'Personhood' Redefined: Animal Rights Strategy Gets at the Essence
of Being Human
Philosophers have grappled with these questions for millennia:
What is the essence of a human being? What is the difference between
a person with comparatively underdeveloped cognitive abilities and
a primate? Now, relying on the difficulties posed by such inquiries,
some animal rights activists have embarked on a crusade to define
animals as worthy of certain "personhood" rights.
The movement aims to incrementally grant rights to animals that
could redefine the way humans use and relate to them. Among them
is a potentially revolutionary concept: giving animals the right
to not be viewed as human property.
"We live in a litigious society,
we live in an animal-loving society, we live in a society
that is largely scientifically uneducated and doesn't really
understand the role that laboratory animals play in improving
the quality of life of people and
- Frankie Trull, founder and president, Foundation for Biomedical
An example of the increasing success of what has been termed the
"animal personhood" movement is the adoption by some jurisdictions
of "pet guardian" laws, under which the term "guardian"
is used interchangeably with the word "owner." Supporters
argue that use of the "guardian" term will result in greater
responsibility and respect for pets without changing their legal
status, while opponents worry that the change in legal terminology
might be setting the stage for frivolous lawsuits and, ultimately,
a legal challenge to the status of pets as property.
The connotations such efforts hold for research involving animals
are great, as Frankie Trull, founder and president of the Foundation
for Biomedical Research (FBR), points out. If the "personhood"
movement gathers momentum and results in more stringent animal research
laws, research facilities will be subject to an increased number
of lawsuits, says Trull. "The second thing that will happen
is that some species, such as non-human primates, probably won't
be allowed to be used for research at all." Such scenarios
would carry extraordinary cost implications, and the country's already
financially strained teaching hospitals and medical schools would
not be prepared to fight these battles, she adds.
"We live in a litigious society, we live in an animal-loving
society, we live in a society that is largely scientifically uneducated
and doesn't really understand the role that laboratory animals play
in improving the quality of life of people - and, I might add, other
animals," says Trull. "This is a very emotional issue,
and it is driven by the heart, not the head. That's what has eluded
the scientific community since the very beginning."
Matthew Penzer, legal counsel at the People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals (PETA), says that animal personhood laws are simply a
"reflection of social ideals." "We value kindness
and compassion as ideals of our society, and there's no reason why
the law shouldn't reflect those ideals for animals," Penzer
says. "These laws are not necessarily a recognition that animals
are entitled to the same rights as people. Nobody would argue that
a dog is entitled to the right to vote, or to marry, but certainly
as living, feeling, fearing beings that are capable of suffering
and knowing pain, they should be protected under the law."
The animal personhood movement has the support of some legal luminaries,
including Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, who argued for Al
Gore in the Supreme Court case against George W. Bush, and civil
rights and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz. "Animal rights
or animal legal courses are being taught now in something like 26
U.S. law schools, and there are more added to that list every year,"
says Trull. "We are also seeing chapters of animal rights law
in a number of state bar associations, as well as the introduction
of related resolutions within the American Bar Association that
are being brought to the house of delegates."
While these efforts have not yet gained considerable traction,
Trull believes there's cause for concern. "We've seen this
in other aspects of this movement where what appeared to be a 'ridiculous'
proposal was brought forth and everybody said that it was going
nowhere, and the next thing that happened was that it did go somewhere,
and we were left standing, asking 'what happened?'"
Michael Socarras, a partner at Greenberg Traurig, LLP, who has
represented research interests in several animal rights cases, agrees.
"There is a very important shift under way in the manner in
which many people in law schools and in the legal profession think
about animals," says Socarras. "This shift has not yet
reached popular opinion. However, in our country, social change
has and can occur through the courts, which in many instances do
not operate as democratic institutions. Therefore, the evolution
in elite legal opinion is extremely significant and raises an important
challenge for the future of biomedical research."
At the root of the animal personhood philosophy are questions
that likely cannot be answered empirically. "There's a wide
range of learning and thought on why human beings are different
from animals arising in the fields of philosophy, religion, and
ethics," says Socarras. "The approach to that question
viewed from the standpoint of the humanities and philosophy is very
different from how you would approach it as a natural scientist.
The important point as far as biomedical research is concerned is
that its moral justification comes down as a humanities, religion,
philosophy, ethics argument, and less so out of natural science.
At the end of the day, it's impossible to prove empirically that
there's such a thing as unique human dignity or that it's absolutely
certain that human culture has always been based on that belief."
Attempting to answer these questions using arguments about human
cognition and rationality can be problematic, as researchers themselves
know. Studies have shown the ability of many primates to remember
past events and to have an idea of the future. Scientists have taught
chimps to communicate in sign language, use tools, and solve problems,
behaviors that have been traditionally associated with humans.
Despite such scientific findings, the American public has not
welcomed all comparisons between animals and people. PETA launched
a controversial campaign earlier this year titled "Holocaust
on Your Plate," comparing the plight of Jews and other groups
during the Holocaust to the suffering undergone by slaughter animals.
The campaign incited the fury of Jewish groups, and one of its commercials
was banned in many TV stations around the country.
"These laws are not necessarily
a recognition that animals are entitled to the same rights
but certainly as living, feeling, fearing beings
that are capable of suffering and knowing pain, they should
be protected under the law."
- Matthew Penzer, legal counsel, People for the Ethical Treatment
In the TV ad, the world is seen through the slats in the side of
a truck, as a man's voice intones, "They came for us at night.
Beat us. We cried out in the darkness. With no food, no water, and
barely air to breathe." The ad ends with the tagline, "Each
age has its own atrocities. End the animals' holocaust. Please become
PETA's campaign also consists of an exhibition of eight 60-square-foot
panels, each showing photos of factory-farm and slaughterhouse scenes
side by side with photos from Nazi camps.
A PETA statement said that the organization "wants to stimulate
contemplation of how the victimization of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals,
and others, characterized as 'life unworthy of life' during the
Holocaust, parallels the way that modern society abuses and justifies
the slaughter of animals." Another PETA statement explained
that such comparisons were the only effective way to make people
understand and relate to the suffering of these animals. "We
have no recourse but to compare the barbarity inflicted on animals
with similar and more familiar extremes of human suffering in the
hope that it will finally become comprehensible to all and inspire
Animal personhood advocates have made similar comparisons between
domestic violence, slavery, and animal abuse. "The fact that
such comparisons have even been made would make the vast majority
of American women indignant," says Socarras. "Most people
would rapidly agree as a matter of common sense that violence against
a woman is not remotely on the same level as violence against an
animal, even though both are completely unacceptable. The dignity
of a woman as a human being is infinitely superior and not simply
a matter of degree."
Commenting on the related comparison concerning slavery, Socarras
opines that "African Americans would be right to be offended
by the comparison between the mistreatment of people on the base
of race and the mistreatment of animals."
Why use animals in research?
"The human is the ultimate animal model, but in this society,
as a result of the Nuremberg Code and the Helsinki Declaration,
we do not use humans first - we use them last," explains Trull.
"So the process is such that when you can use a non-animal
methodology and in vitro technique - whether that'd be a computer
model, a mathematical model, a cell culture, or a tissue culture
- you do so prior to pursuing an investigation into a whole living
"There are quite a few in the know who believe that the governance
of animals in research is more stringent than the governance of
humans in research," Trull continues. There are a number of
laws and federal regulations in place that oversee the use of animals
in biomedical studies, and every AAMC member involved in animal
research has to comply with them, she explains.
One such regulation is the Animal Welfare Act, which applies to
all research facilities using animal species designated by the US
Secretary of Agriculture. The species that are currently designated
are guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, dogs, cats, nonhuman
primates, marine mammals, farm animal species, and warm-blooded
wild animals. Birds, mice, and rats are not covered.
Despite the sensitivities and controversies surrounding such practices,
many scientists continue to hold that animal research is the best
means to achieving a very worthy end. "Science currently agrees
by consensus that using animals in this manner is important for
the development and dissemination of therapies to treat human illnesses,"
Animal research has led to the advancement of our knowledge of
the human body and its processes, and the development of vaccines
for smallpox (the world's first vaccine), polio, and yellow fever,
among many others. The use of rats, rabbits, and hens in research
resulted in the development of hormonal treatment for cancer, while
research with dogs, rabbits, and fish led to the discovery of insulin
and the mechanism for diabetes.
Scientists are currently using and developing alternative research
methods that don't rely on animal use, but many areas of study depend
on the use of animal models. Efforts to change the legal status
of animals and to consequently outlaw their presence in all types
of research could have dire consequences for science, according
to Trull. "While this may seem far-fetched, it's a very real
issue and a very major potential problem for the research community,"
she says. "There comes a point of no return, when it becomes
cost prohibitive and time prohibitive to turn a situation around.
We need to ensure that these efforts get stopped in their tracks
early or otherwise there will soon be no research with animals."