Personhood for Animals

Lawyers within the animal rights movement have begun to lay the groundwork and test new legal theories in a focused and determined effort to grant additional legal protections for animals, including animals involved in research. The leaders of this legal movement advocate enacting new federal, state, and local laws and ordinances as well as establishing new court precedents that have the potential to significantly interfere with animal research.

This long-term, step-by-step strategy includes a multi-front campaign to toughen state animal cruelty laws, replace the term “owner” with “guardian” in local and state statutes, increase access to federal courts by eliminating standing requirements, enact statutes or establish new case law to permit higher levels of compensation for non-economic damages, expand tort law, enact laws that allow trusts to be set up for family pets, and eventually establish a form of legal personhood for some species of animals. While many of these strategies do not appear, at first glance, to affect laboratory animals, the “sum of their parts” has the potential to have an enormous impact on life-saving medical and scientific research.

The impact of this coordinated and incremental strategy can already be seen. Animal rights lawyers have drawn support from prominent legal theorists like Harvard professors Lawrence Tribe, Cass Sunstein, and Alan Dershowitz. Several cities and one state (Rhode Island) have enacted pet guardian’ lawsAnimal law is currently taught at more than half of the nation’s 180 accredited law schools. State, regional and local Bar associations are adding new animal law committees and sections to advocate for new animal rights and protections.

Steven Wise, the person who has received the most press attention following the publication of his new book, Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, argues that certain species of animals should be granted basic legal rights based on their mental abilities. In his book he cites scientists in different fields who lead him to conclude that some animals are so much like humans in significant ways that they deserve some of the basic legal rights that all humans enjoy.

Wise argues that certain animals should be granted new rights on two separate legal grounds – equality and liberty. With respect to equality, he simply argues that like beings should be treated alike. Because chimpanzees and certain other animal species are so much like humans, they should be granted basic legal rights. At a minimum they should have a right to bodily integrity, which means no captivity, and no medical research.

With regard to liberty rights, Wise argues that humans have rights because they have practical autonomy. A being has practical autonomy if it (1) can desire; (2) can intentionally try to fulfill those desires; and (3) possesses a sense of self-sufficiency and self-awareness. He then evaluates different animal species based upon these criteria. If they met the criteria, he then argues that they should be entitled to basic legal rights. Bodily integrity again being the basic minimum legal right.

Wise is hoping to start slow with this argument and gradually progress. His first goal is to convince a state court that a chimpanzee is so like a human being that it should be given this fundamental right. If he is successful, he believes it would then be easier to convince other state courts to rule similarly. He would then move on to other animal species based upon this precedent.