The180

Should animals have personhood rights?

Quebec is considering recognizing animals as "sentient beings" in the eyes of the law. But should they go one step further and give animals personhood rights? We'll discuss the pros and cons.
Should animals have personhood rights? (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

You probably have a lot more affection for your dog or your cat than you do for your toaster. But in the eyes of the law, there isn't much of a difference. Your pet and your small appliance are both property.

Right now, Quebec is considering changing that - at least symbolically - with a proposed law that would recognize animals as "sentient beings" with biological needs and impose stricter penalties on people who mistreat them. Some supporters of Bill 54 see it as a first step along the way to granting animals personhood.

Sophie Gaillard is a lawyer for the Montreal SPCA. She's also one of the co-authors of a manifesto called "Animals Are Not Things" - which called on the Quebec government to update animals' legal status. Gaillard is encouraged by the bill, but worries it will not do enough to protect animals. She says she hopes it will "pave the way for more progressive jurisprudence to come in the future" - and says the Montreal SPCA would eventually like to see a limited form of personhood rights extended to animals. 

I think most of us are very conscious of the fact that animals are, in nature, different from an inanimate object. There's something about animals that makes them inherently different from a chair or a piece of paper. - Sophie Gaillard, Montreal SPCA

But critics like Richard Epstein, a law professor at New York University, says personhood is a step too far. He believes extending personhood rights to animals will create impossible legal questions and says the fundamental differences between humans and animals cannot be ignored. 

Simply because you know animals have amazing capacities, which they do, doesn't mean they have human capacities, which they don't. - Richard Epstein, New York University

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