Animal Rights: The Disabled Person’s Last Straw

  • A
  • A
  • A

Emily Munson

Readers may remember me as a Republican blogger for CDRNYS during the 2016 election cycle. While I vociferously reject association with many of the negative “-ist” labels sadly associated with conservatives today (e.g., racist, misogynist), there is one label I willingly adopt: speciesist. Unlike animal-rights activists and some environmentalists, I believe that humans have greater moral rights than animals.

I believe all humans have inherent moral value, simply because they are human. Others believe this distinction, merely on the basis of species, is arbitrary and facile. Instead, they assert that living beings with greater cognitive ability – and, in their view, greater capacity for pain and pleasure – are worthy of respectively greater moral value. It is for similar reasons that several respected philosophers, including Peter Singer, have queried whether it is more ethical to test products on people with cognitive disabilities rather than intellectually high-functioning animals such as dolphins.

As a graduate student in Philosophy, I witnessed several friends pulled to the utilitarian promotion of animal rights. I remember feeling uneasy, desperately wondering whether they truly believed it was right to put the interests of animals over fellow humans with intellectual disabilities. My friends would laugh, claim the issue was just theoretical, and brusquely conclude people with disabilities were in no jeopardy of losing their rights to other mammalian species.

Ten years later, I find my own interests, as a human with a physical disability, taking a backseat to the interests of reptiles. I am, of course, referencing plastic drinking straw bans in places like California and Disney parks. The issue is not unique to the United States, but has spread to the United Kingdom, Canada, and other wealthy nations. Those supporting the bans gained a swell of support after the launch of a viral video in which an unfortunate sea turtle had a plastic straw removed from its nostril.

I feel compassion for the bleeding sea turtle and other forms of marine life enduring polluted environments. At the same time, I rely on plastic to survive. Air blows into my lungs every night through plastic tubing, and I would not stay hydrated but for my neon plastic straws. I recognize new plastic polymers are not particularly biodegradable, and that plastic should be disposed of appropriately. My refuse should not despoil our magnificent oceans and harm wildlife. In other words, humans are obligated to be good stewards of our environment and the animals over which we have dominion.

Yet, rather than discuss the issue of disposable straws and consider the adverse consequences of related bans, states, municipalities, and multinational companies moved forward. In some locations, straws will be available only upon request. In other locations – such as the Windsor Estates and, by 2022, the Indian subcontinent – straws are not ever to be brought upon the premises.

Nonetheless, even more frustrating than feeling like a persona non grata at public entities and other places that have banned plastic straws, is the reaction I receive when chatting about the issue with friends and coworkers. After expressing support for a new ban, someone inevitably looks in my direction and asks with what I plan to replace my plastic straws. Metal? Glass? Paper? After I calmly explain how paper straws biodegrade inside my cup, metal straws are impossible to correctly position, and the idea of easily-chipped glass straws terrifies me, they respond that they are sure I will “find something.” “Yes,” I want to accuse, “the ableism lurking in your heart!” But I smile, nod, and let it go. Like my graduate school colleagues, straw ban supporters fail to understand the practical – and inhumane – consequences of their beliefs.

While the foreseeable economic burden of swapping a plastic straw for an alternative seems relatively painless compared to having a plastic straw forcefully shoved into one’s nostril, as happened to the sea turtle célèbre, this is not an accurate portrayal of the burden placed upon straw-users with disabilities. For example, if a paper straw is the only one available to me, it would disintegrate before I could drink half a can of soda. I would dehydrate, causing bladder and kidney problems. If a metal straw is the only one available to me, my inability to bend it as needed could cause me to choke, aspirate, and induce pneumonia. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that plastic straws save people with disabilities from certain physical ailments and even certain causes of death.

I am glad to live in a city and state that has not put the rights of turtles above my own. What about you?