Wesley J. Smith, author and bioethicist, wrote nearly two decades ago, “Practitioners of bioethics say who should live, and who should die.” Smith cautioned of an alarming and insidious trend within the modern bioethics’ movement known as “personhood theory.” He described how some bioethicists were asserting that what matters “morally” is not that one is “human,” but that one has a legal status as a “person.”
What makes someone a legal person with human rights worth respecting? One must possess, those bioethicists argued, mental competencies, such as “self-awareness” or having the ability to “engage in rational behavior.”
Consequently, those who did not fit this criterion would fall into the category of being defined as a human “non-person.” These “non-persons” would include embryos, the unborn child, infants (up to the first few years of life), those with Alzheimer’s disease, cognitively disabled individuals, and individuals with significant developmental disabilities. Indeed, if one fit the definition of being a human “non-person,” a philosophical determination, then bioethicists would accordingly be able to shape the social, cultural, judicial, and medical criteria for any one person enjoying basic human rights—including the right to life itself.
Peter Singer is perhaps the most infamous of this bioethical cohort. In 1998, Singer was appointed to Princeton University’s Professorship of Bioethics and has since served as a prominent advocate for personhood theory. His advocacy of the notion of human “non-persons” has been attractive to many and he enjoys a sort of celebrity status among bioethicists and ethicists generally.Today, personhood theory is part of ethics taught in countless colleges, and it’s having a significant impact on those most vulnerable to its dehumanizing logic.
It was not long ago, for instance, that to intentionally starve and dehydrate someone to death for any reason would have been thought of as barbaric and inhumane. Yet, Terri Schiavo, my sister, became just one of the more prominent of the countless victims of Peter Singer’s logic. Terri lived with a brain injury and was cognitively disabled, but her husband and, ultimately, judicial decision makers came to accept that her life lacked sufficient value to continue feeding her. Take note of this 2005 exchange between Smith and Professor Bill Allen, bioethicist at the University of Florida, debating Terri’s life:
Wesley Smith: “Bill, do you think Terri is a person?”
Bill Allen: “No, I do not. I think having awareness is an essential criterion for personhood.”
Fast forward to 2014: An article by The College Fix’s Mairead McArdle exposed “anecdotal evidence” that more college students support post-birth abortion, suggesting that children up to 5-years-old could be put to death because they are not sufficiently “self-aware” and thus they do not constitute “persons.”
In 2018, a video surfaced of a University of Tennessee Knoxville student who rationalized support for infanticide of two-year-olds based on the fact that the child is not sufficiently “sentient.” The student offered that “without communication, we have no way of knowing if you are sentient or not. It’s no different than this tree. It’s alive, but is it sentient? I don’t know. I cannot communicate with it.”
Can we really accept that we are, at any time, simply one accident away from being deemed by an overzealous bioethicist a “human nonperson” who unwillingly forfeits basic human rights?
Human nonpersons and human rights