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Germany's Beastly Debate

Do animals have the same rights as humans? Germany’s agriculture and consumer affairs minister thinks so, and she’s campaigning for their inclusion in the constitution.


If these pigs could vote, they'd demand better treatment

German Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Minister Renate Künast from the Green Party has announced a proposal to include humane treatment of animals in the German constitution.

Künast said Tuesday that the rights of animals needed the same type of constitutional protection as the right to practice religion, work or research.

The minister cited public opinion surveys showing that some 80 percent of the German public would support such a constitutional amendment.

Künast, who was appointed to her post last year after the BSE scandal, said she is confident the proposed change would pass both houses of parliament with the two-thirds majority required for changing the constitution.

If Künast and her supporters in the Red-Green coalition government play their cards right, the issue could come up before parliament as early as May and be signed into law prior to the September elections.

Animal lovers unite

Germany’s Animal Protection League, a large private activist group, is all in favor of a quick passage of the bill. Wolfgang Apel said he supports Künast’s goal and says it’s high time the country’s legislators took action to guarantee the rights of animals.

In an interview with DW-TV, Apel explained the urgency of the situation: "We’ve seen that in the past, animal rights have always fallen by the wayside when confronted with other fundamental rights. For example, the freedoms of research and teaching, freedom to exercise one’s profession, artistic freedom, etc. This led to the pushing aside of animals suffering while these other basic rights took precedence. This can’t go on."

"We need a real balance between the various legally protected rights. That means animal welfare must be sanctioned as a national objective," he said.

Political possibility

Even the agricultural speaker for the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Heinrich-Wilhelm Ronsöhr, said the bill would most likely win cross-party approval.

Originally the CDU had been strongly against including animal rights in the constitution. The conservative party feared extending rights to animals would disadvantage farmers and researchers who rely on animal testing for scientific experiments. But the tide is turning, and Ronsöhr said he is fairly certain that the bill will pass before the national elections.

The animal rights speaker for the Green Party, Ulrike Höfken, applauded Künast’s campaign, and says she awaits the parliamentary debate with "great hope".

The Social Democrats are also in favor of the proposed change. In an election year, such a popularly-accepted position would help bring in votes.

Animal vs. human

Still, not all politicians are blindly in favor of the extension of constitutional rights. Many, such as those from the Free Democratic Party (FDP), warn of exaggerated freedoms. They fear that the freedom of science and research will be jeopardized by the new animal protections.

There is also the added potential for a conflict of freedoms between animals and religion, as Muslims will no longer be permitted to practice their ritual slaughtering. According to the Koran, animals must be alive when slaughtered, a fact that would violate the animal’s right to humane treatment.

The decision to change the constitution would have far-reaching legal consequences. Animals would no longer be viewed as objects, but as creatures who are equals before the law. Courts could judge the legality of hens being housed in laying batteries and cows being transported in trucks clear across Europe.

The general treatment of animals would improve, but farmers would most likely suffer financially.

Gerd Sonnleiter of the German Farmer’s Association told DW-TV that "Germany’s animal protection standards are already high enough." More restrictions would mean more government intervention, and that in turn would mean reforming the way agriculture and farming is conducted. In the end, farmers would have to spend more to change their methods and consumers would pay more.

But Künast assured the skeptics that no matter what comes of her proposal, "the human will always remain the focus of the constitution".

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