Legal Personhood for Animals: Advocates Call for Extending Human Rights to Animals. (Government)

By Coles, Clifton | The Futurist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview
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Legal Personhood for Animals: Advocates Call for Extending Human Rights to Animals. (Government)


Coles, Clifton, The Futurist


While many people think personal and legal rights are reserved for human beings, a growing number have begun to argue that animals should have more rights than simply being treated fairly and humanely.

Leading the debate is law professor Steven M. Wise, who argues that basic legal rights--freedom from slavery and torture-should extend to certain species exhibiting awareness, cognizance, communication, and other characteristics associated with being human. Some animals, including apes, dolphins, and dogs, exhibit these skills at levels higher than or before young children, who are granted rights at birth or before, Wise notes in his book Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights.

These basic rights also extend to human beings displaying no sense of self-awareness and yet are denied to animals that have learned to communicate, such as the gorilla Koko and the orangutan Chantek. Wise relates the story of a 10-month-old girl whose brain does little more than keep her basic functions going. "On what nonarbitrary ground could a judge find the little girl has a common law right to bodily integrity that forbids her use in terminal biomedical research, but that [the gorilla] Koko shouldn't have that right, without violating basic notions of equality?" he asks.

Wise rejects such speciesism--discrimination against animals based on the assumption that humankind is superior. "Only a radical speciesist would accept a baby girl who lacks consciousness, sentience, even a brain, as having legal rights just because she's human, yet the thinkingest, talkingest, feelingest apes have no rights at all, just because they're not human," he says.

Wise delineates four categories of practical autonomy, which he defines as a being's ability to desire, an intention to fulfill that desire, and a sense of self-awareness and self-sufficiency. Practical autonomy is the standard the law uses as sufficient for basic legal rights and makes a being entitled to personhood, according to Wise.

The first category of practical autonomy contains nonhuman animals that should clearly have rights, while category four comprises those that definitely don't qualify. Though most species may be placed in category three, meaning we don't know enough about them to really decide, all of the animals Wise studies seem to possess sufficient autonomy for basic liberty rights granted to most humans.

Honeybees, the species lowest on the evolutionary scale in Wise's study, come in somewhere in the middle of his practical autonomy scale. Their learning capacity, memory, communications, and rudimentary thinking skills have been proven. Because they are insects, however intelligent, it is difficult to justify granting them rights. After all, 100 billion bees a year are killed in the commercial production of honey.

While we may have no trouble dismissing honeybees from the discussion of legal rights, animals higher up the practical autonomy scale, such as elephants, are more problematic. Wise journeys to Kenya's Amboseli National Park to see Echo, the matriarch of an extended elephant family.

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Legal Personhood for Animals: Advocates Call for Extending Human Rights to Animals. (Government)
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