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Defining personhood by societal standards

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A radio talk show in Los Angeles recently discussed the case of a teenage girl whose tonsillectomy surgery went horribly wrong, resulting in her brain death. The family of Jahi McMath (see has been fighting the hospital’s policy, the norm in California, to disconnect the girl and allow her body, also, to cease functioning. They plan to keep her in a nursing home where her heart and other organs, other than the brain, will be kept going by means of a ventilator. Are they wrong? Is the hospital correct in calling her “dead”? The talk show kept referring to the girl as being “not a person”. How callous. For someone to refer to anyone in such circumstances as no longer a person is downright inhumane.

For those who believe life begins at conception and that all humans have an inalienable right to continue on that path until natural death occurs, the question is less technical than the medical community perceives it to be. Breathing and organ function via ventilator and/or other techniques such as tube feeding keep the body minimally operating, science claims. If there is no longer any brain function, is it possible, barring a true miracle, that the body can ever return to any type of life without such intervention? Such measures, considered “heroic” even by the Roman Catholic Church, are rarely covered by insurers. Hospitals, caring more about economics than lives, in many instances, push families to disconnect loved ones and let them fully expire. Another aspect is the need for healthy transplantable organs. Keeping the body going on a ventilator may only be a need to ensure that donations can be kept in good condition until they are harvested. In such situations the patient is no more than a commodity.

What, then, of the issue of personhood? Many people, still walking around on their own two feet, would define this as it suits them. In good health both physically and mentally by their own terms, would those who don’t meet their standards qualify as humans let alone persons? How about those with Alzheimer’s, Down’s Syndrome, or in wheelchairs? Just because they don’t fit the description of someone who is capable of doing certain tasks to the satisfaction of a court decision, are they stripped of their status? Who, after all, gets the right to determine who is a person? In essence, who, then, is deemed legally “fit” to live?

It’s not that long since African Americans in this country, the land of the free, were legally held as property, not considered persons. They were legally determined not to have rights, as non-persons, as in the Dred Scott landmark case ( The same goes for Native Americans, and women of any race. Does personhood depend on the Supreme Court’s opinion? Should it? Or does personhood depend on the mere fact that someone was created? Even animals are believed to have personhood by those who love them, work with them, and with whom they share their lives. Does the ability to communicate, walk, legally be free to come and go as you please, vote, own property, make you a person?

Look at the abortion controversy as a perfect example of this argument. Not only do we now debate over when life truly begins, we have the audacity to proclaim by law when it continues to exist and when it should end. Even while you are mobile and capable of independent living, some would declare you not a person due to any whim they can come up with that renders you an undesirable organism, such as being the “wrong” ethnicity, race, religion, you name it.

Capital punishment, as well, is considered to hold the power of life or death over the heads of those who take the lives of others. At least under those circumstances there is more of a chance of survival than if someone is declared a non-person due to health reasons.

There you have it: in our modern society, considered so enlightened, a serial killer has more value than a thirteen-year-old girl who has never harmed a soul. Perhaps Jahi and others suffering a similar fate (remember Terri Schiavo?) will not recover. It is possible, on the other hand, she can be kept breathing and her family will lovingly maintain her until her natural end on this earth. However, to strip her and all those whose physical and/or mental functioning falls beneath some arbitrarily-set level of personhood is reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s policies. If that becomes the way of this land, we have truly slipped below the same limits we are setting for others. God help us.



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