Russell and Duenes

Are You a “Person” if You’re in a Coma?

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A friend of one of my students wrote me a thoughtful comment about abortion, and rather than just respond to him with a comment of my own, I figured a post would allow others to partake of our exchange as well. He writes,

I’ve recently been struggling over the issue of abortion. With regards to whether or not a fetus is living, I would say with confidence that a fetus is biologically alive. But my question is, is a fetus a person? I don’t think that an animal like a gorilla, or a chimpanzee, or an aardvark is a person. A person, I think, has self-directing capabilities. Thus a person would be a being that is self-directing in its nature.

Let me begin by making a claim that I think is uncontroversial. A fetus is definitely an alive human being, separate from his or her mother, because the fetus cannot be anything else. The sperm from the father was a human sperm and was alive at the point of conception. The egg from the mother was a human egg and was also alive at the point of conception. Thus, when they come together, we have a being who is alive and who is human. There’s no other option. All the DNA is there, and this life, barring some unforeseen interruption or complication, has all that he or she needs within herself to become a fully mature human being. Note well, the fetus is already a full human being, just not a mature one. This by itself should cause us to ask: What is the nature of a human being, and do we have the right to take the life of other human beings, who have committed no crime, without their permission? Are human beings the kind of beings that, just by their very existence, have inherent dignity and worth such that we should protect their lives? So let’s begin there.

The question you’ve asked is: Is this human being a “person?” First I think it’s important that we define our terms. In my view, every human being is a person, by definition. It seems to me that the responsibility is on those who want to make some kind of important distinction between “human beings” and “persons.” This is particularly so  in the case of abortion, because we must ask ourselves why we should preserve the life of one (that is, the “human being”), but we are OK with taking the life of the other (the “person”). What is the difference that makes this permissible? Further, the one arguing that there is a class of “human beings” who are not “persons” is going to have to give me some kind of justification for this distinction, and the justification will have to go beyond the argument that: “The Constitution says so” or “such and such group of ‘experts’ says so,” or “philosophers say so.” The Constitution and the laws are not equipped to decide matters of being and existence and the nature of who we are as human beings. Only God is equipped to define such things. He created us.

But more to your point, you said you think that “persons” are those who have “self-directing capabilities.” Let me ask you this: If you fell into a coma tomorrow, do you think you would cease to be a “person” because you no longer possess self-directing capabilities? What if you suffered a spinal cord injury in your neck and could only move your head, would you cease to be a “person” because you could no longer self-direct your own affairs, but would be wholly dependent on others? Does a baby who was just born 5 minutes ago, and cannot reason or speak or direct his or her own affairs in any way cease to be a person? I think you would answer “no” to these questions, and thus, self-directing capabilities cannot be the measure of who is a “person.” Even if that baby will be able to have more self-direction in the future, does she not become a “person” until that point? When is that point reached? How much self-direction must she be capable of? You see the problem.

If you mean something else by “self-directing capabilities,” something along the lines of “the ability to reason and make free will choices,” I would only ask you to think about how self-directing you ultimately are. If we are to take the Bible seriously, we must also take seriously the notion that human beings do not have the ultimately sovereignty and autonomy over their decisions. We are not in charge. That is reserved for God. Proverbs 16:1 says: “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” Or Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” The Bible says that from God and through God and to God are all things, and that includes human decisions. “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9).

Animals are merely automatons who’s brains react automatically to automatic stimulation. With humans, there’s something more along with the brain there, or at least we have to assume there’s something else there if we are to believe in free will.

Yes, I assume that animals do not exercise will in the same way that human beings do, but even they may have “something more” than just a brain there. They may have souls themselves, but I cannot be sure of this. I tend to believe it. I’ve addressed the human “free will” point above (though I’d be happy to go into it further in the future). I think we must not only “assume” that we have more than brains, but must positively affirm it. We have souls. We are not just physical. Were we just physical, then we would only be acting upon chemical instincts, and all notions of human rationality and morality would be mistaken. In order for things like justice, love, compassion, and morality to be real, we must be more than just our bodies and brains.

With regards to a fetus being a person, I’m not certain it would be a person. So basically, the question of personhood seems to come down to when does an animal, specifically a human, become a person? Is it at conception? Is there a spiritual state of being existing dually with the fetus at the time of conception? Or is it at birth? Is there a spiritual state of being existing dually with the fetus at the time of conception? Or is it some time a little later? I’m a waffler on this topic, so I don’t have a set opinion on it right now, I was just interested to hear your response.

I think you’re asking the right question, but I think that in order to be a “waffler” you have to have more than one plausible argument in your mind about what a “person” actually is, and then be undecided about those two arguments. You seem to have only one argument about what a person is, namely, that a person must be capable of self-directing activity. And yet I hope I’ve shown that this cannot be the measure of personhood. For I think you would agree that there are many “persons” existing who cannot engage in self-directing activity. In other words, the comatose 31-year old lying in a hospital bed is no more capable of directing his own activities than a 12-week old fetus is, and yet I’m guessing you would say that the 31-year old is a “person.” You may respond by saying, “Yes, but the 31-year-old, were he healthy, would, by nature, be capable of directing his own activities.” To which I would say, and which is no different, “Yes, but the fetus, were he given a bit more time, would also, by nature, be capable of directing his own activities.” Both the man in the coma and the fetus are the kinds of beings that are capable of mature human activity. Thus, there is no distinction between them.

The “nature” of a human being, and the “nature” of a person, are one and the same. We may split them up because we find doing so useful in order to promote some political, social, or moral agenda we may have, but don’t you find it interesting that those who want to argue that some human beings are not persons virtually always do so in order to infringe some right those human beings may have? If one has no interest in doing harm to some class of human beings, why define them as non-persons? I’m not saying this to imply that YOU have some interest in harming human beings. I’m simply saying that defining some humans as non-persons virtually always has this consequence, in the larger scheme of things. Historically, people were not arguing that Africans were non-humans (though some, no doubt, argued this), a whole other kind of species or being; they were arguing that, though they were human, they were non-persons (though even the Constitution said that blacks were “persons,” they were just counted as “three-fifths” of a white person). Defining blacks this way made it easy to enslave them.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and I would welcome any thoughts you have in response to this.



Written by Michael Duenes

October 27, 2012 at 1:48 pm

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