A New York state court recently ruled that chimpanzees are not “persons” under state law. While this is good news insofar as it affirms the unique dignity and value of human beings, the casual observer – or even your average kindergarten student – may well wonder why a court would even consider this question, or why its opinion requires more than a two-sentence explanation.
Sadly, America has long botched the concept of “personhood.” In fact, this perhaps has been our greatest failure as a nation: Our Declaration of Independence nobly acknowledges that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men …” And yet, for almost a century, our forefathers classified an entire segment of our human family as “property” rather than “persons.”
Another century after the American people decisively corrected this injustice by ratifying the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, our judiciary plunged us headlong into legal depravity again by adding its own perversion to the concept of personhood in Roe v. Wade.
The state of Texas, seeking to defend its laws against abortion, had claimed that a baby in the womb was a person with a constitutionally protected right to life, offering proof that the unborn baby was a living human being. Of course, this argument rested on the premise that all living human beings are “persons.”
But as we know, the high court rejected that premise in order to conclude that prior to birth, human babies have no rights whatsoever under the Constitution. In other words, the court denied constitutional protection for the unborn by engineering a divorce between human-ness and personhood.
Divorce decree in hand, the concept of “personhood” was single again and looking to match up with some defining characteristics other than human-ness.
Enter the Nonhuman Rights Project, which seeks to secure legal recognition of fundamental rights for “nonhuman animals.”
Led by attorney Steven M. Wise, the organization has taken up the cause of Tommy and Kiko, two chimpanzees that have allegedly been confined to cages by private owners in New York. Wise sought writs of habeas corpus for the apes, in an effort to have them placed in primate sanctuaries. The crux of his argument is that chimpanzees are “persons” because they exhibit certain characteristics of humans, including goal-oriented behaviors, socialization, use of tools and demonstration of concern for others.
Now, I need to give a brief disclaimer here. I love animals. I believe that a civilized society like ours should legally forbid human cruelty to animals. And yet, animals – even chimpanzees – are not “persons” entitled to the legal rights of personhood, because they are not human.
The New York court got this right, eventually, but thanks to the Supreme Court’s forcible break-up of that happy marriage of human-ness and personhood in Roe v. Wade, the answer wasn’t nearly as clear-cut as it should have been.
Following the meandering trails blazed by the courts before it in seeking a justification (other than non-human-ness) for denying chimps the rights of personhood, the opinion first points to the inability of chimpanzees to bear legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held accountable for their actions.
The trouble is, ultimately, the “legal duties and responsibilities” line of reasoning just won’t justify limiting personhood to humans. The New York court was forced to parry the obvious counter-argument: If the ability to undertake legal duties and responsibilities makes one a “person,” then infants and disabled humans are just as disqualified as chimps.
And so, unable to escape the essential point any longer, the New York court responded as the average person knew it ultimately must, in order to reach the correct conclusion: “infants cannot comprehend that they owe duties or responsibilities and a comatose person lacks sentience, yet … these are still human beings, members of the human community.”
No matter how many human-like behaviors a chimpanzee may exhibit, it will never possess the inherent value of a human being, made in the image of God. Human life is precious and unique.
In its quest to accommodate shifting social and cultural norms, today’s judiciary often invents complex, counterintuitive answers to such fundamental questions as “who is a person,” to arrive at conclusions (however wrong they may be) society will like. What the history of personhood cases demonstrates is that although the True answer may not be easy for society to accept, it is almost always simple.