Christopher D. Stone is not exactly a household name, but he clearly left his mark on the "rights" movement.
The University of Southern California law professor recently died. More well-known was his father, I.F. Stone, whom the New York Times obituary on Stone called a "crusading reporter." They left out that he was also a Soviet agent.
Should trees have rights? Christopher D. Stone was convinced they should.
"I am quite seriously proposing that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers and other so-called 'natural objects' in the environment—indeed, to the natural environment as a whole," he said.
Stone made his case in a famous 1972 article, "Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects." He has not been without success.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass agreed with him, and cities such as Pittsburgh and Santa Monica have followed suit, offering legal protection to natural resources. New Zealand has gone further, declaring "all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person" to a national park.
It is true that corporations are seen as legal entities deserving of rights, but they are made up of individuals.
If trees are deserving of rights, it seems logical that Stone would argue for the rights of the unborn. In fact he did not. In his classic article in the Southern California Law Review on the rights of trees, which was published the year before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, he makes reference to abortion in a footnote.
He recognizes competing rights, but he never argues that the right of the baby to be born is paramount. The best he can do is offer a rather pedestrian observation: "The trend toward liberalized abortion can be seen either as a legislative tendency back in the direction of rightlessness of the foetus—or toward increasing rights of women."
Stone had a great influence on environmentalists, including John Holdren, who was President Obama's science czar. Holdren endorsed Stone's thesis that trees have rights.
After Holdren was confirmed by the Senate, more was found out about him. His enthusiasm for population control led him to entertain plans to force single women to abort their babies or put them up for adoption. He also considered forced sterilization, even to the point of putting chemicals in food and water that would make people sterile.
Why is it that inanimate objects, along with animals, have gained the support of legal theorists and lawmakers but not unborn babies?
Consider, for example, a front-page story in the June 2 edition of the New York Times about President Biden's decision to suspend oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The area, the story notes, is "home to migrating waterfowl, caribou, and polar bears." The article continues inside, featuring a picture of a polar bear in the area.
Biden has shown great interest in protecting the environment and showing respect for the rights of animals. When in Congress, he co-sponsored legislation to label tuna "dolphin safe." He urged the Canadians to end their commercial seal hunt. He supported legislation against commercial whaling and opposed some traps used to capture animals. He also co-sponsored a bill to prohibit some research practices on cats and dogs.
However, when it comes to the rights of the unborn, he suggests they have none. Zero. Some animal traps, he says, are inhumane, but not the practice of smashing the skull of a baby undergoing a partial-birth abortion.
Christopher D. Stone is dead, but his selective interest in the distribution of rights is very much a part of our cultural and legal landscape. Indeed, his influence is evident in the White House.
Bill Donohue is president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization. He was awarded his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University and is the author of eight books and many articles.