Will chimpanzees' personhood be recognized before fetuses?

Will chimpanzees be recognized as persons before unborn humans in the womb?

The Nonhuman Rights Project has sued in New York arguing that chimpanzees have the right to bodily liberty and therefore should be freed to "live out their days with others of their own kind…." In effect, arguing that chimps are persons having rights that have been exclusively assigned to human persons.

As we know, fetuses are not recognized as persons, so any claim to having their rights balanced with the mothers' are considered to be illegitimate. Even, for some, repugnant.

The suits make an interesting legal argument based on common law: habeas corpus.

Our suits are based on a case that was fought in England in 1772, when an American slave, James Somerset, who had been taken to London by his owner, escaped, was recaptured and was being held in chains on a ship that was about to set sail for the slave markets of Jamaica. With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf in order to challenge Somerset’s classification as a legal thing, and the case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what became one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and he set him free.

New York State recognizes the continuing viability of the common law writ of habeas corpus. New York case law permitted slaves to use the writ to challenge their status as legal things and establish their right to freedom. And the state also adopted Lord Mansfield’s celebrated habeas corpus ruling in the Somerset case.

While our legal petitions and memoranda, along with affidavits from some of the world’s most respected scientists, lay out a clear case as to why these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned, we cannot, of course, predict how each of the judges in the three county courts will respond.

chimpThe essence of the argument, it seems to me, is that chimps can be considered persons, ergo

fetusthey have rights, because they are "cognitively complex, autonomous beings." One could argue that fetuses are not truly autonomous, which is defined as: Not controlled by others or by outside forces; independent; independent in mind or judgment; self-directed.

In the strictest sense, a fetus is not independent; it is controlled by others, the mother, in particular. But in another, important sense, a fetus is entirely "self-directed." It has its own chromosomes, mapping who it is--someone who is uniquely different from every other human being, including the mother.

As for it not being "independent," one can ask: Who is? The fetus, at birth, becomes independent of the umbilical cord and the mother's bodily nourishment. Yet, it continues to rely on others for its nourishment and the so many other things essential for life. Independence and autonomy, when applied to humans is a matter of degree. If personhood were defined strictly by independence, then we would have to define entire classes of people as sub human, if not non-human:  Infants, the intellectually challenged, the physically impaired, the elderly and especially those receiving near-end-of-life care.

Does anyone in his right mind want that?

Get two copies of my historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812," for the price of one in this Christmas sale. For details and how to order, visit http://www.madness1812.com

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  • I was thinking of filing a class action suit to release the millions of dogs held captive by their "owners". Dogs should have the right to run freely through the streets with other dogs, living their lives in a natural a setting.

  • In reply to Peter Bella:

    What, you don't like cats? Why not them too? And how about those caged gerbils? Goldfish, too, swimming around in those little tanks.

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