History is replete with examples of certain portions of humanity being denied personhood by dominant power-holders. Here are just a few of the most poignant cases in recent memory:
1. African-American Slaves
Buckner Payne, a publisher, declared in 1867 that “the negro is not a human being.”
“In the eyes of the law…the slave is not a person.” - Virginia Supreme Court, Bailey v. Poindexter’s Executor (1858)
“In the opinion of this court … slaves [and], their descendants … had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. … The negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” - United States Supreme Court, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Approximately 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped and transported to the Americas between 1500 and 1866. Millions more were born into chattel slavery, treated as property rather than persons under the law.
2. Native Americans
“An Indian is not a person within the meaning of the Constitution.” - George Canfield, American Law Review (1881)
“The tribes of indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages whose occupation was war.” - United States Supreme Court, Johnson & Graham v. M’Intosh (1823), denying the right of Native Americans to own property.
Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed, killed, and expropriated.
3. Persons With Disabilities
“It is better for all the world… [if] society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” - United States Supreme Court, Buck v. Bell (1927).
65,000 people were forcibly sterilized under eugenic laws, which were enacted in more than 30 states.
Take Canada as just one poignant example:
In 1876, British common law is used in Canada to uphold the notion that “women are…not persons in the matter of rights and privileges.” While they have the right to life, they cannot inherit property or sue for damages so as to benefit their lives.
In 1916, defense attorney Eardley Jackson yells at police magistrate Emily Murphy, “You have no right to be holding court. You’re not even a person!”
In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously declares that although women are human, women are not “persons” within the meaning of the British North American Act.
This decision was appealed and on October 18th, 1929, the Privy Council in England declared, “The word ‘person’ in Section 24 of the BNA Act, 1867 includes members of either sex.” They probed: “to those who ask why the word person should not include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”
5. Political Dissidents
The Soviet Union designated those purged by the regime as “unpersons.” During the trial of one such “unperson” in 1938, prosecutor Andrei Vyshinski called them “a foul-smelling heap of human garbage.”
The Soviet Union exterminated as many as 20,000,000 people.
6. Persons of Jewish Descent
Sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz summed up the plight of Jews during the rise of NAZI Germany by saying, “The Jew as a national question; the Jew as a cultural question; the Jew as an economic question, never a person.”
In May 1923, Adolph Hitler asserted, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but not human.”
According to Ernst Fraenkel, a German legal scholar, the Reichsgericht, the highest court in Germany, was instrumental in depriving Jewish people of their legal rights. In a 1936 Supreme Court decision, “the Reichsgericht refused to recognize Jews living in Germany as persons in the legal sense.”
Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen, or subhumans to justify exterminating them. To the Nazis, all the Jews, Gypsies and others were rats: dangerous, disease-carrying rats. Approximately 6,000,000 people were exterminated by the NAZIs.
7. Rwandan Tutsis
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Hutu radio broadcasts dehumanized Tutsis, calling for a “final war” to exterminate the Tutsi “cockroaches.” Up to 800,000 Tutsis were murdered during the genocide.
8. Unborn Children
“The word person … does not include the unborn.” - United States Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, (1973) legalizing the killing of unborn children through abortion.
“A fetus is a damn parasite and it invades the mother’s body like one too.” - DailyKos author, 2012.
In the United States today, “unwanted” children in the womb are systematically denied personhood. More than 55,000,000 unborn children have been killed by legalized abortion in the United States. That’s more than all aforementioned violations of human personhood put together.
In Less Than Human, David Livingstone Smith argues that it’s important to define and describe dehumanization, because it’s what opens the door for cruelty and genocide.
“When people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures,” says Smith. Only then can the process “liberate aggression and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.”
Watch how this has been done towards the unborn person:
“Negroes are parasites.” - Dr. T. Brady, 1909
“The fetus is a parasite.” - Abortion activist Rosalind Pollack Petcheskey, 1984
“The negro is not a human being.” - Pro-slavery publisher Buckner Payne, 1867
“A fetus is not a human being.” - Pro-choice Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, 1984
“The negro is … one of the lower animals.” - Prof. Charles Carroll, 1900
“Like … a primitive animal that’s poked with a stick.” - Pro-choice Dr. Hart Peterson describing fetal movement in 1985
“Free blacks in our country are a contagion.” - American Colonization Society, 1815-1830
“Pregnancy when not wanted is a disease … in fact, a venereal disease.” - Prof. Joseph Fletcher, 1979
Personhood For All
Personhood is not something to be bestowed on living human beings, large or small, by an intellectual elite with vested interests in ridding society of people they consider “undesirable.” Personhood is an inherent characteristic—a characteristic that comes from being a member of the human race.
Most of the groups mentioned here have had their rights restored under the law. But abortion, the genocide of the unborn, continues. That makes ending abortion a social justice issue. Would you like to help us establish personhood for all human beings? Start by downloading our FREE e-book “Why Personhood?”
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