by Elisha Injeti, Center for Bioethics Fellow
On December 2nd of this past year, the definition of a “legal person” was officially challenged in a court of law in the United States. In case you are wondering if this is part of an immigration issue, you are wrong. Three lawsuits filed in New York courts, by an animal rights group called Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), attempt to convince the judges that chimpanzees are legal persons.
NhRP has spent 5 years in preparing for this case, with a goal of getting cognitively advanced animals like chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins their rights as legal persons. According to NhRP, keeping these animals in captivity is tantamount to slavery. So they are determined to prove their personhood. Founder of NhRP and animal rights attorney Steven Wise says:
No matter how these first cases turn out, we’re going to move onto other cases, other states, other species of animals. We’re going to file as many lawsuits as we can over the next 10 or 20 years.
The National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) is already fighting any attempts to grant personhood to chimps. Frankie Trull, the president of NABR notes that these animals are important models for behavioral research, as well as for developing vaccines against viruses such as hepatitis C. She says assigning personhood status to animals would have chaotic results for the research community. One lawyer proposes focusing on animal welfare rather than on animal rights. He claims:
Both humans and animals would be best served by placing a strong emphasis on human responsibility for humane treatment of animals rather than creating an artificial construct of animal personhood.
For now, the judges have thrown out these petitions. But the debate on legal personhood for animals has just begun. As experts in law, philosophy, and science make their case in the media and the courts, I hope the biblical view of man and creation will not be left out of the discussion.
Science Magazine Article