Tag Archives: philosophy

The Problem of Personhood

The abortion debate is characterized by a mess of misinformation, fallacy, and ignorance. Objections about the quality of a child’s life, a woman’s personal choice, a child’s wantedness, and children of rape are all, in reality, surface level arguments that attempt to mask the real problem faced by pro-aborts: how do they redefine a fetus’ personhood? Most people would agree we can’t kill an 3 year old girl because her mother can’t afford to feed her; we don’t give a mother a “personal choice” to end her life because she is unwanted. A university student cannot be knifed in the back because he was a child of rape. These are not the real issues. In order to justify abortion, it must be established that they do not have any human rights; they must be denied personhood.

Denying personhood is not an easy intellectual or philosophical feat, which is why the above arguments are favorites of those defending the killing of unborn children. Science will not help them out; the evidence clearly shows that a fetus is alive, growing, and has human parents. According to the law of biogenesis, this fetus is human. It’s not a parasite, and it’s not an organ. The problem a pro-abortion intellectual faces is the redefinition of life. They must discern when, if not at conception, human rights do apply. Canada’s criminal code defines it as the moment that the child is completely born; this legal definition has no foundation, no scientific rhyme or reason, and is essentially indefensible from a philosophical standpoint. Others have tried harder to find that crucial point at which human rights apply, and have been forced form conclusions that cross accepted social boundaries. Philosopher Michael Tooney argues that in order for a human to have rights, it must be capable of having interests. Because an unborn child or a newborn presumably does not have the ability to take interest in it’s abilities or future, it does not deserve the protection of its life. Taking a similar but not identical stance, Peter Singer states that a being’s humanity is irrelevant to the wrongness of killing it; rather, it is characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that give someone human rights. He argues that infants and the unborn do not possess these characteristics, and therefore should be able to be killed. The problem is that neither of these arguments is more convincing than the other, or is convincing at all. Attempting to redefine personhood opens up a philosophical can of worms; the necessity of defining some sort of personhood in order to protect human rights in some form results in subjective, arbitary ideas of what merits human rights, as shown above.

The effects of denying personhood are tragic, inevitable, and unfortunately obvious. In Canada, from 2000 – 2009, 491 babies died after they were born alive after failed abortions. According to the Criminal Code, these babies should have rights, and the abortionists should be prosecuted for murder; however, respect for personhood has declined to the extent that there was no criminal investigation. In Belgium, Parliament is poised to allow child euthanasia for gravely ill children; in other words, the state is about to sanction the murder of sick kids. Denial of personhood does not only affect children; in the Netherlands, the number of elderly persons killed by euthanasia has more than doubled in the decade since it was legalised.

These tragedies, this complete disregard for human life, is really but the logical outworking of a dangerous philosophy. Taking the definition of personhood into our own hands and changing it to suit our subjective ideas of the what is a valued life, only leads further and further into the moral chaos described above.


It’s about people.

by Theresa Stephenson

Every week I go to the lecture for my mandatory course, Philosophical Issues in Health Care. Every week we discuss various moral dilemmas that confront workers in the medical system. And every week I sit in the lecture hall with other nursing and health science students and discuss medical practices in abstract, theoretical terms: we argue about moral “rights” and “wrongs” and apply these convictions to real-life case studies.

Every week I leave that class rattled and surprised at what my peers have said. We wrestle with topics like euthanasia, the allocation of medical treatment, and neonatal testing. I am floored by the radical arguments that people come up with. In class we often forget that the case studies we mull over are actually real cases, presenting us with real people and real problems. We over-analyze scenarios; we harshly, and often wrongly, judge people’s quality of life. Even though we speak with the best intentions, we get so carried away that we’re more wrapped up in the philosophical arguments than the real, living patients that we will soon be treating.

When we get caught up in philosophical theories we forget what’s actually important – the humanity of our patients.

I have no interest in being a philosopher. Neither Mill’s utilitarianism nor Kant’s ethics serve as my moral compass. Instead, my treatment of patients is/will be guided by their humanity. Only by acknowledging the humanity of each patient can we compassionately serve him or her with integrity and fidelity.

At times, when I listen to my peers talk about human life I fear the future of Canadian health care. I hope that when we arrive in the hospital, fresh out of university, we will know how to justly deal with morally perplexing situations. But if not, if we panic, I hope that we remember the inherent dignity of each human life. Difficult cases are a reality in every hospital in Canada. Human life is in the hands of medical providers: I hope that they will choose treatment over termination and life over death.