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Horse Sense

The debate in Washington state about bestiality is actually a fight over human exceptionalism.

12:00 AM, Aug 31, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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A WASHINGTON MAN died recently from internal injuries he sustained while having sex with a horse. After his body was dropped off at a hospital, police discovered that out-of-towners had rented a rural farm and then made local animals available for use in bestiality. Yes, video taping was involved.

This disgusting story should have had a quick ending with the arrests of the operators of the human/animal sex farm and their swift punishment. However, police discovered that there is no law against bestiality in Washington. So, even though a man is dead from a very intimate injury, even though police confiscated hundreds of graphic videotapes of people having sex with animals, apparently nothing is to be done about it.

Enter Republican state Senator Pam Roach, who announced plans to introduce legislation in the next legislative session to make it a felony in Washington to commit bestiality. "I found out that Washington is one of the few states in the country that doesn't outlaw this activity," she told me. "This has made Washington a Mecca for bestiality. People know it isn't against the law and so they come from other states to have sex with animals."

Roach told me she is receiving cooperation from the Democratic leaders of the legislature, but to her surprise, the proposed bill has stirred some controversy. The most prominent voice so far against outlawing bestiality is the Seattle Post Intelligencer's liberal columnist, Robert L. Jamieson Jr. In a July 23 column, Jamieson ridiculed Roach's proposal, writing that practices such as masturbation, oral sex, and gay sex were once considered wrong, too, and so why worry now about human/animal copulation if the animal isn't injured? "Human sex with animals remains a towering taboo, booty and the beast. But as Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer, the father of the animal rights movement, has put it, 'Sex with animals does not always involve cruelty.'"

In a follow-up column, Jamieson accused Roach of engaging in "knee-jerk lawmaking and moral hysteria" in order to pander politically to "animal-loving voters, of which there are many." Responding to Roach's condemnation of the bestiality videotapes found at the sex farm as "pornography with animals," Jamieson countered, "Isn't pornography of the human variety legal so long as children aren't involved?" As to Roach's argument that having sex with animals is wrong because they can't consent to sex, Jamieson noted that animals also don't consent to "being ground into all-beef patties," and accused Roach of "taking animal love to extremes," for seeking to outlaw bestiality.

BOTH JAMIESON AND ROACH (and a very mild Post Intelligencer editorial supporting Roach) miss the true nub of what makes this repugnant issue so important. Bestiality is so very wrong not only because using animals sexually is abusive, but because such behavior is profoundly degrading and utterly subversive to the crucial understanding that human beings are unique, special, and of the highest moral worth in the known universe--a concept known as "human exceptionalism."

And this brings us back to Peter Singer, the world's most famous bioethicist and philosopher, who clearly does understand that the crucial moral issue of our time is whether human life has intrinsic value simply--merely--because it is human. Indeed, Singer is an avowed enemy of human exceptionalism.

Thus, it is no surprise that when he was asked in 2000 to review a book extolling bestiality for an online pornography magazine, he leaped at the chance to bestow his approval. In "Heavy Petting" Singer, in often vulgar language, asserted that since both humans and animals copulate and both have the same sex organs, the continuing "taboo" against bestiality merely reflects "our desire to differentiate ourselves, erotically and in every other way, from animals."

In support of his thesis that this distinction is irrational, Singer writes of attending a conference and speaking to a woman who had been sexually assaulted by an orangutan while visiting an animal rehabilitation center. When she called out for help, the operator of the facility, a woman named Birute Galdikas, told the distraught woman not to worry because orangutans are not well endowed. (The animal lost interest before completing the assault.)

This lack of concern deeply impressed Singer. "Galdikas understands very well that we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes. This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those much-misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offense to our status and dignity as human beings." In other words, bestiality is fine, for those who are attracted to that sort of thing, because it merely constitutes two animals rubbing body parts.

IT ISN'T JUST PETER SINGER. There is apparently a deep and growing yearning across an alarmingly wide swath of public advocacy to destroy the wall of moral distinction that separates animals and humans. In the bioethics movement, for example, to assert that humans have special value is denigrated as "speciesism," that is, discrimination against animals. This concept is taught in most of our major colleges and universities.

Similarly, the animal liberation movement claims that it is the ability to feel pain, rather than humanhood, which bestows equal moral value. "We are all animals," a PETA advocacy slogan asserts, by which they are not merely stating a biological fact but espousing an explicit moral equality between man and beasts. Thus, since both cows and humans can feel pain, PETA claims cattle ranching to be as evil as human slavery. The London Zoo has actually put a herd of humans on display to "demonstrate the basic nature of man as an animal and examine the impact that Homo sapiens have on the rest of the animal kingdom."

We even see this theme popping up in the ongoing controversy over high school science curricula. Thus, Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the New York Times editorial board, savaged critics of materialistic Darwinism in part on philosophical grounds, because (he believes) they seek "to preserve the myth that there is a separate, divine creation for humans," that separates us from animals. "But there is a destructive hubris, a fearful arrogance to this myth," Klinkenborg writes. "It sets us apart from nature, except to dominate it. It misses both the grace and moral depth of knowing that humans have only the same stake, the same right, in the Earth as every other creature that has ever lived here."

MOST PEOPLE take human exceptionalism for granted. They can no longer afford to do so. The great philosophical question of the 21st Century is going to be whether we will knock humans off the pedestal of moral exceptionalism and instead define ourselves as just another animal in the forest. The stakes of the coming debate couldn't be more important: It is our exalted moral status that both bestows special rights upon us and imposes unique and solemn moral responsibilities--including the human duty not to abuse animals.

Nothing would more graphically demonstrate our unexceptionalism than countenancing human/animal sex. Thus, when Roach's legislation passes, the law's preamble should explicitly state that one of the reasons bestiality is condemned through law is that such degrading conduct unacceptably subverts standards of basic human dignity and is an affront to humankind's inestimable importance and intrinsic moral worth.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.