Do people have rights to their emotional support animals?

By Sara Kolmes.

Concepts of ‘body-rights’ allow us to discuss the kind of violation that occurs when people invade or harm our bodies, a violation that seems to go beyond merely harming something that belongs to us.

Bioethicists have argued that people who use prosthetics have body-like rights to their prosthetics. This means that when someone’s prosthetic is violated, something similar to their body-rights are violated. These discussions focus on ‘paradigm’ prosthetics: prosthetic limbs or mobility aids. These discussions have cited a prosthetic’s centrality to their users functioning and their users experiences of a prosthetic being ‘part of them‘. I do not defend these views in my paper – this has been done in an extremely convincing manner elsewhere. It seems clear to me that prosthetics are in fact the subject of body-like rights for their users. A violation of a person’s prosthetics goes beyond a violation of their property.

In this paper, I am arguing that body-like rights extend beyond paradigm prosthetics. Some emotional support animals (ESAs) are also integrated into their handler’s functionings and phenomenology. Case studies show ESAs that assist their handlers with proprioception, stress management, sensory filtering, and managing panic attacks. In this paper, I point out that these ESAs meet the same requirements for being subject to body-like rights that paradigm prosthetics do. There is an important analogy between ESAs and bodies along the same lines that there is an analogy between bodies and paradigm prosthetics.

There are also several disanalogies between ESAs and paradigm prosthetics. One that is particularly important for how people respond to ESAs may be that the functionings that emotional support animals replace are primarily emotional or mental, and their integration is emotional/mental as well. I do not think that mental functionings are any less relevant to body-like rights. Paradigm prosthetics often also perform emotional/mental functions for their users, and mental/emotional medical problems are just as serious as physical ones. However, mental/emotional assistance is harder to see, and therefore easier to dismiss. Many people have an easier time intuitively accepting the importance of physical assistance than mental. This may be the root of the intense suspicion that the media and academics alike express towards ESAs. The mental/emotional status of ESAs very likely puts up a barrier to accepting ESAs as being the subject of body-like rights, but for rhetorical rather than logical reasons.

The possibility that some ESAs should be the subject of body-like rights is important because I argue that we do not currently treat any ESA handlers as though they have any rights to the use of their ESAs. This means that if even some ESAs are the subject of some bodily-like rights, ESAs are a locus of violation of rights for people who need them. Admitting that ESAs are the subject of some body-like rights will allow us to discuss when and how these rights are being violated. This paper is intended to open this discussion.

In part, in order to take these rights seriously, we should take more seriously the clinical ways to evaluate which ESAs provide this vital or integrated assistance. Doing so would involve a project of determining what clinical requirements ESAs should meet without putting up unnecessary barriers to their use, and doing more research on the benefits that ESAs have. These rights may not apply to all things currently referred to as ESAs. However, they will refer to some, and identifying these is central to protecting the rights of their users.

This will also serve to re-contextualize popular responses to ESAs. It is unethical to fake a need for a prosthetic in order to make use of an accommodation intended for prosthetic users. For example, faking the use of a prosthetic leg in order to gain a disabled parking placard is deeply unethical. However, it is also unethical to assume that everyone who uses a disabled placard and is not obviously using a paradigm prosthetic is ‘faking it’. The same applies to ESAs. Faking a need for an ESA to keep such an animal in a ‘no pets’ apartment or a ‘no pets’ flight is unethical. However, it is also inappropriate to treat users of ‘fake-seeming’ ESAs as though they are ‘cheating’. An attitude towards ESAs informed by the body- and paradigm-prosthetic analogies can help us disentangle our responses to ESAs and perhaps identify the problem with sensationalized media stories about peacocks on planes. Such an attitude does a serious disservice to the huge number of people whose ESAs are necessary for their functioning and are phenomenologically integrated into their lives.

Paper: Are Emotional Support Animals Prosthetics or Pets? Body-Like Rights to Emotional Support Animals

Author: Sara Kolmes

Affiliations: PhD student at Georgetown University

Competing interests: None

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