Law is often perceived as a stagnate field of study mostly driven by precedent. But developments in science and technology are creating fascinating fields of enquiry for the future law student.

Areas such as, human genetic modification, earth law, and animal law, are emerging areas in which offer new relationships with that must be regulated and managed. 

Human genetic modication

Let's say you're a heterosexual woman of thirty years old. You meet a man, fall in love, and decide to have a baby. Two options are presented to you: try for an "organic", naturally conceived baby - without any scientific intervention - or have a genetically modified baby, which is gender-selected and scientifically enhanced. 

Some of your friends have opted for designer babies, and have seemingly perfect children; disease free, intelligent and athletic. Your world is increasingly filled with these model children, you don't want to place your child at a disadvantage. So what do you do? 

This scenario may seem like science fiction but it's not far from reality. In 2013 the world’s largest genetic company, 22andMe, placed a patent for designer babies in the USA. This patent consisted will allow the company to select eggs and sperm that are "most likely to produce the traits chosen by the parents".

This development raises many questions about our future identity as humans. In the two years subsequent to the patent, approval, CRISPR technology was unlocked by Chinese researchers who performed gene editing on human embryos. Biologist Paul Knoepfler estimates that within fifteen years, scientists could use the gene editing technology CRISPR to make certain "upgrades" to human embryos".

Professor Dianne Nicol, Director for the Centre of Law and Genetics at the University of Tasmania, points out that different countries have responded to these developments in different ways. 

Australia has a highly regulated environment for genetic research on human embryos. The sorts of things that can be done in China and even the UK are prohibited in Australia. We must question whether this approach fits our ethical norms and social values.

She identifies the risk that Australians may miss out on the therapeutic benefits of this research but says: "If the social climate in Australian is not yet receptive to these sorts of developments, we must move slowly. But we need to have this debate."

Earth law

Imagine a world where a river is given the same legal status as a corporation. When rivers are given rights to flow freely, legal systems are transformed to reflect the entire natural world including its many ecosystems.  

This legal context may seem unusual but countries like Ecuador and New Zealand are adopting an emerging form of jurisprudence called "earth law". 

Dr Gwynn MacCarrick, Lecturer in Transnational Crime at the University of Tasmania, says ecoside—which is understood as causing serious damage or destroying the environment, so as to significantly and durably alter the global commons or ecosystem services upon which certain human groups rely—is proposed to be added to the Rome statute as a crime against humanity. 

The codification of environmental harm would provide for the prosecution of worst cases of environmental destruction. The International Criminal Court has already made a statement that it intended to widen its remit to include environmental crimes.

Ecuador was the first country in the world to give constitutional rights to nature. In Chapter 7 of the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, Article 71 to 74 explicitly states that nature has the right to reproduce and nature has the right to be restored. The State is obliged to uphold these rights and to "give incentives to natural persons and legal entities and to communities to protect nature." 

In 2010 Bolivia hosted the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. At the conference 35,000 people adopted the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. It has so far had some success in protecting nature in Ecuador, New Zealand and India. 

In 2017 New Zealand’s Whanganui River, scared to the local Māori tribe was granted the legal status of a person under domestic law. The status of a legal persons was also granted to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers of India by its domestic courts. Earth law is revolutionising our legal relationships with nature and encouraging a legal system that reflects the whole world.   

Animal law

Imagine if the interests of every animal had to be considered before a decision could be made about their future. How would that change our relationships with animals and the livestock trade all over the world? 

Australia’s livestock export industry is worth over $800 million each year and provides a livelihood to many in rural and regional area. The Australian Government states that it "does not tolerate cruelty towards animals and will not compromise on animal welfare standards" but in 2011 the ABC’s Four Corners revealed the cruel treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesian abattoirs. 

The emerging field of animal rights law seeks to introduce further regulations in this industry and to elevate the legal statues of animals from property to legal persons, like corporations and other legal non-human entities. 

Law is relevant to every relationship we encounter in society. It's the foundational construct which facilitates and manages our relationships with objects, people and place. The frontier of technological and scientific development is the emerging space for a new kind of law student interested in exploring the bounds of it means to be human.

Fascinated by the future of law? Consider a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Tasmania.


Words: Grace Williams