Orcas, Dolphins, and Whales: non-human persons and animal rights

With few exceptions, most cultures put homo sapiens at the center or the apex of creation. Humans, it is generally believed, are distinguished from other animals by our self-awareness and our ability to use tools, to think, reason, and construct meaning and representations about life. The Abrahamic religious traditions are most notable in their anthropocentric vision of human purpose in creation; and although the metaphysics and teleology are sometimes challenged by advances in science and technology, the fact remains that human beings remain the paradigmatic case against which other animals or even artificial intelligence is measured. As a Muslim and a theist, I avow my belief in the unique status of humans; however, as someone who also believes in science and is keenly attuned to the environment, I have a great love for nature and the animal world, and a great desire to protect them.

It is with this, then, that I want to propose to put ethics before metaphysics in considering the moral status of what legal scholars and ethicists call “non-human persons.” In particular, I want to look at cetacean intelligence of orcas, dolphins, and whales to understand the way in which we might classify them as non-human persons which would be given certain rights and protections. Doing so, I argue, would enable us to collapse the bifurcations that influences much of Western thought thereby ushering in a more holistic, ecological and relational approach to ethics and being.

To begin with, I would like to make a distinction clear: I am not claiming that orcas, for example, are morally equivalent to humans, but I am suggesting that we ought to be more cautious with regard to understanding our place in the animal world as a whole, particularly as it relates to the precariousness of life itself. My argument below follows philosophical and ethical reasoning, though this might also be understood in the context of religious texts. The story of Yunus (aka Jonah) and the whale is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. In short, Yunus felt discouraged that the people of Nineveh did not heed his call to worship God, and so he left in anger. Being cast into the sea, followed by being swallowed by the whale, was ostensibly punishment for his loss of hope and leaving the city without God’s permission; though on another level the exegetical scholars point to the fact of his supplication “O Lord! There is no god but you: Glory to you: I was indeed wrong” (Qur’an 21:87) as instructive of submitting to God’s will and the significance of humility. Indeed, the Qur’an goes on to say elsewhere: “Had he not been of those who exalt God, he would certainly have remained inside the whale until the Day of Resurrection.” (Qur’an 37:143-144). The whale, on this reading, is integral to the Abrahamic worldview insofar as it is the manifestation of God’s power and dominion over creation, as well as his lesson to human beings to remain humble. Read More

REGISTER NOW! Future Directions for Laboratory Animal Law in the United States

Future Directions for Laboratory Animal Law in the United States
January 26, 2018
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036)
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Please join the ILAR Roundtable, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, and the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School for a one-day meeting to discuss the future of animal law.

This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. The workshop will also be webcast and will be accessible to all who are interested. Register now!

This event is cosponsored by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School; and the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School. 

REGISTER NOW! Future Directions for Laboratory Animal Law in the United States

Future Directions for Laboratory Animal Law in the United States
January 26, 2018
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036)
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Please join the ILAR Roundtable, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, and the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School for a one-day meeting to discuss the future of animal law.

This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. The workshop will also be webcast and will be accessible to all who are interested. Register now!

This event is cosponsored by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School; and the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School. 

REGISTER NOW! Future Directions for Laboratory Animal Law in the United States

Future Directions for Laboratory Animal Law in the United States
January 26, 2018
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036)
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Please join the ILAR Roundtable, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, and the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School for a one-day meeting to discuss the future of animal law.

This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. The workshop will also be webcast and will be accessible to all who are interested. Register now!

This event is cosponsored by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School; and the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School. 

REGISTER NOW! Future Directions for Laboratory Animal Law in the United States

Future Directions for Laboratory Animal Law in the United States
January 26, 2018
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036)
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Please join the ILAR Roundtable, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, and the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School for a one-day meeting to discuss the future of animal law.

This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. The workshop will also be webcast and will be accessible to all who are interested. Register now!

This event is cosponsored by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School; and the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School. 

AI Citizen Sophia and Legal Status

By Gali Katznelson

Two weeks ago, Sophia, a robot built by Hanson Robotics, was ostensibly granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Sophia, an artificially intelligent (AI) robot modelled after Audrey Hepburn, appeared on stage at the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh to speak to CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, thanking the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for naming her the first robot citizen of any country. Details of this citizenship have yet to be disclosed, raising suspicions that this announcement was a publicity stunt. Stunt or not, this event raises a question about the future of robots within ethical and legal frameworks: as robots come to acquire more and more of the qualities of human personhood, should their rights be recognized and protected?

Looking at a 2016 report passed by the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs can provide some insight. The report questions whether robots “should be regarded as natural persons, legal persons, animals or objects – or whether a new category should be created.” I will discuss each of these categories in turn, in an attempt to position Sophia’s current and future capabilities within a legal framework of personhood.

If Sophia’s natural personhood were recognized in the United States, she would be entitled to, among others, freedom of expression, freedom to worship, the right to a prompt, fair trial by jury, and the natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If she were granted citizenship, as is any person born in the United States or who becomes a citizen through the naturalization process, Sophia would have additional rights such as the right to vote in elections for public officials, the right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship, and the right to run for office. With these rights would come responsibilities: to support and defend the constitution, to stay informed of issues affecting one’s community, to participate in the democratic process, to respect and obey the laws, to respect the rights, beliefs and opinions of others, to participate in the community, to pay income and other taxes, to serve on jury when called, and to defend the country should the need arise. In other words, if recognized as a person, or, more specifically, as a person capable of obtaining American citizenship, Sophia could have the same rights as any other American, lining up at the polls to vote, or even potentially becoming president. Read More

Factory farming, human health, and the new WHO Director General

By Nir Eyal

Last week, over 200 experts called on the next Director General of the World Health Organization to prioritize factory farming in an open letter. Announced in articles in the New York Times and The Lancet, the letter argues that factory farming is a major barrier to better global health. The letter does not make this argument on animal rights grounds – although this argument is certainly strong – but instead focuses on factory farming’s contribution to antibiotic resistance, climate change, and the rise of chronic diseases. These three issues formed the core of the last Director General’s agenda, although limited attention was paid to factory farming, which the authors argue, “connects the dots among them.”

One of the authors is Scott Weathers, a Global Health and Population MSc student at the Harvard T.H. Chan SPH. The other is Sophie Hermans, a doctoral student from Cambridge U. Their letter received overwhelming response. On twitter, their announcement of the letter was the #1 trending tweet on all relevant hashtags for the recent World Health Assembly.

Congratulations, Scott and Sophie!

(I am among the letter signatories.)

Chimeras with benefits? Transplants from bioengineered human/pig donors

By Brad Segal

In January of this year, Cell published a study modestly titled, Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. It reports success bioengineering a mostly-pig partly-human embryo. One day before, Nature published a report that scientists had grown (for lack of a better word) a functioning genetically-mouse pancreas within the body of a genetically-modified rat. The latest study raises the likelihood that before long, it will also be scientifically possible to grow human organs within bioengineered pigs.

The implications for transplantation are tremendous. But hold the applause for now. Imagine a chimera with a brain made up of human neurons which expressed human genes. Would organ procurement without consent be okay? That troubling possibility raises  questions about whether manufacturing chimeras with human-like properties for organs is even appropriate in the first place. Here’s what University of Montreal bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky told the Washington Post:

“I think the point of these papers is sort of a proof of principle, showing that what researchers intend to achieve with human-non-human chimeras might be possible … The more you can show that it stands to produce something that will actually save lives … the more we can demonstrate that the benefit is real, tangible and probable — overall it shifts the scale of risk-benefit assessment, potentially in favor of pursuing research and away from those concerns that are more philosophical and conceptual.”

I respectfully disagree. Saving more lives, of course, is good. Basic science is also valuable – even more so if it might translate to the bedside. This line of research, though, is positioned to upend our entire system of transplantation, and so its implications go beyond organ supply. In this post I will argue that to assess this technology’s implications for organ procurement in particular, there is good reason to focus on harms, not benefits. Read More

Westworld and Bioethics

By I. Glenn Cohen

[WARNING: Spoilers below]

On Sunday, HBO’s Westworld finished its run. Though I thought some of the early episodes were arguably a bit of a failure as television (and my partner almost jumped off the bandwagon of making this one of “our shows”) IMHO the show finished very strong.

But whatever you thought of it as television, the show is wildly successful at raising a series of bioethics issues. There have been a bunch of other very good treatments of some of these issues in the last couple of decades – A.I., Ex Machina, Humans, Battlestar Galactica all come to mind – that touch on some of these issues. But, what I loved about Westworld is its lack of direct moralizing on these subjects, and how it leaves the viewer puzzling through them in a much more naturalistic way: I have been thrust in this unfamiliar world, and now I am trying to use my ethical compass to get my bearings.

Once upon a time I discussed Bioethics and the Martian, and my aim is to do the same here. I thought one way to share why I think the show is so successful as a text for bioethics exploration was to develop a “mock exam question” on the subject. This is really written more like an oral exam, with follow-up questions. The goal is not entirely fanciful since I do teach a course that uses films as texts to explore bioethics and the law.

Here goes: Read More

NIH Announces Plans for new Rules for Funding Chimera Research (Human-Animal Mixtures)

As reported by Science, today the NIH announced plans to lift a preemptive year long moratorium on funding chimera research – that which mixes human and animal cells, often at the embryonic stage.

Here is a snippet from the Science article about the new proposed NIH process:

According to two notices released today, NIH is proposing to replace the moratorium with a new agency review process for certain chimera experiments. One type involves adding human stem cells to nonhuman vertebrate embryos through the gastrulation stage, when an embryo develops three distinct layers of cells that then give rise to different tissues and organs. The other category is studies that introduce human cells into the brains of postgastrulation mammals (except rodent studies, which won’t need extra review).

These proposed studies will go to an internal NIH steering committee of scientists, ethicists, and animal welfare experts that will consider factors such as the type of human cells, where they may wind up in the animal, and how the cells might change the animal’s behavior or appearance. The committee’s conclusions will then help NIH’s institutes decide whether to fund projects that have passed scientific peer review.

The devil will, of course, be in the details. It will be interesting to see how much NIH takes a more categorical approach as opposed to more case-by-case rule making like in the Institutional Review Board or ESCRO setting. Read More