A time to Be Born & a Time to Die: Issues At the beginning & end of life Pt. 2 Personhood

Carolyn’s Online Magazine (#COMe)



Medical Technologies at the

Beginning and End of Life Cycle    

Part 2 of 3 Parts: Personhood: What is a person?

NOTE: This is the second post in a series of three posts that are an edited version of the first two articles I wrote, launching my work as a freelance photojournalist. They come from a two-part article from a public round-table discussion on the topic in the title. Panel participants included medical, professional, religious, and community members.

Click on A time to Be Born and a Time to Die: Issues At the beginning & end of life Pt. 1  to read Part 1.

It was suggested I update these articles written 24 years ago. I decided not to, in order to show that issues we were wrestling with at the beginning of the electronics age still remain—although the struggle may have intensified.



Rooted in the controversy of all cultures is the struggle to answer the question What is a person?

Over 2000 years ago Plato suggested a person results from the union of a physical body and a non-physical soul, a union of the body and mind. Evidence of life was the “quickening” of the fetus. Death was the splitting apart of the body and soul, evidenced by “not breathing.”

Although Plato’s concepts still exist today, technology is creating new definitions.

  • Not breathing is no longer considered death: a person can survive indefinitely with machines breathing for him.
  • In earlier times, infants born malformed, withered, or mentally retarded weren’t considered persons. Therefore, they could be killed, or at the very least “allowed to die.” Today this is often considered morally wrong.

What criteria, then, is available that defines personhood?

Although the answer varies all answers can be considered to be right.

An ethics committee might not consider the patient a “person,” but to the loving relative there’s no debate the patient remains a person.

Ethics committees and families, and ultimately society, must deal with the question What is the minimum amount of biological phenomena that must be present to have a person?

Technology today permits a person to be declared medically dead, but allows their life functions continue through the use of machinery. Is this “body” still a person? Is it dead or is it alive? Perhaps the person is dead when those persons who are dealing with it agree s/he is dead. Until then the “body” is a person.

Another definition of personhood revolves around a person’s ability to bear moral rights and responsibilities. Although society has tremendous responsibility to a medically dead body, that body does not inherently have legal rights and cannot take on responsibility.

Theologian Joseph Fletcher defines personhood as participating in shared moral relationships. He devised a list of 17 criteria for this participation, which includes rationality, locomotion, a sense of self, and a sense of time. Lack of only one or two criteria wouldn’t result in a lack of personhood. Participation in a shared moral relationship can be accomplished with diminished human capacity—a mentally retarded person can relate to his caretaker. Where does one draw the line? Certainly, however, lack of all 17 criteria indicates a loss of personhood.

Another method of determining personhood is outcome of medical treatment. Here, however, the argument doesn’t concern personhood, but rather whether or not it’s worth resuscitating the patient.

Technology introduces medical ethics questions beyond defining life and death.

Historically, people have always experienced trials and struggled their way through them. Today, however, Americans seem to have lost their ability to cope. They seek instant answers and quick medical/technological fixes. This expectation is influenced by today’s mass media, especially television [and, in 2016, electronics media]. Technology publicizes near miracles and manipulation of life through technology, encouraging people to look for a “magic bullet” that quickly goes to the problem and “zaps it away.”

This framework has created a moral climate with a high societal ambivalence toward medicine. Patients ask Medical miracles are available, but why is there no instantaneous solution to my problem?

Ultimately, a common thread still exists in today’s medicine: how do we get the patient well and improve his/her life. This thread evolves into another question: How can we best accomplish this?

Part 3 will be posted June 19.

About carolyncholland

In several if my nine lives I have been a medical lab technician and a human service worker specializing in child day care, adoptions and family abuse. Currently I am a photo/journalist/writer working on a novel and a short story. My general writings can be viewed at www.carolyncholland.wordpress.com. My novel site is www.intertwinedlove.wordpress.com.
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