This series of posts is a brief overview of some of the implications of current conversations surrounding ‘personhood’. It is a land mine-ridden subject laden with controversy, emotion, ideology and faith. One of the key difficulties lies in the fact that who the conversations are about and those whom are primarily affected are the very ones often unable to contribute to the discussion. Commonalities of inter-faith dialogue include some form of the ‘golden rule’ as well as a belief that a society is somehow measured by how it treats its weakest citizens. The purpose of these posts is to draw attention to an already-at-risk population and begin to identify the important role faith and culture groups can play in advocating more humane ways of defining and defending personhood. It is hoped that this brief scan will raise both awareness and interest in the public discourse. 


Peter SingerPeter Singer is an Australian moral philosopher. He is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is arguably the most influential philosopher on the subject of bioethics alive today. He is also one of the most controversial thinkers, particularly on the topic of personhood. Utilitarianism forms the backbone of Singer’s theories. For him, ethics and the question of personhood should be rooted in ‘quality of life’ rather than in hypothetical ideas about ‘sanctity’.  Much of his thinking revolves around the question “can they suffer?” As such, animals and humans are placed on equal terms. For him the question is not between human and animal, but between ‘person’ and ‘non-person’.

Suppose, for example, that parents knew in advance of a baby’s birth that it would be born without arms and legs. In such cases, Singer supports the parents’ right to terminate this life. He argues that this same principle applies up to 28 days after birth. In the case of lives that would be irredeemably difficult and painful, Singer endorses not simply abortion of the unborn, but infanticide. Singer would argue there is little difference between a seriously impaired fetus and a newborn. The fact that the latter is alive outside of the womb is trivial for him, since in either case this being has a painful life ahead of it that Singer would argue is not worth living.

He states,

 “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed … killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”[1]

Regarding Down syndrome, in an early work entitled Should the Baby Live he concludes, “Down syndrome is surely relevant to the decision [whether or not] to operate because it means a reduced potential for a life with the unique features which are commonly and reasonably regarded as giving value to human lives”.[2]


Robert G EdwardsRobert Edwards is a British scientist and pioneer in in-vitro fertilization (IVF) research who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010. Edwards and his research partner, Patrick Steptoe, pioneered the process by which the first test tube baby was born in 1978.  Since that time an estimated four million babies worldwide have been born as a result of IVF. In 1999 Edward did an interview with London’s Sunday Times, in which he said “Soon it will be a sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children”.[3]

The Journal of Medical Ethics 2012 published a paper by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, entitled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” which concludes:

If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn. [4]

Again, the purpose of this present inquiry is not an examination of the moral or legal issues regarding abortion. The reason for including these theories is that many of their arguments have impact on and implications for the definition of personhood for those with disabilities.

The debate around euthanasia is a growing one in legal and social policy here in North America, but has been a part of the landscape of some European communities for decades. In its implications for the disabled, one only need consider a phrase that at first appears to be an oxymoron: “Compassionate homicide”. What constitutes a person to whom society has a moral obligation to protect? What is a non-person to whom the obligation is to consider economic impact and the end of suffering?[5] Is there such a thing as a human non-person and, if so, what are its criteria? The way one answers these questions has dramatic impact on both people with developmental disabilities and those providing care.

Next week we will examine some of the challenges to the conception of ‘Personhood’ from the field of Sociology.


[1] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 3rd edition, 2011 p. 163
[2] Kuhse and Singer, “Should the Baby Live; the problem of handicapped infants” Oxford University Press, 1985 p. 140

[3] Ellen Painter Dollar, “No Easy Choice: A story of disability, parenthood, and faith in an age of advanced reproduction” Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville Kentucky, 2012 p. 8

[4] Alberto Giubilini, Francesca Minerva, Journal of Medical Ethics, ”After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” February 23, 2012

[5] The impersonal identification of ‘it’ is to highlight the transition from person to non-person.

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