A person in full

Two of my least favorite (because least conclusive, least agreeable, most acrimonious) topics dominated Bioethics yesterday: euthanasia and abortion.

As usual, more heat than light resulted. Reasonable statements were ignored or dismissed, the “science” of life was invoked by those whose real commitments seem rooted in religion, discussions derailed. Gonna have to start screening topics more assiduously.

Euthanasia means “good death.” Who could be against that, oxymoronic though it sounds? But Vincent may be just a little too eager to slap that label around, on my view. Our focus should be on a good death as the capstone of a good life, not simply the convenient termination of a bad one.

On the perennially-stalemated abortion issue, Austin denies the distinction between (human) life and personhood. What is a person, he challenges, if distinct from its biological vehicle?

Well, I like Robert Solomon’s answer.

To become a person is an achievement. Birth and death do not mark a person’s beginning and end. A newborn baby is not yet a person, while a deceased person who lives in the memory of his or her descendents is a person still, despite physical death. Initiation rites are crucial to achieving full membership in most tribal communities and thus to becoming a full person. A Passion for Wisdom

A person is, or was, a full participant in the complex life of a community. A person has a history and a shared communal identity. A person has a developed personality. Persons do things like take courses in Bioethics. Blastocysts don’t.

In short, as Sandel says, “the distinction between actual persons and potential ones is not without ethical significance.” Personhood grows like an oak, persons grow up. Or don’t.


Postscript. Those of us with strong opinions on abortion and personhood (and that seems to be most of us in the Bioethics class) should give a listen to this recent Radiolab podcast, 23 Weeks 6 Days… and read the articles it was based on. Beautiful story, happy ending.

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