Issue Of Personhood Foundational In Bioethical Debates
In numerous bioethical debates approached from a secular perspective, many seemingly noble principles such as autonomy, individual choice, dignity, the common good, and the preservation of limited resources are invoked to justify various positions. However, when these complex issues are approached from a Judeo-Christian perspective, many times the implications and morality of these decisions are altered profoundly.
Perhaps the most fundamental concern raised by a standpoint informed by the principles of the Bible is none other than personhood. Though something we each possess, its value varies drastically depending on the worldview each of us brings to the concept.
For example, to the person living out a consistently evolutionary or materialistic perspective, the idea of personhood is not that important since it is merely an arbitrarily contrived social and intellectual construct with no inherent worth other than what we decide to give it. Thus, it is no major concern if the concept is altered to exclude those at the extreme ends of life’s continuum unable to sustain themselves apart from intensive medical intervention.
However, if one approaches the matter from the Judeo-Christian perspective, the concept of personhood impacts dramatically the techniques and procedures one finds morally justifiable. Since man is made in the image of God, the life and spirit of man (his personhood if you will) is unique in all of creation. As such, it is due a respect placing it just below the reverence due God Himself.
Since the human being holds a special place in the heart of God, it is God Himself that establishes the guidelines regarding how we are permitted to relate to and treat other human beings. In Genesis 9:6, where God establishes His covenant with Noah it says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man”. Later in the Ten Commandments this decree is reiterated in the command “Thou shalt not commit murder”.
From this, it is established that it is morally incorrect to take an innocent human life not having itself taken another human life. Therefore, it is improper to deliberately take a human life that does not threaten yours or has not violated the law.
Since the minds of men dwell continually on evil, a number of wily thinkers attempt to skirt around the issue by redefining personhood to make it distinct from the humanity of these individuals facing the prospects of having these procedures inflicted upon them. However, even these attempts prove inadequate as they endeavor to describe things how some would like them to be rather than how God created them.
For humanity/personhood is something one possesses inherently rather than bestowed upon you as a result of having reached some developmental milestone. The individual remains a distinct biological entity throughout the continuum of existence.
If anything, by limiting personhood to those having reached some arbitrary standard such as viability, quickening, or sentience speaks more to the limitations of medical science than an actual state of ontology. And with advances, these frontiers are being pushed back further all the time.
Things are now to the point where doctors are able to do surgery inside the mother’s womb. A photo of one such procedure where a tiny hand reached out of the mother’s abdomen got Matt Drudge fired from the Fox News Network. It was feared such an image might unsettle or disturb the consciences of viewers regarding the issue of abortion.
Scott Rae in “Moral Choices: An Introduction To Ethics” concludes his examination of the abortion issue with the following argument advocating for personhood of the unborn: “(1) An adult human being is the end result of the continuous growth of the organism from conception... (2) From conception to adulthood this development has no break that is relevant to the essential nature of the fetus... (3) Therefore, one is a human person from the point of conception onward (142).”
Frederick Meekins is an independent theologian and social critic. Frederick holds a BS in Political Science/History, a MA in Apologetics/Christian Philosophy from Trinity Theological Seminary, and a PhD. in Christian Apologetics from Newburgh Theological Seminary.