Is Cannibalism Illegal In The U.S.? The Answer May Surprise You

According to Britannica, cannibalism has existed as “a widespread custom” in humanity for pretty much all of our known history. Also called anthropophagy, examples of cannibalism have been found on almost every continent in the world. The word cannibal comes from the Spanish name for the Carib people of the Lesser Antilles who engaged in the practice. Cannibalism has been recorded in people in Central and West Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, New Guinea, Polynesia, Sumatra, and also North and South America. The Maoris of New Zealand were known to feast on the flesh of their enemies after a battle, and the Batak people of Sumatra reportedly sold human flesh in their markets before Dutch colonization.

Cannibalism has also been recorded as part of religious rituals, witchcraft, or sorcery. Sorcery was often the motivation for ritualistic cannibalism in Africa, and the Aztecs of central Mexico were known to practice large-scale cannibalism during religious ceremonies involving the sacrifice of their defeated enemies. As noted in Britannica, anthropologists and historians have not been able to find a comprehensive rationalization for the practice of eating human flesh. “In any case,” reads the entry, “the spread of modernization usually results in the prohibition of such practices.” 

You’d think that would be a no-brainer. So, cannibalism must be illegal in the United States, right? Well, the truth will probably surprise you.

No, cannibalism is not illegal in the United States. Surprised?

There are tons of weird laws in the United States that really don’t seem to make much sense. For example, Silly String has been banned from all public spaces in Southington, Connecticut. There’s a town in California where it’s illegal to walk around in heels higher than two inches. You have to sit down to drink alcohol in Woburn, Massachusetts, and the poor reptiles of New Orleans are prohibited from participating in any Mardi Gras activities (discrimination lawsuit pending).

However, despite society’s general revulsion to something as morbid and taboo as cannibalism, the act is not explicitly outlawed in the United States. That’s right. According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University, there is not one law on the books at the Federal level in the United States that specifically prohibits the eating of another person. But there are laws in most states, if not all, which make it illegal — at least indirectly — to obtain and consume human flesh. For example, murder is illegal everywhere, so that prevents quite a lot of cannibals from getting dinner. Even if a person gives another his or her consent to eat them and then commits suicide, the cannibal could still face criminal and/or civil charges of desecration of a corpse, which vary among states. So don’t worry, while cannibalism is not technically illegal in the United States, that doesn’t mean it will come back into fashion any time soon.

Legal cases involving cannibalism

Cannibalism was a central factor in the case that established in the common law that the necessity to survive is not a legal defense to committing murder. The 1884 English case Regina v. Dudley and Stephens found Thomas Dudley and Edwin Stephens guilty of murdering Richard Parker while they were castaways on the high seas. Marooned during a storm 1,600 miles from land, they drifted on a raft on the open ocean with no fresh water and very little food. They had two one-pound cans of turnips, and when those ran out, they caught a sea turtle, but then nothing came along. In severe dehydration, Parker drank seawater to try and slake his thirst, but of course it didn’t work. He became sick and lost consciousness. In desperation, Dudley killed Parker, and the others drank his blood and consumed his flesh in order to survive until they were rescued a week later. They were found guilty, despite their need, and sentenced to death, but that was commuted to six months in prison.

More recently, there was a case in Germany of a man who found a person on a cannibalism fetish website who consented to let him kill and eat him. The man killed the willing victim, butchered him up, and saved his meat in the freezer for a special occasion, but he was arrested a few months later. Cannibalism wasn’t illegal in Germany, but the man was convicted of manslaughter, then murder during a retrial.

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