Do People Who Resort to Cannibalism in Survival Situations Get in Trouble?

begin with, cannibalism is absolutely legal
in the United States (with the exception of
the state of Idaho), the UK, much of Europe,
Japan, etc.
However, as Cornell Law School notes, a number
of laws are in place across America “that
indirectly make it impossible to legally obtain
and consume the body matter”.
The same can be said for the many other countries
in which cannibalism isn’t directly illegal.
For example, in much of the world desecrating
a corpse is a crime.
On top of this, in cases where the flesh is
somehow obtained legally, a cannibal can be
charged for crimes ranging from “outraging
public decency” to “preventing a lawful
burial”, giving the law a number of avenues
to prosecute cannibals in this regard.
All that said, if a person was mindful of
all these laws and managed to obtain some
human flesh legally, they could quite literally
eat said flesh in front of a cop, all while
wearing a sandwich board advertising the fact
that they’re a cannibal and suffer no legal
While this might sound like a fantastical
example, in fact, something like this has
actually happened.
Enter Canadian performance artist Rick Gibson.
Before his cannibalistic endeavors, he was
probably most famous for taking a couple human
fetuses and making earrings out of them.
These were then placed on a female mannequin
in yet another “lovely” example of modern
art at its finest.
As for his cannibal “art”, he states,
I was given a bottle of preserved human tonsils
by a friend of mine in London.
He was hoping that I would make a pair of
earrings out of them.
Instead, I decided to eat them.
Preserved in alcohol, they made a wonderful
By eating this hors d’oeuvre at 1:30 PM
on 19 July 1988 at the corner of Erskine Road
and the High Street in Walthamstow Market,
I became the first cannibal in British history
to legally eat human meat in public.
Disregarding the questionable accuracy of
that last sentence, despite some public outrage
over the events, the police were forced to
admit that nothing Gibson did was technically
illegal and he celebrated getting away with
it by eating a human testicle hors d’oeuvre
in front of the police station.
The key here was that in each case, Gibson
obtained the flesh legally from people who
had surgery to remove organs and managed to
convince the respective hospitals to give
them the body parts back (A not so easy task-
see our article: Will Hospitals Give Back
an Amputated Limb if You Ask For It?)
In a similar publicity stunt, one Mao Sugiyama
of Japan had his testicles, scrotum, and penis
removed when he was 22 and served them to
dinner guests at $250 per plate (a total of
6 plates).
His motivation here was to raise awareness
for sexual minorities- in his case specifically
being an asexual individual.
As for legal ramifications, as in most countries,
Japan has no specific laws against cannibalism,
so there was no problem there.
However, after the event, Sugiyama was initially
charged with indecent exposure, as he’d
shown pictures of his flayed penis and testicles
to the 71 gathered guests before serving the
prepared genitals to the few who’d paid
for the meal.
However, as everyone at the event had known
this would happen and why they were there,
the charges were later dropped.
That said, according to the Culinary Director
of Serious Eats, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Sugiyama
had nevertheless botched the event.
You see, it turns out his prepared genitals
didn’t taste that great and were very rubbery,
leading Kenji to lament, “The chef didn’t
cook it right.
What a waste of a perfectly good penis!
Penis is pretty tough and needs to be slow
cooked, either sous-vide or in a braise.”
The more you know…
In any event, the fact that there’s no direct
law against cannibalism in most of the world
means the courts often have to wrestle with
whether a given act of cannibalism should
be prosecuted for violating some tangential
Most notorious on this front was the case
of Armin Meiwes- a German man who infamously
posted an ad on a cannibalism fetish website
to find someone who’d allow him to eat them.
Armin got a surprising number of responses
from people perfectly willing at first, but
all backed out when it came time to do the
Important to arguments later made in the court
battle, Armin did not pressure any of them
to go through with the act.
But in a nutshell, ultimately Armin found
a fully willing individual in a 43 year old
computer repairman called Bernd-Jurgen Brandes.
Plans made, the pair met, attempted to share
a last meal for Brandes in his own penis,
with the initial intent for Armin to bite
it off, but this didn’t work out as apparently
this is harder than movies sometimes imply
to do, so they had to sever it…
And we’ll just stop there on the description
of this attempted last meal.
But if you care to be utterly revolted and
simultaneously lose all faith in humanity,
feel free to Google it and the full details
of the rest of the story.
Best to have some video footage of kittens
playing loaded up on another tab at the same
time to cleanse yourself after.
Skipping to the end of one of the most gruesome
things we’ve personally ever researched
(including, I might add, having done many
an article on some of the most notorious serial
killers in history), Brandes eventually passed
out from blood loss and Meiwes proceeded to
carve him up, with the whole thing capture
on video, which was also key in showing Brandes
was not only willing, but quite eager to be
killed and at no point did Meiwes pressure
him into anything.
Over time Meiwes ate approximately 20 kg of
Brandes before police caught on to what he’d
done when he posted another ad online looking
for another willing participant in his self
reported sexual fetish.
The horrific nature of these acts naturally
led to something of a media sensation over
the case, but as cannibalism isn’t illegal
in Germany, and Meiwes’ victim wanted to
be killed and was fine with being eaten, the
court battle raged for some time before it
was finally decided that Armin should be convicted
of manslaughter and given an eight year prison
This ruling was later overturned and he was
convicted of murder and given a life sentence.
(To wrap up this disturbing tale, it’s noted
that today Meiwes is a vegetarian and strongly
counsels anyone with a similar fetish to seek
professional help to stop things from escalating
as it had with him.)
An almost identical case a few years later
similarly caused contention in German courts
and they were unable to charge a former policeman
called Detlev Guenzel for cannibalism after
he killed and allegedly ate a man he met online.
Instead, they resorted to charging him with
“murder and disturbing the peace of the
This appears to be the case with virtually
all examples of cannibalism we could find
with nobody ever really being charged for
the direct act of cannibalism itself.
But what about survival situations?
The most famous example of this from a legal
perspective is arguably that of Regina v.
Dudley and Stephens, a landmark case that
involved the murder and cannibalization of
a young cabin boy after a ship called the
Mignonette was destroyed by a storm.
For anyone unfamiliar with the case, in 1884
three sailors called Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens,
and Ned Brooks and their cabin boy, Richard
Parker, were lost at sea after a wave destroyed
their ship.
Cast adrift with only a few pounds of turnips
for sustenance, Dudley and Stephens eventually
made the grisly decision to kill and eat Parker.
Brooks played no part in the murder, but would
later admit to consuming Parker’s flesh
and drinking his blood to survive.
Upon being rescued by a passing ship, Dudley
and Stephens immediately confessed to killing
The two men defended their decision by saying
that Parker had become violently ill after
consuming salt water and was at death’s
door anyway.
Both sailors argued that killing Parker was
morally justified to necessitate their own
survival, “citing the custom of the sea”
which had seen many a marooned sailor drawing
lots and eating one another to survive, generally
with no consequences to themselves after the
fact so long as the lottery of who should
be killed was deemed to have been fairly implemented.
The thing is though, nobody aboard the Mignonette
had drawn lots; Stephen and Dudley even admitted
that they’d held Parker down as they slit
his throat to stop him struggling.
The British courts disagreed that killing
Parker was “necessary” as there was no
way for the men to know that a ship wasn’t
about to crest the horizon and rescue them.
And the fact that they needed to physically
restrain Parker seemingly meant he couldn’t
have been that close to death.
On that note, a judge would later argue that
to justify Parker’s murder as a necessity,
each man would have had to have been on the
very precipice of death.
It’s also worth noting that in previous
cases where sailors had cited the “custom
of the sea” after being marooned and drawing
lots to justify murdering and eating members
of their own crew, cabin boys, slaves and
other people of low rank disproportionately
found themselves drawing the short straw…
This led to people calling into question whether
these lotteries were actually fairly implemented
as the survivors invariably claimed, partially
spurring the courts to finally set a legal
precedent for how to proceed in similar cases-
in effect making an example of Stephens and
Thus, a decision was made to try each man
for murder which was a capital offence at
the time.
The problem was the public was largely on
the side of Dudley and Stephens and a jury
seemed initially reluctant to condemn the
men to death for doing something to survive
in a desperate situation.
As for Brooks, he wasn’t convicted of any
crime and was largely let off despite readily
admitting to consuming Parker as well.
The key distinction here was that he didn’t
take part in the actual murder in any way.
As for the other two, they were initially
convicted of murder and sentenced to death,
but in part due to public pressure, their
sentences were later commuted to 6 months
in prison.
But the case did set a legal precedent that
there is no defence of necessity for the crime
or murder in cases like this and it’s now
well established in law that the killing of
another human being to aid your own survival
by consuming their flesh can never be justified
in a legal sense.
But, again, eating an already dead person
in the same type of situation is perfectly
legal in most countries.
Of course, the law is one thing- it’s a
whole different thing to wrestle with the
moral aspect of the act.
For example, there is the case of the now
infamous Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crash
of 1972 which saw survivors cutting and eating
strips of flesh from dead passengers to survive.
Despite initial religious reservations from
most on board, every survivor eventually gave
in to hunger which speaks to the power starvation
has to test the very limits of a person’s
personal morality.
As survivor Roberto Canessa later noted,
Our common goal was to survive — but what
we lacked was food.
We had long since run out of the meager pickings
we’d found on the plane, and there was no
vegetation or animal life to be found.
After just a few days we were feeling the
sensation of our own bodies consuming themselves
just to remain alive.
Before long we would become too weak to recover
from starvation.
We knew the answer, but it was too terrible
to contemplate.
The bodies of our friends and teammates, preserved
outside in the snow and ice, contained vital,
life-giving protein that could help us survive.
But could we do it?
For a long time we agonised.
I went out in the snow and prayed to God for
Without His consent, I felt I would be violating
the memory of my friends; that I would be
stealing their souls.
We wondered whether we were going mad even
to contemplate such a thing.
Had we turned into brute savages?
Or was this the only sane thing to do?
But to sum up, people who find themselves
in an impossibly dire situation and resort
to the cannibalization of the dead are almost
universally considered not guilty of any crime
as far as the law in most countries is concerned.
On top of that, even in non-survival situations,
if you can manage to obtain the flesh of another
human legally, you’re likely also going
to get off scot-free if you eat it, even publicly.
This fact has been particular beneficial in
recent times with the fad of people eating
the placenta after a woman gives birth, including
at times when their partner or family members
might partake, which most consider technically
a form of cannibalism.
Although, where one draws the line with regards
to when consuming a specific bit of another
human’s flesh is cannibalism or when it
is not is hotly debated.
(And if you search around enough, you’ll
inevitably find many a mildly humorous heated
argument over whether swallowing human sperm
counts as cannibalism, as it’s technically
flesh of a sort…)
And even in the state of Idaho in the United
States where cannibalism is explicitly illegal
and eating the placenta, by the wording of
their law, is most definitely an act of cannibalism,
it’s generally thought by various legal
minds who’ve chimed in on this one that
if any prosecutor actually tried to prosecute
in this case (or other non-harmful forms of
cannibalism) in Idaho, which could result
in an up to 14 year prison sentence for the
convicted, that the law in question would
probably ultimately be deemed unconstitutional
a whole lot of legal wrangling.

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