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Personhood for primates? Tulane scholar's work cited in the debate

October 27, 2015


Scholarship on personhood by Professor Saru Matambanadzo (right) has been cited prominently in a New York court’s ruling rejecting the forced release of research chimps from a university’s lab.

Should whales and great apes be treated like legal persons with rights to autonomy and bodily integrity? A nonprofit animal-rights group making that argument failed in its bid to use the legal tool of habeas corpus to free chimpanzees Hercules and Leo from a New York university’s research lab. But the trial judge’s recent ruling in the case has stirred even more discussion about legal personhood — and put scholarship by Tulane Law Professor Saru Matambanadzo squarely in the mix.

In “Embodying Vulnerability: A Feminist Theory of the Person,” published in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy, Matambanadzo examined changing notions of legal protections for “persons.” Focusing on the history of expanding legal rights for women, enslaved African Americans and corporations, she argued that efforts to expand rights for animals are similar to other struggles to redefine personhood.

For Matambanadzo, legal personhood is a key concept because it focuses on "who counts and how we take account of them.” She argues that, for legal personhood, the law “has persuasive powers to generate new spaces for resistance and recognition for persons that have been previously ignored.”

Quoting from Matambanadzo’s work, New York Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe noted in the case of the chimps that animals sometimes are treated as “quasi-persons” with some rights and protections, but that the legal definition of “person” is inconsistent. The court relied on Matambanadzo's work to ground its claim that legal personhood largely depends on context.

Jaffe ruled against efforts by the Nonhuman Rights Project to force the State University of New York-Stony Brook to release the chimps to a sanctuary, saying she was bound by appellate precedent. While efforts to extend legal rights to primates are understandable, she said, that kind of change in the law would be up to appeals courts or legislatures.


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