Why Is There No Law Against Eating People?

Cannibalism may be the ultimate taboo but there are no laws around the world against eating people.



This is the seventh in a series of Friday posts on this blog called Friday Thoughts, or #Foughts, an in depth discussion on a character or topic I have found particularly interesting, or has divided opinion. 


It has been a recent revelation to me that there are no laws prohibiting the eating of humans. It is the darkest and most unforgivable taboo known to man, and yet there is no law against committing cannibalism. In the past 20 years (even this month) there have been several news stories of cannibals, some with willing victims, that have seemed perfectly sane and polite. Is it too unthinkable a crime that our governments have never laid down legal guidelines when these things happen? Is a social taboo strong enough a punishment?


Modern Day Cannibalism

In 2001 photos of a man eating a cooked foetus in a restaurant circulated online. The photos sparked the attention of the FBI and it was discovered that the man in the photos was an artist called Zhu Yu, and the photos were part of an art exhibition titled ‘Eating People’. When asked about his work, he replied: “no religion forbids cannibalism. Nor can I find any law which prevents us from eating people.”


Rick Gibson is a performance artist who claimed to be the ‘first cannibal’ in British history to eat human meat in public when he ate preserved tonsils in a high street in London, 1988. A year later he ate a slice of human testicle in another extreme art performance.




Celebrities have been known to promote the health benefits of eating placenta, in a movement called placentophagy. Apparently the food is quite tasty, much like beef, and the movement has become a much more accepted practice than when it was first proposed in the 1970s. Now you can even buy a cookbook.


In July every year, thousands of people flood the streets of Yulin, Guangxi, to attend the annual dog-eating festival. 15,000 dogs are slaughtered for this festival and there is a national outrage, yet it still rolls out the year after. Only in April this year did Taiwan ban the eating or trading of dog and cat meat, leading to fines, public identification and then imprisonment for offenders.


Legal Constraints

The act of cannibalism is, arguably, human nature’s biggest taboo. But stories of survival after being cast adrift at sea often end in the unthinkable act of eating fellow sailors to keep going. Cannibalism is morally wrong but it’s not against the law anywhere around the world. People who have resorted to eating people when deserted on an island have only been punished if they murdered the people for their own food.


In 2001 Armin Meiwes began speaking to a man named Bernd-Jurgen Brandes on an internet forum. The two spoked about how Meiwes would eat Brandes, a conversation as delightful as talking about a holiday they were going to take together. The men were both consenting adults to an act that they would carry out a few days after the online chat, and five years later Meiwes would be imprisoned for killing and eating the computer engineer.




Technically there are no laws against eating another person. Actually, I found one law – in Idaho (interestingly America has no blanket law against it), and the small print states that it is illegal to drink human blood or ingest human flesh, punishable to fourteen years in prison. There are laws that may indirectly punish people for cannibalism, examples being murder (whether consent was given or not), and desecrating a corpse. The National Health Act in Nigeria states that it is illegal to be in possession of human tissue unless consent was given, but there is no rule against eating humans.


The Greatest Taboo

In the animal world, cannibalism is common as a means of survival or competitive advantage. A human cannibal is a ‘savage’ and an ‘animal’, acting the same as primitive creatures. Is it because of this that cannibalism is a big enough taboo to ward people off committing it? And so, there is no need for a specific law against it? Maybe the laws that indirectly punish people for cannibalism are enough to deter it?




A famous incident of cannibalism is the events that transpired in the Donner party. A group of over 80 pioneers travelled to California to resettle, taking with them wagons and cattle. Nine months after leaving their homes for a better future, half of the travellers were rescued. To survive, the remaining party ate the dead. When the details were revealed publicly of the nightmare they had survived and how they had survived, they were cut off from society. One of the survivors spent the remainder of his life indoors due to the amount of threats he received from neighbours.



The reason we fear cannibals and see it as the ultimate taboo may be because it goes against our nature to cooperate and socialise with others. We know that we are stronger when we have other people on our team, and to eat a human being is a total abolishment of that. Not only that, but it is surely the ultimate power over another to consume their flesh.


So, if you were to commit cannibalism, not only would you be imprisoned for it indirectly, but society would see you as a monster. And in case you have a real morbid fascination with it, let me sate your appetite: it tastes like pork.


What do you think? Did you know there were no laws against cannibalism? Do you feel like the social purgatory is a great enough punishment for eating another human being? What topics do you want me to explore in future?