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Sanity in the Court: Judge Denies Claim That Chimps are Persons

A chimpanzee grimacing

Patrick Bouquet-cc

John Burger - published on 08/01/15

New York justice denies habeas corpus to research animals

Though a New York judge ruled Thursday that the law still considers chimpanzees property, not people, a prominent thinker in the pro-life movement warned that attempts to raise animals to human status will continue. 

Wesley J. Smith, co-director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, said Friday, "We are gratified that a court refused to declare two chimpanzees ‘persons.’ That is right and proper. Chimps are animals, and the ‘species barrier’ separating the value of humans and animals, as some animal rights advocates put it, must never be breached."

"But make no mistake," Smith said. "Attempts to elevate animals—and even nature—to human-level value have only just begun."

An organization calling itself the Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in December of 2013 claiming that four New York chimpanzees—Hercules and Leo at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and two others on private property—were too cognitively and emotionally complex to be held in captivity and should be relocated to an established chimpanzee sanctuary, Science magazine reported.

NhRP petitioned three lower court judges with a writ of habeas corpus, which is traditionally used to prevent people from being unlawfully imprisoned. By granting the writ, the judges would have implicitly acknowledged that chimpanzees were legal people too—a first step in freeing them.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe, considering the claim against Stony Brook, acknowledged the similarities between chimpanzees and humans, but felt she was bound by precedent to deny the claim.

The ruling came just weeks after Steven Wise, a lawyer for the NhRP, argued the case in court, comparing Hercules and Leo’s confinement to slavery, the involuntary detention of people with mental illnesses and imprisonment.

But an assistant attorney general, representing the state university system, argued that chimpanzees are not entitled to legal personhood rights because they could not fulfill the responsibilities of people in society.

Wise presented “hundreds of pages of expert opinions from academics, zoologists, biologists and others he said supported the claim that cognitively, chimpanzees—along with dolphins, bonobos, orangutans and elephantsare advanced species,” the Associated Press reported.

Justice Jaffe didn’t shut the door on a future ruling. "Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are…understandable; some day they may even succeed," she wrote in a 33-page decision. "For now, however, given the precedent to which I am bound, it is hereby ordered, that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied and the proceeding is dismissed."

In a statement, the NhRP said it would appeal the ruling but pointed out that Jaffe said in her ruling that "the parameters of legal personhood have been and will continue to be discussed and debated by legal theorists, commentators, and courts and will not be focused on semantics or biology, even philosophy, but on the proper allocation of rights under the law, asking, in effect, who counts under our law.”

The ruling is only a minor setback, according to the Discovery Institute’s Smith, who said 
that "animal personalizers" are on a roll.

"An Argentinean judge has declared an orangutan to be a ‘person,’ and granted a writ of habeas corpus in the animal’s name, forcing the ape to be removed from a zoo. New Zealand has declared a river to be a person with ‘rights,’" he said.

"This threat to the unique dignity and sanctity of human life must be taken seriously and combatted with the greatest vigor in our parliaments, legislatures, courts, and organs of public opinion," Smith warned. "If we elevate animals and nature to the status of humans, we are really reducing us to the status of animals. If that is how we define ourselves, that is precisely how we will act."

Smith finds it ironic that attempts to personalize animals and nature comes at a time when "concerted efforts are under way in bioethics and law to depersonalize some people, the unborn, people with profound disabilities, etc. These so-called human non-persons are seen as natural resources, to be harvested and experimented on—as we have seen in the USA with Planned Parenthood."

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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