Religion vs Animal Rights?

22:48, Jun 09 2010

We've discovered the delights of Moroccan tagine dishes - spicy casseroles steaming in ceramic pots. The restaurant that served them to us was a real find, I thought. Until, as we left, my partner said, "Hey, that meat you ate was Halal."

I hadn't thought about it. So I asked myself, "what do I think about that? Doesn't Halal mean that the animal was bled out and suffered pain? Should I feel bad?"

Cue the squeaking sound of liberal hands being wrung.

But not for long. We've been back to that restaurant and guiltlessly savoured its delicious tagines.

Halal slaughter of animals, you see, is deemed humane by New Zealand's government animal welfare body.

Yes, the Muslim slaughterman must kill the beast with a fast, deep cut to its throat, and say a prayer as he does so. But that beast, first, was stunned; it doesn't feel the pain of the cut and it's not conscious as the blood leaves its body.

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Both the religious rule and the secular ethical requirement are fulfilled. If you've made peace with the idea of eating animal meat, then you shouldn't be troubled further by eating meat slaughtered according to Muslim law - at least in New Zealand.

Not so, I discovered this week, with the slaughter rules of Judaism.

Our Agriculture Minister, David Carter, has banned the Jewish slaughter practice known as Shechita, in which an approved butcher cuts the animal's throat so it will bleed to death.

Carter's decision has upset Jewish community groups and is actually tougher than what the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee suggested to him. The committee said it preferred that no animal be slaughtered commercially without first being stunned; but it suggested a dispensation for Shechita slaughter in which the throat-cutting would quickly be followed by a stunning.

The minister went instead for a ban, and naturally New Zealand's observant Jews are not pleased. A leading rabbi said the ban was a "slap in the face". "This is something that is usually done by countries that are anti-Semitic," he said.

Actually, it seems that countries that have previously banned Shechita slaughter include Iceland, Norway and Sweden - not bastions of anti-Semitism, I would have thought.

But still you can see the point of Jewish critics. They have a right to  follow their religion, and preparing and eating kosher food is part of that.

And you have to wonder, if New Zealand Jews numbered 250,000 instead of 7000, would Carter have made the call he did? He's a politician, after all, and politicians can count.

But politicians can also, you'd hope, do the right thing. In this case, Carter could have gone with the committee's compromise and had a good chance of winning Jews over to support it. But he went instead with a decision that favours the right of animals to be free of unnecessary pain, while outraging a religious minority.

Normally, when it's a matter of someone's liberties being protected, expanded or reduced, I'm on the side of liberties. We so easily give liberties away or let them be eroded, because they don't seem important at the moment, or because it involves someone else and not us.

But sometimes rights and liberties do battle with each other, and things get complicated.

Animals do have rights. We pen them, jam them into trucks, and send them reeling towards a meatworker with a big knife. But we know those animals feel pain, so the least we can do is try to remove that pain.

Attitudes and laws about animal rights have grown out of a widening appreciation of "rights" generally, as well as knowledge of neuroscience and animal behaviour.

Against that, in this case, is 5000 years of religious belief and practice, and the rights of a group (whose number should be irrelevant) to observe their traditions.

But if we're serious about treating animals humanely, then some traditions have to be adjusted. I live in a country that has ditched a lot of "traditions" and is the better for it. I think the rights of animals are becoming clearer over time and we are learning more about them year by year. That process has disturbed a lot of habits and will go on doing so. Essentially, humans have been agreeing to abridge their own liberties as to how they treat animals so that those animals' basic rights can be accommodated.

So on this, with the greatest of respect to those who observe Shechita, I'm on the side of the animals.

But there's a lot more to be said. Carter's decision may go to judicial review, and the resulting arguments - animals' rights against religious rites - will be worth following.

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Pictures: Reuters