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Personhood for Primates?


Earlier this month, lawyers in New York filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of their client Tommy, whom they insist is being illegally detained in Gloversville, New York. As the lawyers put it, Tommy “did not walk into our office; he couldn’t.” Not only because of his allegedly-illegal detention but (try not to laugh) because Tommy is a chimp.

The lawsuit is one of four cases across the country seeking to establish “legal personhood” for chimpanzees being held in what the Nonhuman Rights Project regards as unacceptable conditions.

The head of the Project, Steven M. Wise, told Reuters that chimps “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they’re found in human beings.” Thus, Tommy and chimps like him are “cognitively complex autonomous legal person[s] with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”

Wise and other animal rights activists insist that declaring Tommy to be a “legal person” under New York law is not the same thing as saying that chimps are “equivalent” to people. After all, they tell us, corporations are treated as legal persons and no one thinks that they are equivalent to people.

Well, actually, they do. At least in almost every way that counts in our culture. The Citizens United caseaffirmed that corporations enjoy the same political speech rights as individuals. Hobby Lobby’s challenge of the HHS mandate, which the Supreme Court recently voted to hear, asserts that corporations enjoy similar rights to the free exercise of religion.

While these positions are controversial, you can argue that a corporation’s actions, especially a privately-held one like Hobby Lobby, is simply its owner’s action in another guise. In other words, there’s a real person behind the legal one.

Not in the case of Tommy, the chimpanzee. Now this is a blurring of lines that until very recently were clear.

To be fair, the Nonhuman Rights Project is correct when it notes that the law has already been blurred. In some states, animal are “legal persons for the purpose of being the beneficiary of a trust.” For instance, the late Leona Helmsley, the so called ‘queen of mean,’ left the bulk of her estate to her Maltese lapdog, who probably blew it all at the casinos, anyway.

But this says more about human folly and pique than it does about the real differences between people and animals.

The litigation is yet another example of what Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon famously dubbed “rights talk:” the American tendency to turn every social and moral question into a discussion about rights.

After all, nearly everyone agrees that animals, regardless of their “cognitive abilities” should not be treated cruelly. What’s more, as we’ve grown more aware of animals’ social habits and needs, we’ve begun to adapt the conditions under which we hold them. That’s why zoos spend millions of dollars on new habitats.

If the conditions under which Tommy and the other chimps live are as bad as the Project maintains, the law can and should intervene. But there is no need to declare Tommy a “legal person” just to have him transferred to a chimp sanctuary, as the lawsuit seeks.

As Chuck Colson said years ago on BreakPoint, “Scripture teaches that God created humans in His own image, conferring on them a unique moral status.” The only reason to seek legal personhood for chimpanzees is to further blur the line between us and animals, and as Chuck warned, to promote “a nonbiblical, naturalistic worldview that threatens to denigrate the unique moral status of human beings.”

And that’s a status we have no right to give away.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: December 16, 2013

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