Personhood Theory: Why Contemporary Mainstream Bioethics is Dangerous
I participated in an on-line debate for Court TV yesterday with Florida bioethicist, Bill Allen. We mostly discussed Terri Schiavo. But we also got deeper into the context in which the Schiavo case is being played out, that is, the idea that some of us are not "persons" based on cognitive impairments. Note, that Dr. Allen agrees with my worry, that personhood theory would not only permit Terri to be dehydrated, but harvested for organs, assuming consent. To say the least, this undermines universal human rights. Here is an excerpt. The entire debate can be found here.
Wesley Smith: Bill, do you think Terri is a person?
Bill Allen: No, I do not. I think having awareness is an essential criterion for personhood. Even minimal awareness would support some criterion of personhood, but I don't think complete absence of awareness does.
Wesley Smith: This is my big problem with modern bioethics thinking. Personhood theory is very dangerous. It says that being human in and of itself is not morally relevant. It means that some of us have lower worth than others of us. Indeed, there is some advocacy in bioethics of being allowed to do organ harvesting from people in PVS. THIS ISN'T HAPPENING, I STRESS. But it shows where personhood theory leads. Frankly, I see it as the end of universal human rights because it means that we are not all intrinsically equal.
Bill Allen: Well, Wesley, if awareness isn't a defining criterion of personhood, then on what grounds or basis do you attribute personhood? What is a person without awareness?
Wesley Smith: I think being human in and of itself should be the relevant criterion. Under personhood theory, not only are people like Terri denigrated as non persons, but so too for some, are newborn infants, who are not self-aware. Peter Singer of Princeton comes to mind. If Terri is not a person, should her organs be procured with consent? And consent from Michael?
Bill Allen:...Yes, I think there should be consent to harvest her organs, just as we allow people to say what they want done with their assets.