eats animal products.

“My commitment,” she is quoted as saying, “is I don’t eat my clients.”

That, alas, is unfortunately exactly what many people think lawyers do.

Georgetown’s involvement in animal law won’t lessen lawyer jokes, improve the law, or honor the dignity of the human person that is the common obligation of the law, the university and organized religion.

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999