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Why Can Rivers Be Granted Legal Personhood But Not Human Babies?


During the past week, New Zealand and India have both made the unprecedented legal decisions to grant the rights of personhood to rivers. In India, the Ganges and its tributary Yamuna have been granted these protections while in New Zealand the Whanganui has gained similar protections.

In India, it appears that the case was mainly philosophical. According to what Ritwik Dutta, a lawyer specializing in environmental issues, told the Indian publication Mint, “It is an extension of the philosophy of allowing a river to flow freely—as was intended in its nature. Any interference with the river as a whole, including construction of dams, takes away from its essential and basic character.”

This type of philosophy emphasized that parts of nature function in certain ways. Rivers flow to certain places, but they do not make decisions about where they flow. It is not as if a river is a thinking entity that chooses which way to turn, but the court is affirming that nature ought to be allowed to run its course without human intervention. The river is going to do what nature has dictated it will do, and the courts have decided that humans do not have the right to overrun that cause and make modifications to what naturally would have happened.

If we just change a few of the nouns in this story, we would have had some pretty big victories for the pro-life cause.

Should An Unborn Child’s Natural Progression Continue?

Imagine a world where the courts have ruled that nature should be allowed to move freely, and a child in utero has already begun its development. Therefore, we ought to let it run the course that it began. That would be a big deal, but you’re never going to hear that from certain media outlets.

Naturally, an entity has begun to develop within the mother—an entity with a unique genetic code. Left undisturbed, this entity will continue developing within its mother until about nine months later, when it entirely separates from the mother.

Abortion jumps into the middle of this natural process and virtually puts up a dam. Life is moving in one specific direction; the fetus is going to continue developing into a more and more complex being that is capable of surviving in Earth’s environment. Abortion puts a stop to that development and diverts it to a lethal dead end. Yet apparently, while it’s not permissible to stop a river from flowing, it is okay to stop a member of Homo sapiens from developing. The inconsistency is remarkable.

How Can Personhood Fit a River, But Not the Unborn?

Beyond that, according to The Guardian, “The decision, which was welcomed by environmentalists, means that polluting or damaging the rivers will be legally equivalent to harming a person.” The river has gained, “the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities.”

What does personhood even mean in the context of a river? Many pro-life people argue that personhood begins at conception. But what would that look like for a river? Many pro-choice people argue that personhood begins at birth—but last I checked, rivers are not born.

The problem with this argumentation is that personhood is an entirely undefined concept. Sure, the courts have ruled that rivers can be people. But they have not laid down any particular guidelines as to what defines a person.

Do The Rights Of Personhood Now Belong To All Rivers?

In fact, it is fascinating that only a few rivers worldwide have been given the rights of personhood. Why aren’t all rivers treated equally under the law? The Ganges is undoubtedly an important river in India and has substantial significance. But it seems rather arbitrary to say that any river is different than another in terms of its being. The essence of a river remains a river—no matter how culturally, economically, or agriculturally significant it may be.

But pro-choice advocates apply this sort of argument to unborn versus born children regularly. For example, consider the position NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin advocates for on their website: “The Supreme Court has said and I believe that legal personhood begins with birth. The Roe v. Wade decision allowed states to ban abortion after the fetus could live on its own, after viability, with certain exceptions, but it did not say that a viable fetus was a legal person.”

To be fair, at least these pro-choice advocates are providing a definition for personhood. That is good. But notice it is entirely based upon personal beliefs: The Supreme Court made a decision, and this individual endorses that decision. But there is no explanation for this significance or objectivity of this boundary. What changes about a fetus at birth? What makes it magically into a person the moment it emerges? There is no evidence given, beyond a statement of belief. Which is basically what led advocates to argue for the Ganges to be a special river.

If Only We Could Treat Babies Like Rivers

Personhood does not begin until birth from this perspective. Therefore, the instant before a child is physically born, he or she is not a person—even though, biologically, nothing much has changed. Its DNA has not changed, and the amount of development in that one additional moment from womb to open air has not fundamentally altered anything about this child.

However, for some reason (kind of like designating the Ganges as a special river as opposed to all other rivers), two things that have virtually no different in essence are treated differently under an arbitrary law. Some magic switch of personhood is flipped the moment a child leaves the womb, just like a magic switch of personhood applies to certain rivers like the Ganges.

Sadly, the people celebrating this momentous victory for environmentalism fail to see how their logic applies more consistently to pro-life causes than it ever can to environmental causes. If only they treated babies like rivers, there would be some great pro-life decisions being made in the courts of India, New Zealand, and ideally around the world.