Bioethics News

Personhood and moral status: the debate continues

Personhood debates have dominated much of the bioethics discourse for the past few decades, yet little consensus has been reached. Two insightful articles recently published online in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy may provide much needed clarity on the issues involved.

In an essay on ‘moral status questions’ about embryos, ethicist Shane Maxwell Wilkins of Fordham University debunks a series of criticisms made against proponents of the inherent moral status of embryos.

Ethicists like Robert P. George and Christopher F. Tollefsen appear to have been misrepresented by a number of their most vocal critics. As Wilkins writes, George and Tollefsen are often criticised for making an ostensibly illicit inference from the biological peculiarity of embryos to the morally unique status of embryonic cells. This, however, is a caricature of their position:

“[George and Tollefsen] deploy the concept of an ‘active disposition’… If an active disposition to develop into an adult human being is morally salient, then it makes sense to say that the one-celled embryo has moral status, whereas every individual cell of an adult human being in isolation lacks it.”

Wikins also refutes the view that embryos are not sufficiently distinct from a mother’s uterus to be considered independent entities. Wilkins distinguishes causal independence from ontological independence, saying we don’t need the former to prove that the child is a distinct entity. “[all that the argument] requires is the much weaker claim that the embryo is ontologically independent of the mother.”

In a similar essay to Wilkins, Andrew McGee of Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Ethics and Health Law has critiqued arguments advanced by Jeff McMahon and Derick Parfit, which try to make a case for the non-personhood of embryos and patients in a persistent vegetative state. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.