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The human rights of "personhood" - from the abortion debate to animal rights

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The human rights battle and all its complexity
The human rights battle and all its complexity

The struggle for human rights has taken a long, arduous path, in this country and around the world. Now, as these privileges are broadened to include gay rights and same sex marriages, new battles concerning “personhood” continue to emerge.

Personhood is both a philosophical concept as well as a legal one. It is closely tied to Thomas Jefferson’s notion of the God given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The idea of personhood has been evoked in all the major struggles for human rights including those involving slavery, apartheid, women’s equality and gay rights.

Currently, there is a movement in some states to afford personhood (through “Personhood Amendments”) to a fetus from the time of conception. Doing so would theoretically make abortion illegal, as the concept of personhood would give a fetus the full rights of an American citizen including all legal protections, privileges, and responsibilities. To kill a “person” (in this case a fetus) would be by its very definition - murder.

Set the fetal personhood debate aside for now.

Another personhood movement has slowly and steadily gathered steam involves animals. This movement was highlighted in a case just last month, when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit which involved the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). AETA is a law enacted by congress in 2006 which prohibits any person from engaging in certain conduct "for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise." Many of the people the law had been designed to protect are involved in research projects that include the use of animals. However, opponents of AETA (including groups and individuals who seek greater legal protections and rights for animals) say that the legislation contains provisions which restrict their First Amendment rights to free speech. These advocates insist that free speech is essential to advancing the cause of animal rights, including those who back the concept of personhood for animals.

In another recent case specific to the personhood concept, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued SeaWorld in a Southern California federal court seeking a declaration that five killer whales were being held in slavery or involuntary servitude in violation of their 13th Amendment rights.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States abolished slavery in 1865. 

In a prepared statement, Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA said:

“All five of these orcas were violently seized from the ocean and taken from their families as babies. They are denied freedom and everything else that is natural and important to them while kept in small concrete tanks and reduced to performing stupid tricks.”

Last year, to the disappointment of animal personhood supporters, District Judge Jeffrey Miller tossed the case against SeaWorld out of court.  In his decision, the judge said: "As slavery and involuntary servitude are uniquely human activities, "there is simply no basis to construe the Thirteenth Amendment as applying to non-humans."

Nevertheless, some constitutional lawyers continue to insist that the 13th Amendment is not limited to human beings sighting its precise language which reads: “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In the US, the struggle for animal personhood continues.

The personhood movement for animals is not limited to the United States. Worldwide, governments are moving to expand the rights of animals. Many animal advocates seek the abolishment of animal experimentation, an end to the human consumption of meat and fish by people, and a setting free of most, if not all, domesticated animals.

The current trend is in favor of expanding animal rights. In recent years Spain, New Zealand, Germany and the European Union have enacted laws which afford further legal protections for animals.

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