Time to abolish all forms of slavery
- Published: 01 December 2011
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December 2 is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. With this day in mind, it is important to consider the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century, as well as existing forms of slavery – including that of non-human animals, writes Nick Pendergrast.
1 December 2011
It was mass public protest such as the 1862 Chicago abolition rally which finally convinced US President Abraham Lincoln to take action and abolish institutionalised slavery in the United States.
Lincoln was actually a pragmatic politician rather than the anti-slavery crusader he is often portrayed as. He was quite indifferent to slavery, happy to either abolish slavery or keep it going, depending on what was in his interests politically.
Institutionalised slavery in the United States wasn’t abolished due to “enlightened” leaders, but rather due to the pressure and protest of the social movement opposing slavery.
Unfortunately, although the American slavery abolitionists were successful in achieving their goal, various forms of slavery continue today. In fact, there are more people in slavery now than at any other time in human history. Modern-day slavery is very different to the slavery of the past – it is much more covert, rather than institutionalised and supported by the state.
While slavery continues, it is universally condemned. Humans are no longer considered merely property under the law.
However, other animals continue to be legally classified as nothing more than property.
The animal advocacy organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently filed a lawsuit which argues that five wild-caught orcas who are forced to perform at SeaWorld are being held as slaves. This practice is said to be in violation of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution – the first ever case applying this Amendment to non-human animals.
Just as there are differences between modern-day slavery and the institutionalised slavery of the past, there are clearly differences between these forms of slavery and our use of other animals as property. For one, obviously the species of the victim is different.
But is species important in determining who should be classified as property?
Unlike other forms of property – cars, televisions or whatever else – other animals have interests. They do not have all the same interests as humans, but we do have some interests in common, such as having an interest in avoiding suffering and in continued life. When someone has interests, this brings about the need for rights to protect these interests.
It is widely accepted that we fulfil our obligations to other animals through animal welfare, which is meant to ensure some protection for the animals used and killed by humans. Animal welfare attempts to balance the interests of the animals we use and the industries that use these animals.
Yet this idea of a balancing of interests is fundamentally flawed while other animals are merely property under the law. There is no real balancing of interests between a property owner and piece of property – the property owner always wins out.
Comparatively trivial human benefits such as profit are placed above fundamental animal interests such as suffering and even life itself. An example of this is the standard practice in the egg and dairy industries, whereby the males (who cannot produce the desired product) are killed shortly after birth, and the females end up in the same slaughterhouses as those raised for meat once they are no longer “productive”. This is long before they would die from natural causes if they were free from exploitation.
In all commercial egg and dairy production, regardless of the “humane” or “free-range” label, animals are killed as soon as they are no longer economically useful to their property owners.
The interests of other animals are neglected while they are merely property under the law, even with the existence of animal welfare laws. This brings about the need for animal rights.
There are a lot of misunderstandings about exactly what animal rights means – what rights are we talking about?
In an episode of South Park, which featured PETA, all the PETA staff members were married to other animal species. Because they support animal rights, it is assumed that they want other animals to have all of the same rights as humans.
Of course, this is ridiculous; many human rights have no application to other animals. American animal rights lawyer Gary Francione provides a coherent definition of animal rights, focused on just one right for other animals: “The right not to be treated as the property as humans.”
The abolition of institutionalised slavery in the United States recognised that humans have the right not to be treated as property. It acknowledged that humans are not objects to be used for the benefit of others but are instead autonomous individuals.
Other sentient beings – other animals – deserve this same right. Animal rights overcome the fundamental injustice of treating someone as a mere thing.
As was the case with abolishing the property status of certain groups of people, we cannot wait for “enlightened” politicians to do this, or the law. The law is conservative in nature and tends to follow public opinion, rather than lead it. The change must come from us, the public.
Animals are killed and used as property to supply our demand for food products such as meat, dairy and eggs; clothing products such as leather; for household products such as soaps and shampoos when we choose ones that are tested on animals; and for our entertainment when we visit places such as circuses and zoos that use animals.
By refusing to support and contribute to these practices by choosing a vegan lifestyle, we can reduce the demand for animals being killed and used as things for our comparatively trivial benefits.
As more and more people object to using animals as property, we not only reduce demand, but also create a social movement opposed to the property status of animals and demonstrate that this status is unnecessary.
The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery is a timely reminder to take a stand now. Veganism is a form of living protest against the property status of animals. It means considering the interests of other animals, not just when we sit down to eat, but in all of the choices we make.
Nick Pendergrast is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Curtin University in Western Australia. His research focuses on the animal advocacy movement, primarily in Australia and the US. He also teaches Sociology and Anthropology at Curtin University, co-hosts the podcast Progressive Podcast Australia and runs the website Vegan Perth.
Image: Via Animals Australia