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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Monday, April 11, 2005

On Terri Schiavo and personhood

Something occurred to me that seems to have great bearing on whether or not Terri Schiavo was truly a person during the last fifteen years of her life.

Since her cognitive function was allegedly zero, it has been argued that Terri was not a person. But if one literally loses one’s mind, must one’s personhood go with it? I find such a conclusion suspect. In my mind, mere existence is enough to qualify one for personhood.

Consider this: Terri’s cognitive function was minimal at best, yet her body continued to function. She breathed on her own, her heart pumped blood, and she metabolized the food and water she received through a tube. She also had regular menstrual periods. It’s probably safe to say she ovulated as well, meaning that she was fertile. If she was fertile, then it would have been possible for her to conceive -- and conceivable that she could’ve given birth to a child.

Which leads to my question: can an individual procreate, i.e., co-create new life, and yet still not be a person? If not, then why? Can a fertile individual produce anything of greater worth than another human being? I suppose some could say that it’s worthier to win a soul to heaven than to merely produce another human life. But if a life hasn’t been produced to begin with, how can it possibly acquire a soul to be won to heaven?

Acceptance of salvation is an act of volition, as is bearing witness to God’s saving grace beyond the natural effect of salvation. The killing of another human being is also an act of volition. But no one can will the dead to life. A person can create new life via his or her body together with another, but only because God has made the human body to possess this capacity. No one would be here if that capacity was not inherent. If no one existed, no one could possess the capacity to choose. No one could achieve anything at all. Therefore, the prerequisite to cognitive function, of the type that produces acts of will, must be mere existence itself.

If no one can control the fact that he or she is alive (besides the fact that he/she can choose to terminate his/her life), then how can anyone possibly be so arrogant as to say that the value of life lies in what can be accomplished (via the will)? Besides, is not the greatest achievement that which is accomplished for others? A person with no cognitive function whatever can still achieve for others: he or she can accomplish the work of compassion, forbearance, reverence, and a host of other qualities within the hearts of those who are willing to receive them.

If Terri was capable of procreation, and if she was capable of instilling virtue in the hearts of those who were willing to accept it, then surely she possessed personhood.


  • Excellent post, Bonnie. I would agree that she was a person, but aren't even totally braindead (or PVS) people capable of biological reproduction? I think the questions I'm left with lie outside the scope of science, though I definitely take great stock in what answers it provides. Something I asked on my blog was when does life morph into mere hi-tech existence? Perhaps that's not what happened with Terri since all she had was a feeding tube, but as technology marches forward, this slippery slope will just get slipperier...


    p.s. I hope you don't mind I added you to my new blog ( that's based on personality type. You're the first member of the INTP blogroll :)

    By Blogger jane, at 11:39 PM  

  • Good work. In order to answer your question, we must first define personhood, which is, of course, one of the bones of contention. You have thoughtfully pointed out some of the attributes of a person.
    At least for males, it is clearly possible for the dead to reproduce (in one sense, anyway) if their sperm was deposited in a bank.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 4:22 AM  

  • I'm sure you don't mean this, but your argument suggests that if I'm infertile and don't get on with others then I'm not a person.

    Personally I think a useful gauge of personhood is what separates us from the average animal. It's by no means a bright line, but things like self-awareness, expressions of love, reason/reflection, and regret would all play into my definition far above whether one can breed. All of those attributes seem sadly lacking in Mrs Schiavo's latter years.

    By Blogger Paul, at 10:43 AM  

  • I like the trend of your thinking... and in looking at the comments, it seems obvious that we are increasingly attached to a dichotomy of body/soul idea rather than a holistic idea of what 'human' is.
    Our pivot point is always going to hinge on "usefulness" vs. our ideas of instrinsic worth.

    Here's one to think about: if Terri wasn't a person and most of her organs were in good working order- could harvesting from these people be considered acceptable? Is that next?
    People think that is far out, but we are a good ways into 'far-out' territory ...

    By Blogger Ilona, at 7:14 PM  

  • Great comments. Thanks!

    This is a big, gnarly subject, that's for sure.

    Marla, I think I may have commented on your blog about differentiating between a person who is clearly in decline (dying) vs. a healthy yet handicapped person, as far as keeping them alive goes. Not that that's always a clear line but I think it's a good guideline.

    Martin -- whoa! Now even the dead are people too! Seriously, it is strange that a person's gametes can outlive them...

    Paul: I tried to head off any such assumption by asking, "Can a fertile individual produce anything of greater worth than another human being?" Obviously, an infertile person has a different call.

    I didn't saying anything about a "difficult" person not being a person due to their difficultness; indeed, even the difficult person is used by God to bring about all sorts of fruit: patience, forbearance, grace, mercy, compassion, etc. (not necessarily in that order ;-) ). That's what redemption is about.

    As to your guage of personhood, you bring up valid distinctions but I think you may be confusing those qualities which make us human with those that (or that which) define(s) personhood.

    Ilona, you're right about an insidious, creepy utilitarian view toward humans that can take over society's thought. Just look at embryonic stem-cell research.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 11:05 PM  

  • Good post, Bonnie.

    I have never understood "personhood" to be at issue in the debate about Terri Schiavo. Te issue was whether she, as a person, would want to continue receiving her feeding tube. The court tried to figure out the answer to that question based on evidence of things she had said prior to the time she lost her ability to communicate it for herself. I have understood that her personhood has always been assumed.

    Personally, I am troubled by your theory of linking "personhood" with the ability to procreate. To my understanding, this has never been the position of historic orthodox Christianity, which has instead reasoned that personhood is related to our being made in the image of God.

    Many people, because of age or infirmity, cannot procreate, but I believe it is not seriously in contention that they would lose their personhood as a result of losing that ability.

    You also say that a person with no "cognitive function" whatever may still "achieve for others" by "accomplishing" the work of evoking a host of virtues within others. The weakness in this part of your argument is that the same might be said for a pet, or frankly even an abstraction, like a trial or difficulty. The argument seems to prove too much personhood.

    I am satisfied to maintain that persons in a vegetative state retain their personhood based on the fact that they were made in the image of God. The degradation of time and circumstance on that image does not erase it. Indeed, personhood even endures death, the complete degradation of the body, by Scriptural teaching.

    Thanks again for the very thoughtful post. It is sure to keep me thinking.

    By Blogger Res Ipsa, at 4:10 PM  

  • Res, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Some have said that a person who has lost all cognitive ability is no longer a person and therefore not worthy of being kept alive by artificial means. There’s been discussion regarding “personhood” as an ethical criterion for whether persons such as Terri should be “let go.” Some of this can be found in links in this post.

    Interestingly, Judge Greer did not dispute Terri’s personhood; he referred to her as an “incapacitated person.” Of concern to him was proof that she did not have “hope of ever regaining consciousness and therefore capacity,” or “a reasonable probability of recovering competency." He found “overwhelming credible...unrebutted evidence” for this.

    You make a very good point about personhood being founded in the imago dei. However, rhetorically speaking, especially “outside of the faith,” this is a difficult concept to articulate. It’s elusive even “within the faith.” I can anticipate that, were we to define personhood this way, we’d run into all kinds of trouble trying to explain how a PV individual indeed exhibits the imago dei, especially since, at least in my limited understanding, part of that involves intelligence, or at least sentience, and therefore volition.

    I did not state that only the fertile are persons; please see my comment above to Paul. I wanted to broaden the discussion of personhood and persons in a PVS, which, from what I’ve read, seems to have been centered on cognitive ability.

    Your point about animals is a good one, though I would venture to say that we are ministers to each other as humans rather than stewards of each other, as we are of animals. We have been given dominion over the animals in a completely different sense than that of human authority. Even a person in a PVS (and I apologize for using that term; I understand that it’s offensive to some and I understand why. I just don’t have a better alternative at the moment.) clearly is most related, physically and spiritually, to another person than any animal is (in spite of what some, i.e., those of the PETA ilk, may tell you).

    I’m not sure about personhood having an eternal nature, because clearly we do not remain human for all eternity. The physical part of us, which is part of our personhood – see Genesis 1:26 – does not live on. But I need a good philosopher to help me out here -- (Jeremy Pierce, are you reading?)

    Thanks for the great discussion.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 11:20 AM  

  • I think I may have been using language imprecisely, so to clarify: I wouldn't question for a second that Mrs Schiavo was a human, or person, or any other suitable word, insofar as she was a member of the species homo sapiens. What I question is her humanity, or personhood, i.e. her ability to do all the things such as loving and regretting that I mentioned earlier. If she had lost those things, as I believe she had, and if she had expressed a desire not to live in such circumstances, which I understand she had, then the morality of her death is straightforward.

    By Blogger Paul, at 3:39 PM  

  • Marla, someone totally braindead can't even be kept alive with machines. Braindeath results in organismic death. PVS isn't the same thing. That just means the parts of the brain we think have something to do with conscious experience and higher thought have been liquified, which her MRI does seem to have confirmed. I'm not sure we should be so sure that conscious experience needs that part of the brain, however.

    Ilona, a lot of people make the distinction between those who aren't persons in a way that we can do anything to them and those who aren't persons that aren't that way. Animals, for instance, aren't persons, but we can't do whatever we feel like to animals. If the reason is that it might lead us to do bad things to persons, then the same applies to former persons. There's also the issue of dignity and respect for the former person, who once was a person after all. That's why we might consider it immoral to treat someone's body with disrespect, even though it's not a person. That might require at least some things with Terri Schiavo among those who don't consider her to have been a person all those years.

    Paul and re ipsa, it was pretty clear that she saw reproduction as a sufficient condition for personhood, whereas you're claiming her argument requires it to be a necessary condition. She never said that, and her argument doesn't require it. She's not saying only reproducing things are persons. She's saying all reproducing things are persons. That can't be right, because a snail isn't a person, but maybe she means all reproducing humans.

    Bonnie, I do think the way you've stated things can't be what you mean. A rock exists, but it's not a person, so existence can't be sufficient for personhood. Sperm and egg banks show why reproduction can't be a sufficient condition either, as Martin said. The most modification that seems most obvious to me would be human existence, but even that's not enough, because my fingernail is human. My suggestion is that being a living human organism is sufficient for personhood, though not necessary if we continue to exist as persons after we die, as I think is the biblical position. (Does that answer what you were asking for by calling upon me?)

    Given that, Terri Schiavo is still a person and never hasn't been since she began to exist. The question to ask, then, is whether it's correct to point at her body in the PVS state and say "That's Terri Shiavo. The person Terri Shiavo still exists in that form." Some Christians have said no.

    Paul, as to your last comment, much of the debate was over whether the court had been given enough evidence to support the claim that she had consented to this. If I were the judge, I wouldn't have found the evidence conclusive.

    By Blogger Jeremy Pierce, at 3:01 PM  

  • Jeremy,

    A couple of points - I'm not sure that anyone outside the court has had the exposure to the evidence that the judge had, so any of us saying that the evidence was insufficient is of dubious value. And of course, you're not a judge (though you're free to become one of course).

    By Blogger Paul, at 12:07 PM  

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