The Magazine

Life, Liberty, and a Mudhole to Lie In

Constitutions are for people, not for pigs.

Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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SOMETHING DISTURBING is happening in the Florida elections this fall. No, not the chance that Janet Reno will be the Democratic candidate for governor. A state initiative has qualified for the ballot letting voters decide whether to grant constitutional rights to pregnant pigs.

On the surface, the issue is one of animal husbandry. In the interest of industrial efficiency, and to prevent mother pigs from accidentally rolling on and crushing their offspring, many pig farmers confine pregnant sows in "farrowing crates" during the final stage of pregnancy and for a time after birth.

Supporters of the practice say that the crates, which are seven feet long and two feet wide, ensure the safety and health of the sow and her piglets. A preliminary report of a study by the Iowa State University comparing three different systems for housing gestating sows seems to verify this claim, finding that the crate system produces the "highest farrowing [birth] rate."

But animal rights activists claim that immobilizing the sows in crates causes a "wide range of physical and psychological problems" for the pigs. They want to see this breeding technique banned. Thus, taking advantage of Florida's easy qualification process for voter initiatives, animal rightists have qualified a proposed state constitutional amendment that, if passed, would make it not just illegal but unconstitutional to confine a pregnant pig "in a cage, crate, or other enclosure, or tether a pregnant pig on a farm so that the pig is prevented from turning around freely."

This is a perfectly legitimate subject for public debate, of course, but not in a constitutional context. The constitution of the state of Florida was ordained and established by the people to "secure the benefits" of "Constitutional Liberty," "perfect our government, insure domestic tranquility, maintain public order, and guarantee equal civil and political rights." In other words, the Florida constitution -- like the U.S. Constitution and other state constitutions -- is concerned with the rights and responsibilities of people. It is not for pigs.

This not just an abstract argument, to be hashed out over a morning latte. Through constitutions we establish our form of government and mutually guarantee that none of us will be denied certain fundamental rights. We do so not because we are mammals, but because we are men and women seeking to maintain and protect human liberty and human dignity. Granting animals constitutional rights would cheapen these charters. Indeed, it would undermine constitutions as exclusively establishing and protecting human rights.

This is no doubt the appeal to animal rights activists of the Florida initiative. After all, pig farming is a very small industry in Florida, so small in fact, that only about 300-400 pregnant pigs are housed in farrowing crates at any given time in the entire state. So why invest the nearly $1 million supporters of the initiative claim they will spend in the coming campaign? That's a lot of money to potentially help just a few hundred pigs. But if the goal is to blur the moral distinction between human and animal life -- well, that, for animal rightists, is worth much more than $1 million.

If we are to avoid "speciesism," their thinking goes, we must give up our belief that life has ultimate value simply because it is human. This objective standard, in their thinking, being steeped in religion or outmoded notions of natural law, must be replaced by a "rational" approach that accords value to each individual -- animal or human -- based primarily on the level of the individual's perceived level of consciousness or the ability to feel pain.

One expression of this view is the bioethical theory of "personhood," according to which rights are based on whether one's "quality of life" is sufficient to qualify for membership in the "moral community" made up of sentient, self-aware "persons." Since value is based on gray matter and not genome, non-sentient humans -- including newborn infants, Alzheimer's patients, the severely retarded, and the comatose, among others -- would be excluded from this community. At the same time, some "nonhuman animals" would be included in the moral community, including dogs, pigs, elephants, dolphins, whales -- perhaps all mammals.

The consequences of such a radical shift in core societal beliefs would be profound. As animal rights author and lawyer Steven M. Wise recently told the Village Voice, establishing legal personhood for animals would grant them "the [same] fundamental rights that we humans have." This would mean, according to Wise, that "If you wanted to do something to violate the animals' rights, at the very least they should have a guardian appointed to represent their interests, the way a human child or any severely impaired human would."