Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Of Apes and Embryos

by Edd Doerr

Dec 3, 2013: NY Times, Wash Post and other papers today report on two interesting lawsuits. The ACLU has filed suit against the US Catholic bishops in federal court in Michigan arguing that "their anti-abortion directives to Catholic hospitals hamper proper care of pregnant women in medical distress, leading to medical negligence (NYT)."  The case involves a woman whose life was  at risk from premature (18 weeks) labor at her Catholic hospital where doctors did not tell her that the fetus could not survive, did not admit her for observation, did not tell her that continuing the pregnancy was a risk to her health/life, and did  not mention abortion. In severe medical distress she soon miscarried and the 18-week fetus died. (Earliest fetal viability is 23-24 weeks of gestation.)

The second suit is a habeas corpus action filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project  in a NY state court seeking "legal personhood" for a 26 year old chimpanzee. If corporations can have "legal personhood", then why not a primate who can recognize himself in a mirror, learn standard sign language, invent and use tools, has self-awareness, and has other attributes we consider as those of human persons?

I have personally been involved with both of these issues for well over 40 years. In 1974 I published a short novel, Eden II, on the theme of legal personhood for chimps. In the novel attorneys for a chimp win a court ruling, following Roe v Wade, that "the legal term 'person' was applicable to all beings functioning in the same general manner as the class of beings already recognized by common and statutory law." On the other matter I served for a  while on the board of NARAL and for over 30 years on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reprodictive Choice.

In May of 1987 Americans for Religious Liberty sponsored a conference in Washington on Abortion Rights and Fetal "Personhood", with presentations by Catholic and Protestant theologians, attorneys and scientists The papers were published in the 1989,1990 book of that title, edited by me and Dr James W. Prescott. This led in turn to an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in Webster v Reproductive Health Services signed by 12 Nobel laureates and 155 other distinguished scientists. The brief concluded: "The neurobiological data indicate that the fetus lacks the physical capacity for the neurological activities we associate with human thought until sometime after 28 weeks of gestation. In other words, the capacity for the human thought process as we know it cannot exist before that time. Amici believe that these neurobiological facts support the chronology of development this Court recognized in Roe v Wade." In other words, being a human person is dependent on the capability for thought and consciousness. The amicus brief is included in John M. Swomley's 1999 book, Compulsory Pregnancy: The War Against American Women, available from Americans for Religious Liberty (arlinc.org).

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