Chimpanzees and personhood

Science magazine recently reported on several lawsuits that were filed by an animal rights group called the Nonhuman Rights Project seeking writs of habeas corpus for chimpanzees in three different courts in the state of New York. A writ of habeas corpus protects a person from illegal imprisonment by requiring the person who is being detained to be brought before a judge to determine the legality of his imprisonment. The group claimed that the chimpanzees were persons and were being illegally imprisoned. Two of the chimps were involved in research at Stony Brook University and the other two were owned privately. The key issue was whether the chimps qualified as persons for whom a writ of habeas corpus could be requested. All three judges involved agreed that the chimpanzees did not meet the qualification of being a person.

The underlying issue is one that has been debated for years in relation to the issue of the permissibility of abortion and impacts both beginning of life and end of life issues. Those advocating the presumed rights of the chimpanzees are assuming a capacity definition of personhood. They are saying that any animal that has capacities such as sentience and cognitive abilities similar to the least capable of human beings should be considered to have the same moral status as a human being. While the idea that moral status or personhood should be determined based on capacities that we recognize as being associated with personhood seems reasonable at first glance, it has some significant problems. The biggest one is that there is no clear agreement on what capacities should be used to define who is a person and who should determine what capacities should be used in that definition. That gives great power to whoever makes that determination. Whoever makes that decision, commonly those who are in power in society, can exclude those without power from being considered to be persons. Historically that has led to groups of human beings such as African slaves, German Jews, and women not being considered to be persons with full moral status. Today it may mean that embryos, fetuses, infants, the elderly, and those with cognitive impairments or other disabilities may be excluded. The new twist in this case is that instead of excluding human beings an attempt is being made to include non-humans.

Either way the alternative that represents the historical understanding of personhood that has been protecting the value of the powerless among us over the centuries has been an understanding that personhood is a quality inherent to the class of beings who are members of the human family without regard to other capacities or characteristics. Those of us with a Christian worldview understand that this is because human beings have been made in the image of God. However, the idea that personhood or moral status is an inherent quality of every human being regardless of that individual’s capabilities or characteristics is essential as the foundation of the concept of universal human rights which has become a transforming force for the poor and powerless around the world. No matter how much we care about the welfare of animals we should not abandon the essential concept underlying universal human rights to try to protect animals that we may believe are being mistreated.

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