In the latest wrinkle in debates over personhood, a Māori iwi (tribe) in New Zealand has succeeded in getting Parliament to recognise the Whanganui River as a legal person.
"It's not that we've changed our worldview, but people are catching up to seeing things the way that we see them," Adrian Rurawhe, a Māori member of Parliament. The North Island river, New Zealand’s third longest, also known by its Māori name of Te Awa Tupua, will be represented by two legal guardians, one appointed by the iwi and the other by the government.
The settlement, which has been in dispute for at least 140 years, also includes NZ$80 million in financial redress and $30 million toward improving the environmental, social, cultural and economic health and wellbeing of Te Awa Tupua.
Riverine personhood is an untested concept in a Western legal system. According to the government, Te Awa Tupua will now have its own legal personality with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person. Lawyers say that the river cannot vote and cannot be charged with homicide if people drown in it. But it will have to pay taxes, if liable. The gender of the river is unspecified at the moment.
"I know the initial inclination of some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality," said New Zealand's Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson. "But it's no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies."
As soon as the third reading of the bill passed, members of the gallery broke into a waiata (a song of celebration) which is well worth watching.
BioEdge: New Zealand river declared a legal person
One of the star exhibits in the Royal College of Surgeons' Hunterian Museum of anatomy in London is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, an 18th Century Irishman who was about 8 feet tall. However, the museum is to close in May for renovations and there are calls to use the opportunity to remove or bury the remains. Does this make sense?
A celebrity in his day, Byrne died in 1783 of ill health and drink in London. He knew that John Hunter wanted to dissect him after his death, so he directed his friends to sink his body in a lead-lined casket in the English Channel. Alas, Hunter succeeded in stealing the body anyway and it eventually turned up in a display case.
Similar events darken the history of the Australian state of Tasmania. The last full-blood Aboriginal Tasmanian, William Lanne, died in 1869. Although the story is murky, it appears that before his funeral the Surgeon-General of the colony, William Crowther, stole his head for “scientific study” and someone else removed his hands and feet. There is no record of scientific studies. Crowther went on to become premier, and an impressive bronze statue of him was erected in the centre of the city.
The last full-blood Aboriginal woman in Tasmania, Truganini, was terrified that the same thing would happen to her and directed that her body be cremated. Her wishes were ignored and her skeleton ended up in a display in the Hobart Museum. It was finally cremated in 1976.
Nowadays body-snatching would not be tolerated (although the Hunterian Museum still refuses to remove Byrne’s body from display). But the notion that scientific curiosity is its own justification persists. University of Tasmania historian Stefan Petrow points out, that the fate of Lanne and Truganini demonstrate “the hegemony scientific knowledge sought to establish over fundamental human rights such as a decent burial”. Can’t the same thing be said about some aspects of stem cell research?
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