Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Amelia, humanity, and personhood.

By now, most of the internet is well aware of the ongoing battle between Amelia Rivera's parents and CHOP. If you somehow have missed all the controversy, you can go to the link below and catch up. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Read about Amelia

I couldn't believe what a commenter wrote on Elizabeth's blog in response to the issue.

In a nutshell, the part she said that really got me was this:

"there is a distinct difference between a "human" and a "person," a distinctio­n which may or may not be relevant here, but certainly is relevant in discussion of the right of significan­tly mentally disabled or incapacita­ted humans (like those in commas) to receive care, and the moral duty of others to provide it. Philosophe­r Mary Anne Warren provides one of the most cited criteria for personhood­, or humanity in the moral sense:

1. Consciousn­ess (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
2. Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
3. Self-motiv­ated activity (activity which is relatively independen­t of either genetic or direct external control);
4. The capacity to communicat­e, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinite­ly many possible topics;
5. The presence of self-conce­pts, and self-aware­ness, either individual or racial, or both. source

These traits combined comprises a "full" person, but Warren doesn't believe that all attributes must be present to consider someone a person in some sense. "(1) and (2) alone may well be sufficient for personhood­," she claims, and neither does she insist that any one of the criteria is necessary, although she seems to believe that reasoning is both a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood­.

If we had infinite organs and resources to provide transplant­s for those organs, then yes all human should have them. However, we don't live in that world, and that does mean that persons have more of a right to an organ transplant than do non-person humans."

I was shocked, appalled... just numbly furious. How could anyone believe that? How could anyone say that? To deny a human being his or her very personhood - in her own words, their humanity based on genetic or cognitive differences...? Ignorant. Awful.

I feel very deeply within my soul that when we approach a place where there is the illusion of separation between a human being and his or her personhood, we as a society are in a very dark, lost place.

There is a German term that comes to mind when I hear people say things like that; "Lebensunwertes Leben". Loosely translated, it means 'Life unworthy of life', coined by the Nazi movement. It's an acrid, hateful term; the very utterance of it spits burning venom. The term describes an individual whose very existence is so worthless that it is best fit to simply end. It is the idea that an individual can be unfit for the privilege of enjoying the splendor of the world and the gift of life that God Himself bestowed upon them. The idea makes my eyes sting as the acid in my stomach reflexively curdles. It causes me physical pain to imagine that someone could believe this to be true.

When we start to believe that there are individuals unworthy of life because we cannot understand the depths of their personal existence, where do we draw the line? If we cannot relate- if there is no Rosetta stone; if we cannot reach the person on the other side - does their existence become less meaningful for lack of a parallel? If these ideas prevail, I weep for the fate of our world. We must remember to love everyone indiscriminately - even those whose perspectives we cannot comprehend. If we don't love each other, we will all be swept away.


  1. Just found this post and I believe it is well-spoken to the needs and value of the disabled. I have a 26 year old totally disabled kid I care for at home. The particular commenter referenced is outrageous and devalues all disabled young people. I requested and apology to our disability community but was blown off. Both Warren and Singer view people as commodities that have relative values...It's an immoral position.
    I copied this from the commenter's public facebook page to give you more insight.

    " I agree with you that there can be very slippery slopes as far as measuring intelligence levels in qualifying someone as a person or affording them the rights that come along with personhood. I don't mean to imply that people with disabilities are not persons (I'm not even making that judgement about Amelia, it seems that she has the ability to communicate needs, which implies that she is aware of them). I don't think it's as simple as saying "we're all people," though. What do you mean by that? Anyone who is a homo sapien? DNA?

    I think there is a distinct difference between someone in a persistent vegetative state/who is is brain dead and someone who is not, just as there is a difference between like a human embryo and a "developed" human being."

    My son was in a persistent vegetative state...I guess he has no redeemable value. God save us, I thought we were more evolved as a species.

  2. Phil, thank you for the additional reading. As a society, we have come a long way- but it is sometimes disheartening to see how much farther we still need to go. Of course we're all people- what an outrageous thing for that commenter to say. Someone in a persistent vegetative state is still someone- we don't start calling that person a 'something' when they lose consciousness, do we? We don't know what their dream world holds - maybe it's a life more beautiful than any of us can image. To end that life is to end that existence... Who in this world can make such an assumption?

  3. Very well said, Helena! The quote from the commenter's Facebook page is very telling. And I, on the contrary, don't think that there is a difference, let alone a distinct difference, between someone in a persistent vegetative state and someone who is not when it comes to humanity and personhood. But then again, I don't subscribe to the ideas of Singer and Warren, and I don't think that just because someone has an advanced degree in philosophy, s/he also has the authority to deciding who gets to be a person and who is not.

    1. I couldn't agree with you more. It's an outrageously arrogant assumption.