Nonhuman Rights in the Transhuman United States

by Steven E. Ehrbar

One of the aspects of the Transhuman Space setting that has caused the most debate and provoked the most questions are the details of how nonhuman sapients fit into society. For the United States of 2100, the answers flow from the legal rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court and the messy coalition compromises of its political system.

". . . The Framers and writers of the amendments never intended that the Constitutional definition of 'person' include nonhumans, even though many believed in the existence of sapient nonhumans (such as angels and demons). Therefore, whether or not an AI program is sapient or not, it is not a person for purposes of the Constitution of the United States. Some have called this repugnant. But this Court cannot amend the Constitution to rectify even grossly repugnant situations without exceeding its authority . . ." -- Sanchez v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"Look, I don't care what the Court said. Sapient beings are people, and they should be treated accordingly!" -- Edina Smith, Sapient Rights Watch

The most fundamental ruling on pan-sapient rights in the U.S. was the 2068 Sanchez decision, when the Attorney General Julia Kennedy Sanchez of Massachusetts filed suit on the behalf of LOGOS. Her argument was that the federally funded MIT project that created LOGOS was holding a ward of the state of Massachusetts (because LOGOS was a minor with no family) in a state of slavery, and demanded that custody be granted to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. After great deliberation, a compromise decision was hammered out by six members of the Supreme Court that simultaneously declared that nonhumans were not people under the law, but that it was immoral for them to be treated as mere property.

Both supporters and opponents of pan-sapient rights disliked the Court ruling. Pan-sapient rights organizations hated it because it denied the AIs personhood, the Born Human Movement because it carried a hint of potential Court intervention. Hopes on both sides of the Court changing its mind be changing its membership were dashed by the advance of medical nanotech, and both sides have been dueling with each other through a messy and often gridlocked political system ever since.

" . . . Genetic alteration sufficient to make a person not a member of the species H. sapiens is not sufficient to deny personhood, as it is merely an extension of racial genetic divergence, and discrimination on such basis is prohibited. Nor does being artificially assembled from vat-grown cells; there is no basis for distinguishing between people born of wholly natural processes and those born through various degrees of medical intervention that supersedes the Fourteenth Amendment. The State of Michigan may not simply declare otherwise. Miss Ashley Smith, a 'Sea Shepherd', is a person, a U.S. citizen, and a citizen of Michigan . . ." -- Smith v. Michigan

"They're not people! They're just machines. Made out of meat, yes, but the same meat you grow in a fauxflesh vat." -- Jordan Richards, Born Human Movement

The early battles went heavily in favor of the Born Human Movement, who managed to establish a limited set of anti-cruelty laws to protect sapient AIs, while leaving them without any real rights. But the attempt to limit bioroids in the same manner a few years later was too much for the more moderate members of Born Human. Bioroid control laws were only passed in a handful of states, and were quickly brought before the Supreme Court and thrown out. Eventually compromise legislation passed in all states (under Federal pressure), declaring that bioroids were legally children from assembly until reaching the legal age of majority, usually eighteen years.

This was less than a full victory for the pan-sapient rights organizations; to this day they are trying to have bioroids be declared adults much more quickly, on the order of a few years instead of many.

However, the single successful attempt (in Vermont) to pass such a law in a state this faced a hostile state court. The court ruled that allowing bioroids to achieve majority sooner was discrimination against naturally-born persons, and thus in violation of the equal protection clause of the state constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the ruling, with the explanation that no issue of Federal law was involved.

". . . The Congress has been granted an unmitigated power to establish the rules of naturalization in Article I, Section 8. No limit is made as to who or even what Congress may naturalize, if it sees fit. Accordingly, it may make Ghosts citizens. Additionally, the Fourteenth Amendment clearly states the '[n]o State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States;' logically, then, they have no power to declare any citizen a nonperson . . ." -- Soros v. Zapata

"Oh, that's a load of bull. They aren't people, even if they were copied from people. And the Founders never intended Congress to have the right to make things citizens." -- Wayland Munez, Alliance for Biosapience

The final major battleground for the pan-sapient rights movement in the U.S. erupted over the rights of Ghosts, sapient AIs created by the destructive uploading of humans. Born Human, tottering after the bioroid controversies, was destroyed by internal debate over these originally-human-but-now-electronic sapients. In the temporary political vacuum, Ghosts were recognized as the legal continuation of the biological person who was destructively uploaded. Challenges to the act by biochauvinist groups was turned down, the Court leaning on the thin reeds of Congressional authority over the naturalization of citizens and the legal personhood of corporations to uphold what in practice was a wide and popular political consensus.

However, the Congressional act made it clear that only one copy of the original could be active at any time; activating other xoxes was made a serious felony worth two to ten years in prison. Furthermore, an active xox itself was classified with all other SAIs as a nonperson, and their existence was outlawed. Although challenged by supporters of pan-sapient rights, the Court upheld the restrictions on the grounds that xoxes were not sufficiently different from SAIs to have Constitutional protection from destruction.

"Hey hey! Ho ho! AI slavery's got to go!" -- Pansapient Action League rally in Washington D.C.

"The man is dead, though the Ghost runs on / Delete the unholy abomination!" -- Biolife Defense Committee counter-rally in Washington D.C.

Although the compromises of the status quo are accepted by the general public of the U.S., dozens of organizations continue to press the issues, with varying degrees of zealotry. The major groups involved today are:

Article publication date: September 20, 2002

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