This past Monday, Dan Jørgensen, who is the Danish Minister for Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, introduced a de facto ban on the ritual slaughter of meat. His reason for the ban is because any slaughtering of meat that does not include stunning, which is tantamount to animal cruelty. This ban affects the Jewish method of animal slaughter (שחיטה; shechita), as well as the Islamic practice of halal (حلال), because neither entails stunning. What I would like to do here is threefold: 1) explain the idea behind shechita, 2) provide a brief primer of animal rights and welfare within the context of public policy and political philosophy, and 3) assess the validity of the Danish ban.
Animal Slaughter in Jewish Law
The practice of שחיטה is derived from the Torah (Numbers 11:22; Deuteronomy 12:21, 14:21). Although a Jew is not obligated to eat meat, one can nevertheless eat meat if it is slaughtered under to provisions under Jewish law. While it is permitted to eat meat in Judaism, Judaism makes it a point to show compassion in its treatment of animals, and this compassion is also illustrated in the practice of שחיטה. For one, the slaughter is performed by a trained professional known as a shochet (שוחט). Two, the knife, known as a סכין, cannot have the slightest nick or scratch on the blade so the שוחט can make as clean of a cut as possible. The cut itself is an uninterrupted cut with precision along the animal's throat to stun, exsanguinate, and kill within a single, relatively painless coup. The issue with stunning animals for slaughter here is that it injures the animal during the slaughtering process, which renders the meat not kosher under Jewish law. Judaism maintains that healthy balance between the idea we should not be needlessly cruel to animals and that animals are not on equal footing with humans. The animus towards שחיטה has more to do with the misperception that "religion is archaic and barbaric" than it does with the merits of the actual practice itself.
Animal Rights and Welfare in Political Philosophy and Public Policy
The moral status of animals is up for debate, much like many other polemic issues. The status of animals in a philosophical context varies from animals being morally equivalent to humans, to being the mere property of humans, and everything in between. It should not be that difficult to dismiss the idea that animals are equal to humans. What is implicit in having rights is having responsibility. Animals are instinctive creatures, and as such, lack free will, mens rea, or even a sense of right and wrong to truly be accountable for their actions. Those are characteristics specific to the human condition. Animals are incapable of entering a social contract, which is why when a dog bites a human being or one animal eats another, animals are not prosecuted in a court of law. If animals were equal under the law, roadkill or hunting would be deemed manslaughter, swatting a fly would be murder in the first degree, putting down one's pet would be euthanasia, exterminating termites or a beehive would be genocide, and owning pets would be a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.
If we weren't going to go down the route of complete lunacy by treating animals equal to humans, even legalizing some form of animal welfare can be tricky. On the one hand, the idea of treating animals more kindly, contra Michael Vick, has become more of a value in society because animals are also sentient beings. On the other hand, and something I will elucidate upon momentarily, how do we draw the line of "unnecessary animal suffering?" Regardless, the practice of שחיטה does not add a sense of undue suffering to the animal because if that were the case being made, the a fortiori conclusion would be that meat consumption would have to be made illegal, which is only something you see the radical animal rights activists advocating.
What is Jørgensen trying to pull?
When passing the ban, Minister Jørgensen had stated that "animal rights come before religion," which I personally don't find inspiring because he's making the statement that animal rights supersede human rights. Jørgensen was also the president of an animal rights group, so it makes me ask about the extent to which this is legitimately about animal rights and welfare.
Compared to the entirety of an animal's life, the slaughtering is a small percentage of that animal's life. Is the Danish government going to the abandon factory farms that put its livestock in such squalor conditions as close confinement, restriction or prevention of normal exercise, lack of daylight or fresh air, or the related health issues? Since 25,000 piglets die per day through the Danish factory farming system (don't forget the pigs who have their tails docked), which is one of the most intense pig farming systems in the world, maybe Jørgensen shouldn't be sending the message that the slaughter at the end of the animal's life is more important that how it is treated throughout its entire life.
If the Danish government is this worried about animal welfare, why have animal slaughter be legal in the first place? Those who think sending an electrical current through an animal doesn't cause pain should try it either on their pet or a fellow human being. If animals are to be granted that much consideration, then animal slaughter of all meat should be considered, as well as the practices of hunting, zoophilia, or being the world leader in producing mink pelts. The amount of animals abused, harmed, or killed in other practices in Denmark [or anywhere else, for that matter] far exceeds the number of animals killed during שחיטה or حلال. At a minimum, Denmark should mandate vegetarianism if animal welfare were that sacrosanct.
Practically speaking, this ban will not really affect the lives of Jews or Muslims in Denmark. Some of the imams in Denmark already ruled that حلال with stunning is an acceptable leniency, and Danish Jews have been importing their kosher meat for the past decade. There is not a single kosher slaughterhouse in Denmark, so it makes me wonder why Jørgensen would make the symbolic gesture at all.
A part of me wonders whether or not this is an assault on religious practice. The Danish Constitution (Section 67) is not the most reassuring form of religious freedom, especially in comparison to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Given the overall secular attitudes of Denmark, it would not be surprising if this were a way to stick it to religion, particularly minority religions that the typical Dane would trouble understanding. This ban could also be a populist, anti-immigration response to the uptick in immigration that has taken place since 1995, and the Jewish community could have incidentally been in the crossfire. Alternatively, this could very well be simple politics. Up until earlier this month, Socialistisk Folkeparti (the Socialist People's Party) was part of the coalition government. Although the next Danish general election isn't until September 2015, it's never too early to pander to the green politics of the Socialist People's Party in the hopes that they maintain the coalition in time for the upcoming election, especially after the Copenhagen Zoo euthanized a perfectly healthy giraffe and fed it to the lions. Unless Jørgensen publicly states an alternative reason or leaves a paper trail behind explicitly explaining why he unilaterally proposed this ban, we won't know what is going on inside his head. Whatever the ultimate reasoning may be, one thing is for certain: this ban has nothing to do with animal welfare.