Zoology Meets Theology in Animal Kingdom

By Gibeau, Dawn | National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1993 | Go to article overview

Zoology Meets Theology in Animal Kingdom


Gibeau, Dawn, National Catholic Reporter


ST. PAUL, Minn. - Transplants of animal organs into humans looms as the next animal-rights issue that will pit activists against experimenters, Holy Cross Father Jeffrey Sobosan told NCR recently.

A theologian specializing in animal rights and author of Bless the Beasts (Crossroad), Sobosan walks an unfrequented path.

"Christianity has almost no tradition of protecting animals," he said, "almost no tradition that recognizes that animals are on the earth for any purpose other than to be used by human beings.

"It goes back to Origen, it goes back to Tertullian. It was the position of Thomas Aquinas and of Luther and of Calvin and, of course, of Karl Barth."

Sobosan, an associate professor of theology at Oregon's University of Portland, is trying "to get beneath that tradition to the biblical witness as being more authoritative" and prescribing respect for animals.

Sobosan said the technology used in transplants of animal organs had become more sophisticated since the renowned case of Baby Fay, who received a baboon heart in the mid-1980s.

The first such transplant occurred in the early 1960s, he said, but never has an animal-to-human transplant "achieved anything remotely like a permanent success."

Nevertheless, as technology has developed, the possibility of successful transplants has reemerged. Especially likely, he said, are liver and heart transplants from baboons - because they are so similar to humans - and from pigs, whose organic structure also is very similar to humans', especially the heart and the liver, he said.

Sobosan predicted that experimentation would proceed despite protests. "There's a very strong argument that as long as the animal is not subjected to pain, the experimentation is justified" because, in the process, experimenters learn about animal care, too.

"The real question is how much pain are you willing to inflict on an animal for the sake of human beings," he said. Some people, he said, think it's wrong "no matter what the pain level."

Those who protest generally do so at hospitals and other medical centers, the sites of such experiments, Sobosan said, and before state legislatures that control the funding for such experiments.

Animal-rights activism normally does not reach the federal level, be said, and no proposals have ever come before Congress pertaining directly to animal rights.

"The closest you would get at the federal level would be laws prohibiting intentional cruelty to animals, vivisection laws" and guidelines regarding animal experimentation in institutions that receive federal aid, he said.

Many organizations lobby at the state level, among them the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, otherwise known as "the Humane Society," he said, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Issues vary from state to state, he said. A few:

* In Nevada, activists object to nuclear testing because it kills many animals. Aboveground testing is worse than below ground, he said, but underground testing destroys natural habitats, as do practice bombings on desolate areas.

* In Oregon and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, animal-rights activists oppose clear-cutting of forests, which also destroys natural habitats. …

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Zoology Meets Theology in Animal Kingdom
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