Delta Smelt Fish, Dolphins and Babies

March 3, 2010 09:00 AM

A serious drought in California’s agricultural areas has sent fruit and vegetable prices soaring, but people probably don’t know much else about the situation. Well, there’s a bit of a fish story behind it.

The delta smelt fish, described by one reporter as “the canary in the coal mine,” is a fish that resides at the bottom of the fish food chain. Due to environmentalists’ concerns that if the delta smelt became extinct, other species that feed on it might also disappear, a court action was taken to protect the fish. 

The evolving story of this little fish goes like this:

The delta smelt is endemic to the Sacramento Delta. The fish, which measures about 3 inches in length, makes its home in the same place from which a large portion of the state draws its water supply, said Dan Masnada, Castaic Lake Water Agency general manager….

Besides being a major food source for other fish, the smelt also provide a measure of the health of the ecosystem, said John Beuttler, Conservation Director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. 

The smelt’s place in the food chain and its status as a metric for ecosystem’s health prompted U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger to protect the smelt in 2008 by further reducing the already diminished allocation of delta water pumped by the State Water Project to Southern California, Masnada said.

Wanger’s decision protected the smelt from being sucked into the pumps drawing water from the delta, a common occurrence prior to the new pumping regulations, Beuttler said.

Today, entire farms are simply shut down because there is no water for the fields, but that little fish lives on because, according to a U.S. District Court judge, that fish has a right to be protected. And to this very day, those protections continue, even though farmers, their families and their livelihood are threatened beyond belief. 

Then there’s the case of the dolphin. The dolphin also appears to be on the brink of gaining legal protection, which could result in the dolphin obtaining a few rights of its own. According to Margaret Somerville, the apparent brutality and cruel treatment being imposed on the dolphin population in Japan is of such a magnitude that ethicists, philosophers and scientists are joining ranks to put an end to it. She reports that one proposed remedy “would be to confer personhood on at least some animal species for the purpose of protecting them through ethics and law, including attributing rights to them.”

Her perspective on this is really quite interesting in view of the ongoing struggle that pro-human-personhood activists are facing all across this nation. Somerville tells the reader:

Currently, we use the word "person" as a synonym for human. This communicates the concept that humans are different from other animals. It can no longer fulfill that function if it does not refer exclusively to humans. In other words, if animals become persons, human persons become animals. The line between humans and other animals is blurred and the idea that humans deserve "special respect" is eliminated.

In case you think this is some sort of peculiar perspective that only a few in our midst have about the value of a delta smelt or a dolphin, you might be shocked to read what Margi Prideaux of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society writes for the Open Democracy web site in her article, “Dolphins as Persons?

Our inability to articulate the moral importance of individual animals’ lives within the sustainability paradigm impedes our consideration of the effects of our actions on other animals; animals that society may well regard as having moral significance.

Acknowledging that at least some animals are ‘beyond use’ brings forward implications spanning across philosophy, law, science and policy. However, the evidence suggests that a challenge to the status quo of the sustainability paradigm is the next logical step.

As she so boldly explains,

No one in this emerging field is suggesting that dolphins be granted a right to vote, to hold a drivers license, or to receive a free and fair education. Such knee jerk arguments simply reveal a poor understanding of the core meaning of a ‘right’. The moral rights thesis simply speaks to the concept of equality—a right to equal treatment despite difference.

We are simply discussing a basic right to life, the protection of individual liberty and the prohibition of torture (and possibly a right to redress for harm caused).

We should not discount or dismiss the tension this discussion creates. Such tensions propel humankind to explore additional layers to our existing worldview.

Profound—yes. Preposterous—I don't think so.

One would hope that such discussions trouble thinking human beings. After all, each of us is a person capable of comprehending the value and the dignity of our status as special creatures blessed by God with gifts beyond our imagination. But in a world that waxes cold to the entire idea that God actually exists, people like Prideaux and her ilk are having a dramatic effect on the way the average American views particular animals versus the preborn child, the special needs child, the elderly, the infirm and so on. Human beings who require the sacrifices and love of others always seem to be “burdensome” to the very people who would go out of their way to defend an animal or a fish.

I do not suggest by any stretch of the imagination that animals are not valuable, but surely and according to Scripture, it is man who has dominion over the earth. And yet, we can compare the commentaries of people like Sommerville and Prideaux with other reports that bring into stark contrast the world view with which Christians have to deal in this age of moral relativism. 

For example, the authors of a medical journal article entitled “An ethically justified practical approach to offering, recommending, performing, and referring for induced abortion and feticide” opine,

The ethical concept of the fetus as a patient is essential to obstetric clinical judgment and therefore to the informed consent process for induced abortion and feticide. Being a patient means that one is presented to the physician and there exist clinical interventions that are reliably expected to result in a greater balance of clinical benefits over harms. The ethical principle that directs physicians to seek such clinical outcomes is beneficence. [Emphasis added.]

Because of the immaturity of the fetal central nervous system, the fetus lacks the capacity to generate a perspective on its interests. The ethical principle of respect for autonomy and the concept of autonomy-based rights therefore do not apply to the fetus. The ethical concept of the fetus as a patient does not require appeal to the discourse of fetal rights.  This is 1 of the concept's main advantages because it prevents ethical analysis of induced abortion and feticide in medical ethics from being paralyzed by divisive debates about a fetal right to life that have been going on for decades, indeed centuries, without any basis for resolution.

In other words, the preborn child may be identified as a patient in certain circumstances but remains, when it comes to abortion, a non-entity; a non-person whose rights should not be considered because he or she cannot converse with the physician regarding his fate. Tragically, this same set of standards does not apply to the delta smelt or the dolphin.

Further, you may note that the authors refer to beneficence as a principle to be considered when discussing aborting a preborn child, which is not unexpected. In fact, beneficence, as it is currently being applied and written about, is a creation of the very same secular bioethicists who would defend the personhood of a dolphin or the right of a delta smelt to be protected while never defending the rights of preborn children to be protected from murder.

The foundation of this secular principle of beneficence is, as Professor Dianne Irving so carefully sets forth in her article, “The Bioethics Mess,” to provide a basis for deciding “who qualifies for certain medical treatments, and even who lives, who dies, and who makes those decisions.”

Such definitions never existed prior to 1978, when a group of commissioners appointed by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Casper Weinberger issued what has come to be known as the Belmont Report

As Irving tells the reader,  “[W]hile the Belmont Report gave a nod to the traditional Hippocratic understanding of beneficence as doing good for the patient, it also included a second definition of beneficence that was essentially utilitarian: doing “good for society at large.”

This skewed definition of the principle of beneficence comes into play now more than ever as researchers seek ways to further dehumanize human beings at the same time they are “humanizing” dolphins, fish and other life forms. It is not a farfetched idea to imagine that a time could come when the rights and privileges once thought to be accorded only to human beings will become the rights and privileges of animals, fish and so on. 

As these whacked-out principles of secular bioethics evolve, it is of the utmost importance for all pro-life Americans to step up the drive toward human personhood. The distinction of who is and who is not a human person has never been so important.


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